Friday mystery object #242

Seasons greetings! Since it’s Boxing Day, I thought it would be appropriate to give you a box of bones from an archaeological dig to have a go at identifying:

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Here are a couple of detailed images of some of the bones to help you:

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And here is a detail of the non-bony object that’s associated:

mystery242b

You can put your questions, observations and suggestions in the comments box below and maybe we can work out what’s been dug up!

Friday mystery object #241 answer

Last Friday I gave you this object, that I’ve been working on, to identify:

mystery241

Ric Morris was straight in with the nicely disguised correct answer of occipital bone viewed from the basal aspect, correctly suggesting something bovine as the source.

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This is the kind of object that you often come across from archaeological sites, where material may have been dug up from a butchery site, kitchen midden or similar assemblage.

Fragmentary bits can be quite hard to identify compared to complete skulls, but when you get a fairly complete chunk like this it makes things a bit more straightforward. In particular the hole of the foramen magnum and bordering occipital condyles provide a clear indication of where in the body it comes from. The shape and size of the condyles also helps narrow down the species.

Expect some more burnt and broken bits of bone in future mystery objects!

Friday mystery object #241

Recently I’ve been working through boxes of mixed archaeological bone and bone fragments. So here’s one of the objects I had to identify as part of that process:

mystery241

Any idea what it might be?

As usual you can put your observations, suggestions and questions in the comments box below. If you find it easy, please try to use a cryptic clue so other people get a chance to get involved. Have fun!

Friday mystery object #240 answer

Last Friday I gave you this characteristic skull to identify:

mystery240

Many of you recognised that this is the skull of a Hornbill, and Martin Edvardsson, ClareP, Jamie Revell, paleomanuel, witcharachne, marcuschua all managed to identify it as a Great Hornbill Buceros bicornis Linnaeus, 1758.

You may be surprised to know that this specimen was originally misidentified as a Black-and-white-casqued Hornbill Bycanistes subcylindricus (Sclater, 1870) by the taxidermists who prepared it – quite a basic error for a natural history professional!

The Great Hornbill is a large Asian bird that feeds on fruit and any small critters that end up at the wrong end of that impressive bill – from insects to owls. Their distinctive black and white plumage is used by a lot of native people in Southeast Asia in costume, leading to pressure on the bird’s population due to hunting.

Great Hornbills have a somewhat odd system for breeding, with the female walling herself up inside a hole in a tree using faeces, and the male delivering food to her and the chicks through a narrow hole. It works for Great Hornbills…

Friday mystery object #240

After the last mystery object, which was really difficult, I have an easier one for you to identify:

mystery240

Apologies for the rather odd-looking set of images – the specimen proved quite hard to get level for photography.

As usual for easy objects, please try to be a bit discrete with your answer so everyone gets a chance to test their identification skills. I look forward to some interesting answers!

Friday mystery object #239 answer

Last Friday I gave you a really difficult mystery object to identify, in the form of this mysterious caramel-brown lump:

mystery239

It turns out that for the first time in ages, nobody managed to get the right identification, although there were a lot of great suggestions ranging from “headless, legless rubber chicken. Which has been burned in a fire some great time ago” by Matt H., to a hyperostotic fish spine, which Jake and henstridgesj had in mind.

This lump is in fact a dentine nodule from inside the tusk of an African Elephant Loxodonta africana (Blumenbach, 1797).

These sorts of internal growths form when a tusk gets damaged and the pulp inside becomes infected. New dentine is laid down in response to the infection, walling off the affected tissue and preventing the further spread of bacteria.

These growths come in a variety of forms – none of which look much like ivory. Here’s a selection to give you an idea:

mystery239answer

So the next time you find something that looks like a burnt rubber chicken, or an overly firm bit of ginger, you may want to check to make sure it’s not ivory.

Friday mystery object #238

Since it’s Halloween I thought it might be appropriate to have something a bit creepy to identify – and what’s more creepy than clowns? Apart from maybe dolls. So here’s a clown doll:

mystery238

Any idea what this creepy little object is made from?

While you’re pondering on that you may want to also have a think about what this eerie noise from the British Library Wildlife Sound Archive is made by:

…and it’s not the sound of a tiny wild clown chasing sheep in the dead of night.

Probably.

Friday mystery object #237 answer

Last Friday I gave you this sound and skull combination to have a go at identifying:

mystery237

As many of you worked out, the skull and call belong to quite different species that share a love of the seaside.

The call belongs to the somewhat enigmatic Common Eider Somateria mollissima (Linnaeus, 1758) as identified by mark b, Chris, Melanie, Henry McGhieAnne Åslaug Holder and stuart petch.

A male Somateria mollissima (Common Eider) at the London Wetland Centre, Barnes, UK. By Diliff, 2013

A male Somateria mollissima (Common Eider) at the London Wetland Centre, Barnes, UK. By Diliff, 2013

These large marine ducks are at home on the water, where they feed on molluscs and crustaceans. They are probably best known for their super-soft downy breast feathers, that the females use to line their nests and humans use to fill their pillows.

The skull belongs to a Razorbill Alca torda Linnaeus, 1758, as identified by Ric Morris, mark b, Chris, MelanieHenry McGhieAnne Åslaug Holder and stuart petch.

Razorbill at bird cliff in Westfjords, Iceland. By Gsd97jks, 2005

Razorbill at bird cliff in Westfjords, Iceland. By Gsd97jks, 2005

These birds are great divers, using their wings to ‘fly’ underwater. They feed on small fish and other slippery critters, caught using that characteristic bill.

Congratulations to everyone who managed to work out what the two species were – there’ll be a final mystery sound from the British Library Wildlife Sound Archive to identify next week, courtesy of curator Cheryl Tipp!

Friday mystery object #237

This week I have another mystery sound from Cheryl Tipp at the British Library Wildlife Sound Archive and skull from the Horniman Museum & Gardens:

mystery237

Do you think the sound and the skull are from the same species, and can you recognise which species?

You can send your answers on a postcard, or if you prefer just pop them in the comments section below… Have fun!

Friday mystery object #236 answer

Last week I gave you this mystery sound and skull to identify, with a the additional challenge of asking whether they belong to the same species:

mystery236

As it turns out several of you managed to get the bird in question. The wide variation and complexity of the song suggested a passerine bird, with a high degree of control of its syrinx. In fact, this species is named for its ability to produce loud and intricate calls containing a range of phrases (incidentally including mimicry of noises it has heard) – it’s a Song Thrush Turdus philomelos Brehm, 1831.

Song Thrush singing a song in a tree. By Taco Meeuwsen 2006

Song Thrush singing a song in a tree. By Taco Meeuwsen 2006

So well done to mark b, Mieke Roth and Melissa Harrison, who all managed to get the right bird. A big thanks also goes to Cheryl Tipp, curator of the Wildlife Sound Archive at the British Library, for supplying the song. I’d heartily recommend checking out the ‘language of birds‘ pages for more information on birdsong!

 

Friday mystery object #236

This week I have a double mystery for you.  There is a sound recording from the British Library SOund Archive, courtesy of curator Cheryl Tipp and there is also a skull for you to identify:

mystery236

Do you think that the sound and the skull belong to the same species, or do you think I’m trying to trick you?

You can put your thoughts, questions and suggestions in the comments section below. Have fun!

Spider attack or a web of lies?

One of the more common types of public enquiry I get as a natural history curator is about spiders. Every year in September people start reporting large spiders that they don’t recognise and which therefore *must* be invasive species or tropical escapees from packets of bananas. Every year I either reassure (or disappoint) those people by explaining that the spider they have discovered is a common species in its fully-grown adult stage, sometimes looking a bit on the bloated side because it’s full of eggs.

Araneus_diadematus_comparison

Garden Spider (Araneus diadematus) full of eggs. Inset: comparison against non-gravid Garden Spider abdomen – note the characteristic cross pattern.

This year has been a bit more active on the spider enquiry front, because there has been a lot of scaremongering about spiders in the tabloid press. Beyond the usual September influx of sightings when adult male spiders become more active as they seek females to mate with, there has also been an increase in the number of requests for identification throughout the year, with people unnecessarily concerned about the Noble False Widow (Steatoda nobilis) spreading steadily northward as the global climate warms.

Male Giant House Spider (Eratigena atrica) on the lookout for females. Inset: note the 'boxing glove' pedipalps that show this is a male

Male Giant House Spider (Eratigena atrica) on the lookout for females. Inset: note the ‘boxing glove’ shaped pedipalps that show that this is a male

With all this frenetic arachnological activity I thought it might be time to lay to rest some common misconceptions about spider bites and offer a reality check to counter some of the over-hyped reports of injuries blamed on spiders.

Spider bites

Spiders in Britain are pretty harmless critters. So far there have not been any reported deaths in the UK from spider bites ever. You are literally more likely to be killed by being struck by lightning.

This is partly because spiders very rarely bite people, despite what you might be told by the press. The UK is full of things that do bite however, such as mosquitoes, midges, horseflies, ticks, bed bugs and fleas. All of these unpleasant beasties have a reason for biting – they are after your blood. Spiders are not. They will generally only bite when they feel very threatened.

Another reason why spiders in the UK are not life-threatening is simply that their venom doesn’t pack enough punch. The most venomous spider living in the UK is the Noble False Widow, which can give a painful bite, similar in intensity to the sting of the Common Wasp (Vespula vulgaris).

NobleFalseWidow

Noble False Widow spider – a little visitor in my kitchen

Keep in mind that a Common Wasp is far more likely to sting you than a Noble False Widow is to bite you, since the spiders are not aggressive – they largely keep to themselves and they don’t try to mug you for whatever sugary food or drink you have available.

A few other spiders in the UK can also bite, sometimes painfully, but again their venom is meant for subduing small invertebrates rather than humans, so although you may get some pain and perhaps swelling some time after being bitten, that may persist for a few days, it shouldn’t cause you any serious problems unless it gets infected.

Spider bite or MRSA?

Now this is where it gets interesting. Cellulitis caused by bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus (or ‘staph’ for short) can commonly be mistaken for spider bites. Any bites, stings, scrapes, cuts or even hair follicles in the skin can open the underlying tissue to infection, leading to necrosis of the skin, similar to that caused by the bite of certain spider species – in particular the Brown Recluse (Loxosceles reclusa), which it’s worth noting does not occur in the UK.

Cellulitis - not a spider bite! Image by James Heilman, MD

Cellulitis – not a spider bite. Image by James Heilman, MD

In areas of the USA where the Brown Recluse is also not present, it still gets blamed for a large number of injuries that are actually caused by staph bacteria that are resistant to Methicillin antibiotics (this is the strain of bacterium more commonly known as MRSA). In one study assessing the possibility that MRSA had become established in a prison community, half of the study group incorrectly assumed that the symptoms of their MRSA infection were symptoms of having been bitten by a spider.

In fact, it seems that spiders regularly get blamed for injuries that they don’t cause. One American study reported 216 medical diagnoses of Recluse bites in Western states in 41 months, despite the fact that the spiders don’t naturally occur in those areas. In fact there had only ever been 35 confirmed sightings of Recluse spiders in the regions studied, which really doesn’t add up: how can non-existent spiders be biting people?

Why blame spiders?

It seems that there are a few factors at play here, not least irrational arachnophobia fuelled by irresponsible reporting in the press. People are told about ‘deadly’ spiders and then when they get an infection they assume that it’s actually a reaction to a spider bite. They then tell the media they’ve been bitten by a spider and the vicious circle is complete.

People also assume that a bite has been caused by a spider because they have seen a spider nearby. However, that spider is probably an innocent bystander that’s more interested in eating the bloodsucking pest that actually caused the bite – assuming that it’s a bite at all and not cellulitis caused by something else.

Cellar Spider (Pholcus phalangioides) feeding on a different spider species

A Cellar Spider (Pholcus phalangioides) intent on feeding on a another spider species and not remotely interested in biting humans

Finally, the effects of spider venoms are often very poorly understood, because they are so frequently conflated with a variety of other dermatological problems and the rarity of confirmed bites means that little research has ever been carried out. That means medical staff are operating from a poor information base and may rely on poor information when making a diagnosis. The danger here is that significant medical issues (such as the spread of MRSA) may be overlooked because spiders are being unfairly blamed.

So if you read a case in the media about some horrible ‘spider bite’ it’s sensible to remain a bit sceptical. If the spider wasn’t seen actually doing the biting, the chances are the injury wasn’t actually caused by a spider at all. More likely it’s an infected wound, maybe following a bite or sting from something else with a taste for human blood or the sweet things we eat ourselves.

Friday mystery object #234 answer

Last Friday I gave you this mystery skull to identify, which I discovered in a box of unidentified bits and bobs:

mystery234

It was pretty obvious that it was the skull of a big cat of some kind, with most of you suggesting a Jaguar or Cheetah (either of which would make me very happy as we have the skull of neither in the Horniman collection). Unfortunately it appears to belong to neither.

As I’ve mentioned  before, cats are quite difficult to differentiate from each other as they haven’t been diverging for all that long and their widespread distributions can mean that populations within a particular species can be quite variable in morphology. Leopards are a good example of this, with a (once continuous) range from Korea to South Africa.

Global distribution of the leopard (Panthera pardus) by Tommyknocker

Global distribution of the leopard (Panthera pardus) by Tommyknocker

As it turns out, this specimen is most likely from a Leopard Panthera pardus (Linnaeus, 1758), since it’s from an adult animal (as is clear from the well formed sagittal crest) but is on the small side for a Lion or Tiger and too big for a Cougar or Cheetah. It also lacks the broad post orbital region seen in the Cheetah and Snow Leopard, and it lacks the concave profile of both the Snow Leopard and Jaguar. All of these identification pointers can be found in this handy pdf by Margaret “Cookie” Sims.

Just to show you what I mean about the variability within a species, here’s a second skull from the same box, that also matches the Leopard identification.

Leopards

I expect the big difference in size is largely down to sexual dimorphism, but as you can see the overall proportions are quite different as well. This may be a difference between widely separated populations, or it could just be individual variation – either way it goes to show that cats are hard to identify.

Friday mystery object #234

This week I have a mystery skull from the collections of the Horniman Museum & Gardens for you to have a go at identifying:

mystery234

The family it belongs to may be easy to work out, but as we’ve experienced in the past, the species can be more difficult to establish.

Cryptic answers would be much appreciated, to give the less experienced a chance to work it out. Have fun!

Friday mystery object #233 answer

Last Friday I gave you a variety of mandibles to have a go at identifying. They lacked a scale bar and represented a range of different species that have similarities in mandible shape.

There were some great cryptic suggestions of identities, but it must be said that Jake came through with a really clear and pretty much spot-on list of suggestions. So here are the answers in a handy form that might be useful for reference:

mystery233b

The Sheep and Cow have a distinctive upward inflexion at the end of the mandible, with the Cow’s being so strong that the incisors start above the level of the top of the molar tooth row – unlike the Sheep’s.

This inflexion is much less marked in the Red Deer, which has a narrower body of the mandible, presumably relating to the less intensive chewing of a browser compared to grazers (grass is tough stuff). The Deer also has a notch along the bottom of the jaw, which Jake pointed out as a useful feature.

The Pig mandible tapers less overall, but is thicker at the end with the articulation – presumably because the omnivorous Pig is chewing differently, using the temporal muscles more than the masseter muscles and therefore needing a different area of the jaw for muscle attachment. The teeth are also pretty distinctive. Like the Pig, the Donkey mandible lacks the long and hooked coronoid process, but is also very triangular in shape with quite squared teeth – features typical of an equid.

So hopefully that gives you some pointers for telling some common herbivore mandibles apart when you don’t have a scale bar – a more common problem for some of us than you might think…

Friday mystery object #233

This Friday I have a challenge for you. Can you work out which five different species these mandibles come from?

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They are all different sizes and the lack of scale bars is deliberate – this is about trying to find useful features from the shape rather than the size, It’s not easy!

You can put your answers in the comments section below. Good luck!

Friday mystery object #232 answer

Last Friday I gave you this nice robust skull to identify:

mystery232

There was a healthy discussion about possible identifications, with the importance of scale mentioned more than once (by Jake, palaeosam, Lena and Robin Birrrdegg). Not only is this a robust skull, it’s also quite large, ruling out the British carnivores – and it clearly is a carnivore judging by the canines and the well-defined sagittal crest.

The lack of cutting and puncturing premolars and molars means that cats, dogs, hyaenas and other very carnivorous large carnivores can be ruled out, narrowing down the likely options in the right size range to the bears, as recognised by palaeosam, Ric Morris, Robin Birrrdegg, Will Viscardi, cromercrox, cackhandedkate, Lena, Daniel Calleri, henstridgesj and Carlos.

The species is a bit more difficult to work out, but the big sagittal crest and fused sutures suggests that this is not an juvenile bear, meaning it’s too small for a bear of the Brown  or Polar variety. That still leaves quite a range of other possible bears, but the pronounced forehead and long square muzzle rules out the Giant Panda, Sun Bear, Spectacled Bear and Asiatic Black Bear, while the big robust incisors rule out the Sloth Bear. That leaves the American Black Bear Ursus americanus Pallas, 1780.

Ursus americanus by Mike Bender/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2008

Ursus americanus by Mike Bender/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2008

So well done to cromercrox, Carlos and Robin Birdeggg who all got the species correct!

Friday mystery object #231 answer

Last Friday I gave you this distinctive skull to identify:

mystery231

I knew it would be a bit of an easy one, given the highly unusual teeth, but it seemed too interesting a specimen to not use.

As cryptically suggested by many of you (Jamie Revell, Nigel Monaghan, henstridgesj, rachel, cromercrox, Robin Birrrdegg, Allen Hazen and Crispin), this is indeed the skull of a Crabeater Seal Lobodon carcinophaga (Hombron & Jacquinot, 1842).

Jerzy Strzelecki, 2000

These seals are specialised for catching krill, hence the strange shape and tightly fitting nature of their teeth, which act as a filter to strain the tiny crustaceans from ocean water.

Because these seals live in the waters all around the Antarctic, monitoring their population is particularly difficult, so estimates of their numbers vary considerably, from 2 million to 12 million (which is the more likely figure).

As with most abundant animals they have predators, in particular Leopard Seals. Apparently 78% of adult Crabeaters bear scars of Leopard Seal attacks, which can be seen clearly on the live individual in the image above. Most of the attacks happen before the Crabeaters reach a year old and get a bit too big to be easy prey, but in that first year there is apparently a huge mortality rate, with only 20% of seals making it to their first birthday. Good old Mother Nature is never one for sentiment.