Friday mystery object #431 answer

Last week we had a genuine mystery object to identify from the Andalusian coast, which was found and photographed by Paula Burdiel:

Image by Paula Burdiel, 2022

When Paula contacted me, she also provided links to some useful resources, including the Fishbase list of all the marine fish found in Spain (which is fantastic for narrowing down the list of likely suspects) and the #ScanAllFish digitisation project, which has the ambitious and laudable aim of scanning all fish species (although unfortunately it looks like they haven’t got around to this species just yet).

Any extra information is useful when trying to identify fish, since there are so many species, but sometimes a bit of familiarity is what you really need to start narrowing down options, which makes the Zygoma community a helpful resource when dealing with an identification like this. And you did not disappoint!

Tony Irwin, jennifermacaire and Wouter van Gestel all came through with excellent observations on the species. This object is a neurocranium (we’ve talked about these before) with a very pronounced supraoccipital crest (the big fin-like crest on top), which combined with the overall shape of the neurocranium suggests it’s a member of the Sparidae (the family containing the Porgies and Seabreams).

Knowing this, and having the Fishbase list, makes it much easier to narrow down the likely species. Unfortunately, there is no single resource to make comparison easy, but a lot of trawling through a variety of images of skulls and neurocrania will yield results (Flickr has some useful images for example).

Image by Paula Burdiel, 2022

From my searches, the shape of the supraoccipital, vomer/prevomer (the beaky-looking bit) and that impressive set of supraorbital crests (those frills of bone above the eye sockets) suggest that this mystery object is probably the species suggested by Tony Irwin – the Gilt-head Seabream Sparus aurata Linnaeus, 1758. I’m not 100% sure of this identification, but it’s the best fit I can find.

Thanks to Paula for sharing this object and thanks to eveyone for your thoughts on this specimen – it’s always valuable to get your input!

Friday mystery object #431

This week I have another guest mystery object for you to have a go at identifying, this time it’s from Paula Burdiel, who found the specimen in summer 2020 while beachcombing in Islantilla, Huelva (Spain):

Image by Paula Burdiel, 2022
Image by Paula Burdiel, 2022
Image by Paula Burdiel, 2022
Image by Paula Burdiel, 2022
Image by Paula Burdiel, 2022
Image by Paula Burdiel, 2022

With this fantastic array of images and clear locality information, I’m hoping that we can figure out which species we have here. Let’s hear what you think it might be in the comments below – between us I think we can identify this fishy mystery object!

Friday mystery object #425 answer

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.

Illustration of Atlantic Halibut Hippoglossus hippoglossus by Marcus Elieser Bloch (1723–1799), via

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!

Friday mystery object #425

One of the things I get asked to identify a lot in my job are bits of bone that people have found on the beach. I’ve decided to give you an idea of what that’s often like, with this small section from a skull as this week’s mystery object:

I hope you have some fun figuring out what this bone belongs to – I usually find it to be quite a rewarding experience.

As ever you can pop your thoughts in the comments box below. Enjoy!

Friday mystery object #423 answer

Last week I gave you this fishy looking critter to identify:

It wasn’t an overly difficult one for most of you, since it is a very distinctive and somewhat unusual animal with some immediately recognisable features. Most obvious are the gills.

Bony fish only have one visible external opening on either side of their head where water exits after it’s flowed over the gills, and this is well hidden when the gill flap (or operculum) is closed. So this is clearly not a bony fish.

Most modern sharks have 5 external visible gill slits, but this one has six. That makes it a bit of an evolutionary anachronism. There are only seven species of shark with more than 5 gills and they are all in the Order Hexanchiformes, which narrows down the possibilities considerably. Of those, two have seven gills, leaving just five possible species.

Those five species sit in just two families – the Cow Sharks and the Frilled Sharks. These can be separated based on a variety of features, but the most obvious is that the Cow Sharks have fusiform (or spindle-like) body shapes with a very pointed nose to help them move efficiently through the water by minimising drag. The Frilled Sharks have more anguilliform (eel-like) bodies with a blunter head and mouth set further forward in relation to the eyes – a feature about the mystery object picked up on by Allen Hazen.

There are only two species of Frilled Shark to choose between and I’m not sure I could tell the difference between them based on the photo provided. However, one species is only found off the coast of South Africa, and in last week’s post I dropped a (hopefully) helpful clue – this specimen was caught off the coast of Ireland.

That means this can only be the Frilled Shark Chlamydoselachus anguineus Garman, 1884. Well done to Adam Yates for being the first to get it spot on. This specimen was caught off the coast of County Donegal at a depth of 390 fathoms (or 713 metres in standard units) just over 21 years ago. A special mention to Pete Liptrot on Twitter who managed to identify this mystery object to the actual specimen – not just the species!

Friday mystery object #422 answer

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

With that prominent lure it was fairly obvious to everyone that this is an anglerfish of some sort, but there are somewhere in the region of 286 different species, so it needs some narrowing down.

That bulbous body shape is pretty distinctive though, so a lot of people both in the comments and on Twitter quickly identified this as one of the football fish in the genus Himantolophus.

Narrowing down to species is perhaps a bit tricky from just this photo. There are 22 species in the genus and thanks to the deep sea habitat these fish inhabit they aren’t commonly seen, so photos for comparison can be hard to find.

However, the double bony ridge on the head (that makes it look like it’s frowning) is very prominent in this specimen, which isn’t the case for all of the football fish species. However, it is particularly notable in the Pacific and Atlantic Football Fish species.

I have to admit that I’m just not good enough with fish identification to tell the difference based on specimens I’ve seen. However, since this specimen is in the Dead Zoo in Dublin, it seems unlikely (although not impossible) to be from the Pacific.

In the words of our youngest commenter:

It is indeed an Atlantic Football Fish Himantolophus groenlandicus J. C. H. Reinhardt, 1837, so very well done to E and everyone else who managed to work it out!

Friday mystery object #410 answer

Last week I gave you this rather fishy skull to have a go at identifying:

There was a lot of discussion about what it could be, which is unsurprising, since there are a LOT of fish species – with over 34,000 possibilities. This one proved additionally confusing, since it seems to have no teeth, as mentioned in the comments by Adam Yates. Fortunately, Wouter van Gestel flagged that some species with several rows of teeth tend to lose those teeth during preparation if it’s not done with sufficient care, which is useful to know.

I picked this object because I get a lot of requests for identifications of fish skull bones and this specimen is helpful, as it has the various bones of the skull labelled individually:

This specimen also happens to be a fish from a family that often comes up for identification. The neurocranium (or braincase) has a fairly characteristic shape in these fish, which is best seen from above on the skull (although unfortunately it’s not labelled in the image below):

The neurocranium tends to be a bone that gets found on beaches quite commonly. In fact, I have had a similar neurocranium as a mystery object in the past, so you may have seen one here before:

This shape is what I expect to see from members of the True Cod family, the Gadidae. Clearly a lot of other people recognised this as well, since Chris kicked off the comments with references to Gadus, Cod and Pollock and there were lots of suggestions of Cod and Pollock (AKA Saithe) on Twitter:

Unfortunatley, this is where it gets more complicated. Differentiating between different Gadids isn’t always easy. The size suggests it will be one of the larger members of the family – Cod, Haddock or Pollock being the main focus. Haddock is easy enough to dismiss, since they have small mouths, with lower jaws (composed mainly of the dentary and articular bones) that don’t project as far as we see in this specimen.

After that it gets really quite tricky – to the point where I am now doubting the original identification we have for the mystery object. This specimen was labelled as an Atlantic Cod Gadus morhua, although the original identification when acquired from Rowland Ward was Pacific Cod Gadus macrocephalus. But after a lot of searching of images from some pretty reliable online resources, I’m increasingly convinced that the specimen is a Pollack, Pollock or Saithe Pollachius pollachius (Linnaeus, 1758) – N.B. I’m ruling out P. virens since the lower jaw proportions are wrong.

The reason I’m thinking Pollack is based around a few small features of a couple of the bones of the skull. In particular, I’m interested in the shape of the hyomandibular and the opercular (Osteobase has these elements for Cod, but unfortunatley not Pollack). To give you an idea of the differences, here are the Cod elements (superimposed in blue) alongside the same bones of the mystery object (tinted red):

These differences are consistent across the skull specimens of Cod and Pollack that I’ve managed to find. The Cod has notch in the upper leading edge of the hyomandibular, unlike the Pollack, which has a more obtuse smooth line along the leading edge. The Cod also has a notch in the trailing lower edge of the opercular, that is just seen as a slight concavity in the Pollack.

I’d be interested to hear what you think about these suggested features!

Friday mystery object #359 answer

Last week I gave you this fishy mystery to have a go at solving:


I find fish a bit tricky, simply because there are so many different species out there – 33,100 described so far and rising. That’s more than all other vertebrates combined, so it’s not surprising that they can be a challenge.

However, this cartoonish looking little fish has some quite distinctive features that help narrow down the identification. There’s the duck-face with a couple of little barbels between its eyes and the clumping of the fins to the tail end. It also has a nice colour, but as I regularly say, that’s seldom a very reliable guide.

Generally, fish shaped like this don’t swim fast, they don’t lie flat on the sea bed and they don’t wriggle through weeds. This is the shape of a clinging fish – the kind that hold fast to a surface and let the world wash over them.

There are a good fish that do this, but I did say that this one is from Ireland, which helps narrow it down even more – enough for Chris to identify it correctly. This is a Cornish Sucker Lepadogaster purpurea (Bonnaterre, 1788). These weird little fish are pretty awesome. They cling to rocks along the shore with a suction cup made from their fused pelvic fins and they can change colour to blend into the rocks they attach to. Partly this will be for camouflage to avoid predators, but it will also be to help them ambush the smaller fish and crustaceans that they feed on.

One small issue for me is that the name on the label for this specimen is Lepadogaster lepadogaster (Bonnaterre, 1788). The taxonomy of this genus was reassessed in 2002 and the northern population of Lepadogaster (including those from the UK and Ireland) was found to be distinct from the more southerly distributed population. So once again, I need to update a label because advances in taxonomy have messed up our 100+ year old information. That’s the trouble with science – it keeps finding out new stuff.

Friday mystery object #342 answer

Last week I gave you this flouncy fish to try your hand at identifying:


It proved a tricky one, because it seems that based on genetic data it may be a species that has undergone convergent evolution with another type of fish to produce something very similar morphologically, but not actually closely related.

The similar fish would be the Sea Robins in the family Triglidae, as several of you opted for, but Wouter van Gestel and Rémi were a little more accurate in their cryptic suggestions of Flying Gurnard Dactylopterus volitans (Linnaeus, 1758).

These fish don’t really fly and only a few sources suggest that they can get any kind of glide going. Mostly they stick near the ocean bottom in shallow waters, using those oddly leg-like front fins to manage their more pedestrian movement and using the wing-like large fins to ‘fly’ underwater.

This particular specimen has lost its colour, thanks to the process of being preserved in alcohol, but when they’re alive they’re very colourful, with electric-blue spots on the fins. Perhaps more interestingly, this specimen was collected by Sir Frances Leopold McClintock, who achieved renown for his polar exploration and who was stationed in the Royal Navy’s North America and West Indies station as Commander-in-chief between 1879 and 1884. Since this specimen is from Jamaica, it seems likely that it collected in that period.

More mysteries next week!

Friday mystery object #314 answer(ish)

Last week I gave you this guest mystery object, courtesy of Joseph van Sambeek:

Mystery object. Image by Joseph van Sambeek, January 2000

The bony struts reinforcing thin plates of bone show it’s from something that lives in water all the time and which lacks lungs – you can tell this because this structure is what you get when you’re dealing with forces moving in a variety of directions, rather than mainly dealing with the constant force of gravity or compensating for buoyancy that is unavoidable when you live in water, but have lungs.

This means that many of you recognised it as being the neurocranium (that’s the bit of the skull that surrounds the brain) from a fish – more specifically from Sarah Gibson:

The first image is the skull roof, showing the elongated frontals and parietals (front of snout is left in first three images). Second image is a left lateral view, showing the internal parasphenoid that would pass between the two eye sockets. Third image is a ventral view, showing the bottom of the parasphenoid. And obviously last image is posterior view, showing the foramen magnum where the spinal cord would pass through, over the occipital condyle. It just may not look like a skull to some because it’s missing the eye sclera bones, jaws, cheek bones, pretty much anything that is not the skull roof or braincase.

However, as we all know, there are a LOT of different sorts of fish – around 33,600 described species and counting. This can make fish a nightmare to identify. However, there are some great resources out there, like Osteobase which has a very useful identification guide for various elements of a range of fish.

Alas, Osteobase didn’t have anything that fits this mystery specimen, so narrowing down to a species is rather difficult. I had the advantage of knowing that the specimen was collected in Baja California, although that was of little help in trying to get in an approximate area of the fishy family tree based on morphology, and there are still a ridiculous number of fish species is the area.

Sarah Gibson suggested that it may be a Barracuda, and it certainly fits in many aspects, but the shape of the frontals and parietals and details of the point of connection between the parasphenoid (that’s the bottom bar bit you see in the side view) don’t quite fit.

I had almost given up hope, when it occurred to me to concentrate on understanding the unusually large occipital condyle that Allen Hazen noticed, which suggested that it might be a taxon with an extremely extended rostrum (like the paddlefish or swordfish that Jennifer Macaire suggested) but with a weedier body and defined neck region since there would be no need for such a large articulation in a fusiform fish (they’re the muscular type that taper at both ends and have no neck, so don’t move their heads).

With this bizarre sounding fish in mind I was able to fairly rapidly narrow down the possibilities to one of the three species of cornetfish that live in the Pacific. I was delighted to find some great images of the skull of a Red Cornetfish, which matches the morphology very well.

Red Cornetfish Fistularia petimba from the Gulf of Mexico. Image by SEFSC Pascagoula Laboratory; Collection of Brandi Noble, NOAA/NMFS/SEFSC

Red Cornetfish Fistularia petimba from the Gulf of Mexico. Image by SEFSC Pascagoula Laboratory; Collection of Brandi Noble, NOAA/NMFS/SEFSC

However, the Red Cornetfish doesn’t really occur in the eastern Pacific, so it’s very unlikely to be that species. The Reef Cornetfish does occur in the eastern Pacific, but has only been reported in Californian coastal waters since November 2015 and this mystery specimen was collected back in January 2000 (which doesn’t make it impossible to be a Reef Cornetfish, just very unlikely). Which leaves us with the most likely identification (although by no means confirmed) of Deepwater Cornetfish Fistularia corneta Gilbert & Starks, 1904.

These long, thin fish can reach up to 2m, but they have tiny mouths that limit them to eating crustaceans, marine worms and smaller fish that they pick up from near the surface of reefs and the sea bed – presumably being harder to spot as a predator thanks to their very small frontal projected area.

I’ve asked Joe to check his specimen against the images of the cornetfish, since there’s nothing better than having a specimen in your hand when attempting an identification.

I hope you enjoyed the challenge!

Friday mystery object #282 answer

Last week I gave you this mystery object supplied by Dr David Hone:mystery282

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.

One very helpful osteology resource for identifying fish from their bony bits is Osteobase which lets you pick a bone and start making comparisons. It’s worth keeping in mind that you need to really explore the taxonomic tree on the left of the page to get a real appreciation of how useful it is – so for example, after selecting the premaxilla, if you look at the Perciformes (the Order containing the Wrasse) you see a huge range of premaxilla specimens that help narrow down the bone you’re trying to identify.

This clearly shows that the Labridae is definitely the right family for the mystery object and the Mexican Hogfish Bodianus diplotaenia (Gill, 1862) is a very close match.

So congratulations to Richard Lawrence who I think has it right, especially since the specimen was found within the range of this species. I hope you all enjoyed the challenge!

Friday mystery object #263 answer

Last Friday I gave you this mystery object that came up at a natural materials identification course that I delivered at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter last week:


There were a variety of suggestions as to what it might be, but everyone (correctly) discounted the information on the label that it was a tooth.

There were some suggestions of wood and ivory, but there were two suggestions which were definitely in the right ball-park. Daniel Calleri suggested it might be something fishy, while Krista got it pretty much spot on when she suggested a dorsal barb from a skate or ray.

I’m pretty sure that it’s the spine from the leading edge of the first or second dorsal fin of a Spurdog shark in the genus Squalus Linnaeus, 1758.

Spiny Dogfish (Squalus acanthias) by Dornhai

Spiny Dogfish (Squalus acanthias) by Dornhai

These turn up every so often in collections, sometimes as decoration, sometimes as items found in Native American middens. Presumably they’re composed of keratin, which is a commonly occurring structural protein in vertebrate skin that can also form hair, horn, scales and claw.

Thanks for all your comments and well done to Krista!

Oddjects No.1

I’ve been running my mystery object for over three years now and I’ve decided to add another kind of post in order to share some of the odd and interesting objects that I come across as I work in the collections of the Horniman Museum.

To share these specimens I’ve chosen the name ‘Oddjects’ as a portmanteau of ‘Odd’ and ‘Objects’. Here’s the first:


This happens to be a Wolffish (Anarhichas sp.) specimen that was a mystery object back in 2010, but here I just want to use the specimen to capture the imagination and spark discussion rather than provide much in-depth interpretation.

What does this make you think of?

I hope you enjoy the Oddjects I plan to share – if you do I would heartily recommend also checking out the Twitter and Tumblr feeds for the Horniman’s collections review projects as they also share some great objects.

Friday mystery object #169 answer

On Friday I gave you this specimen to identify:

It was one of those specimens that if you’d seen one before it was easy, if not it’s quite hard to work out.

In gross shape the skull has some similarities to that of a reptile, perhaps something like a Monitor lizard (albeit a little narrower). However, it actually belongs to a fish.

Cam Weir recognised this and managed to identify the kind of fish to genus and then species level, along with henstridgesj, 23thorns, Barbara Powell and Robin. Leigh and Ethan were also in the right ball-park with their identifications. This is the skull of the  Continue reading

Friday mystery object #128 answer

Happy New Year!

On Friday I gave you this piece of an animal to identify:

As expected, you managed to work out what it is in fairly short order.

Jake recognised it as skin, Denis Copilas as scales and Rhea as carapace – all of which are right at least in part. Henstridgesj and Barbara Powell’s friend Alison spotted that the section of carapace came from a Cowfish or Boxfish. There wasn’t really enough information available to identify it any further than that.

Fortunately this specimen had a label associated with it, so I can tell you that the section of carapace is from the  Continue reading