Friday mystery object #391 answer

Last week I gave you this skull from the Dead Zoo to have a go at identifying:

I think it’s quite a distinctive skull, so I didn’t provide a scale and I asked for cryptic clues to avoid spoiling the challenge.

The overall skull shape is fairly standard for an Artiodactyl, but while this specimen has no incisors in the upper jaw, there are fairly obviously empty alveoli that show where the teeth used to be. That means it’s not a member of the Ruminantia (the deer, antelope, cattle, giraffes and weird deery-antelopey type critters like chevrotains) since they all lack upper incisors.

That leaves the pigs, hippos and camels – and it’s clearly not one of the pigs or hippos.

The camel family is a bit odd. There are three wild species, but then an additional four entirely domesticated species. The proportions of this skull are a bit long for a Llama, Guanaco, Alpaca or Vicuña. That leaves the Dromedary, Wild Bactrian or Domesticated Bactrian camel as possibilities.

Dromedary skulls tend to have a horizontal nasal region then a steep rise to the braincase immediately behind the orbits, but this specimen has a more gentle slope running from the nose to the top of the braincase, so it’s Bactrian.

Unfortunately the Wild Bactrian camel is critically endangered and poorly represented in collections, so it’s hard to find enough comparative material to differentiate the wild and domestic Bactrians.

Well done to everyone who figured out that this is one of the double-humped ships of the desert. There were some great clues in the answers!

Friday mystery object #390 answer

Last week I gave you this specimen from the Dead Zoo to have a go at identifying:

It came from a cabinet of cave bones, but Nigel Monaghan (Keeper of the Dead Zoo) wasn’t convinced that this specimen was actually found in a cave.

Partly that’s because it’s a fairly fragile specimen with poorly fused sutures – these don’t usually stay connected in cave deposits, but also because it’s from a species that you wouldn’t expect to find in the kind of caves that the rest of these collections came from. So what is the species?

I don’t think this is a very difficult one since I’ve done very similar specimens before (regular visitors should have had an advantage), so I was looking for cryptic or entertaining answers – and I was not disappointed. Tony Irwin got a great clue in, with a pun that reflected the genus:

I think we need to focus (did I spell that right?) on the shape.

It is of course the skull of a seal in the genus Phoca – and the blunt shape of the anterior portion of the auditory bulla suggests to me that it’s a Harbour Seal Phoca vitulina Linnaeus, 1758 rather than the very similar Spotted Seal, which has a slightly more accute angle on the anterior auditory bulla.

So well done to everyone who figured it out! Now we just need to figure out how it either got into a cave or (possibly more likely) got put into the wrong cabinet.

Friday mystery object #390

This week I have a mystery object that my boss, mentor and the Keeper of the Dead Zoo, Nigel Monaghan, found while working on a collection of cave bones:

Now Nigel has already worked out what it is thanks to a website that has images of skulls with id tips that you may have seen before (yep, this one), but do you recognise what this is?

I think this is a nice straightforward object, so maybe a good one for some fun cryptic or otherwise entertaining answers? Have fun!

Friday mystery object #389 answer

Last week I have this mystery object from the Dead Zoo:

I made it a bit harder than necessary by not including a scale, but then that’s part of the fun – and I think a scale might have made it all a bit too easy.

There were a lot of suggestions about what it might be, mostly referencing some kind of seat / saddle or a patella. It’s probably just about big enough to sit on, although I’m not sure it would be comfortable.

But quite a few of you did figure out what bone it is and more or less what kind of animal. It’s the manubrium (part of the sternum) of a young Humpback Whale Megaptera novaeangliae Borowski, 1781.

Here’s the specimen with our Conservator Silvia for scale next to the manubrium (it’s a little hidden by the bar supporting the mandible here). Silvia’s been busy cleaning the whale, ready for it to be dismantled in the next few weeks.

All the activity around this whale work has been keeping me busy, so I apologise for tardy replies to questions and slightly sparse answers. If you want to see what we’ve been up to, check out the #DeadZooDiary!

Friday mystery object #388 answer

Last week I gave you a bit of a mean mystery object to have a go at identifying:

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I’m not surprised that very few people worked out what it is, since there’s not much to go by, and what there is, may be a little misleading.

This scrubby-looking piece of hairy skin is not from a battle-scarred Tasmanian Devil, nor is it from a rough patch on a Badger or member of the pig family and it most certainly is not from an ape of any description.

This is, in fact, from a Walrus Odobenus rosmarus (Linnaeus, 1758). This Walrus from the Dead Zoo in fact:

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People don’t think of walruses as being particularly hairy – and this one is quite definitely bald on top (I’m familiar with that feeling…). However, last week we moved this specimen and when we flipped it on its side to squeeze between some cases, we discovered a rather hairy belly (again, I know the feeling…)

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Walrus hair tends to get less dense as the animals age (insert gag here). After a century or so on open display, with members of the public who most definitely have not read the “DO NOT TOUCH” signs, and with technicians with buckets of creosote, that natural balding had a helping hand – up top.

Underneath, the hair was left untouched and in places it’s quite dense. I’m not sure if this is entirely due to people not being able to touch the specimen, or if Walrus belly hair is more dense and plentiful than on the rest of the body, to help insulate them when sitting on ice floes.

Either way, it was fascinating to be able to see a hidden part of this specimen – a nice reward for all the effort of moving it. If you want to see more of this kind of thing, check out the #DeadZooDiary!

Friday mystery object #387 answer

Last week I gave you this fuzzy critter to have a go at identifying:

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As I suspected, it proved to be tricky – small mammal taxidermy tends to be difficult, especially when it’s old, faded and a species that isn’t familar to many people. This specimen is a great example of that.

I’d love to be able to give you some clues for identification, but if I’m honest few of the distinguishing features of this species are visible (sorry!). The distinguishing features are apparently: white eye-ring (no sign thanks to fading), gray-brown fur flecked with white hairs (again it’s too faded), and a short tapering tail (just about).

This is a Dibbler or Parantechinus apicalis (Gray, 1842), which is also known as a Freckled Phascogale, Freckled Antechinus or Speckled Marsupial Mouse due to it’s flecked appearance (when it’s not faded…). Of all the comments I think Goatlips came closest with a suggestion of Antechinus, which is the genus that this species used to be included in.

These tiny marsupial carnivores feed on a surprisingly wide variety of animals, including mice, birds and lizards.

The Dibbler was declared extinct just one year after this particular specimen came to the Dead Zoo in 1883, but a couple of populations were later found in Western Australia. They’re still endangered and have a very small range, largely limited to small offshore islands where introduced predators like cats and foxes haven’t managed to spread – yet.

Friday mystery object #386 answer

Last week I gave you this taxidermy bird to have a go at identifying:

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It’s fairly obviously a duck of some sort, but there are almost 150 species in the duck family Anatidae, so that’s not really enough information.

Of course, the ornithologists were up to the challenge of working out which type of duck this was, with Wouter van Gestel dropping hints at a Steamer Duck. If you’re not familiar with Steamer Ducks, they are in the genus Tachyeres, there are only four species and they all live at the southern end of South America.

Of the four species, only one (the smallest) can fly. The others are very large, heavy and flightless. They sometimes use their small wings as a power assist in fast swimming, using a style reminiscent of an steamer ship’s paddles – hence the name.

The small wings on this specimen, as pointed out by Allen Hazen, suggest that this is one of the three flightless species, ruling out the Flying Steamer Duck T. patachonicus as a possible contender.

The three remaining species are all very similar and although some images online suggest that only one species has an orange bill, they all have quite a bright yellow-orange bill following their moult that becomes duller over time. Of course, when dealing with taxidermy you can’t fully trust things like leg or bill colour as they can rapidly fade after death and they are usually painted to give an impression of the natural colour – sometimes with a bit of artistic license.

This particular specimen is identified as Tachyeres cinereus, which is not a valid species, so I was hoping there would be someone with a useful morphological hint to help distinguish between species, but most ways of distinguishing rely on comparisons of bill length, mass and size.

However, this specimen does have a collection locality – the Falklands. There are two species of Steamer Duck that occur on the Falklands and fortunately one of them is the species that flies and has already been ruled out, so it seems likely that this is a Falkland Steamer Duck Tachyeres brachypterus (Latham, 1790).

Pair of Falkland Steamer-ducks. Image by In Vitrio, 2018

So well done to everyone who said it was a Steamer Duck – I think that’s about the best identification possible from the information provided!

On an unrelated note – over the next few weeks my mystery object answers may be a bit on the brief side. Projects at the Dead Zoo are underway that are taking up a lot of my time, so I may struggle to find time for detailed answers. If you’re interested in what I’ll be doing you’ll be able to check out the #DeadZooDiary hashtag on Twitter and Instagram, which we’ll be adding things to starting next week. Exciting things are underway!

Friday mystery object #385

This week I have a mystery object from the Dead Zoo that I think you’ll probably find easy to get to genus, but then I think it’ll get much more difficult:

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If it proves too hard to work out the species I have a clue that might help and I’ll add it to the post next week. Have fun!

Aaand, here’s your clue! This is where the label says it’s from. I hope that helps!

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Friday mystery object #384 answer

Last week I gave you this unusual looking skull to have a go at identifying:

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That low and elongated shape, combined with the large number of teeth and absence of a zygomatic arch – all within the context of the relatively large (but still quite small) size – all combine to narrow this down to just a few possible options.

There are a bunch of critters in what used to be called the “Insectivora“, back in the dim and distant days of my undergraduate studies. This wastebasket for things that look like they should be chasing acorns in a cartoon was rightly broken up into more meaningful cladistic groups during the great molecular taxonomic revolution in the dying days of the last century.

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Scrat, a fictional sabre-toothed squirrel that looks like every third member of the old ‘Insectivora’

To be fair, there’s a reason why the “Insectivora” lasted as long as it did and why it took molecular research to finally tease the various groups apart. They don’t have many strong distinguishing anatomical features that are seperate them into clear higher level groupings. Sure, they look a bit different at the family level, but any higher than that and they smoosh into bunch of small toothy critters, many with no cheekbones to speak of.

However, some do have a zygomatic arch, such as the talpid moles and desmans, so it’s not one of them:

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Skull of European mole Talpa europaea Linnaeus, 1758

It also lacks the large orbits of something like a Sengi or Elephant Shrew:

Skull of a North African Sengi Elephantulus rozeti (Duvernoy, 1833).

It also lacks the well-developed sagittal and nuchal crest you’d associate with the Malagasy tenrecs:

Skull of a Tail-less Tenrec Tenrec ecaudatus Lacépède, 1799.

It also lacks the backwards projecting nuchal crest of a solenodon and it’s just too big for one of the true shrews – the largest of which is the Asian House Shrew with a skull length of around 38mm.

So this specimen isn’t as hard to recognise as it could be. The very flat top to the skull with the nostrils up high is a bit of a clue – something often (although not always) associated with aquatic animals. On closer inspection there are two likely suspects – the Web-footed Tenrec or one of the Otter Shrews (which are neither otters nor shrews).

The area around the occipital is a dead give-away here. The Malagasy Web-footed Tenrec Limnogale mergulus (Major, 1896) has an occipital region that’s hard to see in a side view, because the parietals extend down quite low, whereas the Otter Shrews have much higher parietal margin that exposes the occipital region – just like we see in the mystery object.

Finally, the size is give-away. As many of you recognised and hinted at (occasionally with some dodgy puns – I’m looking at you Tony), this is a Giant Otter Shrew Potomogale velox (Du Chaillu, 1860). These semiaquatic relatives of the tenrecs are unusual in how they swim, lacking webbed feet and relying on a laterally flattened tail to swim using a fish-like undulation. So well done to Jane, Tony Irwin, katedmonson, Allen Hazen, Rémi and everyone else who managed to work out this weird mystery.

Friday mystery object #383 answer

Last week I gave you this slightly mean mystery object from the Dead Zoo to have a go at identifying:

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I say it’s mean because it’s just a small fragment from the tip of the lower jaw. It does have some pretty distinctive teeth in it, so it’s probably not the most difficult mystery object I’ve shared, but it’s also from a species in a group of animals that are quite poorly known.

That said, Chris Jarvis was the first to comment and got it right immediately. However, there was a lot of subsequent discussion about how to be sure, given the poor representation of comparative specimens available and the similarities between this species and others in the family. That family is the Ziphiidae, which are the the Beaked Whales.

These cetaceans are rarely seen due to their deep water habits, sometimes diving to depths of nearly 3km (although more usually around 1km) to feed mainly on deepwater squid that they detect using echolocation. Most of what’s known about them comes from strandings – which is where this mystery specimen comes from.

The males tend to be smaller than the females, but the males of most of the 21 Beaked Whale species have tusk-like teeth that they probably use to fight over females, although the behaviour hasn’t been recorded, only deduced from scars and the behaviour of other animals with similar sexually dimorphic characters (there’s an interesting paper on the evolution of the tusks by Dalebout et al. 2008 is you’re interested [pdf]).

The teeth occur in different parts of the jaw and have a different shape depending on the species, so the fact these are located at the tip of the lower jaw means quite a lot of the species can be discounted. If you want to be able to do the narrowing down easily I recommend an old and somewhat unwieldy to navigate, but still very useful online resource – the Marine Species Identification Portal. If you can work out the navigation you can find small line drawings of the skulls of all species in lateral view.

Once you get that far it becomes easier to search for more detailed images of the couple of species it might be, which can yield some great 3D scans to help you work it out. Both Chris Jervis and katedmonson found examples and shared the links in the comments. Here’s a nice one from the NHM, London:

This species (the Cuvier’s Beaked Whale) clearly has bigger tusks than the mystery specimen, which you can see as a scan on the excellent Phenome10K resource*. The mystery object is the distal portion of the mandible of a male True’s Beaked Whale Mesoplodon mirus True, 1913. So well done to Chris Jervis for being the first to get in with the correct identification.

It may seem a bit odd to have just this small portion in the Museum, but as far as records go they represented a managable identifiable voucher for the stranding of the species in Killadoon, Co. Mayo, Ireland back in February 1983. These days we ask for even less material to keep track of strandings – just a small skin sample will do as long as it’s collected and recorded following the guidance of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group’s (IWDG) Strandings Network.

These samples are stored in alcohol and form the Irish Cetacean Genetic Tissue Bank which is managed in partnership between IWDG and the Dead Zoo to provide genetic data for research into whales. It’s a fantastic resource, but I doubt that anyone could identify the species represented in the samples without access to a genetics lab. And that’s why I like bones best.

*A. Goswami. 2015. Phenome10K: a free online repository for 3-D scans of biological and palaeontological specimens. http://www.phenome10k.org.

Friday mystery object #380 answer

Last week I gave you this specimen from the “Unidentified” drawer in the collections of the Dead Zoo to try identifying:

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I don’t think anyone had much difficulty in identifying it, since it is quite a familiar and characteristic skull, but well done to everyone who worked out that this is a European Badger Meles meles (Linnaeus, 1758).

There are two other species in the same genus – the Asian Badger M. leucurus and Japanese Badger M. anakuma, so they also need consideration (skulls of all three species can be seen in this paper by Andrey Puzachenko). However, the Japanese Badger is a smaller and more delicately skulled animal and the Asian Badger can be distinguised by differences in the shape of the region around the bony bulbs that hold the ear bones (called the auditory bullae – in Asian Badgers they’re more obtuse and have a straighter lateral margin).

So apart from the distinction between two members of the same genus, this is a fairly straighforward specimen to identify, it makes me wonder why it wasn’t recognised in the collection? I think there are a couple of factors, which I’ll outline here.

The first is that the lower jaw (mandible) is missing. This is totally normal for almost any kind of animal skull you find, except these badgers, which have a well-developed bony process that locks the mandible into the long jaw articulation (known as the glenoid fossa).

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Badger skull with mandible locked in place.

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Detail of jaw articulation showing the main features. Red = mandibular articulation, Blue = inside of glenoid fossa, Green = glenoid process that helps lock the lower jaw in place.

This captive mandible is a dead give-away when you see it, but it does mean that when it’s missing it can be confusing.

A mature adult European Badger like this (as indicated by the well-developed sagittal crest) would also normally have extremely extensive wear on their molar teeth, due to the abrasive grit in the gut of their main diet of Earthworms.

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Extensively worn upper molars of an adult European Badger

But the mystery specimen has remarkably little wear on those massive molars. This suggests that it probably had a different diet than is usual for a Badger from northern Europe – and no, not mashed potatoes. The same species in southern Europe has a different diet to their northern counterparts, dominated by insects and fruit, so I wonder if the specimen was collected during someone’s holiday to somewhere in the Mediterranean?

[UPDATE 28th April 2020. Several people have kindly shared images of their badger specimens and it seems that the level of wear in my specimen is not as common as I thought. In one discussion the issue of soil type was raised and I think that may play a big factor. This specimen came from Devon, in an area with sandy soil. Other specimens from areas with muddy or silty soils showed much less wear. This may be coincidence, but it would make sense that Earthworms with coarser soil in their gut would be more abrasive to eat and therefore cause more dental wear. That would be fairly straightforward to test using museum collections. If this hypothesis about wear is correct, then the mystery specimen could be from anywhere with soils that aren’t too sandy.]

I hope you found that useful, or at least a bit of a distraction from lockdown. Stay safe!