Friday mystery object #448 answer

Last week I gave you these bones to have a go at identifying:

These are of course three toe bones (AKA phalanges) from a large artiodactyly. The staining of the bone suggests that it’s a fossil and the fact that I work at the Dead Zoo in Dublin might have offered a contextual clue…

Three Giant Deer (female and two males) at the entrance to the Dead Zoo Irish Room gallery.

This is of course the proximal, medial and distal phalanx (the distal phalanx also being known as the ungual) from the outer side of the right hind leg of an Irish Giant Deer Megaloceros giganteus (Blumenbach, 1799). Well done to all of you who worked that out (to any degree of accuracy!)

We have quite a lot of Giant Deer in the collections of the Dead Zoo, with over 600 records on our database, ranging from individual bones to complete skeletons. This offers an unusually large sample for researchers and artists wanting to work on these huge, extinct cervids.

This toe came from the female skeleton on display in the Irish Room of the Museum. The wire armature running through holes drilled through the bones that held it in place failed. This is likely due to a combination of factors, since the skeletons were mounted well over a century ago, and the armature is made of iron, which will have been gradually corroding over time.

I suspect there may also have been an element of ‘messing’ by a member of the public, since the skeletons are on open display and these toes were well within reach of young children or even in the bashing zone of a backpack if some decided to sit on the specimen’s plinth. Obviously we try to discourage this sort of thing, but on a busy day it can be hard to keep track of everyone in the space.

It’s a shame this happened recently, as we undertook an overhaul of the Giant Deer on display before we reopened the Museum earlier this year. Fossil preparator and conservator Remmert Schouten worked with me to build new sections of armature to remount a skull, he cleaned the specimens, and undertook a variety of small repairs (including replacement of an ungual on one of the other specimens) to get all of the Giant Deer looking their best.

I’ll leave you with some of the photos and a couple of videos, one with Remmert talking about the work and one with me setting the context and overview of the project. It was an intense week of work onsite, but very satisfying to see the transformation of the specimens!

Friday mystery object #346 answer

Last week I gave you this funky fossil from the National Museum of Ireland to have a go at identifying:


Everyone in the comments immediately recognised that this is the fossil of something that flies, thanks to the slender bones. The general consensus from the outset was that it was Archaeopteryx, but I wonder how much of that is because this specimen is preserved in the same Middle Jurassic lithographic limestone from Solnhofen that preserves the first bird?

The Berlin Archaeopteryx

The Berlin Archaeopteryx

However, Allen Hazen noticed the long slender finger that marks the mystery object as something different, when he correctly suggested that it was a pterosaur, winning over palfreyman1414 and sallie reynolds. On Twitter, @Robertgagliano1 went one better and got the correct genus when he suggested Germanodactylus.

This is indeed a fossil of Germanodactylus cristatus (Wiman, 1925). These small Jurassic pterosaurs were about the size of a raven and it is thought that they may have fed on marine crustaceans and molluscs, based on their fairly robust teeth.

This particular specimen is currently on display in our Jurassic Skies exhibition (that I talked about a fortnight ago), as it helps represent the successful group of flying reptiles that were already in the air 150 million years ago, when feathered dinosaurs first took to the skies.

In an unexpected twist, research was published just a week after we opened the exhibition, describing the first evidence for feathers in pterosaurs. This was unexpected, although fur-like filaments had already been recognised in the group. This means it’s possible that feathers originated in a common ancestor of dinosaurs and pterosaurs – which may have even included the group that is today represented by the crocodiles.

This means it’s possible that the ancestors of crocodiles would have been feathered and modern crocodiles have lost this covering, possibly thanks to their specialisation for living in water. I find it quite interesting that a reticence to add feathers to representations of dinosaurs (in things like Jurassic Park) has been influenced in part by the scaly skin of modern crocodiles (the nearest living relatives to dinosaurs that are not birds), but now we find out that crocodiles may have had feathers and lost them, making prehistory a much more fuzzy place than we ever dreamed!

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 #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:

Friday mystery object #15 answer

On Friday I gave you a palaeontological mystery object and asked you to choose what you thought it was from a poll:


As it turns out, you did pretty well, with 60% of you selecting the correct category (with a couple of you making comments which went into greater detail). The object in indeed a piece of fossil  Continue reading