Friday mystery object #244 answer

Last week i gave you this colourful specimen to identify:


As I suspected, some of the keen birders out there were straight on the case and GrrlScientist (unsurprisingly to me) immediately knew the species and an awful lot about its taxonomy, offering helpful hints and clues to other commentators.

After some discussion it became clear that this is a Finch and one of the Neotropical varieties at that. The bright yellow belly, emerald green head, throat, chest and wing, brilliant blue nape, back and eye ring all suggest that this is a male Blue-naped Chlorophonia Chlorophonia cyanea longipennis (Du Bus, 1855) from Peru.

There are other subspecies of Blue-naped Chlorophonia, but they have some slight differences in appearance, such as a yellow forehead, yellow tinged crown or green feathers in the mantle.

Here’s one of the little chaps in action:

So a big well done to everyone who managed to work it out!

Friday mystery object #240 answer

Last Friday I gave you this characteristic skull to identify:


Many of you recognised that this is the skull of a Hornbill, and Martin Edvardsson, ClareP, Jamie Revell, paleomanuel, witcharachne, marcuschua all managed to identify it as a Great Hornbill Buceros bicornis Linnaeus, 1758.

You may be surprised to know that this specimen was originally misidentified as a Black-and-white-casqued Hornbill Bycanistes subcylindricus (Sclater, 1870) by the taxidermists who prepared it – quite a basic error for a natural history professional!

The Great Hornbill is a large Asian bird that feeds on fruit and any small critters that end up at the wrong end of that impressive bill – from insects to owls. Their distinctive black and white plumage is used by a lot of native people in Southeast Asia in costume, leading to pressure on the bird’s population due to hunting.

Great Hornbills have a somewhat odd system for breeding, with the female walling herself up inside a hole in a tree using faeces, and the male delivering food to her and the chicks through a narrow hole. It works for Great Hornbills…

Friday mystery object #232 answer

Last Friday I gave you this nice robust skull to identify:


There was a healthy discussion about possible identifications, with the importance of scale mentioned more than once (by Jake, palaeosam, Lena and Robin Birrrdegg). Not only is this a robust skull, it’s also quite large, ruling out the British carnivores – and it clearly is a carnivore judging by the canines and the well-defined sagittal crest.

The lack of cutting and puncturing premolars and molars means that cats, dogs, hyaenas and other very carnivorous large carnivores can be ruled out, narrowing down the likely options in the right size range to the bears, as recognised by palaeosam, Ric Morris, Robin Birrrdegg, Will Viscardi, cromercrox, cackhandedkate, Lena, Daniel Calleri, henstridgesj and Carlos.

The species is a bit more difficult to work out, but the big sagittal crest and fused sutures suggests that this is not an juvenile bear, meaning it’s too small for a bear of the Brown  or Polar variety. That still leaves quite a range of other possible bears, but the pronounced forehead and long square muzzle rules out the Giant Panda, Sun Bear, Spectacled Bear and Asiatic Black Bear, while the big robust incisors rule out the Sloth Bear. That leaves the American Black Bear Ursus americanus Pallas, 1780.

Ursus americanus by Mike Bender/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2008

Ursus americanus by Mike Bender/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2008

So well done to cromercrox, Carlos and Robin Birdeggg who all got the species correct!

Friday mystery object #223

I hope you’re not all fed up with cats yet, because here’s another:


I have concerns about the identification attached to this one, so let’s see if your thoughts agree with what I have written on the label.

As always, you can put your thoughts below and they will be very welcome!

Friday mystery object #215 answer

Last Friday I gave you this perplexing specimen to identify:


It was labelled as a Crab-eating Raccoon, but the facial region is much longer and narrower than other examples I’ve talked about, and it’s much less robust:

Crab-eating Raccoon skull

Now the gracile build could just be because it’s the skull of a juvenile (which is what it looks like), but juveniles have shorter and relatively broader facial regions than adults, so that doesn’t work. Even the less robust jaws of the Common Raccoon are too short and wide for the mystery specimen (which I think may discount Robin Birrrdegg’s suggestion).

Another crab-eating option was suggested by Daniel Jones who thought Crab-eating Fox. Now the overall proportions are a good match for this species, but there’s a problem. If the mystery object had teeth this would be much easier, but there are the holes in the maxilla to give us clues about the shape and size of the molars and as Allen Hazen pointed out:

Three triple-rooted teeth. Are these three molars, or is the last premolar triple-rooted? If it’s three molars… Canids (usually) only have two upper molars…

This is indeed the case and so this skull can’t be from a Crab-eating Fox.

On a different tack, henstridgesj suggested that it might be a civet of some sort, pointing us in the direction of mystery object #143 for comparison:

African Civet skull

But again this really doesn’t look right – in particular the civets have a narrow constriction behind the orbital process, which is lacking in the mystery specimen. This was noticed by henstridgesj and he suggested that the closest option he’d been able to find was a Coati:

Coati skull

Now the specimen of Coati above is a mature male that was mystery object 54 and it doesn’t look much like our most recent mystery object, but on checking the skulls of juvenile and female Coatis I realised that this is probably the best option so far.

I still want to check some more specimens, but I’m really grateful for everyone’s input on this specimen – it’s been a challenge and you have all helped immensely!

I’ll  be back with another mystery object next Friday, but until then I’d like to wish you all a thoroughly enjoyable festive season!

Friday mystery object #214 answer

Apologies for the lateness of the FMO this week, my excuse is a rather apt bout of illness, where some of the alveolar bone of my mandible has been lost due to an infection, leaving me feverish and thoroughly miserable.

But enough about my me, this is the mandible I’m supposed to be talking about:


There was a fascinating discussion about the possible identification in the comments last week, so a big ‘thanks!’ to all of the contributors who provided their informative observations (too many to mention everyone by name!). A mustelid of some sort was quickly agreed upon and the general consensus moved towards an otter of some kind, before starting to drift away again.

Two comments in particular were particularly pertinent. The first was from Daniel Jones:

Alright . . . instantly the foramina on the mandible anterior to the premolars scream Otter! However, the incisors don’t. The incisors just lateral to the canines should be larger and longer than any of the other incisors among the otters (even the Asian Short-clawed Otter).

Now my identification for this specimen was indeed Asian Short-clawed Otter Aonyx cinerea (Illiger, 1815), so this comment made me a bit concerned. However, on checking some images online I realised that the long lateral incisors are present in the premaxilla, but not the mandible – an easy detail to miss.

The second comment was by Allen Hazen:

Anyway… The talonid on the first molar of the one in the picture is BIG.

The reason I found this comment useful was that the long and broad talonid (that’s the flatter grinding section on the molar) is what confirmed the Asian Short-clawed otter identification for me (although the small size was a good first clue).  This became quite clear from an image on the Otter Specialist Group webpage.

The Asian Short-clawed Otter presumably has this large talonid because it has a diet mainly composed of crustaceans rather than fish, and it needs the extra crushing area on the molar to crack open tough exoskeletons.

Who would think you’d get teeth as formidable as these on such an adorable little critter?

Friday mystery object #214

This week I have a stray mandible for you to have a go at identifying:


I think I know what it’s from, but I’d appreciate your thoughts. As usual you can put your thoughts, comment and questions below. I can’t wait to hear which critter you think it might be from!


Friday mystery object #212

This Friday I have an odd looking object from the Horniman’s collection that had been misidentified . Do you have any idea what it might be?


I know that Jake will work out  what it is straight away, as he’s blogged about this type of bone before, nut you can put your suggestions in the comments section below and I’ll do my best to reply. Good luck!

Friday mystery object #210

This week I have a mystery bone for you to have a go at identifying. Nothing is known about it (although I have some ideas), so all suggestions welcome. Any idea what this is and what it might be from? (Apologies for the poor image quality)


As usual you can put your answers below and I’ll try my best to respond. Enjoy!

Friday mystery object #209 answer(ish)

It seems like an age ago that I gave you this mystery object:


There were fantastic comments from everyone, but I’ve been bad about responding and writing an answer because I’ve been pretty swamped recently. Also, there are several things that confuse me about the specimen and I’ve not had the chance to take a really good look at comparative material.

The function of the object was correctly identified by Daniela, Paleotool and Jeanie – it is a bone whistle, in this case a fairly modern Navajo example. Our Keeper of Musical Instruments was keen to know if this was from an eagle and whether it might be covered by CITES.

At first I thought it might be the femur of one of the large American eagles, but it is far too long. If it was from any bird of prey it would be a Californian Condor based on the size but the tapering shape is wrong. I then considered the humerus – which is a better match for size, but the position of the groove for a tendon path on the underside is wrong. So it doesn’t seem to be from an eagle.

The slight curve and taper rule out a hollowed deer metapodial, which are very straight and uniform in width.

My best guess is that this may made from a section of the humerus of a species of swan – a guess partly informed by the opinion of the anatomical knowledge of Wouter van Gestel and the archaeological knowledge of Paleotool. The shape and few remaining anatomical features are about right, but there are other large birds that haven’t been ruled out.

Perhaps an unsatisfactory answer, but sometimes a good solid “I don’t know, but it’s reasonable to think it might be this” is the best answer you can get. Thanks for everyone’s input!

N.B. Here’s a side view: 20130912_125851

Friday mystery object #205 answer

Last Friday I gave you these tiny bones to identify:


Several suggestions were put forward with soph coming close with the suggestion of a broken furcula and Lena and henstridgesj correctly suggesting the clavicles (or collarbones) of a Cat Felis catus Linnaeus, 1758.

Cat clavicles, like the clavicles of a variety of other animals, are much reduced and are no longer connected to the scapulae (shoulder blades). This allows the scapulae to move much more freely during running, which can increase stride length and in the case of Cats it allows the animal to fit through holes big enough to get their heads through (assuming the Cat isn’t a bit too portly).

These sorts of vestigial structures are interesting from an evolutionary perspective, since they serve little or no direct function, but they still develop as a result of inheritance from ancestral forms that did use them.

In the case of Cats that form would have been around quite some time ago (probably 61.5 – 71.2 million years ago) since the closest related group to the Carnivora with a well-developed clavicle (that I can think of) would be the Chiroptera (bats), where it plays an important role in flight.

Since that divergence of the Chiroptera and the lineage giving rise to the Pangolins, Carnivora and Ungulata the clavicle has been pretty much completely lost, so it’s interesting that even a vestigial form occurs in Cats.

It’s funny to think how such small bones can raise questions that lead us through millions of years of evolution in search of answers, but that’s the nature of studying nature!

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 #204

This Friday I have something for you to identify that has been puzzling me for a while. It looks very distinctive, but I can’t narrow down what it is, so I’d really appreciate your thoughts.

Can you work out what this is?

click for bigger image

As usual you can put your suggestions and thoughts below and I’ll do my best to reply. Feel free to ask questions, but at the moment I can only provide answers based on the physical object because I have no idea where it came from or when we got it. It’s a real puzzle!

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 #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 #201

This week I have a mystery object that’s a bit dusty and not much to look at, but which is one of my favourite historic specimens at the Horniman Museum.

I have the feeling that it might stump everyone this time, but let’s see how you do. Any idea what this is?


Scale = 10mm

As usual you can put your comments, questions and suggestions below and I’ll give you some clues if you need them. Good luck!

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!