Friday mystery object #358 answer

Last week I gave you this skull from customs to have a go at identifying:


The long horns rising in line with the plane of the face are a distinctive feature of the genus Oryx, which most of you spotted straight-off.

However, after that it gets a bit more tricky, not least because there are several species of Oryx and within the species there are different subspecies and populations from different parts of the African continent.

The first species that’s easy to rule out is the Scimitar Oryx, O. dammah since they have strongly curved horns which don’t diverge as much as this specimen. This species is currently extinct in the wild and individuals only survive in captivity.


Scimitar Oryx in Werribee Open Range Zoo in Victoria, Australia. Image by Waddey, 2009


Next up is the Arabian Oryx O. leucoryx which used to be extinct in the wild, but which is one of the few species to have become reestablished in the wild by captive breeding and release programmes. This is the smallest Oryx and the mystery specimen’s horns are way too long to be from this species.

Arabian Oryx in the Dubai Desert Conservation Area. Image by Sharp Photography, 2014 

Getting to the more likely species, there’s the East African Oryxwhich either has a couple of subspecies or is two different species – the Common Beisa O. beisa, which is endangered and the Fringe-eared Oryx O. callotis, which is threatened. The other possibility is that it’s a Gemsbok O. gazella, which is still doing well in the wild.

Common Beisa. Image by Steve Garvie, 2010

Fringe-eared Oryx. Image by Riaan Marais, 2009

Gemsbok. Image by Sharp Photography, 2018

As you’ve probably worked out, part of why customs are interested in knowing which species this specimen belongs to is knowing what level of protection it has under CITES, should they need to pursue a prosecution. Regardless, the specimen was seized because it wasn’t properly prepared and it entered Ireland without the appropriate information.

Of course, differentiating between the Gemsbok, Beisa and Fringe-eared Oryx using only the skull is tricky (and even harder if you only have photos).

Fortunately, there is literature that can help, with measurement ranges for certain features, like horn length, distance between horn tips and number of rings on the horn. Of course, these are only indicative, but they offer a guide to most likely species. Ungulate Taxonomy by Groves & Grubb, 2011 has a handy table of these, which I used to narrow down the options to just one – a population of Gemsbok Oryx gazella (Linnaeus, 1758) from the Nata River in the northeastern region of Botswana.

Of course, DNA sampling can offer a more certain diagnosis these days, but only if there is a good quality reference sequence to compare against and it assumes there is the equipment and expertise available to do the sampling and analysis. This is why identification from morphology can still play an important role in managing wildlife crime.

Friday mystery object #358

Another Friday, another mystery object. This week I’m going back to my favourite subject – skulls. This particular specimen has been brought in to the Dead Zoo for identification by customs and although I’ve narrowed it down, I’m still not 100% sure of the species just yet:


It’s a fairly straightforward genus for anybody who knows their ungulates, so cryptic clues are appreciated. However, the species is harder to work out, so bonus points for detail. Have fun!

 Friday mystery object #357 answer

Last week I gave you this leggy mystery object to have a go at identifying:


Despite it having a passing resemblance to a Xenomorph Facehugger, it’s a real animal from planet Earth, although not from earthy bit. As many of you recognised, this is one of the pycnogonids or sea spiders.

This group of arthropods is placed in the Chelicerata along with spiders and horseshoe crabs on the basis of their morphology, although genetics suggest that their roots may lie nearer the base of the arthropod family tree.

You’re unlikely to encounter one of these giants since they live in the deep sea, but smaller types (usually only around a 1cm long) are found on most rocky shores, where they feed on bryozoans and hydroids.

This one is from around Franz Josef Land, an archipelago in the Russian Arctic. Several people dropped hints to the genus – in particular Hilary, Chris, Wouter van Gestel, Daniel Calleri & Dan Jones, but Andrew Taylor just came out with it: Colossendeis. The clue there is really in the size.

However, this is a tricky one to narrow down to species. There is an online key to the pycnogonids but unfortunately it’s not totally comprehensive. That said, this species is represented in the key and it’s actually quite distinctive because of its huge proboscis (N.B. the head points upwards in this specimen), quite compact almost disc-shaped body and lack of eyes.

These characteristics match the description for Colossendeis proboscidea (Sabine, 1824), which is more commonly known as the Blind Pycnogonid. Now I want to find out who collected this specimen and donated it to the Dead Zoo back in 1899.

There weren’t too many Arctic expeditions prior to 1900 and this specimen is almost certainly from one of those few. It could possibly be from the Austro-Hungarian North Pole expedition. In 1872 they discovered Franz Josef Land and in 1874 named one of the islands in the archipelago McClintock Island after the notable Irish Arctic explorer Francis Leopold McClintock. It’s not impossible that they would have sent specimens to McClintock or the Museum in Ireland, so it may be time to hit the books to see if I can find any more information!

 Friday mystery object #356 answer

Last week I gave you this rather improbable-looking fuzzball to have a go at identifying:


Initial consensus on Twitter suggested that it was some kind of taxidermist’s mash up of a tenrec / shrew / weasel and fox. Particular favourites were:


A similar theme emerged in some comments on the blog, but a useful rule of thumb was shared by ch:

Anything that weird looking is either a taxidermists joke or comes from Madagascar- you’d need to look in every ‘nouc’ and cranny to identify this weasily overlooked carnivoran.

Madagascar is well known for weird animals, since the island became isolated from the Indian subcontinent over 85 million years ago, allowing a unique variety of species to evolve and fill the ecological niches present. The oddities present include the Aye-aye (a mammal trying to be a woodpecker), the Fossa (a mongoose trying to be a cat) and the Web-footed tenrec (a tenrec trying to be an otter).

Of course, ch left an additional clue hinting at the correct identification (‘nouc’) which was picked up on by several others. There were also plenty of people on Twitter who recognised this distinctive animal.

The mystery object is a Falanouc Eupleres sp. Doyère, 1835 – notice the sp. There are two species of Falanouc – Eastern (E. goudotii) and Western (E. major), but this species split was only recognised in 2010. Therefore, it’s very difficult to know which this one is, especially without details of where in Madagascar it was collected.

Assuming it was collected in Madagascar. I say that, because it was purchased from London based supplier Gerrard & Sons. This means it could have been acquired from London Zoo, since Gerard had a relationship with the Zoo and often got dead specimens from them.

It’s also tricky to identify the species from morphology, since the differences between the species are most noticeable in the skull. The fur colour can provide a clue as well, but 100+ years of being on display in a gallery illuminated with daylight means the colour is pretty much guaranteed to no longer be as it was in life.

So I think we may have to leave it there, unless I can find any additional information about the specimen in the Dead Zoo’s archives. Whatever the species, I think this mongoose-like insectivorous carnivore with a fox-like body and shrew-like face is as charming as it is improbable.