Last week I decided to give you a taste of the kind of identification I often get asked to do. One bone with no scale and a photo from just one angle that doesn’t quite show what you’re looking at very clearly:
I must admit that I was suitably impressed with the responses though, since the very first response by Chris was cryptic yet absolutely spot-on.
As you probably figured out, this is the upper front section of jaw (or premaxilla if you’re feeling fancy) from a fish.
The more difficult bit is working out which fish, since there are plenty to choose from – over 28,000 species.
This is where knowing where the specimen came from can be helpful, since it can help narrow down the likely possible options. However, morphology is always the most important thing to consider and I find that locality is more useful for figuring out species than the higher taxonomic group – and higher taxonomy is really helpful for narrowing down options.
Of course, to do this you need good comparative morphological specimens to help steer you in the right direction. This can be difficult when working with fish, since there are so many species and they have skeletons that tend to be poorly fused, so there are many separate bony elements for each animal.
However, there are some great resources out there that are helping address this problem. The Florida Museum has a really helpful resource with images of bony elements of fish, listed by taxonomic group and Osteobase is a similar resource that is even more useful for identification as it’s more image-led.
The premaxilla isn’t always the easiest element to differentiate, but there are a few things to look for:
The teeth. You do need to be careful with these as a feature, since they can break off and look quite different between individuals. Check out the teeth in this specimen and notice there is a line partway down each tooth. This is a weak point that the teeth can break along quite easily and I’ve seen examples of premaxillae from this species that have mainly squarish, blunt looking teeth because the sharp cusps have come off.
General shape. Some Orders of fish have premaxillae that are almost solid triangles (like the Tetraodontiformes), others are long, thin and quite straight – looking almost like just a shard of bone (like some Beloniformes). It’s worth taking a good look at the shape and trying to spot processes and articulation points, since these provide clues to the taxonomy.
Processes on the rear of the premaxilla. These can be present or absent, well defined, poorly defined, high, low, long, short, simple, complex etc. The thing to remember about this mystery specimen is that the rear of the premaxilla curves downward with no processes on the upper surface – so its close relatives are also unlikely to have processes, or if they have them they are unlikely to be well-developed.
Processes in the middle of the premaxilla. Some groups have a process like a fin in the middle of the premaxilla (e.g. Esociformes and Osmeriformes). The mystery has no process here.
Processes on the front of the premaxilla. Many groups do have at least one process on the upper surface at the front of the premaxilla, but the number and shape are important for identification. The mystery specimen has two – the first is tall and shaped a bit like a bat-ear the second is not fully separate from the first and it is lower and quite squared off:
When you start to put all of these features together it becomes easier to narrow down possibilities. If you use Osteobase to scan through images of premaxilla you’ll find that the premaxillae that are closest (although none are identical) are from the Pleuronectiformes – or the Flatfish.
Knowing this one is from Irish waters (which I admitted in the comments) helps narrow down options to 22 species (things like Turbot and flounders) and with a bit of searching online and especially checking specimens in the Archaeological Fish Resource at the University of Nottingham you can narrow down the possible species to one good option.
This is the premaxilla of a Halibut Hippoglossus hippoglossus (Linnaeus, 1758). These large flatfish undergo a strange developmental distortion of the head that allows them to lie on their side on the seabed without having their left eye sitting in the sand.
This asymmetry is far more obvious in the whole animal than it is when just looking at the skull.
As you can hopefully make out, the jaws are reasonably symmetrical and the distortion is mostly in the area of the frontals and ethmoid bones, which have shifted to allow the eye to move. Here’s a more complete view of the right side of the Halibut skull to finish up with:
I hope you enjoyed the challenge!