Dinosaur Eggshibition!

It’s been a while since I last wrote much on my blog, apart from the regular Friday mystery object. Mainly that’s because I’ve been busy getting to grips with a new collection at the Grant Museum of Zoology, where I am now the Curator. Just before I left my previous job at the Horniman Museum & Gardens I curated an exhibition that has a nice Eastery link (which will become apparent), that I thought might be worth writing about.

The exhibition is a touring show developed under the title Hatching The Past, which was brought to my attention by palaeontologist, science blogger and old friend Dr Dave Hone who’s a lecturer at Queen Mary University of London. I went to the Città della Scienza in Naples with some colleagues from the Horniman to take a look (which is an interesting story in its own right, since the main part of the museum had been burned down by the Mafia in 2013).

Despite the suboptimal exhibition space in Naples (thanks to the fact that the building it was meant to be displayed in was a pile of charcoal), the quality of the science, the objects in the exhibition and the vibrant and exciting artwork by the awesome palaeoartist Luis Rey made it well worth considering for the Horniman, which tries to get in a blockbuster temporary exhibition every year.

This exhibition focuses on the eggs, offspring and parental care of dinosaurs. A family focus is right up the Horniman’s street, and that’s what led to the change in the exhibition title, to bring more focus on that family element, without losing sight of the DINOSAURS!

Tarbosaurus

Star of the exhibition

Of course, making an exhibition intellectually fit into a museum takes more than just changing the name, so the temporary exhibitions at the Horniman include objects from the permanent collection, with links to activities and other content. So while working out my notice from the Horniman I was feverishly selecting objects and writing text to help build that link before I left.

Horniman_case

It has to be said that seeing members of the public engaging with your work is incredibly satisfying, so when the exhibition opened in February I was delighted to see people reading my text and really getting interested in the objects I’d picked to tell the story of parental care in living animal groups.

Aepyornis_egg

I was also keen to take the opportunity to help the Horniman build closer links with one of their patrons (and a living legend for pretty much every naturalist out there), Sir David Attenborough, who kindly agreed to loan the Elephant Bird egg he found when filming Zoo Quest in Madagascar. This for me is the ultimate version of an egg hunt.

Have a great Easter weekend – I hope you get all the eggs you could ask for!

Friday mystery object #260 answer

Last week I broke the news that in October I’ll be taking on the role of curator at the Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL. Many thanks to everyone for their congratulations and kind comments – it’s wonderful to have so much support!

I’m excited to get started in my new role, but I will be sad to no longer be the go-to person for identifying materials used in the Horniman’s Anthropology collections. This gave me the chance to see some lovely objects, like this little statue:
mystery260
I asked if you had any thoughts on what it might be, and you gave some great answers, mostly involving an ungulate canon bone or metacarpal / metatarsal. However, palaeosam and palfreyman1414 spotted that this isn’t made of bone, while Chris went one better by making a nice reference to ‘Horsing around near the river’ – a reference to the meaning of the name Hippopotamus.

The key to identifying this is to look at the curve of the statue and the view from underneath. That cavity shape (plus the gentle curve) is exactly what you’d expect from the upper canine of Hippopotamus amphibius Linnaeus, 1758 – so well done Chris!

There’s a helpful guide to identification of ivories by the US Fish & Wildlife Service, which is well worth a look to help with this sort of thing. Hopefully that’ll be a helpful resource for my colleagues at the Horniman in my absence… although they know where to find me if they need help in future!

Friday mystery object #260

This Friday I have some news as well as a mystery object.

After eight enjoyable years at the Horniman Museum & Gardens, I have just accepted a new role as curator of the fantastic Grant Museum of Zoology at University College London, starting in October!

For those of you who don’t know the Grant, it’s named for Robert Edmond Grant, Professor of Comparative Anatomy at UCL from 1827-1874. It contains around 68,000 specimens, including a lot of fantastic osteology that I’ve featured on this blog before. I’ll be the fourteenth curator, with some big shoes to fill (information on my predecessors can be found in this series of posts).

I will of course be very sad to leave the Horniman, which has been a fantastic place to work, filled with wonderful people who I’ll miss. I’ll also miss helping out with identification of materials in the Horniman’s Anthropology and Musical Instrument collections, which is the inspiration of this mystery object:

mystery260

Any idea what this object is made from?

As usual you can leave your thoughts and suggestions in the comments box below.

Soon there will be a new collection for me to explore and I hope to be able to share the excitement of that process with you!

Friday mystery object #259 answer

Last Friday I gave you this section of an object that I found in an unmarked box during a reshuffle of the Horniman’s bone room:

mystery259

The reshuffle is part of a project to make space for temporarily housing specimens while our taxidermy storage space is upgraded. This is a fairly big undertaking, since it means finding enough nooks and crannies to accommodate a full room’s worth of stuffed critters, to allow the room they came from to be fitted out with long span shelving and roller racking – which should double its capacity.

taxidermy_storage

Bone room invaded by taxidermy birds

This reshuffle has also given me the opportunity to dig through the shrinking number of boxes of unidentified fragmentary material to see if any more can be matched back to specimens or rehoused in smaller boxes, thereby saving space. That’s where the mystery object comes in.

It has quite a distinctive shape, with a robust zygomatic arch (cheekbone), inflated tympanic bulla (bony bulb that houses the earbones) and thin squamosal (a bone of the side of the the skull – all of these parts fused together like this can also be called the temporal bone).

The structure of the glenoid fossa (joint where the mandible articulates) suggests it’s a carnivore of some sort, since herbivores tend to have a more open articulation that allows their mandible to move freely in order to grind tough vegetation more effectively. Carnivores need a more precise bite, to cut or clamp their food, which requires a tighter articulation.

However, the thin bone of the squamosal is less usual in a carnivore of this size, since this region normally deals with large bite forces and needs to be reinforced. This suggests an animal that isn’t relying on a powerful bite. The tympanic bulla is also quite open in structure, which I would associate with an animal that dives underwater and needs to be able to equalise differences in internal pressure effectively. These clues suggest that this piece of bone is from a seal of some sort.

Figuring this out let me compare the mystery object to seal specimens, to see if any were missing the temporal region. As it turns out I did indeed find a fragmentary seal specimen that fit the bill:

seal

This specimen was acquired in 1912 and had been sawn up in order to mount the other half for display on the Natural History Balcony at the Horniman:

Seal_NH.12.37

In the register it was recorded as “Skull of Seal (Phoca annulata)” which is an out-of-date name for the Ringed Seal Pusa hispida (Schreber, 1775), but I have my doubts about this identification after consulting this useful piece of research on identification of archaeological seal remains by Hodgetts, 1999 [opens as pdf]. The tympanic bulla, mandible and dentition (plus the suture on the zygomatic arch) make me think that this may in fact be a Harp Seal Pagophilus groenlandicus (Erxleben, 1777).

So well done to henstridgesj, Ric Morris, Bobby Boessenecker and Lee Post, who all worked out that the mystery object was from a seal. Please feel free to add more thoughts on whether you agree with my identification of Harp Seal!

Friday mystery object #258 answer

Last Friday I gave you this object to identify:

mystery258

It already had an identification of sorts on a label, but I didn’t believe it for a moment:

mystery258_label

I’m pleased to say that neither did any of you and Jake got the ball rolling by identifying it as a sternum rather than a tail.

This didn’t necessarily make the identification much easier, since different sterna shapes are not really all that familiar for many of us and there is relatively little comparative material available.

Despite this, there were some good attempts, ranging from Polar Bear to Horse (via the mysterious clue “Losing voice we hear?” by Flick Baker, which for some reason I struggled to figure out… to my shame I have never been any good at cryptic crosswords).

I had a bit of an advantage in identifying this object, because I had some insider curatorial information. The metal rods sticking out of the specimen make it clear that it has been mounted in a somewhat unusual way, characteristic of some laid-out skeletons that we acquired from King’s College in 1986 and the Lab number (added by our Conservation team when they treated it) was in the same range as other King’s College specimens.

One such specimen included this Tapir, which as you may notice, is lacking its sternum:

Tapir_apendicular_skeleton Tapir_axial_skeleton

This inspired me to take a look at some Tapir sterna, and I was pleased to find that they matched this mystery object very well indeed – so it looks like Flick was pretty close with her perissodactyltastic suggestion.

Malayan Tapir at the San Diego Zoo, by Sepht, 2006.

Malayan Tapir at the San Diego Zoo, by Sepht, 2006.

I have talked about Tapirs before, so I won’t bore you with more about them right now, except to issue a warning: Tapirs may look comedic and a bit harmless, but they are perfectly capable of biting a human arm clean off. So it’s probably safest to avoid messing with Tapirs, unless they’re in a museum.

Friday mystery object #258

This week I have a mystery object that had been sitting a box for about 30 years with the tenuous description:

Tail section from marine mammal

Here it is:

mystery258

I don’t believe it – do you have any thoughts on what it might be?

As usual, you can put your thoughts, questions and suggestions in the comments section below. Hope you have fun with this one!

Friday mystery object #256 answer

Last week I gave you an object to identify that I found hiding in a box of Ostrich bones:

mystery256

I’m pleased to say that Laura McCoy, Michelle, Joey Williams and Lena worked out that it’s the right femur of a Perissodactyl, but there was a lack of agreement about which kind of Perissodactyl it might be.

Rhino’s weren’t considered, since their femurs are distinctively massive, but both Tapirs and Equids were suggested (which could include Horse, Donkey, Zebra, maybe even Quagga).

My first thought was Horse, mainly because it looks very much like a Horse femur and they are quite common in collections – but that’s not really good enough for the purposes of real identification.

On inspection of images of a Tapir femur in a veterinary manual (link opens pdf) I had to have a rethink and now I am really not sure about the identification, particularly since I know that there is a big box of Tapir postcrania that came into the Horniman from the same collection as the Ostrich. Other specimens from that acquisition have also been mixed up, for example a box of Lion postcrania I was working in today had Manatee atlas and axis vertebrae and a Pig femur in the same box, while the box of Pig postcrania held the Lion atlas and axis.

Lion postcrania, with some unexpected additions

Lion postcrania, with some unexpected additions

Now I need to get back into the collections to see if this bone does belong to the Tapir, or if it is indeed Horse. So I’m sorry to say that the answer is not really an answer, but stay tuned and it will be resolved…

Friday mystery object #256

I was working my way through a box of large ratite bone the other day and stumbled across this out-of-place object: mystery256 Any ideas on what it might have come from and why it might have been in a box of Ostrich bits? As usual, you can put your questions, thoughts and suggestions below – if you think it’s easy then maybe try using a clue to give other people a chance of working it out for themselves. Have fun!

Friday mystery object #255 answer

Last Friday I gave you this rather interesting looking object to identify, preferably using a rhyme:

wpid-img_20150626_095757-1_20150626095918070.jpg

Believe it or not the photographs show either side of the same object – on one side it just looks like a rugose lump and on the other it shows a rather nice natural spiral.

Aside from some great humorous comments by 4utu and Henrik Nielsen, there were some of you who worked out that this is the operculum from a marine snail and even managed to explain that in rhyme – so very well done to Barbara, Chris and especially Lee Post who upped the ante by writing a full verse:

oh purr Q lum from foreign shores
possibly from a near ites door
side door -back door does not exist
main door -strong door , built to resist

Flick Baker went a step further (taxonomically) by identifying that this operculum is from a snail in the genus Turbo with the rhyme: “Gives your engine serious puff, even when she’s running rough“.

Green Turban Shell (Turbo marmoratus) showing aperture closed by the operculum

Green Turban Shell (Turbo marmoratus) showing aperture closed by the operculum

More specifically, this operculum is from the South African Turban Shell Turbo sarmaticus Linnaeus, 1758.

The operculum is a part of many snails that is often forgotten about – it forms a protective trapdoor that the snail closes behind itself when it retreats inside its shell (‘operculum’ means ‘cover’ or ‘lid’ in Latin). This trapdoor helps prevent desiccation in land snails and helps protect against predators in marine snails.

When the animal dies the operculum will often fall off as the body of the animal decays or is eaten, so often it won’t find its way into a museum collection with the rest of the shell. However, opercula can be quite distinctive and are sometimes more useful for identifying a species than the rest of the shell – a handy point to remember.

Friday mystery object #252 answer

Last Friday I gave you this object from the Horniman’s Anthropology collection and asked you to identify what it’s made from and what function it may have served:

mystery252

The identification turned out to be the easiest question to answer, despite the modification of the bone. The shape of the end of the bone is a result of the epiphyses (the ends of the bone) detaching from the diaphysis (the midshaft of the bone), which tells us that the animal was a juvenile at time of death and that the bone is actually formed from two bones that have fused together down their length – which is why a similar pattern is repeated on the left and right side of the bone.

This sort of fusion is normally seen in the hand and foot bones of artiodactyls, which narrows down the possible species. Judging by the size and general proportions it would be from something the size of a Roe Deer, although a bit more chunky. The closest species I could find for comparison was the the Goat Capra aegagrus hircus (Linnaeus, 1758), although it may be from a close relative, the Serow:

A Serow (Capricornis sumatraensis) by Melanochromis, 2007

 

As for the function, there were some great suggestions (from weaving comb to needle-case), but apparently this is the key to a set of handcuffs!

The variety of anthropological uses of bone is huge, and it’s always exciting to find something outside of our expectations – which this object most definitely is for me!

Friday mystery object #251

This week I have a specimen for you to have a go at identifying, that has come from a box of “mixed bones” that I’ve been working through:

mystery251

It may look like some sort of Ewok weapon, but I’m pretty sure it’s also part of an animal. Any idea what critter this might be from?

As usual, you can leave your thoughts, comments and suggestions below. Have fun!

Friday mystery object #250 answer

For my 250th mystery object I gave you this object from the collections of the Horniman Museum & Gardens to identify:

mystery250

It gave me a bit of a challenge, but eventually I managed to work it out – and it looks like something similar happened in the comments!

We went from ribs, to hind limbs to jaws, which is where it started getting close to the mark. The suggestion of “Part of the zygomatic arch of something large?” by henstridgesj was on the money.

Allen Hazen broke down the observation a bit further, with an astute observation about the components of the zygomatic arch that are present “The jugal and squamosal components of the zygomatic arch (I’d say its the squamosal that has been cut open here)“. Allen also speculated that it may be from a Dugong – which was my preferred identification for a while.

However, Crispin and henstridgesj worked out that it was from an Asian Elephant Elephas maximus Linnaeus, 1758 – the same species that I had also concluded that it belonged to.

By narrowing down the identification to species I was able to search through the museum’s collections management database to find out whether this sliced-off piece of bone might be part of another object. As it turns out, it was!

NH.27.66 Elephas maximus on display at the Horniman

NH.27.66 Elephas maximus on display at the Horniman

So by being able to identify this piece of bone it could be reassociated with the specimen that it originally came from and now there is a record for it in our database, so that if the skull ever comes off display it can be reunited with its cheekbone.

It also made an apt object for my 250th mystery object for Zygoma!

Friday mystery object #250

This week I have a mystery object for you that had me stumped for a little while recently, after it didn’t match the comparative material I had to hand. I managed to work out what it is, but I thought that it might make for a fun challenge as the 250th Friday mystery object:

mystery250

Any idea what this is and what species it comes from?

As usual you can leave your (preferably cryptic) observations, questions and suggestions in the comments section below. Have fun!

Friday mystery object #247 answer

Last Friday I gave you this unidentified object to get your opinions on:

mystery247

This specimen has puzzled me quite a bit. The internal structure is a dense honeycomb, that seems too tightly compacted to belong to a bird – plus it’s so big that the only birds it could possibly belong to would be a Moa, Elephant Bird or maybe Ostrich at a push, and I compared this against two of these three possibilities:

mystery247b

So, it’s mammalian and large. It’s also clearly a metatarsal or metacarpal, based on the shape of the articular surfaces.

It’s not shaped quite right for a one or two toed animal so the it seems that the variety of suggestions along those lines of Hippopotamus, Rhinoceros and Elephant are most likely to be in the right area.

I did compare this to Hippo feet and an Elephant hindfoot and drew a blank, so that leaves an Elephant forefoot or a Rhinoceros foot. My best guess would be the 4th metacarpal of a Rhino, although Elephant is still a contender – I will try to find some comparative material to confirm.

A massive ‘thank you’ to everyone who contributed ideas – it’s great to have some fresh perspectives and new directions to explore when you’re stumped!

Friday mystery object #247

This week I have a complete mystery for you to identify. I’ve checked this specimen against all sorts of species and have drawn a blank. So, I’m opening it up to you, to see if you have some inspiration to help me solve what this is:

mystery247

As usual, you can put your thoughts, questions and suggestions in the comments box below. I look forward to hearing your ideas!

Friday mystery object #244 answer

Last week i gave you this colourful specimen to identify:

mystery244

As I suspected, some of the keen birders out there were straight on the case and GrrlScientist (unsurprisingly to me) immediately knew the species and an awful lot about its taxonomy, offering helpful hints and clues to other commentators.

After some discussion it became clear that this is a Finch and one of the Neotropical varieties at that. The bright yellow belly, emerald green head, throat, chest and wing, brilliant blue nape, back and eye ring all suggest that this is a male Blue-naped Chlorophonia Chlorophonia cyanea longipennis (Du Bus, 1855) from Peru.

There are other subspecies of Blue-naped Chlorophonia, but they have some slight differences in appearance, such as a yellow forehead, yellow tinged crown or green feathers in the mantle.

Here’s one of the little chaps in action:

So a big well done to everyone who managed to work it out!

Friday mystery object #244

This week I thought I’d give you a beautiful bird skin from the Horniman collections to have a go at identifying:

mystery244

Any idea what this colourful critter might be?

You can leave your suggestions in the comments box below – but please try to be cryptic if you find it easy, so other people get a chance to work it out themselves. Enjoy!

Friday mystery object #243 answer

Last week I gave you this nightmarish looking mystery object to identify:

mystery243

There were lots of great suggestions about what it might be, with most of you in the right area of the animal kingdom with a legless critter in mind. In particular a fairly primitive type, with aglyphous or ‘groove-less’ teeth (as opposed to snakes characterised by having opsithoglyphous or ‘backward grooved’, proteroglyphous or ‘forward grooved’ and solenglyphous or ‘pipe grooved’ teeth).

There were several suggestions of Boa constrictor – specifically the right maxilla (upper jaw), but they have a straighter top to the maxilla and a differently shaped process that connects with the frontal and ectopterygoid bones (check out Udo Savalli’s snake skull anatomy page to see what those terms mean).

Anaconda was also suggested, but the anterior (front) part of  the maxilla is not squared off enough.

Nicola Newton, rachel and Alex Kleine all suggested Python, which is what I think it is. I’m not certain of the species, but it’s definitely a big one – I’m leaning towards the Reticulated Python Python reticulatus (Schneider, 1801).

Just to give you a better idea of which bone it is, here it is compared to the skull of another large Python skull from the Horniman’s collection:

mystery243b

and to give a better sense of scale, here it is with my (fairly large) hand for comparison:

mystery243a

My very rough estimate of the length of the animal, based on other skeletal material I’ve seen, is around 5m – that’s one snake I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of!

Friday mystery object #242 answer

A very Happy New Year to everyone!

Last week (and indeed last year) I gave you this box of bones and one non-bony object, dug up on the Isle of Sheppey to identify:

mystery242a

Everyone correctly spotted that the bones were canid (and by everyone I mean Ric Morris, witcharachne, Jake, Paleotool, Allen Hazen and Sam Misan), either Dog or possibly Fox, as suggested by Sam Misan.

The length of the bones would fit both Dog and Fox, but they’re a bit too robust for Fox – here’s a comparison of a radius from the box and a Fox:

mystery242d

So we have a Dog in the box, but the non-bony object has posed more of a challenge:

mystery242b

mystery242bb

The initial thought was that it might be a musket ball, but it’s rather on the big side for that – more like a small cannon ball or piece of grapeshot.

The material its made of may provide a clue as to what it is. It’s not magnetic and there’s no red coloured oxidisation on the surface, so it’s not iron. It doesn’t have any casting marks, it’s too hard to be lead and although it’s dense, it doesn’t seem to be metal.

To my mind it seems likely to be a naturally formed mineral concretion. It could be a phosphatic nodule, pyrite or marcasite (they contain iron, but they’re not magnetic) or maybe a quartz mineral, like flint (which is what I’m leaning towards).

This may be naturally occurring in the area, but if the materials were collected together it seems likely that the ball had been used by someone for something. The possibility I’m inclined to go for is as ammunition for a sling.

All a bit speculative I’m afraid, but that’s how the game sometimes works out. Thanks to everyone for your input!