Friday mystery object #356 answer

Last week I gave you this rather improbable-looking fuzzball to have a go at identifying:


Initial consensus on Twitter suggested that it was some kind of taxidermist’s mash up of a tenrec / shrew / weasel and fox. Particular favourites were:


A similar theme emerged in some comments on the blog, but a useful rule of thumb was shared by ch:

Anything that weird looking is either a taxidermists joke or comes from Madagascar- you’d need to look in every ‘nouc’ and cranny to identify this weasily overlooked carnivoran.

Madagascar is well known for weird animals, since the island became isolated from the Indian subcontinent over 85 million years ago, allowing a unique variety of species to evolve and fill the ecological niches present. The oddities present include the Aye-aye (a mammal trying to be a woodpecker), the Fossa (a mongoose trying to be a cat) and the Web-footed tenrec (a tenrec trying to be an otter).

Of course, ch left an additional clue hinting at the correct identification (‘nouc’) which was picked up on by several others. There were also plenty of people on Twitter who recognised this distinctive animal.

The mystery object is a Falanouc Eupleres sp. Doyère, 1835 – notice the sp. There are two species of Falanouc – Eastern (E. goudotii) and Western (E. major), but this species split was only recognised in 2010. Therefore, it’s very difficult to know which this one is, especially without details of where in Madagascar it was collected.

Assuming it was collected in Madagascar. I say that, because it was purchased from London based supplier Gerrard & Sons. This means it could have been acquired from London Zoo, since Gerard had a relationship with the Zoo and often got dead specimens from them.

It’s also tricky to identify the species from morphology, since the differences between the species are most noticeable in the skull. The fur colour can provide a clue as well, but 100+ years of being on display in a gallery illuminated with daylight means the colour is pretty much guaranteed to no longer be as it was in life.

So I think we may have to leave it there, unless I can find any additional information about the specimen in the Dead Zoo’s archives. Whatever the species, I think this mongoose-like insectivorous carnivore with a fox-like body and shrew-like face is as charming as it is improbable.

Friday mystery object #343 answer

Last week I gave you this mystery skull from the Ulster Museum to have a go at identifying:

If you’re a regular follower of Zygoma then you may have seen some of my previous posts talking about the skulls of the various smallish carnivores like mongooses, mustelids and viverrids. Generally though, mongooses have a more domed region above the eyes, while mustelids have a shorter snout, so this is most likely one of the viverrids.

It’s a difficult one to get down to species, since it’s from a group of carnivores that have have a fairly uniform skull shape, so it takes some detailed investigation to work out exactly what we’re dealing with. However, as I have talked about before (and as palfreyman1414 remembered), there’s a very helpful identification guide developed by some French researchers which summarises some of the most useful characters to use in identification.

Most useful to my mind is the matrix of characters that allows you to narrow down the possibilities until you’re left with the most likely species (watch out, the security certificate has expired). Once you’re down to a few possibilities based on those specific characters it can help to check the specimen images on the Animal Diversity Web which lets you get a better idea of overall shape and things like tooth form.

As it turns out, my 270th mystery object also provided a useful image for comparison:


The reduced upper second molar (or M2) and the shape of the M1 in this specimen from the Grant Museum of Zoology is remarkably similar to the Ulster Museum specimen and it turns out it’s also from a species that made it to my shortlist using the matrix. So I’m fairly sure that this is an Abyssinian Genet Genetta abyssinica (Rüppell, 1836).

To give you an idea of what they look like, here’s a Common Genet in Wrocław Zoo by Guérin Nicolas, 2008

Well done to everyone who worked out we were dealing with a genet, but particular props to palfreyman1414 who was spot on when he said:

I’m wondering if, … this is related to the Abyssinian thingy you spent hours checking on from a complicated table of characteristics across 27 species…

Well remembered palfreyman1414, well remembered…

Friday mystery object #305 answer

Last week I gave you this specimen to identify, with a clue about the tail being distinctive:


There were lots of correct answers – the first coming from palfreyman1414 who nailed it with this great cryptic clue relating to its scientific name:

Trump assortment pack

It is indeed Potus flavus (Schreber, 1774) or as Allen Hazen and jennifermacaire hinted at with kinky clues, a Kinkajou. They’re also known as Sun Bears, Lirón (which is also the Spanish name for the Dormouse) or Micoleón (lion monkeys).

A Kinkajou at the Paradise Animal Rehabilitation Center, Volcancito, Panama. Image by Dick Culbert, 2008

A Kinkajou at the Paradise Animal Rehabilitation Center, Volcancito, Panama. Image by Dick Culbert, 2008

As the name Micoleón suggests, these South American floofsters are what happens when a carnivore tries to be a monkey. They have dexterous digits for climbing and handling the fruit that makes up the bulk of their diet and they are one of only two carnivores with a prehensile tail (the other is the Binturong) – hence that tail clue.

This tail acts like a fifth limb that helps the Kinkajou climb and in particular it allows the animal to hang down in order to reach fruit at the ends of slender branches:

Kinkajou hanging using its prehensile tail. Image by Damian Manda, 2009

Kinkajou hanging using its prehensile tail. Image by Damian Manda, 2009

Unlike monkeys, the Kinkajou is nocturnal, relying on its sense of smell and touch more than its eyesight to work out which fruit is ripe. It uses its very long tongue to scoop out fruit pulp and sometimes to feed on nectar from flowers.

All in all it’s a very curious little carnivore that looks more like a lemur than it does its closest cousin, the Coatimundis.

Friday mystery object #301 answer

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


There were a variety of answers, but the first few took this as a worn canine tooth, presumably due to the respectable size and robustness. However, consensus shifted to this being an incisor, meaning it would have to be from a large animal – which is spot on. Moreover, it’s a large animal that was once resident in Ireland.

After that there were a variety of ideas brought up, from all manner of beasts including Sheep, Badger (or perhaps Pine Marten since a cryptic M.m. from the Irish fauna could be either Meles meles or Martes martes), Cave Bear, Coyote, Wolf and even Human. There was one just correct identification however, by Tony Morgan who recognised it as a Hyaena incisor.

It is in fact the lower left third incisor (or i3) of Crocuta crocuta (Erxleben, 1777) – the tooth you can see in this (very gnarly) Hyaena mandible, although it’s much less worn:

Hyena mandible

Hyaenas have an incredibly thick enamel layer on their teeth which creates a distinct neck on the incisor where it stops, which is further defined by the root of the tooth bulging laterally below – presumably to help deal with the forces of prey capture and perhaps the Hyaena’s impressive bite strength.


The robust skull of a specialist bone-crusher

You probably don’t think of Hyaenas as being native to Ireland, but until 39,000 or so years ago they ranged right across Eurasia, including those parts of Europe which were to be cut off by changing sea levels to form Ireland and Britain.

It’s strange to imagine a species normally associated with the African savanna strolling around the Emerald Isle, but it’s worth remembering that the world is a constantly changing place and wildlife moves around to cope as the environment alters. Borders and boundaries are very human concepts and other species only pay attention when you have a genuine barrier, like an ocean, a mountain range or (if you’re a Dormouse) a break in the tree canopy.

That’s one of the problems with current climate change compared to past climate variations. The speed of change is so great that some species don’t have time to move into new habitats and there are fewer suitable habitats available, because humans have cleared them for farming or building. Meanwhile, some other species can find suitable habitats and are able to move – but they will then often be considered an invasive pest. Now  the chances of Hyaenas returning to Ireland are pretty slim, but if they did I expect most people wouldn’t be too pleased, although you never know…

Kevin Richardson kisses hyena. Image by Kevin Richardson, 2007

Kevin Richardson kisses hyena. Image by Kevin Richardson, 2007

Friday mystery object #300 answer

Last Friday I gave you this new acquisition to have a go at identifying:


When it arrived on my desk in an decorative box, with bundles of bone wrapped in blue tissue and tied with gold ribbon, it had a small label saying:

Skeleton of Mongoose, Africa.

Now, I know that having the continent would have been of help for the identification, but I didn’t want my 300th challenge to be too easy.

So how was that initial identification of Mongoose? It was certainly up there in the first of the comments, with Ric Morris (expert on British mammal bones, whose book I am eagerly awaiting) providing a beautifully crafted suggestion. Unfortunately it isn’t right, as the mongooses mongeese Herpestidae* tend to have a better developed post-orbital process (that’s the pointy bit on top of the skull, behind where the eye would be) and a corresponding process on the zygomatic (that’s the cheekbone), with the two sometimes meeting to form a post-orbital bar. They also tend to have more robust teeth.

Another (very) cryptic clue came from jennifermacaire who suggested that it was a civet (which can either be a type of viverrid carnivore or a French game stew). This suggestion was supported by henstridgesj and it’s closer than the mongoose suggestion, as the specimen is indeed from a species in the Viverridae. This was noticed by herpderpatologist who provided a handy tip for spotting the difference between mustelids and viverrids:

The split auditory bulla is a clue! It’s something I associate with viverridae;…

If we know that this is a viverrid, it narrows it down to one of  just 38 species…  which is still quite a lot. But by trawling through the images of viverrid specimens on the University of Michigan Animal Diversity Web it becomes easier to start narrowing down the likely group within the Family.

In this case it led me to the genets.

There are quite a few genets, with the Subfamily Genettinae containing in the region of 16 species. Distinguishing between them isn’t entirely simple, as they all look pretty much alike, but there is an excellent French resource that has detailed anatomical characters and images of specimens to help distinguish between genet species.

Working through this I found that the two best options were the Common Genet and the Cape Genet and distinguishing between them is not simple. I’m leaning toward the Cape Genet (or Large-spotted Genet) Genetta tigrina (Schreber, 1776), based on the spacing between the tympanic bullae (the bulbous bones under the skull that house the ear bones), the reduced lingual cusp on the P3 (that’s the tiny bit that sticks out towards where the tongue would be on the upper third premolar) the form of the upper first premolar (P1) and the shape of the maxillary-palatine suture (that’s the junction between the bone of the palate and the part of the upper jaw that supports all the teeth except the incisors).

That’s quite a lot to take in, but by getting your eye in and scanning through images it’s surprising how quickly you can narrow down options by rejecting images where you can see clear differences in the tympanic bulla configuration or cusp pattern on the P3 to leave a couple that need more careful consideration.

And just for the sheer squee of it, here’s what a Genet looks like when it’s alive:

Common Genet, by Peter 2011

Common Genet, by Peter 2011

I hope you enjoyed the challenge of the 300th mystery object!


*N.B. the plural of mongoose is “mongooses”.

Friday mystery object #278 answer

Last week I gave you this mystery object from the Grant Museum of Zoology to get your thoughts on:


Most people spotted that this was a canid of some sort – but there was a lot of discussion about exactly what sort.

Allen Hazen made an interesting observation about the reduced second molar (missing in the specimen, but the socket shows that it was there and smaller than you’d expect from most dogs), plus the remarkably convex facial profile. Useful observations that have a bearing on the identification.

The short and broad muzzle, combined with the convex skull and distinctive molar morphology led Latinka Hristova to suggest Dhole, an identification agreed with by Lupen, palfreyman1414, Richard Lawrence, joe vans, Henry McGhie – and myself as it turns out.

Dhole (Cuon alpinus) by Kalyanvarma

Dhole (Cuon alpinus) by Kalyanvarma

The Dhole Cuon alpinus (Pallas, 1811) is an endangered Asiatic Wild Dog, that hunts in clans and feeds on a variety of medium to large mammals that are usually killed after an extended chase.

I’d not seen the skull of one of these before, but I was aware that they have a convex profile, so it was my immediate suspicion when I saw the mystery object and the species was confirmed by the unusually simple structure of the first molar and very reduced second molar, which are almost cat-like in their adaptation for shearing meat.

All in all, an exciting skull to find – and there are other unidentified canids in the same box that I’m itching to take a look at, so keep your eyes peeled for more mystery mutts.

Friday mystery object #272 answer

Last Friday I gave you this skull to identify:


It was a bit of mean one, because although the family is fairly distinctive, it has poor species representation in online resources or indeed the literature.

The cranium is quite low and long, with some similarities to an otter, but the rostrum (or muzzle) is a bit too narrow and the teeth aren’t quite the right shape. Also the orbits are orientated more vertically, whereas otters have orbit that are at more of an angle so the eyes are closer to the top of the head.

The overall shape, dental configuration and median lacerate foramen all suggest it’s a member of the Herpestidae.

Narrowing down the species was a step too far however, after all, there are around 34 species spread across Africa, Madagascar and Asia and Europe and they are generally quite similar in cranial morphology, with only a few species having good descriptions of the skull.

To help challenge the lack of images of mongoose crania online, I’m pleased to say that this specimen does have an identification – it’s a Ruddy Mongoose Herpestes smithii Gray, 1837. While the name Ruddy Mongoose makes it sound like it’s annoyed me, it actually refers to the reddish-brown of its coat.

A Ruddy mongoose from Daroji wildlife sanctuary in Karnataka, India. By Kalyanvarma, 2009

A Ruddy mongoose from Daroji wildlife sanctuary in Karnataka, India. By Kalyanvarma, 2009

This species is endemic to India and Sri Lanka, where it lives in dry, forested hills and feeds on pretty much anything it can get hold of, from snakes to bird eggs. As with other mongooses (or should that be mongeese?), they have a mutation that prevents snake neurotoxins from bonding at receptor sites, meaning that they are immune to some types of venom – pretty handy if you’re going to eat snakes!