Friday mystery object #376 answer

Last week I gave you this guest mystery object from the Museum of Life Sciences at King’s College London:I thought it would prove tricky, as the specimen is from a juvenile animal, which always complicates things.

However, it didn’t take long for you to work out what it was and, if I’m honest, you beat me to it, so well done on that and thanks for your contributions!

Clearly it’s a carnivore as it has well-developed carnassial teeth. However, immature animals with a mix of deciduous and permanent teeth can be confusing. It also doesn’t help when the skull shape is still forming.Fortunately, to help narrow it down there is the auditory bulla and that molar tooth just behind the carnassial. The shape of these features suggest that it’s a mustelid.

There was some discussion about badgers and otters, but Bob Church settled it by providing a very useful reference containing this image:

Figure from Long, Charles A. 1965 Comparison of Juvenile Skulls of the Mustelid Genera Taxidea and Meles, with Comments on the Subfamily Taxidiinae Pocock. American Midland Naturalist 74(1)225-232.

As you can see, this is an excellent match for the mystery specimen, both in dental morphology, auditory bulla shape and even scale, allowing us to make a confident identification of juvenile American Badger Taxidea taxus (Schreber, 1777).

So well done to Jeanie, katedmondson, Bob Church and Rémi, and my thanks to you all for your help in identifying this tricky specimen.

Friday mystery object #375 answer

Last week I gave you this unidentified skull from the collections of the Dead Zoo in Dublin to have a go at identifying:

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I wasn’t sure how difficult this would be – I know carnivore skulls can be a bit of a challenge, but this is a critter that’s come up as a mystery object a couple of times before. As such, I did expect a few of the regulars to recognise this, but it proved more difficult than I thought.

That said, nobody got it. Well, somebody got it, but that person was nobody with the simple statement:

I’m guessing coati 🤔

Of course, there’s more than one kind of coati, in fact there are four: the Ring-tailed, the White-nosed (or Coatimundi), the Eastern mountain and the Western mountain.

The mountain coatis are in the Genus Nasuella and they have a very narrow and gracile rostrum (that’s the muzzle area) – so this is not one of them. The other two are in the Genus Nasua and they are recognisable by their upward tilted nasal area and their upper canines which are very tusk-like – projecting forward and triangular. The mature adults of both species have a big sagittal crest, which this lacks, but that’s probably because it’s not a mature adult.

Differentiating between the two species can be tricky, but the region around the auditory bullae can be useful in this. The Animal Diversity Web has some very useful images that can help.

The slightly more inflated auditory bullae and the angle of the mastoid process (where the muscles that control the movements of the outer part of the ear attach to the skull) tells me that this is most likely to be the White-nosed coati Nasua narica (Linnaeus, 1766).

I hope that helps in case you need to identify another of these any time soon.

Friday mystery object #374 answer

Last week I gave you this ‘unidentified bone’ to have a go at identifying:

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I say bone, but as was pointed out on Twitter, perhaps the label reads something else…

‘Boner’ would of course be an accurate slip, because this is clearly a baculum (aka the penile bone, os penis, os priapi, or oosik in the case of pinnipeds). I don’t think the slip was deliberate though, since I removed a piece of information from the label for the sake of the challenge:

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I can only imagine that this baculum was found with some seal bones and was not recognised as being part of the skeleton and therefore removed. There’s no reference to where the rest of the seal bones are, which is bit of a problem if they are in the collection.

I’ve blogged about penile bones on several occasions, since as far back as in 2010.  Bacula are often quite distinctive, allowing species identifications based on their morphology. But this particular specimen has proven hard to find good specific comparative material or images (online or in publications) to do comparisons against.

However, from looking at the few seal bacula that do have illustrations in publications, and scouring the internet for articulated seal skeletons with bacula in place, I think it’s probably from male Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus (Fabricius, 1791). If so, this individual would have likely been aged 10 years or over.

This age suggestion is based on the length and robustness of the specimen, which in Grey Seals has been shown to correlate quite closely with age and maturity in the males (Hewer, 1964; Van Bree, 1972). This interesting bit of information aside, I unfortunately couldn’t find the clues that led palfreyman1414 to the Holmesian deduction:

…So, apart from the fact that they are right-handed, have been to Afghanistan, currently work as a haberdasher’s spool threader and have fallen on hard times, I got nothing.

But bacula are informative bones, so I’m sure there is a lot of additional information available from the specimen that I’ve not deduced.

All of you worked out what this bone(r) was, and several people recognised it as being from a seal of some kind, both in the blog comments and on Twitter. There was also a suggestion of Grey Seal from Conor Ryan:

I hope you had fun with this mystery boner! Oh wait, that sounds really wrong.

 

Friday mystery object #373 answer

Last week I gave you this pretty cool skull to have a go at identifying:

 

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As everyone recognised, it’s the skull of a snake. I think that’s clear from those extremely long quadrate bones (highlighted in purple in the top view), with which the lower jaw articulates to allow a huge gape for swallowing prey whole. However, there are a lot of snakes out there – around 3,600 species, which means there are lots of possibilities for the species that this particular skull belongs to.

The side view allows us to rule out quite a few possibilities, since it’s clear from the teeth that this isn’t one of the front-fanged snakes (vipers and elapids).

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Rattlesnake skull, with its big front fangs.

The light construction of the skull suggests it’s not one of the constricting snakes, which have much more robust skulls for dealing with the forces generated by the struggles of relatively large prey.

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Python skull, with a robust construction for wrangling prey.

The teeth are quite small and although there are a couple of slightly longer ones in the tooth row, they hardly count as real fangs at a paltry 3mm long. So we’re probably dealing with one of the ‘non-venomous’ colubrid snakes (many of these are actually venomous, but lack the appropriate tools to deliver that venom through human skin).

Of course, there are still well over a thousand possible species in the Colubridae – but this is where you have to start ruling out possibilities by comparing the specimen against species that are common and widespread, to begin the process of narrowing down the options.

Since this specimen is in the Museum in Ireland, Europe is a good place to start looking for likely candidates (Ireland itself being famously devoid of native snakes). There is a rather old (published in 1913), but still very useful reference called The Snakes of Europe, by G. A. Boulenger which has a section on identifying species based on their skulls.

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Fig. 6Skull of Tropidonotus natrix. (From British Museum Catalogue of Snakes). Illustration from The Snakes of Europe, by G. A. Boulenger, 1913

If you take a look through, it quickly becomes apparent that there is one species that matches the mystery object very closely – even to the position of the slightly larger teeth. It’s a species that has an interesting defense mechanism that jennifermacaire referred to:

…The closest skull I could find is from a snake that likes to roll over and play dead…

This is a fascinating behaviour seen in several snake species, but Jennifer is correct that it is seen in the species that this skull is from – the European Grass snake Natrix sp.

Of course, the story then gets more complicated again, since a couple of subspecies of Grass snake have been elevated to species in the last few years. The Iberian subspecies Natrix natrix astreptophora was recognised as N. astreptophora in 2016 and the subspecies N. n. helvetica found west of the Rhine (including in the UK) was updated to N. helvetica in 2017.

These studies were based on genetics and I’ve yet to see any way of differentiating between these species using skeletal features, so for now the best I can say about this specimen is that it’s Natrix sp. I hope you enjoyed that little slither into the world of snakes, which seems to have opened a bit of a can of worms…

 

 

Friday mystery object #372 answer

First of all, I’d like to wish you a very happy and healthy 2020!

Last year I gave you this festive-looking beetle to try your hand at identifying:

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It was a bit of a tricky one to get to species, since beetles are notorious for their huge diversity, plus they can vary in appearance quite significantly within a species.

James Bryant recognised this as a member of the Buprestidae, which is a family of wood-boring beetles that are commonly known as Jewel Beetles due to their metallic and iridescent colours. In fact, the wing cases (or elytra)  of some of the most colourful of these beetles have been used in traditional beetlewing jewellery in the parts of Asia where they are found.

Going beyond the family, the identification katedmonson provided through a great cryptic clue was spot-on (assuming I understood it properly). This particular specimen is an example of Chrysochroa rajah Gory, 1840, but in the collection it is still labelled under the synonym C. chinensis.

This species is one of those with a wide distribution, several subspecies and a variety of different colours and patterns, which can make it hard to identify based on just an image of the overall body (or habitus as it’s referred to by entomologists). Just to give you an idea of what I mean, here’s an example of the same species in the National Museum, Prague:

Chrysochroa rajah from southern China. Photo by Hectonichus 2010

Blue and green form of Chrysochroa rajah from southern China. Photo by Hectonichus 2010

So well done to katedmonson for getting this tricky identification. Look out for another mystery next week!

Friday mystery object #369 answer

Last week I gave you this weird, but rather nice object to have a go at identifying:

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Most people seemed to recognise it as the tympanic region (that’s the bony ear-related region) of a whale. But of course, I’m demanding when it comes to getting an identification and there are plenty of species of whale to rule out.

The size immediately narrowed down the possibilities – this is pretty small for a whale. But what really gives it away for the small number of people intimate with the cranial anatomy of whales (which goes beyond even my bone-nerdery), is the spongy bone attached to the tympanic bulla (that’s the bulb-shaped bit of bone that houses the inner ear).

This feature is proposed as a possible pressure receptor that’s found in the Pygmy Sperm Whale Kogia breviceps Blainville, 1838. Amazingly, Conor Ryan identified this on Twitter – his handle of @whale_nerd explains everything you need to know.

Kogia breviceps by George Brown Goode, 1887

Kogia breviceps by George Brown Goode, 1887

These toothed whales only grow to around 3.5m, which is pretty small for a whale. They share some features with their much larger Sperm Whale cousins, particularly in relation to adaptations for echolocation.

I was fortunate enough to meet Conor Ryan at the weekend at the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group conference. There were plenty of whale enthusiasts around and it was fantastic to get a chance to learn more about this incredible group of animals from a lovely bunch of passionate people.

While I was there, I also picked up some useful tips on differentiating between species of dolphin, so I may have to share those with you soon…

Friday mystery object #367 answer

Last week I gave you this rather exciting new specimen from County Kerry, Ireland to have a go at identifying:

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was recognised by pretty much everyone. For people based in the Americas it’s not that unusual a species and for people on the other side of the Atlantic, especially those with an interest in birds, there has been a bit of a stir in the press about this specimen.

This bird is clearly a member of the heron family – the Ardeidae – with its distinctive spear-shaped bill, relatively long legs and long and somewhat kinked neck. But it’s tiny. In fact, this is one of the smallest members of the Ardeidae, perhaps a bit longer in the body than a Dwarf Bittern, but just a bit lighter and quite different in plumage.

Dwarf Bittern in South Africa. Image by Mark Tittley, 2011

Dwarf Bittern in South Africa. Image by Mark Tittley, 2011

And this particular specimen is very light indeed. Sadly it was probably undertaking a migration south from its North American breeding grounds, when it got caught up in hurricane Lorenzo, which blew it off course, forcing it across the Atlantic Ocean, where it finally made landfall in Farranfore in County Kerry, on the west coast of Ireland on 7th October this year.

Exhausted, emaciated and severely dehydrated, the poor bird lasted less than an hour in Ireland, despite efforts to keep it going by John O’Donoghue, the owner of the garden it ended up in. John and his neighbour Anthony O’Connor recognised that it wasn’t a bird normally found in Ireland, so they got in touch with BirdWatch Ireland to find out what it was and let people know about their unfortunate visitor.

Brian Burke and colleagues from BirdWatch Ireland identified the specimen as being a Least Bittern Ixobrychus exilis (Gmelin, 1789) and they got in touch with me at the Dead Zoo about getting the specimen added to the collections, since it’s a first record of this species occurring in Ireland – and only the 10th known to have made it across the Atlantic.

Of course, I was delighted to accept on behalf of the Museum and John arranged to get the bird to me in Dublin via his local Teachta Dála (the Irish equivalent of a Member of Parliament). Now the bird is safely stowed in the Museum’s freezer awaiting assessment by a taxidermist, to see whether it’s in good enough condition to be mounted, or if I’ll need to find another way of preserving the specimen as part of the permanent collection.

If not as taxidermy, this might be as a study skin, a fluid preserved specimen or even a skeleton – each offers different information for future use. But however it gets preserved, it will provide an important physical record of an unusual visitor to the Nation for future scientists and members of the public. After all, that’s a huge part of what collections are for.