Friday mystery object #281 answer

Last week I asked for your opinion on this mystery object:

mystery281

It had originally been identified as Boa constrictor and then reidentified as Green Anaconda, but I didn’t believe either of those options.

There was some activity in the comments, from the initial observation that it’s a snake from Wood, to Andy Mills’ suggestion of Python, with palfreyman1414 and Daniel Jones and Daniel Calleri’s discussing how to tell whether it’s a boid or pythonid.

In fact, palfreyman1414 did some sterling work tracking down characteristics to help distinguish between these commonly confused groups, with this handy comment:

“The postfrontal bone, usually present, borders the orbit behind, rarely also above, and in the pythons a supraorbital bone is intercalated between it and the prefrontal bone.”

And..

“Boids are, however, distinguished from the pythons in that none has postfrontal bones or premaxillary teeth”

The character of the presence or absence of teeth in the premaxilla (the frontmost bone of the upper jaw in the midline of the skull) is particularly useful, although it’s not unusual for the premaxilla to fall out of snake skulls.

The postfrontal character is a bit less obvious and I’m not fully convinced by it – not because there isn’t an extra bone in the pythons compared to the boas (there is), it’s just whether it’s a postfrontal, a supraorbital or a post orbital. That depends on the reference you read. To help get an idea of the bits we’re talking about, I’ve highlighted them here (purple for premaxilla, pink for the bit missing in boids, call them what you like):

mystery281_bones

It’s probably worth mentioning that Anacondas are members of the boid family, so it’s clear that this specimen is a pythonid rather than a boid. But that doesn’t tell us what species it is (if you want to see a Boa constrictor skull there’s a video of one here).

Comparing overall skull shapes in snakes is not very effective, since the skull is very loosely articulated to allow it to deform when swallowing large prey, so when mounted they can be very variable in shape. Because of this you need to compare the shapes of the various bones that make up the skull to narrow it down.

There is a very helpful image resource called BioLib that has validated photos of skulls amongst other images, so it’s well worth checking out. Trawling through I didn’t manage to find a species with the same shapes in the nasals, prefrontals, frontals, parietals and supratemporal – but I did discover a specimen photo by Jean-Christophe Thiel that fit (not to mention a previous mystery object) – so I’m fairly confident that this is a Royal Python Python regius (Shaw, 1802).

Many thanks to everyone for their comments – it’s been a fun challenge where I know I’ve learned an awful lot. I hope you have too!

Friday mystery object #280 answer

Last week I gave you this crocodilian skull from the Grant Museum of Zoology to see if you had any thoughts about which species it might be:

mystery280

It turns out that you did indeed have some excellent thoughts about the identification, with Cindy Nelson-Viljoen immediately getting it right, with astute observations from David Godfrey and palfreyman1414, plus another correct responses from Joe Vans (as well as Tone Hitchcock and Henry McGhie not via the comments section).

This is a skull of the Dwarf Crocodile Osteolaemus tetraspis Cope, 1861. It’s small size is the first clue, but given how crocodiles grow this could pass as the skull of a young individual of a much larger species. As David Godfrey pointed out, there may be some paedomorphism (where adults look like juveniles) in effect in this species, since the adults as well as being small, have relatively short snouts and big eyes – which are features of juvenile animals as you can see in this display of crocodile development I did for Dinosaurs! Monster Families just before leaving the Horniman:

Croc_development

Part of my reason for wanting to show you this specimen was to force myself to look for some good online resources to get more familiar with crocodilian morphology. As it turns out, I did find a very useful comparative image, which shows the size and shape of the mandibular foramen (a large gap between the bones in the side of the lower jaw) is a helpful feature:

In this species the foramen is small, which when considered with the overall proportion is quite distinctive. Of course, this image does not include all 24(ish) living crocodilian species, but it does provide a pretty good range. Hopefully this will help speed up future croc skull identifications, at least allowing certain species to be discounted.

If you have any good tips for crocodile identification please share below!

Friday mystery object #280

Last week the answer to the mystery object was a Gharial – a very weird crocodilian from India. I realised that I didn’t know much about identifying the Crocodyliformes, so I thought it might be fun to have a go at working out what this species might be:

mystery280

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts below and let’s see if we can find some good diagnostic features!

Friday mystery object #279 answer

Last week I gave you this mystery object to identify:

mystery279

It’s the kind of thing you find in museum collections quite often, but it will commonly be misidentified – especially in anthropology collections where (in my experience) it will commonly be referred to as a claw or big cat tooth.

However, nobody who commented went down that route, recognising that the hollow base and well defined crown indicates that it’s an open rooted tooth of some sort. In mammals an open root at this size that would suggest a pig tusk or perhaps a whale tooth, but this isn’t mammalian.

In fact, this tooth is from something even less cuddly than a whale, something crocodilian. This was recognised first by Carlos Grau, but others who came to the same conclusion included Jonathan Larwood, Daniel Jones, palfreyman1414, Wouter van Gestel and Charne. More specifically, this tooth is from a Gharial, Gavialis gangeticus (Gmelin, 1789). This Gharial from the Grant Museum of Zoology in fact:

mystery279_Gharial

Grant Museum of Zoology Specimen LDUCZ-Y215

Gharial teeth are a bit less conical than the teeth of most crocodiles and alligators. Presumably the curve helps prevent their main diet of fish from getting free when caught.

Gharials are sexually dimorphic, with the adult males bearing a big rounded bony  knob on the end of their rostrum, this is where the name Gharial comes from, as this feature resembles a local earthenware pot called a “ghara”. Sadly, these distinctive crocodilians are critically endangered, with just a few hundred left alive in the wild. They are affected by habitat loss, egg theft and use in traditional medicines.

More mysteries next week and if you fancy hearing me talking about animals you might be interested in coming to Animal Showoff at the Grant Museum of Zoology next Thursday evening!

Friday mystery object #279

This week I have the kind of mystery object that you find a lot of in museum collections. Sometimes they reside in the bottom of a box. Sometimes they sit in a cupboard. Sometimes they might even have a label, although that label than will often be vague and sometimes misleading.

Any idea what this is?

mystery279

As usual, you can leave your suggestions below and please try to keep them cryptic if you’re confident that you know what it is. Have fun!

Friday mystery object #278 answer

Last week I gave you this mystery object from the Grant Museum of Zoology to get your thoughts on:

mystery278

Most people spotted that this was a canid of some sort – but there was a lot of discussion about exactly what sort.

Allen Hazen made an interesting observation about the reduced second molar (missing in the specimen, but the socket shows that it was there and smaller than you’d expect from most dogs), plus the remarkably convex facial profile. Useful observations that have a bearing on the identification.

The short and broad muzzle, combined with the convex skull and distinctive molar morphology led Latinka Hristova to suggest Dhole, an identification agreed with by Lupen, palfreyman1414, Richard Lawrence, joe vans, Henry McGhie – and myself as it turns out.

Dhole (Cuon alpinus) by Kalyanvarma

Dhole (Cuon alpinus) by Kalyanvarma

The Dhole Cuon alpinus (Pallas, 1811) is an endangered Asiatic Wild Dog, that hunts in clans and feeds on a variety of medium to large mammals that are usually killed after an extended chase.

I’d not seen the skull of one of these before, but I was aware that they have a convex profile, so it was my immediate suspicion when I saw the mystery object and the species was confirmed by the unusually simple structure of the first molar and very reduced second molar, which are almost cat-like in their adaptation for shearing meat.

All in all, an exciting skull to find – and there are other unidentified canids in the same box that I’m itching to take a look at, so keep your eyes peeled for more mystery mutts.