Bonus mystery object

I usually offer up a mystery object on Friday, but here’ a bonus object that landed on my desk this morning.


Apparently it was found in a horsefield in Kent, I have narrowed down the likely species of the animal that ‘donated’ the bone to a couple of options, but thought you might like to have a go as well, before the specimen is handed over to our Anthropologists to inspect the engraved designs.

As usual can can leave your comments below. Have fun!

Friday mystery object #228 answer

Last Friday I gave you these bits of mystery forelimb (scapula and humerus) to identify:


I thought it would be an easy one, since it’s from a very common species with a near global distribution – plus the humerus has quite a characteristic crest along the proximal end, from the shoulder articulation to the middle of the bone.

Most people who commented noticed this crest and Jake suggested that it had adaptive features (along with the scapula), maybe for a specialised way of life.

As it turns out, these bones come from an animal that is probably best described as a specialist generalist – a Brown Rat Rattus norvegicus (Berkenhout, 1769).

Rattus norvegicus, the Brown Rat. Image by National Park Service

These versatile and intelligent animals are very good climbers and brilliant swimmers, using their forelimbs to both get around and manipulate food.

This particular rat was a male pet rat purchased from Harrods in October 1960 – I get the impression it didn’t survive for that long, since the humerus head hasn’t fully fused. You can’t buy pets from Harrods any more, so this specimen not only shows us what a rat’s humerus and scapula look like, but it also represents a teeny-tiny piece of British history.

Friday mystery object #228

This week’s mystery object is a bit of a break from the cat skulls. Any idea what these two bones are and what species they’re from?


As always, you can put your thoughts and suggestions in the comments section below, but if you think it’s easy please try to be a bit cryptic in your response, to give other people a chance. Enjoy!

Friday mystery object #223 answer

Last Friday I gave you this fine feline to have a go at identifying:


I was a little suspicious of the identification attached to the specimen, but Al Klein suggested the same species – the Jaguarundi Puma yagouaroundi (É. Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, 1803) [link opens pdf].

My reasons for suspicion were the nature of the post-orbital constriction (the narrowing of the braincase behind the eyes), the nature of the zygomaticotemporal suture between the temporal process of the zygomatic and the zygomatic process of the temporal bone (the bit where two bones meet to make the arch of the cheek) and the shape of the nasal bones where they meet the frontals (the V shaped bones above the nose area).

The observation by henstridgesj that the skull was similar to the previous mystery object (Leopardus tigrinus) was a good one, so I decided to research the genus Leopardus in a bit more detail, to see if there was a better match.

It turns out that the skull I found that matched this one most closely – especially with regard to the relative lack of a post-orbital constriction and the nasal-frontal junction – was the highly arboreal Margay Leopardus wiedii (Schinz, 1821) [link opens pdf].

Margay - Leopardus wiedii, Summit Municipal Parque, Panama. By Brian Gratwicke.

I’m always a bit reticent to re-identify specimens that have original labels from the supplier attached as this one does, but this comes from suppliers (Dr.s Schlüter & Mass) that I know have seriously misidentified or mislabelled specimens in the past (e.g. labelling a African Lappet-faced Vulture as an Andean Condor from Bolivia).

Of course, the real identification may be even more complicated, since the South American cats have a bit of a track record for hybridising to the point of masking distinct species, so any identification I make will be laden with disclaimers and caveats. The joy of real-world animals when contrasted against nice simple biological concepts…

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!

Oz carnivores

Here’s an handy guide to the skulls of the carnivores found in Oz, just in case you find yourself in the area and stumble across a large carnivore skull. Natch.


They are arranged in the order left to right, top to bottom and they follow the sequence of the wild animals of Oz song. If you don’t know the song, it’s here:

Enjoy that little earworm!

Friday mystery object #220 answer

Last week I gave you this lovely skull to identify:


As I suspected, everyone immediately recognised it as a type of cat. The characteristic two large blade-like premolars with a gap (diastema) behind the long canines and the straight incisor row were a dead give-away.

Then came the difficult bit. There are around 40 living cat species recognised in the world and because they didn’t diverge from a common ancestor until just 10 million years ago (or thereabouts), they all tend to look quite similar.

There were lots of suggestions, ranging from Lynx to Jungle Cat, but only Jake managed to recognise this short and highly domed skull (with impressively long canines) as belonging to a Marbled Cat Pardofelis marmorata (Martin, 1836).

The Marbled Cat is an tree-dwelling species from South and Southeast Asia that isn’t really very well known. They have a ridiculously long and chunky tail to help with their arboreal lifestyle and beautiful patterns on their coat, which gives them their name.

Photo of a Marbled cat (Pardofelis marmorata) spotted in Danum Valley Conservation Area, Borneo, by Johan Embréus 2009

Since cats are so hard to tell apart do you think I should post a few more over the next few weeks? Between us we may be able to spot some useful distinguishing features…

Friday mystery object #217 answer

Last Friday I gave you this lovely skull to identify:


I chose it because it was being used for an interesting project by a student at UCL, involving 3D surface laser scanning of the specimen to identify landmark characters of the skeletal structure of the faces of this family of primates:


This is a specimen that we actually have a fair amount of information about. It’s a male Grey Gibbon Hylobates muelleri Martin, 1841 collected before 1909, from Melian on the Hanta River in North Borneo. So of all the suggestions, Crispin (@brainketchup) was the closest (with agreement from henstridgesj) when he suggested White-handed Gibbon.

It turns out that this skull also has a taxidermy skin associated with it (which Jake has mentioned before), which shows a common feature of taxidermy specimens where the skull has been prepared separately – it’s mouth is stitched shut:


This makes for slightly dodgy taxidermy, but at least it means the skull is available for future research, instead of being stuck in a specimen intended mainly for display.

The skin of this specimen has also seen recent use, but for art rather than science. Artist Paul Robinson has used it as the basis of this somewhat freaky, but striking piece of work:

GIBBON by Paul Robinson

GIBBON by Paul Robinson

It goes to show that specimens in museums can find themselves being used in all sorts of interesting ways. To my mind this is really what museum collections are for – being used by people.

Friday mystery object #216 answer

Last Friday I gave you this mystery sternum to identify:


I had a rough idea of the family, but I was less certain about the species. As it turns out I’m now less sure of the family than I was before, in light of some useful comments.

At first I thought this was the sternum of a member of the Strigidae or the ‘True Owls’ – something that Jake also thought with his suggestion of Tawny Owl Strix aluco, but henstridgesj and Daniel Jones raised the possibility of it being from a seabird and Daniel Calleri suggested it could also be from a member of the Halcyonidae or the ‘Tree Kingfisher’ family.

With the Christmas and New Year break I haven’t had a chance to get to our stores to check specimens, but there is a very useful website that deals with seabird osteology (helpfully called Seabird Osteology) which has some images of sterna. Several of the Procellariiformes (the order containing the Albatrosses, Petrels, Shearwaters, etc.) have a similarly short sternum with a double notched bottom margin, as do some of the Laridae or the Gull family.

I also checked an image of a Kookaburra from a previous mystery object, which doesn’t show the sternum well, but which does hint at a double notched bottom margin:

Laughing Kookaburra Dacelo novaeguineae skeleton

Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae) skeleton

This has left me slightly less confident that last week’s mystery object is from an owl, but here are a couple of other owl sterna for comparison:

Barn Owl Tyto alba sternum and coracoid

Barn Owl (Tyto alba) sternum and coracoid

As you can see, the Barn Owl sternum above doesn’t quite have the double notch, although the size is about right. The Eurasian Eagle Owl sternum below (ignore the coracoids and other bits of the pectoral girdle) is a much closer fit, although substantially larger.


Eurasian Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo) sternum, coracoid, furcula and scapula

I’ll see if I can find a Tawny Owl sternum to check against, because the shape does seem pretty good for one of the Strigidae and the size is about the same as a Barn Owl, which is in a different family, but has a size range that overlaps with the Tawny Owl. Of course, it could also be from one of the other medium sized owls, like the Long-eared or Short-eared Owls… more to come!

UPDATE 14:30 on 3rd January 2014

Here’s a Tawny Owl sternum!

Tawny Owl (Strix aluco) sternum

It’s pretty close, but the notches seem a bit deeper, so perhaps one of the Asioninae (Eared Owls) might be a better match for the mystery object?

Friday mystery object #216

I hope you all had an enjoyable Yuletide, I’ve certainly been glad of the excuse for a lie-in over the last few days.

The mystery object is a bit late today, but I hope you’ll forgive me in light of the general seasonal torpor.

Here’s a sternum that I’ve been puzzling over for a while – I can make a pretty good guess at the family it comes from, but I’m less sure of the species:


I’d appreciate seeing what you think it might be – let’s see if we can work this out!


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!



After a weekend of discussion about the hashtag #bonegeeks for a crowd-sourced, social media based resource for images of bones, I have come to the conclusion that you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

The nub of the discussion centres on the word ‘geek’, which is a term that some people dislike and don’t identify with. This is fair enough – how one identifies with and adopts labels for themselves is a personal thing, a point that Alice Roberts made earlier in the year.

Language evolves and so terms take on new meanings to reflect common usage. To my mind this means that the term ‘geek’ has taken on a new and (to my mind) positive meaning as “someone who is interested in a subject (usually intellectual or complex) for its own sake“, so I am happy with that description for myself – but I can understand that others feel differently.

In order to try to come up with a better hastag for a bony resource I made a poll that included a range of suggestions, the most popular of which can be seen below:


Now obviously #bonegeeks comes out on top – presumably due to input from other people who self-identify as geeks, but there are enough people voting for alternatives to raise a warning flag that several people may feel actively excluded by use of term ‘geek’. In light of this I am unwilling to stick with #bonegeeks, but the general lack of consensus on alternative names leads me to reject the other options.

Where to go from here? The obvious answer is to go back to what we are trying to achieve and to think of a hashtag that is descriptive of the outcome rather than the contributors, so I suggest we use #bonepics so that both #bonegeeks and every other brand of osteology enthusiast who doesn’t consider themselves a geek can get on with making something rather awesome…


There are some great resources online for finding images of comparative material for skulls, but the postcranial skeleton tends to be quite badly represented online even for common species. I’d love to change that, but it’s a big challenge for one person.

Paramastoid process of Pig (Sus scrofa)

Paramastoid process of Pig (Sus scrofa)

That’s why I’d like to set up #bonegeeks on Twitter (and maybe on other social media as well). The way I see it, people who have access to skeletal material could easily take snaps of bits of postcrania from known species (preferably with something for scale) using their phone and share the image to Twitter, Tumblr or Facebook with the name of the species and the bone (and perhaps where the specimen is held).

With the #bonegeeks tag it should be easy to collate images and hopefully start building up a comparative collection of images to make identifications easier.

It could start with a bone of the week to get the seldom depicted bones better represented and I’m sure #bonegeeks would be willing to respond to requests if there were particular bones that someone wanted to see.

I wonder if this could work… shall we give it a go and find out? Please add your thoughts on this idea in the comments section below or on Twitter using the #bonegeeks hashtag.

Oh and here’s how the idea got started: [View the story “#bonegeeks” on Storify]

Friday mystery object #211 answer

Last week I gave you this very unusual object to identify:


Plenty of you recognised this as a vicar of some sort, painted on the cervical vertebra (or neck bone) of a large mammal. There were some great ideas from neanth, Lewis Thompson, henstridgesj, Ze-Jeff, Jake, ermineofthenorth, Carlos, Daniel Jones, andy J, Natasha and Daniela.

In particular, Daniel Jones made some very interesting observations about which vertebra from which animal, while Tony Morgan managed to identify the preaching subject.

It seems that this object is a cervical vertebrae from a Heavy Horse (by which I mean something like a Shire-horse, not just a greedy nag). Looking at the relative proportions and the angles of the processes I think it’s probably the 4th cervical vertebra.

Meanwhile, the subject of the piece appears to be John Wesley, co-founder of the Methodist movement in the 18th Century. Apparently this sort of British folk depiction of John Wesley (and his brother Charles) was quite common in the late 18th and early-mid 19th Centuries, and there are several examples online (1, 2, 3).

Finally there is a bit of a mystery attached in the form of  a label:


The date is written without the century, which is  a problem in collections that can be well over 100 years old. This could be from 1984 (unlikely), 1884 (the year Horniman started showing his collection, or 1784 (one of years in which John Wesley was active).

The handwriting looks familiar to me, so I’m going to go for 1884 and assume that this is a label that was added when the object was collected by Horniman, rather than it being a label added by the person who painted the vertebra – after all, who adds labels like this to their handiwork?

I hope this provides a good reason for why you should always write the year in full if you work in a museum.

Friday mystery object #210 answer

Last week I gave you this mystery object to have a go at identifying:


Jake was in like a flash, correctly identifying that the bone was a humerus – not an easy thing to spot considering the very strong curve and the deep groove at the head end. Jake also noticed that the humerus was adapted for something unusual, hence the weird shape.

There was a suggestion of pig by henstridgesj, which would have fitted the curve of the bone, but it was too small and the deep groove is at the wrong end.

Newcomer to the mystery object, Rute Branco, suggested that the object was the humerus of a (young) tortoise – a suggestion that I agree with (as does Daniella).

Tortoises have weird legs that need to carry quite a lot of weight, thanks to their bony carapace. They also need to get their legs inside their shell, so they have to be shaped for efficient retraction.

One of the differences between a terrestrial tortoise and an aquatic turtle humerus is the shape of the groove in the head, with terrestrial tortoises having a very steep and deep groove while swimming turtles have a slightly shallower and wider groove to allow a wider range of movement.

I can’t find enough comparative material to work out a species, or even genus of tortoise for this specimen, but I will keep my eyes peeled! Thanks for everyone’s input.

Friday mystery object #206 answer

Apologies for having such a belated answer to the belated mystery object from last week.

Things are really busy at the moment – I’m researching mermaids for a paper due to be submitted at the end of this month, curating an exhibition that’s due to open in September, double-checking the scientific accuracy in Jake’s book, doing talks, running PubSci, involved in recruitment for NatSCA, working on elements of the Horniman’s Bioblitz project and trying to write a grant application, on top of my more usual day-to-day work. That means I haven’t been able to spend the time on my blog that I would like. Hopefully everything will start getting back to normal in the next couple of weeks!

On to the answer – I’m afraid it will be brief… I asked what this bone was:


Carlos recognised this as a rib and there were a variety of suggestions about what it might be from, ranging from a cetacean to a mammoth. Some good ideas, but Lena came closest with speculation about dinosaurs.

This is in fact the rib of a Triceratops Marsh 1889.

There is a lot that could be said about Triceratops and other horned dinosaurs, but since I’m pushed for time I will just leave you with a link to an article by Darren Naish who knows more about such things than me and this brilliant stop-motion video from the 1925 film of The Lost World, which is simply iconic: