Friday mystery object #205

This Friday I have a mystery object inspired by something that might be making an appearance in Jake’s forthcoming book:


Any idea what these little pieces of bone might be?

As usual, you can put your comments, questions and suggestions below and I’ll do my best to reply. Enjoy!

Friday mystery object #204 answer

Last Friday I gave you this unusual tooth to identify:


It had me a bit stumped, as I couldn’t think of many things big enough for a tooth this size and I could think of even fewer with a tooth this shape.

My first thought was one of the smaller toothed whales, since this would be in the right size range and the open root is similar to what you see in a Sperm Whale:

Tooth of a Sperm Whale in a Hand by Lord Mountbatten

But the low and wide shape was all wrong for most of the whale teeth I can think of, except perhaps for the rather odd tusks found in the mandibles of some species of beaked whale.

In fact, I was thinking that it might be the tusk of a juvenile or female Gray’s Beaked Whale, given the shape of the male’s tusks.

However, Laura McCoy made a very useful observation (initially via ermineofthenorth) about the upper incisors (or premaxillary incisors) of the  Continue reading

Friday mystery object #203 answer

Last Friday I gave you this rather large scapula that I discovered in a crate in the Horniman’s stores to identify:


It wasn’t an easy one, since there are relatively few distinctive features on a scapula compared to something like a skull.

Jake has talked about scapulae on his blog before and that provides a good place to see that this specimen is most likely from an ungulate – but an ungulate much bigger than a Red Deer. This led to suggestions for Cow, Horse, Aurochs and one of the larger species of deer. 

Outside the comments section on Zygoma there were also suggestions of Giraffe and Giant Irish Deer and I wondered about Camel.

All in all, there were a lot of suggestions, but none of these looked quite right when I searched for comparative material – although finding good images of scapulae online wasn’t easy. I did, however, find a useful video explaining the differences between Horse, Cow (or Ox) and Camel scapulae:

This was enough for me to rule out each of those animals, although the closest was the Cow – in particular the relative sizes of the two faces (called fossae) on either side of the raised ridge called the spine. However, the shape of the acromion (the hooked bit of the raised spine that points towards the shoulder joint) didn’t seem blunt enough for a Cow.

The size differences in the fossae turn out to be about the same in Sheep and deer as in Cow, which led me back in the direction of Jake’s deer scapulae, which seemed to most closely match the shape, if not the absolute size.

Taking the size into account I realised that this animal must stand almost twice the height of a Red Deer, which narrows it down to just one modern species – the Moose or Eurasian Elk Alces alces (Linnaeus, 1758), which can stand at over 2m at the shoulder compared to the Scottish Red Deer’s (still imposing) 1.22m.

Bull Chukotka Moose by Beloki

I still need to double-check my identification against a confirmed Moose scapula, but from looking at some images of Moose skeletons online it seems that the shape of both the fossae and the acromion fit well.

So a big thanks to everyone for their help in identifying this and special props to newcomer Jeanie who seems to have been spot-on about this being from a cervid. Thanks!

Friday mystery object #202 answer

Last Friday I gave you this big chunk of bone to identify:


I was hoping that it might be a little bit of a challenge because it doesn’t seem to have any really diagnostic characters, but your shape-matching skills were good and several of you managed to get a close identification.

Heather was straight in with the suggestion of it being the back part of the frontal bone (the bit that makes up the front and top of the skull) of an Aurochs – the very large, extinct ancestor of modern Cows. Wouter van Gestel also suggested one of the large bovids – the Asian Water Buffalo, and Ben Gruwier agreed with both Heather and Wouter in saying that it was from a large bovid.

This was as far as I had managed to get with the identification myself, however the specimen had a number (39.16), which I was able to check against the natural history registers. The first part of the number told me to check in the register for the year 1939 and it was the 16th entry for that year, so it was easy to find (unlike with some numbering systems with museum specimens).

It turns out that this specimen is in fact the frontal bone of a Gaur or Indian Bison Bos gaurus Smith,1827, and it turns out that the Gaur has a distinctive ridge between the horns, which is what this specimen is showing, so I should have been able to work it out from the morphology (I will be able to in future).

Gaur bull at Nagarhole National Park, India. By Dineshkannambadi

Bull Gaur can weigh up to 1.5 tonnes and stand 2.2m (7’2″) to the shoulder – they’re enormous. Their only natural predators are the Tigers and large Crocodiles they share their Southeast Asian forest habitat with, but even then Gaur have been known to kill Tigers by trampling and goring them.

Perhaps unsurprisingly these animals are far more risk from humans and have been hunted for meat and trophies until they have become threatened. They are protected by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), but illegal trade continues and their forest habitats are constantly being lost due to human encroachment.

It’s disheartening that so many of my mystery objects end with a comment about human activities driving a species towards extinction, but unfortunately it’s a massive problem in the world we live in. I wonder if there will be any wild Gaur left in 2039, just 100 years after this specimen was collected?

Friday mystery object #202

This Friday I have a big chunk of bone for you to have a go at identifying. It’s something I came across in a stray box – I expect it belongs to another specimen, but I need to identify what species it might belong to before I can start checking. Any ideas?


Your suggestions will be most welcome in the comments section below – let’s see if we can work this out.

Friday mystery object #201 answer

Last Friday I gave you this object to have a go at identifying:


It was not an easy one and I was hoping that nobody would work out what it was, but as usual some of you managed to figure it out. So, big congratulations to cackhandedkate and Jake who suggested the surface of a tongue and henstridgesj for working out that these 2mm hooks are from the tongue of a cat – a BIG cat.

These are in fact the barbs or aculei  from the tongue of a young Tiger Panthera tigris (Linnaeus, 1758)


This small sealed box has no date associated, but the style of the label and the number suggest that it probably one of the early specimens acquired by Frederick Horniman before he built the Horniman Museum, dating to 1886 or perhaps earlier.

The aculei on cat tongues are interesting adaptations not seen in other carnivores (at least none that I can find any information for). The rows of hooks are ideal for grooming – like a stiff brush, but they are also a useful tool for removing meat from bones.

This is particularly handy when you have a relatively short face with incisors that form a broad straight row for clamping windpipes shut, unlike the narrower incisor row that you find in the dogs, which act a bit like like tweezers for removing meat on bone.

Photo of Tiger grooming by Tennessee Wanderer on Flickr

Photo of Tiger grooming by Tennessee Wanderer on Flickr

The aculei are made of keratin, the same protein that claws, hair and horns are made from. It may seem quite difficult to evolve lots of small claws on your tongue, but you might be surprised to know that the cells that secrete keratin (called keratinocytes) are the the most common cells on the surface of your skin (including your tongue) where they play an important role in fighting infection and repairing damage.

In order for these cells to secrete enough keratin to grow a small claw, they need to get a bit bigger so they can secrete more of the protein. They also need a simple mechanism that gives the resulting structure a useful shape.

Mammalian tongues are already covered in little structures called ‘papilla’, with three types containing taste buds and one type, the filiform papilla, that provide grip on the surface of the tongue, making it easier to eat ice-cream. It’s these filiform papilla that have adapted in the cats to make a structure with enough grip to lick the meat off a bone.

I’m actually a bit surprised that more mammals don’t have tongue barbs like cats, although there are other animals out there that have specialised tongues with other keratinous structures, like the horny tips of Woodpecker tongues and the tiny bristles of some Fruitbats.

Still, nothing says ‘obligate carnivore’ like a tongue covered in sharp hooks. Considering the length of the aculei I wouldn’t fancy being licked by a Tiger – their tongue looks like it could take human skin right off. However, it has given me an idea for how to quickly and easily remove wallpaper using a Tiger and a bucket or two of Bovril.

Friday mystery object #200 answer

Last week I gave you this object to identify:


It was a bit of a mean one, since it had no scale bar and the specimen is quite old and dried out, so it doesn’t look much like the living animal.

I had hoped that this would mean that nobody would manage to identify it, but I wasn’t at all surprised when correct suggestions started coming in.

Dave Hone was the first to get the correct kind of animal, although he was a bit thrown by the outer surface – vannabarber was also on the right track, but thrown by the texture. In fact the texture led to some interesting suggestions, including pumice, fossil, bezoar and Pompeian pinecone.

In the end, henstridgesj made the right connection and identified the species, with Anna Pike, rachel and Crispin Wiles all coming to the same conclusion. This is the dried and shrivelled remnant of a Gumboot (or Giant Western Fiery) Chiton Cryptochiton stelleri (Middendorff, 1847). Also known as the ‘Wandering Meatloaf’ for obvious reasons!

Cryptochiton stelleri (Gum Boot Chiton) by Jerry Kirkhart

Chitons are an ancient class of mollusc called the Polyplacophora – a name that means “bearing many (or several) tablets (or plates)”. They get this name from the eight plates (also known as valves) that they have on their backs.

Most chitons have these valves visible (see below), but the huge Gumboot Chiton has the valves hidden underneath their rubbery girdle.

Tonicella lineata

Tonicella lineata showing the eight valves characteristic of chitons

Chitons are remarkably conservative animals, having changed little since the group arose around half a billion years ago. They have few predators and manage to live a blameless and slow-paced life feeding on algae and detritus on rocks in the world’s oceans, that they rasp off with a fairly simple rasping radula.

There are few ways of spending time on the sea shore that are more enjoyable than turning over rocks in the quest for chitons. Except maybe finding washed-up bones. Or maybe finding both together!


Friday mystery object #199 answer

On Friday I gave you this rather beautiful object to identify,which came to light during our mollusc Bioblitz last week:


It turns out that it didn’t prove much of a challenge and was identified to species level in no time. So well done to Kevin, Anna Pike, @benharvey1 and Carlos Grau!

In fact, Carlos went a step further than identifying the specimen and told the very story I was planning to tell in this post. It’s great to hear stories like this about specimens or species, so I’ll share it with you in Carlos’ words:

This picture immediately brought back memories of my old seashell-collecting guide I had when I was about 12 and haven’t looked at for years and years (I will look for it next time I’m at my parent’s). The book said that this species was considered so valuable that fakes were made in rice paste by Chinese artisans, and that the counterfeits are now more rare and valuable than the actual shell! I remember finding that bit of information amazing.

It’s been so long I had to Google the book, it’s “Guide to Seashells of the World” by R. Tucker Abbott.

The animal is… Continue reading

Friday mystery object #198 answer

On Friday I gave you these two objects (with a third photo to show the end) to identify.


The specimens had me a bit stumped. They are keratinous (keratin is the protein that makes up fingernail, hair and horn amongst other things) and perhaps unsurprisingly they had been labelled as “Artiodactyla horns” given their overall shape. Of course, if they were artiodactyl horns they would be from a bovid (antelope, sheep, cow, etc.), since the other artiodactyls don’t have unbranching horns.

There are nearly 150 bovid species, ranging from the gigantic Gaur to the miniature Royal Antelope, and so far I’ve not been able to find any with horns quite like this. Moreover, the very small size, pattern of growth and relatively shallow depth of the inside chamber of the sheath, don’t really agree with the identification.

My next thought was the spur of a galliform bird, like a Chicken. I compared these specimens to the spur of a male Chicken skeleton in the Horniman’s collection and they looked quite different and much too long, so I gave up on that idea.

Finally I started to consider claws of all sorts of animals, but this didn’t make much sense to me as claws aren’t usually round in cross-section and they have wear facets from being used to walk, climb or dig. You don’t have claws this big if you’re not going to use them and I couldn’t think of much use for a claw like this.

So that left me stumped.

Fortunately, Mieke Roth came to my rescue and made me reassess the Chicken spur identification. It turns out that the Chicken I compared the spur to much have had his spur sheaths  removed and they’d hardly grown back.

As you can see, the spur identification fits perfectly!

Many thanks to everyone for their suggestions on this mystery object. It really helps to have fresh eyes looking at a problem and suggesting something you’ve discarded in error!

Friday mystery object #197 answer

On Friday I gave you this skull to identify:


As I suspected, it wasn’t too much of a challenge. Jake got in quick with the suggestion of a Sri Lankan Python, with Gina Allnatt, Kevin and Rhina Duque-Thues all agreeing with a generic Python sp. identification. Nicola Newton also suggested Python, but she was of the opinion that it was probably a Royal Python or Carpet Python on the basis of the size.

I agree with Nicola and think that this is most likely the skull of a Royal (or Ball) Python Python regius (Shaw, 1802), based on the size of the specimen and the shape of the supratemporal and frontal bones compared to other Pythons I was able to find images for (if you don’t know which bones I mean you can see what I mean on a handy annotated picture of a Python skull from the Digimorph website).

Pet ball python - normal phase, probably an import (rescue). By Mokele

The skull is one of several similar specimens from the old King’s College teaching collection, so it’s a pretty good bet that the skulls came from either research animals or pets. The Royal Python is a fairly small African Python that is commonly sold as a pet because it has a mild temperament – so that helps offer a bit of support for the identification, although what’s really needed is a detailed identification key for Python skulls or access to good comparative material.

The lack of good resources for identifying the skulls of snakes is a bit frustrating. After working with bird and mammal skulls, where there are some amazing resources like Skullsite and the Mammalian Crania Photographic Archive I’m still searching for something similar for reptiles. Perhaps the Deep Scaly Project will deliver the goods one day… here’s hoping!

Friday mystery object #197

This week I have a skull for you to identify – to make a change from the more tricky specimens I’ve had recently. Any idea what this belonged to?


As usual you can leave your comments, questions and suggestions below and I’ll do my best to respond. Enjoy!

Friday mystery object #196 answer (well, not really)

On Friday I asked you to help me identify this mystery object:


Many thanks to everyone who made suggestions about what this sacrum and caudal vertebrae (the bones that make up the tail) could be from. There were some useful ideas that I intend to follow up on, but alas I must apologise to you all because I’ve still not managed to make a confident identification (as yet).

I always struggle with the identification of vertebrae without having good comparative material. Skulls are straightforward to identify as they tend to contain lots of diagnostic features, but with vertebrae there are fewer distinctive feature that allow a straightforward species level identification.

In this case I’m still not sure whether this tail is from a marsupial, a monkey or a mustelid, although I’m pretty certain it’s from a mammal.

I think I may have to mop up some of the loose ends of mystery objects that I’ve not been able to confidently identify at some point, by making a trip to another museum with a bigger collection of postcranial material than I have available at the Horniman.

Of course, sometimes you just have to accept that there isn’t enough information associated with a specimen to make a confident identification at all. Sometimes you also need to ask whether it’s worth the extra time and resources trying to get a good identification for a specimen with no other good data about where, when and by whom it was collected.

This kind of information can turn an interesting display or teaching specimen into an even more useful research specimen, that can be used to address questions about species distribution, population genetics and evolution – amongst other things.

With a specimen that lacks these kinds of data – and which isn’t particularly visually exciting for display – it becomes more difficult to justify going to special efforts to identify it. Nonetheless, I know this specimen will bug me until I work out what it is!

Friday mystery object #195 answer

On Friday I gave you this mystery object from the collections at the Horniman Museum to identify:


The bone is interesting because it was badly broken when the animal was alive. As Jake pointed out, the bone has healed without the attentions of a vet, so it hasn’t healed straight and there’s a lot of excess bone growth. This makes it harder to work out what the bone originally looked like.

Minioncat recognised that this is the humerus of a juvenile animal and although there were several species suggested on the basis of size, none seemed to quite fit.

Lena made a really helpful observation about the presence of a supracondylar foramen – which is the hole that can be clearly seen on the side of the bone in the top image, near the articulation on the right hand-side of the picture.

This foramen is something seen in some of the carnivores, like cats and mustelids, but the bone itself doesn’t really match any of the cat or mustelid bones that I compared it to.

When I first found this bone I though that it belonged to a tree-climbing (or arboreal) carnivore, because the head of the humerus would allow for a considerable range of movement (plus broken bones are common in arboreal animals). The only thing I could really think of that was likely was a small species of bear, since cat humeri are quite different from this.

However, on Twitter Raymond Vagell made the inspired suggestion that it could be the humerus of a Fossa Cryptoprocta ferox Bennett, 1833 – something that I never even considered.

Fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox) image by Ran Kirlian

I don’t have any Fossa postcrania for comparison and I can’t even find a good image of a Fossa humerus online, so it’s hard to check. There is a Fossa skeleton image on the Museum Victoria website, which shows that the humerus is pretty similar, but alas it’s a clear enough image to be more sure.

Once I started thinking about less commonly occurring carnivores I broadened my search and came across a paper with a comparative drawing of the humerus of a Binturong Arctictis binturong (Raffles, 1822), which is another tree-climbing mammal, with a similar humerus shape.

Binturong (Arctictis binturong) at Overloon, NL by Tassilo Rau

The long and short of it is that I still don’t know what specimen this mystery object came from, but I now have a fresh perspective for renewing my search, thanks to the people who get involved with the Friday mystery object. I will let you know if I get any further in my search for an identification, but I owe you all a big thanks for contributing!

Friday mystery object #195

Today I have a real challenge for you. This bone has a pathology that has significantly changed its appearance and it had no information associated when I found it. So far the best identification I have is very tenuous, so I thought it would be worth seeing if you had any ideas about what it came from:


Feel free to put your thoughts, observations and suggestions below. No need for cryptic clues today I think – this specimen is cryptic enough!

Friday mystery object #194 answer

On Friday I gave you this rather unusual looking skull to identify:


In fact, it’s so unusual that it doesn’t even look entirely like a skull, so it’s not surprising that the specimen proved a bit of a challenge.

Some elements (like the lower jaw) look a bit like they’re from a turtle, but other elements of the skull shape look more like they belong to an amphibian – from something like Necturus perhaps. Despite these similarities to some of the ‘basal’ tetrapods, the skull is actually from a fish.

The reason why it looks quite similar to a tetrapod skull and less like the average fish is because it belongs to a member of the Lobe-finned fish (Sarcopterygii) which are more closely related to the tetrapods than the more common and diverse Ray-finned fish (Actinopterygii). Despite the difficult identification, microecos managed to spot that this was a Lungfish and henstridgesj managed to identify the species as being the  Continue reading

Friday mystery object #193 answer

On Friday I gave you this specimen to identify:


Unsurprisingly you all recognised it as a tortoise carapace. The species was a bit more difficult though as tortoises can display quite a lot of variation in their colour and shell structure within a species.

There were various good suggestions, but in the comments only Barbara Powell made reference to what Colin McCarthy and myself thought this was from, although Maggie J Watson also identified it in a tweet.

When we saw the specimen we thought that it was probably a  Continue reading

Friday mystery object #193

This week I’ve decided to give you an object to identify that came up in our collections review recently with the splendid Colin McCarthy. We have a lot of these in our collection, most of which were unidentified. Any idea which species this is from?


You can leave your suggestions below and I’ll respond during the day. Enjoy the challenge and have a thoroughly enjoyable Easter break!