This week I’m delighted to have a guest mystery object for you, presented by Rohan Long, Curator of the Harry Brookes Allen Museum of Anatomy & Pathology at the University of Melbourne (who is on Twitter as @zoologyrohan) and photographed beautifully by his colleague Gavan Mitchell:
This is a skull from the Harry Brookes Allen Museum of Anatomy and Pathology at the University of Melbourne. Although the focus of our museum is on human anatomy, we have a significant comparative anatomy collection, which comprises hundreds of specimens of vertebrate animals – skeletal material, skulls, and potted specimens. Occasionally, I’ve encountered animal specimens that are very difficult to definitively ID, and this partial skull is one of them.
Our comparative anatomy collections date from the earliest 20th century and are predominantly native Australian mammals and domestic animal species. However, the academics at the University have always had international networks, and there are species represented in the collection from all over the world. Many have been prepared in a lab for class specimens, many have been collected in the field. The latter are assumed to have been associated with Frederic Wood Jones, a British anatomist with a fondness for comparative anatomy and island collecting trips who was head of our Anatomy Department from 1930 to 1937.
Do you have any ideas what this portion of skull might be from? I don’t think we need cryptic answers for this one. Rohan will be keeping a close eye on the comments, so do feel free to ask questions.
As I suspected, quite a few people recognised this specimen. It’s a humerus with the distal articulation (that’s the elbow bit) intact and the proximal articulation (where it meets the shoulder) broken off.
The size and overall shape is similar to a small, robust human humerus, so at first glance it might suggest a primate, like a Chimpanzee or maybe a small Orangutan. However, the olecranonon fossa (the groove at the back of the elbow joint that the olecranon process on the ulna bone of the lower arm/forelimb locks into when the arm/forelimb is straight) is far too deep for it be from an ape.
Baboons, Geladas and Mandrills have a deep fossa, but the overall shape of their articulations is more cuboid than this, so there aren’t really any other primates large enough.
The shape is all wrong for an ungulate and most carnivore humeri have a different articulation shape and some diagnostic features that are lacking here. But, there is one type of carnivore that has a humerus this shape. This was not lost on many of you, both in the comments here and on Twitter.
The general similarity in shape with a primate humerus is due to a functional similarity in the use of the fore limbs. Unlike most carnivores, the animal this came from can stand bipedally and use its arms. Obviously I’m referring to a bear of some kind.
The type of bear is a bit harder to pin down definitively. It’s unlikely to be a Brown Bear, since it’s not really big enough. That also rules out Polar Bear. I think it’s most likely to be from an American Black Bear Ursus americanus Pallas, 1780, since the other species of a similar size have somewhat better developed supracondylar crests (the ridges on the sides that the muscles of the forearm attached to) it could be from, like the Asiatic Black Bear or Sun Bear.
Thanks for all your observations on this – I hope there will be some more exciting archaeological mysteries to come!
Last week I gave you a genuine mystery object from an archaeological dig in Dublin to have a go at identifying:
There were several suggestions, both in the comments here and on Twitter. They can’t all be right, so this seems like a good opportunity to look at the skulls of a variety of different species, so we can narrow it down.
Scale is important in this, since the mystery object is quite large, despite being just a section of the braincase from the rear of the skull, made up of parts of the parietal bones (on either side) and part of the occipital bone (the bone that forms the back wall of the skull). This is an area of convergence on the skull – a meeting point for the bony sagittal crest associated with attachment of the temporalis muscles (used in operating the jaw) and the nuchal crest associated with the nuchal ligament that connects the trapezius muscles of the neck (used in moving the head) to the skull.
Cervids lack the well-developed sagittal crest seen in the mystery object. They also have a broad triangular scar for the attachment of the nuchal ligament – presumably relating to the high forces that the nuck muscles have to deal with due to the carrying of and fighting with antlers. In females the shape of the nuchal scar is very similar, although it’s less well defined. So the mystery, with its strong sagittal crest and neat occipital crest is not from a deer.
Sheep, cows and other bovids are similar to deer – with a broader nuchal scar (presumably for similar reasons to the deer). Their reliance on masseter muscles more than the temporalis muscles when chewing also means that their sagittal region doesn’t match our mystery critter, with the temporalis scars usually not meeting the midline of the skull:
In profile the pig skull looks like a pretty good match, with scars from quite well-developed temporalis muscles just behind the eye socket:
But the Suidae actually have a very distinctive spatulate shape to the rear part of their skulls, presumably for incredibly hefty nuchal ligament attachment to help power their rooting activity:
That results in a very distinctive shape in the dorsal view, so the mystery object is clearly not a pig:
Horses can have a fairly well-developed sagittal crest and I don’t feel like I can entirely disregard the possibility that this mystery specimen may be from a mature Equid, although the shape looks somewhat off to me – a bit flatter and angled more downwards:
The horse specimens I’ve seen also have more of a nuchal ‘knot’ rather than a defined ridge in the midline of the occipital:
Camels have very strongly developed sagittal crests, but this is parly due to the short and narrow area to the rear of the braincase, so the crest rises sharply. The nuchal crest is also much more prominent, forming a continuous sharp line right into the zygomatic arch:
The mystery object could be from a camel, but I think it lacks the strength of the camel’s nuchal region and the braincase seems broader than that of the camels.
There was a suggestion of badger, but that can be ruled out simply because of the size. This section of mystery bone is about as long as a badger’s entire skull:
While the size is off, the suggestion does have merit in terms of morphology, as the broad braincase does hint at a member of the Carnivora and in Ireland there aren’t many large carnivores – at least not any more.
One type of large carnivore still found around Ireland would be the seals. However, the need for extreme flexibility in their head movements while resisting drag from their watery environment gives them a very characteristic shape to their nuchal region:
Dogs are always worthy of consideration in these instances. They can be small or large, their skull shape can vary hugely and they are found everywhere that humans are found.
This does seem a bit more like it, although size is still an issue. Even the biggest dog – and the skull shown above is from a BIG dog – struggles to be close to the right size. Also, the nuchal crest in dogs tends to taper to a point fairly evenly, whereas the mystery bone has a nuchal crest that has ‘shoulders’ for want of a better term. Dog is possible, but I’m not convinced.
There is no way a domestic moggie could come close to big enough, but there are big cats that come surprisingly close:
The nuchal crests of lions and tigers have those ‘shoulders’ and a well defined occipital crest down the midline. They are also closer in size and the braincase and sagittal crest are about right.
Of course, we can’t talk about lions and tigers without also considering bears.
Again, the nuchal crest ‘shoulders’ are there, the size is perfect and the sagittal crest and braincase are close. However, the occipital crest seems a little less well-defined.
So these are the species I’ve been considering and at the moment I’m thinking big cat or bear for this mystery object. I know there are other large carnivores, like hyenas, but they have an unmistakable sagittal/nuchal region:
I will need to have the specimen in my hand with a good range of comparative specimens available to get a more conclusive identification. One significant factor will be that as animals mature, their muscle scars tend to become more rugged and this changes their appearance, so I will need specimens from animals of different ages and life histories to help consider those factors.
Sorry I’m not giving you a definitive answer this week, but I hope you’ve enjoyed the process!
This week I have a very real mystery object for you to have a go at identifying, that was recently excavated in Ireland by archaeologists from Irish Archaeological Consultancy and they very kindly let me take a look and share it with you:
I have an idea of what this is, but I’d be keen to hear what you think it might be.
You can put your thoughts in the comments below and hopefully between us we’ll figure it out!
‘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:
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:
Although I’m no expert on penis size…. I’m gonna guess grey seal baculum, based only on the length. #shlong
Recently I was looking at some skeletal specimens in the Dead Zoo stores, to help with a research enquiry. I came across a drawer of unidentified bones and as you might have guessed, I was delighted. Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing some of these to get your thoughts on identifications.
To get started, here’s a good one:
Any ideas what bone this is and what animal it’s from? You can leave your ideas in the comments section below.
This week it’s back to bones. I’ve had a couple of very helpful work experience students photographing some specimens from the Dead Zoo comparative osteology collection and here’s a distinctive bone for you to identify. The Order should be easy, the Family simple enough, but the Genus and Species may prove more difficult:
So if you think you know what this is please put your suggestions in the comments below. Have fun!
Part of the reason for that was because I knew I’d be starting my new job in Dublin where there is a great collection of comparative bird osteology that I thought I’d get a chance to look at in time to write this post.
Alas, I’ve had a whirlwind first week at Dublin’s Dead Zoo and although I’ve managed to take a look at a few sterna, I’ve not had much time to really think about them or consider the identification. I’ve also had limited opportunity to follow up on everyone’s very useful suggestions, although I have tried to use them as a guide to narrow down my perusal of the comparative collections.
However, I did get a chance to take some quick snaps of a range of bird sterna with my phone, so I’m going to provide you with a veritable feast of breast bones to compare the mystery specimen against:
Lesser Black-backed Gull
You can click on each image to see a large version – hopefully this will prove useful for future identifications!
None of them quite match the combination of having perforations near the straight and truncated bottom of the mystery specimen, which sports a broad triangular flattening of the lower portion of the carina or keel. This may be a feature of the particular individual, or it might be diagnostic – herein lie the problem with using strongly functional features for identification, as a juvenile or zoo specimen may have differences due to developmental progress of lack of use of a feature. To illustrate, this keel from a Griffon Vulture from the Royal Zoological Society of Ireland shows a significant asymmetry (although it’s hard to see the deformation in the image due to the shadow – I’ll see if I can get a better image):
Griffon Vulture sternum
It’s also worth noting that the Grant specimen has had the top of the sternum cut off, so the overall shape is a little misleading. From comparing the sterna of a variety of bird groups I’m in agreement with the emerging group consensus that this is probably from a pretty large bird of prey.
Thanks for your input on this – I will check some more next week when I have a zooarchaeologist looking at the comparative bird collection and I’ll get the chance to dig out some more material.
Last week I gave you this mystery object to identify, found on a beach in Ireland:
It led to a lot of great cryptic comments relating to marine birds and sternum keels, but Lena was the first to comment and was spot on with the species (or at least as far as I can tell!)
Bird sterna are quite distinctive, with overall shape giving an indicator of mode of life. Long narrow but well-developed keels like this tend to be seen in marine birds that use their wings to fly underwater. The shape of the bottom and sides of the sternum tend to be quite specific to particular genera and species, making sterna pretty good for identification.
Last week I gave you this unassuming bit of bone, that I found with no identification in the Grant Museum of Zoology stores:
Daniel Jones and Daniel Calleri identified the element as a radius, but beyond that there was a general feeling that identification of species was a bit on the tricky side. Palfreyman1414 pointed out that it’s something approximately human sized, with Lena ruling out an ungulate, suggesting that it could be from a carnivore or possibly a marsupial.
I must admit that my mind immediately went to carnivores and I initially thought it could be from a Black Bear, since it’s fairly robust and about the right length. However, after checking the ever helpful Adams & Crabtree book I realised that bears are even more chunky than this.
It didn’t look right for a dog since they are straighter, have a flatter profile and a narrower distal end. However, it did look right for a big cat and I’m fairly certain that it’s from a Leopard Panther pardus (Linnaeus, 1758). If you want to compare a Leopard with a Dog radius you can see them compared in this paper, along with a good description of the bones of the Leopard forearm.
A bit of a tricky challenge – so next time I may try to do something a bit more distinctive!
Last week I gave you this zoomed in picture of a specimen to have a go at identifying:
It was a bit tricky, so I also gave you this bonus clue to help:
I was impressed to see that, despite the limited information available from the images provided, many of you managed to work out that this shows the lightweight ‘honeycomb’ structure that supports the casque of a hornbill.
That was the first challenge but, as ever, I was keen to see if you could get the identification to species – far more of a challenge considering the lack of a side view of the skull and lack of a scale. To make up for that I’ve decided to provide the necessary image here:
I won’t say what species this is in this post, as I normally would, just to give some more of you a chance to make the identification yourself. However, what I will say is that the very first response by Wood contained a link to an image of the correct species and later to a blogpost featuring this very specimen. In that post there is a discussion about the appearance of the casque, with speculation about whether it had been damaged during preparation, resulting in its appearance. However, as Richard Lawrence pointed out, this appearance is actually normal for the skulls of several species of hornbill.
I will also say that the discussion between Daniel Calleri & Dan Jones and Richard Lawrence about whether it was a hornbill from a genus starting with A or B was interesting and I initially thought it was an A, but am now convinced that it’s a C.
Last week I gave you this mystery object supplied by Dr David Hone:
This is the premaxilla of a fish, but that doesn’t narrow things down much, since there are 28,000 species of bony fish, leaving a huge range of possibilities.
There were several suggestions of Wolf Fish, which is what I originally thought it was myself, but that’s not what it is. Then the suggestions of various Wrasse species started cropping up – which is a lot more likely.
My first look at Wrasse teeth came when I tried to identify the fish used in the Horniman’s Merman:
There are a lot of Wrasse, over 600 species in fact, so it can be hard to narrow down the species, especially when few comparative specimens are available.
This week I have a specimen that I’ve been looking at recently that you might like to have a go at identifying:
This was being used in handling sessions and needed a tooth to be reattached (huzzah for Paraloid B72), but I noticed that it lacked an identification beyond ‘monkey’ and I thought that could be improved upon.
Here it is laid out more usefully for identification purposes:
I know what I’ve narrowed it down to, but I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!