Friday mystery object #325 answer(ish)

Last week I gave you the challenge of identifying this bit of bone found in a rockpool in Kimmeridge by 7 year old Annie:


It’s not the easiest item to identify for a variety of reasons. First of all it’s broken, only showing one end and probably missing quite a lot of the element. Next, the images don’t show all of the angles you might want to see and because the object is small the images aren’t as clear as you might like.

However, there are a few angles visible (see below) and there is a scale, so the main requirements to get an approximate identification are in place. I say approximate, because with something like this I think you really need the object in your hand where you can compare it to other material in detail if you want to make a confident identification.

Excuses aside, let’s take a look and see what it might be…

The first thing to note is that the bone is hollow with thin walls. This rules out fish, reptiles, amphibians and mammals (including humans jennifermacaire) – leaving birds.

Weathered mammal bones may have a void in the bone where the marrow would have been, but the cortex (outside layer) will be thicker and near the articular surface it tends to be quite solid.


Hollow bone = bird (usually)

Next, the articular surface of the bone is concave, which palfreyman1414 picked up on:

As far as I recall (mentally running through images in my head) both ends of the proximal limb bones in tetrapods have convex ends?

This is accurate, but while the proximal (near end) of the limb bones are convex, the more distal (far end) limb bones tend to have concave ends, so that helps narrow down what this bony element might be.


Concave articulation

For me the give-away here is the fact that there’s no ridge within the concavity of the articular surface, which means that it will allow movement in several directions – something that the bones of bird feet don’t really need, which is why bird lower legs,  feet and toes have a raised ridge inside the articular surface that corresponds with a groove in the other surface, keeping the articulation of the joint tightly constrained.


Articulation of Shag phalanx showing raised ridge

However, bird wing need to make a wider range of motion (at least in some species), so the mystery object is most likely the distal end of a bird radius (the ulna tends to have a hook at the distal end). This is the conclusion that Wouter van Gestel and DrewM also came to (joe vans should’ve stuck to his guns).


Distal articulation if duck radius

Identifying the species of bird is a lot more complicated. The size suggests a pretty big bird, which narrows it down and the locality in which it was found makes some species more likely than others. I took a look at the radius of some species that are commonly found on the coast, like Guillemot, Herring Gull, Duck, Cormorant/Shag and Gannet, Skimmer, Pigeon and I also checked out Chicken, since their bones are probably the most commonly occurring on the planet.


Gannet radius with some distinctive structure around the articulation

Many of the species I checked had quite a distinctive structure around the distal radius articulation, but the gulls, ducks and chickens that I looked at had fairly unremarkable distal radius articulations, making it hard to definitively decide what the mystery object is based on the images.


Herring Gull radius


Chicken radius


So with that somewhat disappointing conclusion I admit partial defeat, but I can say that it’s not from a Cormorant, Shag, Gannet, Pigeon or Guillemot. Sorry I can’t be more specific Annie!

Unfortunately that’s just how the identification game works sometimes… we’ll try again with something new next week!

Friday mystery object #322 answer

Last week I gave you this new acquisition for the Dead Zoo to identify:


It’s a detail of something large, and it had a lot of you stumped because it looks like a cross between a marble worktop and pork terrine.

However, if you look closely at the bottom left of the image, you may just be able to make out the shape of a sucker-covered arm, because this – as spotted by palfreyman1414 and jennifermacaire – is a big cephalopod.

When I say big, I mean it’s the second largest species after the Colossal Squid (that I’ve talked about before) – that’s right, it’s a view of part of a large ice cube containing a Giant Squid Architeuthis dux Steenstrup, 1857.

Squid holding sailor by Alphonse de Neuville & Édouard Riou, from Hetzel edition of 20000 Leagues Under the Sea, p. 400.

Squid holding sailor by Alphonse de Neuville & Édouard Riou, from Hetzel edition of 20000 Leagues Under the Sea, p. 400.

This individual isn’t actually particularly giant, measuring in at a meagre 5.8m, including its long thin feeding tentacles – quite big, but hardly Kraken-esque. It was caught 118 miles off the Kerry coast after it found its way into shallower waters than the abyssal depths they normally inhabit. You can see details of how it was caught and a photo of the specimen on the Irish Times website.

I haven’t started the process of preserving for the long term yet, as it will require a bit of time to release the kraken from the ice, a large tank and some nasty chemicals – namely a 10% formalin solution and various strengths of Industrial Methylated Spirits (IMS – which is adulterated alcohol), stepping up to 70% in 10-20% increments. I may also need include an alkali buffer in the tank (marble chips are commonly used) since Giant Squid use ammonium chloride in their tissues to increase their buoyancy and that can acidify the solution, leading to accelerated bleaching of the tissues and long-term damage to the specimen.

Even with good preservation it’s unlikely to ever go on display as a full specimen. I can probably find a big enough jar, but the specimen has been dissected and isn’t really looking its best. However, it may be worth showing some of the elements, like an eye, the beak or maybe an arm or tentacle. These may be in good enough condition to use on display to explain some of the interesting features of these denizens of the deep. The rest of the squid will be there for researchers interested in these large, but elusive, molluscs.

Friday mystery object #315 answer

Last week I gave you this big bug to identify:


I had a feeling it would be fairly straightforward for some of you, since insects as big as this are reasonably distinctive, and I was therefore not disappointed with the flurry of correct identifications.

The first with a correct identification in the comments was Chris, who hinted at the scientific name with this suggestion:

Trying to identify this Cic-sac? Tho phar, Tho good! (Excuth the lithp!)

On social media people made suggestions relating to the common name for the species, mostly pointing out that it’s very loud. Putting the various hints together gives you the Double-drummer Cicada Thopha saccata (Fabricius, 1803).

Cicadas are weird. They’re in the Order Hemiptera (the true bugs) and the Suborder Homoptera (although that’s disputed and it’s probably safer to say Auchenorrhyncha). Best known for being noisy and having some species with synchronised emergence times that vary between every year and up to every 17 years, or somewhere in-between depending on species and environment. They have widely spaced eyes and a blunt head that is pretty distinctive.

As jennifermacaire pointed out regarding cicadas:

According to Plato, “[This species] used to be human beings who lived before the birth of the Muses. When the Muses were born and song was created for the first time, some of the people of that time were so overwhelmed with the pleasure of singing that they forgot to eat or drink; so they died without even realizing it. It is from them that the race of the [these insects] came into being; and, as a gift from the Muses, they have no need of nourishment once they are born. Instead, they immediately burst into song, without food or drink, until it is time for them to die. After they die, they go to the Muses and tell each one of them which mortals have honored her.”
– Phaedrus

The implications of this is that adult cicadas have a general inability to feed, although this isn’t quite true, since adult cicadas may still feed on sap.

This particular cicada is Australian and is one of the loudest insects on the planet, able to produce a call of over 120 decibels – loud enough to cause permanent hearing damage if right up against a human ear.

The abdomen is fairly hollow in the males of these insects, creating a resonating chamber, but sadly the last segment of this specimen has fallen off, making it hard to be sure of the gender on the basis of the genitals. However, the males have a couple of resonating sacs behind the hind-wing that is missing from this specimen, suggesting that it’s a female.

As far as noisy neighbours go, these insects are an occasional disruption, popping up every 4-6 years and making a noise that is apparently similar to high-pitched bagpipes.

It doesn’t sound great to me, so I’m (not so) secretly glad that I only have to deal with dead examples of these fascinating insects.

More mystery object fun next week!

Friday mystery object #310 answer

Last week I thought it was time for some more bones, so I gave you this specimen from the Dead Zoo to have a go at identifying:


There was no scale, the photo is far from ideal and the specimen isn’t in the best condition, but the animal is pretty distinctive, so I thought it wouldn’t prove too much of a challenge – and it turns out that I was right.

Palfreyman1414 was the first to identify it to genus level, correctly recognising that it was one of the two Notoryctes species of Marsupial Mole from Australia.

The weird limbs are a pretty good indicator this being a digger, with large muscle attachments and robust forelimbs, but it has couple of large claws rather than the ridiculous giant hands of the Old World Moles and it has a shorter skull.

Double prep mole from the Horniman Museum

Double prep of an Old World Mole Talpa europaea from the Horniman Museum & Gardens

The skull is more similar to that of the golden moles of southern Africa, although their rostrum (nosey bits) tends to be more concave while the marsupial moles have a more convex rostrum (and in some cases, weirdly flaring zygomatic arches).


Lateral view of the skull of a Giant Golden Mole Chrysospalax trevelyani from the Grant Museum of Zoology

Now distinguishing between the two species of Marsupial Mole is a bit more tricky, not least because they are quite poorly known animals and there aren’t many specimens available for comparison – this is particularly true of the Northern species, which was first described as recently as 1920.

This is actually quite useful to know, since the mystery specimen came into the collection in 1897 – from Southern Australia – so it’s safe to say it’s the Southern Marsupial Mole Notoryctes typhlops (Stirling, 1889), but that’s not very helpful from a morphological perspective.

So far I’ve not found any useful skeletal features that help differentiate the two species, but apparently their fur colour is a little different, with the Northern species having pinkish or cinnamon fur and the Southern species having yellowish-white to a deep gold. To see what they look like with their fur, here’s the taxidermy partner to the mystery skeleton:


Taxidermy Southern Marsupial Mole Notoryctes typhlops in the National Museum of Ireland – Natural History

As with most moles these subterranean critters have adapted to spending much of their time underground by losing their eyes, investing in some serious digging equipment and tuning in to smells and low frequency sounds.

I hope you enjoyed this little tour around the main moles of the world! More mysteries next week.

Friday mystery object #309 answer

There are lies, damn lies and statistics* and then there are inaccurate statements made from assumptions that are based on insufficient knowledge and poor research. Last week I fell into this sort of untruth when I offered up this diminutive mystery object that I said was from Ireland:


My excuse for that untruth is the fact that the specimen was in a part of the collection dealing with native species (which I forgot also includes British taxa, because the collection is old enough to have been split into “native” and “foreign” before Ireland stopped being part of the UK) and I’d quickly checked the distribution with reference to a handy online checklist of British and Irish Hymenoptera, but I then missed the bit under the species that said the range was restricted to England. I assumed based on context and as a result I got it wrong – and we all know that we should never ASSUME, because when you ASSUME, you make an ASS of U and ME*.

So thanks to jennifermacaire  and David Notton for pointing out my mistake – it is much appreciated. I should have checked the label for the collection locality, but unfortunately the image was taken as a snap on my phone while bagging the drawer containing this specimen (while I was preparing hundreds of of other such drawers and insect boxes as part of a major collections move) so I didn’t get the chance. This is actually a bit of a problem for digitisation when insects are pinned like this, because the label is invisible from above.

insect room

Insect boxes bagged for transport and freezing

If I was more familiar with the insect fauna of Britain and Ireland it would have helped, but as you may be aware, my main area of experience is in bones and the critters that have them, so my knowledge of insects tends to be quite generalised or restricted to particularly important or interesting species that I’ve had reason to research.

Skull of female Jaguar in the Dublin Dead Zoo

The kind of specimen I really understand

This is one of the challenges in my role as curator of Zoology and Entomology at the National Museum of Ireland, where I work with somewhere in the region of 2 million specimens, covering the whole of the animal Kingdom, from all over the world.

Normally museums with collections of this size would have a few specialist curators to focus on the main taxonomic divisions, but for the time being I’m dealing with the lot, so I have a steep learning curve to get up to speed with the whole collection. Of course, it’s well worth it, as there are some incredible specimens in there – either because of what they are, or who they were collected by and how important they are for science and culture.

Wasps collected by Charles Darwin during the Voyage of the Beagle.

Wasps collected by Charles Darwin during the Voyage of the Beagle.

Anyway, excuses aside, I expect you’re keen to find out what that small hymenopteran was. Chris very quickly identified it as one of the small, solitary carpenter bees. This is the only one that is “native” – in that it occurs in Southeast England – and even then it’s pretty rare to find it except in downlands in the South, mainly in East Hampshire.

The name is Ceratina cyanea (Kirby, 1802) and the female excavates a burrow in the stem of a dead plant, making tiny cells with walls of sawdust in which she lays eggs – hence the name “carpenter bees” for the group that shows this behaviour.

Another mystery object to come next week – this time it will hopefully be a bit less misleading!


*Attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, by Mark Twain

*I’m attributing that to the fictional character Dawn Summers from Buffy the Vampire Slayer because that’s where I heard it first, but it was coined by Jerry Belson

Friday mystery object #302 answer

Last week I gave you this egg to try your hand at identifying:


Eggs can be tricky, since they are largely similar in shape and, since egg collecting was banned many years ago, there are few modern resources for identification.

However, you can pick up clues by thinking about colour and pattern and working out what advantage it may have. So you might expect a brightly coloured egg to be laid in a well disguised and deep nest, where it’s unlikely to be spotted except by the parent, whereas a yellowy speckled egg is more likely to be camouflaged if laid in a fairly open, sandy environment.

So this egg was probably laid somewhere near the sea, which means it’s probably from a charadriiform bird (those are the shorebirds).

Now there are a lot of shorebirds, but this egg is pretty big and it lacks the strongly conical shape you’d expect from a cliff-nester like a Guillemot (the shape means it rolls in tight circle, making it less likely to be blown or knocked off a cliff). That actually narrows it down to a handful of birds that makes comparison easier. Curlew eggs, for example, are a similar size, but they tend to be more grey and have larger blotches, plus they’re a bit less elongated.

This particular egg has the shape and colour of a gull egg and large size means it’s almost certainly the egg of a Greater Black-backed Gull Larus marinus Linnaeus, 1758.

I would say more, but at the moment I’m at the natural history highlight of the year – the NatSCA conference. Here’s the Twitter feed in case you’re interested in the discussion:

Friday mystery object #291 answer

Last week I gave you this skull from the Grant Museum of Zoology to identify:


I thought this would be a fairly easy one and so I wasn’t surprised when Chris was straight in with a correct identification, in a suitably cryptic manner of course.

The huge open sinuses inside the orbit and openings around the auditory bullae (as spotted by palfreyman1414) immediately suggest that this is an animal that dives deep underwater, as the large openings help prevent pressure from building up inside the skull. The shape of the teeth are another giveaway that this is a fish-catching mammal in the Order Carnivora. It is of course a seal.

But what kind of seal? There are 33 species of pinniped, so there are a few options, although the large and distinctive species like Walruses can be ruled out for obvious reasons. In this size range and with multicusped teeth like these we’re looking at one of the true seals (the Phocidae) at the medium to small end of the size range.

When you start looking at the skulls of seals in this range, you need to look  closely. It lacks the flat top of the head and steeply sloping profiles following the nares of a Grey Seal, plus the interorbital distance (the distance between the eyes) is much smaller.

It lacks the inflated nasal region of the cold water Bearded Seal, Ribbon Seal, Ringed Seal and Harp Seal, which need well developed nasal turbinates to help warm the air they breathe in. It also lacks the deflection of the zygomatic below the orbit that is seen in the smaller species like the Caspian and Baikal Seals.

Overall the morphology is most similar to either the Spotted Seal or Harbour Seal, but picking between the two is tricky, especially since the Harbour Seal has around five subspecies that vary somewhat in size and shape of things like the auditory bullae. There is a list of characters that can be used to distinguish between the skulls of the two species by John J. Burns in the Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals. Using that as a guide I think this is a Harbour Seal Phoca vitulina Linnaeus, 1758.

Thanks to everyone who had a go at identifying this – I hope you had fun with it!