Friday mystery object #323 answer

Last week I gave you this incredibly cute mystery floofball to identify:


It took approximately 10 minutes for palfreyman1414 to work out what it was and come up with an excellent cryptic clue as to the identity of the genus:

Right, best guess is that this is a genus of tiny anno domini public transportation.

Tiny (=micro) anno domini (=AD aka Christian/Common Era, abbreviated to CE) public transportation (=bus) which gives us Microcebus.

Microcebus É. Geoffroy, 1834 are commonly known as the Mouse Lemurs, a genus containing 24 currently recognised species of tiny Malagasy primates.

Lesser Mouse Lemur by Arjan Haverkamp, 2007

Lesser Mouse Lemur by Arjan Haverkamp, 2007

Normally I’d be looking for a species level identification, but that would be a real challenge, since the members of this diminutive genus are remarkably similar in appearance – especially if you only have a very faded 100+ year old specimen to work from.

In fact, before genetic analysis was available, only two species of Mouse Lemur were formally recognised, with another couple proposed but disputed. In the last 20 years there have been a further 20 new species recognised, meaning that despite the label on the Dead Zoo specimen saying it’s Microcebus murinus (Miller, 1777), it could well be something else – perhaps even a new species yet to be described.

I say that because even though researchers have been busy finding new species, they are mostly working in the field and several of the species being discovered are incredibly rare due to habitat loss in Madagsacar. When our specimen was collected it could easily have been from an area that was logged before researchers had a chance to do genetic work on the Mouse Lemurs present, so there may have been species there that were never discovered before they were lost.

This idea of species being lost before they’re discovered is a depressing, but very real one. Most taxonomists agree that there are around ten times as many species on Earth as have been described by science so far. More are being discovered all the time, but they tend to be from areas with fewer scientists (unsurprisingly), but not necessarily areas with less human impact.

Rainforests are a good example, where species diversity is incredibly high, but dams, logging and slash-and-burn agriculture to support soy, palm oil and cattle farming are gobbling up huge swathes of habitat before biologists have ever seen it.

To put that into some kind of perspective, England and Wales are much less diverse than a rainforest environment, but new species are still being found despite having a couple of centuries of extensive and systematic recording and collecting. The perspective comes from the fact that an area of rainforest the same size as England and Wales is destroyed every year, before it’s ever had a chance to be studied.

I talked about some of the issues of extinction on the Mooney Goes Wild radio programme recently, which you can listen to here if you’re interested.

More mysteries next week!

World Rhino Day 2013

I thought I’d do a quick update on rhinos here on Zygoma, since the theft of their horns from museum collections is something that I’ve been keeping an eye on for a while.

For the museum professionals out there it has been tough, with more thefts taking place since I published on the situation from a museum perspective at the end of 2011. On a more heartening note, there have been more arrests as well.

Of course, things have been far tougher on the rhino populations.

Poaching rates in South Africa show a steep increase since 2009, when the new wave in poaching was started after a rumour that a Vietnamese official was cured of liver cancer using powdered horn. It will be interesting to see whether the increase in poaching rate will follow the trend of the last few years, following the recent arrest of a man reputed to be one of the kingpins of the poaching and smuggling operation from South Africa.


Since the boom in poaching, rhino populations have been in decline around the world. In some cases that decline has been very rapid. In 2011 the Western Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis longipes Zukowsky, 1949) was declared extinct and the Javan Rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus Desmarest, 1822) now only has one surviving subspecies, made up of maybe 40 individuals. All of this because of a single story about cancer.

As with most anecdotal claims for cancer cures (from use of vitamins to homoeopathy) there is no good evidence that rhino horn has any effect. Spontaneous remission happens and, assuming the story about the Vietnamese official contained any shred of truth there were probably numerous other treatments being used at the same time, making it impossible to identify which treatment had any effect.

If rhino horn was effective, then you might expect the countries that use it, like China, to have a lower cancer mortality rate than other parts of the world – but this is not the case. Even practitioners of Traditional Asian Medicine have explicitly stated that there is no evidence that rhino horn can cure cancer.

Moreover, if rhino horn did have any effect on a cancer, that effect should also be found by using powdered cattle hooves – a cheaper and more sustainable product. Rhino horn use is not sustainable at all. If the poaching rates continue to increase as they have been, my very quick and dirty calculations suggest that rhinos could be extinct in South Africa in as little as 10 years.


This is why it’s so important to raise awareness of the problems facing rhinos and communicate the fact that rhino horn is not a cure for cancer. Time is potentially very short for the populations that remain.

Friday mystery object #202 answer

Last Friday I gave you this big chunk of bone to identify:


I was hoping that it might be a little bit of a challenge because it doesn’t seem to have any really diagnostic characters, but your shape-matching skills were good and several of you managed to get a close identification.

Heather was straight in with the suggestion of it being the back part of the frontal bone (the bit that makes up the front and top of the skull) of an Aurochs – the very large, extinct ancestor of modern Cows. Wouter van Gestel also suggested one of the large bovids – the Asian Water Buffalo, and Ben Gruwier agreed with both Heather and Wouter in saying that it was from a large bovid.

This was as far as I had managed to get with the identification myself, however the specimen had a number (39.16), which I was able to check against the natural history registers. The first part of the number told me to check in the register for the year 1939 and it was the 16th entry for that year, so it was easy to find (unlike with some numbering systems with museum specimens).

It turns out that this specimen is in fact the frontal bone of a Gaur or Indian Bison Bos gaurus Smith,1827, and it turns out that the Gaur has a distinctive ridge between the horns, which is what this specimen is showing, so I should have been able to work it out from the morphology (I will be able to in future).

Gaur bull at Nagarhole National Park, India. By Dineshkannambadi

Bull Gaur can weigh up to 1.5 tonnes and stand 2.2m (7’2″) to the shoulder – they’re enormous. Their only natural predators are the Tigers and large Crocodiles they share their Southeast Asian forest habitat with, but even then Gaur have been known to kill Tigers by trampling and goring them.

Perhaps unsurprisingly these animals are far more risk from humans and have been hunted for meat and trophies until they have become threatened. They are protected by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), but illegal trade continues and their forest habitats are constantly being lost due to human encroachment.

It’s disheartening that so many of my mystery objects end with a comment about human activities driving a species towards extinction, but unfortunately it’s a massive problem in the world we live in. I wonder if there will be any wild Gaur left in 2039, just 100 years after this specimen was collected?

Back from extinction

Imagine if you could bring a species back from extinction – what would you choose and why would you choose it? There are so many factors to take into consideration it all becomes a bit bewildering – do you choose something on the basis of how well it would reintegrate with existing ecosystems, how useful it might be, how much novel information we could learn from it, how plausible it would be to actually carry out the resurrection process, or simply how awesome it would be to see something that hasn’t walked the Earth for millions of years?

I recently asked four palaeontologists what species they would choose to resurrect and their responses were presented at a Café Scientifique balloon debate at the Horniman Museum, as part of the International Year of Biodiversity activities in conjunction with the Royal Society (who are celebrating their 350th anniversary!). The result was a very enjoyable evening for all involved and an insight into some of the considerations that should be taken into account when contemplating resurrecting extinct species.

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