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!

The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis

You may have noticed some coverage in the press recently about the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis (AAH), sparked by a conference on the topic due to be held in May.

If you’re not familiar with the AAH it basically suggests that human ancestors passed through a semiaquatic stage which provided the selective pressure that has led to the differences seen between humans and other primates. Some people call it the Aquatic Ape Theory, but it lacks the necessary scientific support to be considered a theory so it remains a hypothesis [see comments for discussion of the terminology].

The idea was first suggested by pathologist Max Westenhöfer in 1942 and the first line of evidence in support of the hypothesis was proposed by marine biologist Alister Hardy in 1960. Hardy noted that subcutaneous fat is unusual in terrestrial mammals and is normally associated with marine mammals – raising the very good question ‘why do humans have subcutaneous fat?’ (the answer being because we eat too much and exercise too little – just like some lab monkeys).

The baton was then picked up by writer Elaine Morgan who has championed the AAH since 1972. Here’s Elaine in action on a TED video from 2009:

Elaine Morgan is a great communicator and she’s done a remarkable job of delivering the AAH to a wide audience, but I have concerns that the packaging is more impressive than the contents, from a scientific perspective.

In the video Elaine does a cracking job of setting up the AAH in opposition to the more established Savanna Hypothesis (SavH), which suggests that humans diverged from other primates as a result of exploiting more arid environments. She then suggests that the SavH has been discounted on the basis of palaeoenvironmental data, leaving a paradigm gap that should (she suggests) be filled by the AAH.

But of course, a paradigm gap should only be filled by a robust theory and when it comes to plotting evolutionary trajectories there is not solid theoretical foundation on how to do it, beyond relying on the physical evidence provided by the fossil record.

In this case that would require fossils of human ancestors to be found in primarily aquatic deposits, something which we do not see, which is surprising, since aquatic environments are usually far better for fossil preservation than terrestrial environments. In fact, taphonomy suggests that early hominid fossils would be more common if the individuals were living and dying in water with any frequency.

Map of the fossil sites and spread of the generi Australopithecus and Paranthropus, from 4.3 M BP until 1 M BP. From PARKER (G.). Compact History of the World. London, HarperCollins Publishers, 2008, pp 12 - 13

Without having physical data in the form of fossils linking hominids to water, it becomes difficult to make a connection without falling back on evolutionary ‘just-so stories‘, that try to explain an observation by relying on a plausible narrative.

The trouble with this is that the public and media love a good narrative, but it simply isn’t scientific unless it can be falsified. I think this is the part of the process that Elaine Morgan doesn’t quite grasp – she is convinced by her own narrative and believes in the hypothesis, but for a scientist it is more appropriate to subscribe to none of the available hypotheses if they cannot provide factual evidence in support. This is where I currently stand.

I am certainly not convinced by statements like:

“Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an omega-3 fatty acid that is found in large amounts in seafood,… It boosts brain growth in mammals. That is why a dolphin has a much bigger brain than a zebra, though they have roughly the same body sizes. The dolphin has a diet rich in DHA. The crucial point is that without a high DHA diet from seafood we could not have developed our big brains. We got smart from eating fish and living in water.” [Quote attributed to Dr Michael Crawford]

This statement starts by comparing two utterly different species, with a very different evolutionary history and current mode of life, then offers a single dietary explanation for the difference in brain size. This is patently nonsense.

If a seafood diet is the main driver of large brain size then the relatively very large brains of Chimpanzees and other Apes become a remarkable oddity and the relatively small brains of Blue Whales become bizarre variants. Moreover, what about people that don’t have access to seafood? Are they unable to grow large brains? No. Clearly there is more going on.

Brain size is not directly linked to a single dietary chemical, it is linked to managing interactions in and with a complex environment – keeping track of seasonal and spatial variation in fruiting or schooling of fish, coordinating group efforts and understanding prey behaviour to hunt more effectively, or problem solving to access food sources that are hard to acquire. Where a big brain provides a selective advantage, it will evolve.

I don’t want this post to turn into a refutation of the AAH, since there’s a lot to say and much has been done elsewhere. What I do want this post to do is highlight that a scientific theory needs to be testable, it needs to consider contradictory information and it needs to be aware of confirmation bias.

The AAH relies strongly on observed similarities in condition between humans and aquatic mammals, but it dismisses other similarities out of hand. For instance, Naked Mole-rats are simply dismissed by Morgan as an example of a non-aquatic mammal that has lost body hair, but they provide evidence that hair loss can occur for reasons beyond aquatic adaptations – which is worthy of note.

It is also worth considering the supporting examples in the context of phylogeny and physiology, which doesn’t seem to happen often. For instance, the Cetacea, walruses and Sirenia are examples of naked aquatic mammals cited in the AAH, but both the Sirenia and walruses retain a short coat of hairs, quite different in structure to the fine body hair of humans. Whales and Sirenia have also been adapting to an aquatic habitat for 50 million years and the ‘nakedness’ of modern examples may be more related to the evolution of large body size and the benefits to thermoregulation provided by mass – which is supported by the fact that the largest species in the Pinnipedia (like the Elephant Seal and Walrus) are much less reliant on fur than the smaller species of seal.

Unless our ancestors were massive, it seems unlikely that they would have been losing their hair in order to survive better in the water.

Of course, that’s not to say that our ancestors avoided water – far from it. Marginal environments are rich sources of food and most terrestrial animals that live near water will exploit it in some way or another. I’m sure our ancestors would have done the same, I’m just unsure about how immersive and influential that exploitation was on our evolutionary trajectory.

Japanese Macaques, Nagano, Japan. By Yblieb

So far I am unconvinced by the AAH and the more bad science and overstated arguments I see in support of it, the less convinced I become. Let’s see if any good supporting science with hard facts emerge from the conference in May.

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 #192 answer

On Friday I gave you this unidentified specimen from the Horniman’s collections to take a look at. I had already had a go at working out what it is, but it never hurts to get a second opinion.


It’s actually a bit of a generic looking overall shape, perhaps reminiscent of a owl or a maybe a pheasant of some sort. However, the nares (nostrils) are very small and round and set in a bill that is sharp, shortish and very solidly constructed, which is something you only really see in a few passerines, some parrots and the falcons. The skull is too big for a passerine and the bill is totally the wrong overall shape for a parrot, which leaves us with a falcon – a fairly small one at that.

From there the shape of the palate and the proportions of the cranium led me to a species identification that I’m pleased to say agreed with that proposed by Tony Irwin and Wouter van Gestel (who eloquently explained the indicative characters that I mentioned above). We all think that this is the cranium of a  Continue reading

Friday mystery object #190 answer

On Friday I gave you this skull to identify:


The animal it comes from is quite distinctive, with loads of character, so it’s no big surprise that so many of you managed to identify it.

So well done to Jake, Dave Godfrey, henstridgesjMieke Roth, Wouter van Gestel, Steven D. Garber and Crispin – this is indeed a  Continue reading

Friday mystery object #189 answer

On Friday I gave you this skull to have a go at identifying:


I didn’t do a very good job of responding to comments I’m afraid, as I was rather busy at day two of this year’s Natural Sciences Collections Association conference at the Yorkshire Museum. Nonetheless, you managed to work out what this specimen came from without any input from me.

Jake spotted that it was the skull of a big reptile, more importantly, a big reptile with heterodont dentition (meaning it’s teeth aren’t all the same shape). That narrowed down the possibilities considerably. From there henstridgesj, Wouter van Gestel and Barbara Powell came to the conclusion that this is the skull of a  Continue reading

Friday mystery object #188 answer

On Friday I gave you this previously misidentified specimen to have a go at identifying:


It turns out that you did a great job!

Jake and Mieke Roth immediately spotted that the skull belonged to a large turtle of some kind, henstridgesj narrowed it down to a fresh-water turtle and he and Steven D. Garber recognised that despite the large size, it wasn’t from one of the snapping turtles (which is what the original identification mistakenly had it as) and that it was more likely to be from one of the side-necked turtles. However, microecos went one better and managed to get a species identification for the specimen that agreed with the identification that our visiting reptile expert Dr Colin McCarthy who suggested  Continue reading

Friday mystery object #187 answer

On Friday I gave you this somewhat odd object to identify:


My first thought when seeing it was Bowser from the Mario games:

Bowser. New Super Mario Bros. 2: © 2012 Nintendo

This probably isn’t the worst place to start the identification, since the animal with this feature was clearly big, scaly and toothy. This was obviously in the minds of Barbara Powell and Wouter van Gestel, who reached the correct conclusion that this is the structure from the tip of the snout of an adult male  Continue reading

Oddjects No.5

When someone is inexplicably silent you might ask them “Has the cat got your tongue?”. I have no idea where this saying came from, since cats aren’t renowned for taking tongues. I think it would be far more appropriate to change the phrase to “Has the Cymothoa got your tongue?” since the Tongue-eating Louse Cymothoa exigua has track record of tongue stealing, at least in fish.

Here are some of the odd little critters in a jar of alcohol in my office:


These bizarre animals not only eat the tongue of their fish host, but they then replace the tongue and take over its normal duties.

Here’s a video that shows a live Cymothoa found by a fisherman, if you want to see them in their leg-wriggling entirety.

Friday mystery object #186 answer

On Friday I gave you a mystery skull from the forests of south Thailand to identify, courtesy of Mark Ribbands via William Vine:


When I first saw this skull I was immediately struck by its similarity to that of a Badger:


That badger-like quality (which Jake also noticed) got me thinking that it may belong to an Asian Hog Badger, but the skull length is 190mm, which is a bit too big even for a large adult Hog Badger and the unfused sutures, partially erupted canines and short muzzle make it pretty obvious that the skull comes from a very young animal (I talked about the characteristics of juvenile animals in a post a couple of years ago).

Jake recognised that the skull was from a juvenile, as did Wouter van Gestel, who went on to suggest a much larger carnivore, the Malayan Sun Bear. The other possibility would be the Asiatic Black Bear, but without comparable juvenile skulls of both it is hard to be sure which it is, but I’m pretty certain it is the skull of a bear and looking at the shape of the adult bear skulls I think the Sun Bear Helarctos malayanus Horsfield, 1825 is probably the most likely candidate.

Sun Bears are the smallest members of the bear family and are well adapted to climbing, which they do a lot of as they search for the insects, fruit and honey that make up most of their diet. Here’s a video of a Sun Bear cub putting those impressive climbing skills to the test:


Friday mystery object #186

This week I have an object for you that came through as an enquiry from Mark Ribbands via William Vine. It’s 190mm long and was found in the forest of South Thailand:


Any idea what it came from? As usual you can leave your suggestions below – I may not be able to respond during the day as I’m at a seminar on Natural Science Collections and the Law, but I’m sure that there will be some interesting discussion about this object from the regulars!

Friday mystery object #185 answer

On Friday I gave you this object to identify:


I thought it might have posed a bit of a challenge, since it’s part of a species of bird that you don’t find in Europe or North America. Of course, I was forgetting the skills of the Zygoma community. Everyone recognised it as the sternum of a bird with weak flight muscles and Wouter van Gestel spotted the species and was supported in his identification by Barbara Powell and Robin.

This is the sternum of a Continue reading

Friday mystery object #185

This week I have an interesting mystery object for you. It’s quite characteristic, but not necessarily very familiar, so it may prove a bit of a challenge:


Any idea what this piece of bone is and what it came from? You can put your thoughts below and I’ll do my best to get back to you. Good luck!