Friday mystery object #231 answer

Last Friday I gave you this distinctive skull to identify:


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.

Friday mystery object #231

This week I have a very distinctive skull for you to identify:


Because I expect some of you to work out what it is straight away, can you make your answer cryptic please, to give other people an opportunity to work it out.

I look forward seeing some cunning and clever hints at what this is!


Bonus mystery object

I usually offer up a mystery object on Friday, but here’ a bonus object that landed on my desk this morning.


Apparently it was found in a horsefield in Kent, I have narrowed down the likely species of the animal that ‘donated’ the bone to a couple of options, but thought you might like to have a go as well, before the specimen is handed over to our Anthropologists to inspect the engraved designs.

As usual can can leave your comments below. Have fun!

Friday mystery object #228 answer

Last Friday I gave you these bits of mystery forelimb (scapula and humerus) to identify:


I thought it would be an easy one, since it’s from a very common species with a near global distribution – plus the humerus has quite a characteristic crest along the proximal end, from the shoulder articulation to the middle of the bone.

Most people who commented noticed this crest and Jake suggested that it had adaptive features (along with the scapula), maybe for a specialised way of life.

As it turns out, these bones come from an animal that is probably best described as a specialist generalist – a Brown Rat Rattus norvegicus (Berkenhout, 1769).

Rattus norvegicus, the Brown Rat. Image by National Park Service

These versatile and intelligent animals are very good climbers and brilliant swimmers, using their forelimbs to both get around and manipulate food.

This particular rat was a male pet rat purchased from Harrods in October 1960 – I get the impression it didn’t survive for that long, since the humerus head hasn’t fully fused. You can’t buy pets from Harrods any more, so this specimen not only shows us what a rat’s humerus and scapula look like, but it also represents a teeny-tiny piece of British history.

Friday mystery object #228

This week’s mystery object is a bit of a break from the cat skulls. Any idea what these two bones are and what species they’re from?


As always, you can put your thoughts and suggestions in the comments section below, but if you think it’s easy please try to be a bit cryptic in your response, to give other people a chance. Enjoy!

Friday mystery object #227 answer

On Friday I asked you to spot the differences between these two cat skulls and I wondered whether anyone could identify them:


Both henstridgesj and Allen Hazen made some good observations, the first being about the difference in size, then about morphological features that I’ve marked on this image:


Now henstridgesj also correctly identified one of the skulls – the one on the right of the image is from a Domestic Cat Felis catus Linnaeus, 1758.

As it turns out, this was a bit of a trick mystery object, since BOTH of the skulls belong to Domestic Cats, so this gives us a useful idea of the kind of variation we might expect within a species.

I think that the main cause of variation between these two animals is probably sex, with the male on the left and the female on the right. There may also be differences based on age (although I don’t think that’s a major factor), breed and perhaps disease (the larger specimen looks like it had an infection that affected the surface of the bone).

After taking various measurements, the most useful difference I’ve found between the two skulls is shown with the yellow line. I think that the ratio of these two measurements may provide a way to tell the difference between a male and female cat (in the male it’s around 1 or less than 1, in the female it’s greater than 1) but I’ll need to make a LOT more measurements to test this.

Two other ideas that could be tested were suggested by henstridgesj and Allen Hazen. Allen said: “My impression is that the presence and development of sagital crests, among felidae, correlates pretty strictly with size” and henstridges said: “It seems that if the species of cats are arranged in increasing size order, then the anterior half of the skull (forward of the frontal-parietal suture) seems to increase in size more than the posterior half”.

I’d better take a look to see if this has been tested before…

Friday mystery object #227

This week I thought I should mop up the last of the smaller cats as a spot-the-difference:


What do you think are the diagnostic features that separate these two skulls (bonus points for species identifications)?

I’m really keen to get your thoughts on this, so please put your observations in the comments section below. Thanks!

Friday mystery object #226 answer

Last week I gave you this rough and ready mystery object to identify:


I thought it might be a bit of a challenge as it had originally been misidentified as a piece of elephant tusk by someone in the museum, many years ago, so it was obviously not a straight-forward identification.



One of the key identifying characteristics of ivory are the Schreger lines, as pointed out by Carlos and rachel. These lines are an optical effect caused by light interacting with the dentinal tubules that provide the structure of the tusk:


Tusk section showing Schreger lines

However, these lines aren’t always visible and it will depend on the angle of the cut of the tusk and the angle and intensity of the light.

Another factor to keep in mind is the nature of the material. If you look at a cut section of elephant tusk you note that you get clean edges, because the tusk is quite hard and keeps its structure when cut. It can also show faint growth rings, radiating from the pulp cavity (nearer the tip the cavity is filled in):


Section of elephant tusk showing clean edges

Instead, the mystery object has a very rounded edge and no clear structure. This suggests to me that it’s horn that has been treated with heat to mould it into shape (keratin that makes horn and hair has thermoplastic properties, which is why hair straighteners work).

So what this mystery object appears to be is a piece of bovine horn – probably cow – that has been melted and shaped at one end to form a cup. The superficial similarity to elephant tusk may or may not have been accidental, after all, elephant ivory is a much sought after material.


Friday mystery object #226

A rushed mystery object today I’m afraid, as I was doing talks at a late event last night and I have a painfully early start this morning – plus I’ve not been in the stores this week, so no opportunity to get a good mystery object to photograph!

So here’s an object that I was asked to identify a while back, that I took some snaps of on my phone. Apologies for the poor image quality:


Any idea what this might be? As usual you can put your observations, questions and suggestions in the comments section below.


Friday mystery object #224 answer

Last Friday I gave you this felid skull to have a go at identifying:


The size was larger than the previous cat skulls I’ve shown you, which helped reduce the possibilities a bit – after all, there are more smaller cats than bigger ones.

As it turns out, Sam Misan and henstridgesj both managed to work out that this is the skull of a Serval Leptailurus serval (Schreber, 1776).

A Serval cat at Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, by Bob, 2007

A Serval cat at Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, by Bob, 2007

These long-legged cats have a relatively small head, but huge ears – and the large external auditory meatus (ear hole) with a very pronounced ridge above for attachment of the muscles of the pinna (the fleshy part of the ear) helps reflect that.

The long legs and the big ears are key to the Serval’s hunting technique in the long grasses of the African savannah, where they listen for the movement of rodents which they dramatically leap on. Probably easier to appreciate this method by seeing it:

Friday mystery object #224

For the last few weeks I’ve been using cat skulls as mystery objects, because they are really hard to tell apart and I was hoping that some useful distinguishing features might get spotted when you try to identify them.

I certainly feel like I’ve learned something, but I’m pleased to say that there aren’t too many more skulls to go, because it’s really difficult. This next one should hopefully be a bit easier than some of the recent cats:


Any idea what fine felid this skull comes from?

As usual I would really appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below – let’s see if we can crack this!


I’ve already posted a teaser about my mermaid research, but now I’m pleased to say that the academic paper is available in the Journal of Museum Ethnography, no. 27 (2014), pp.98-116.

©Horniman Museum and Gardens & © Heini Schneebeli

We had hoped (and we asked) to make the paper open-access, as one of my co-authors is based at the Wellcome Library and the Wellcome takes open-access seriously and provide funds for making research freely available.

But alas our request seems to have been missed or ignored. I’m not hugely surprised as the Journal is published by the Museum Ethnographers Group, which is a Subject Specialist Network (SSN) run by volunteers and the systems are simply not in place for organisations like that to adopt new publishing models quickly and easily.

I should know, as I am involved in a couple of SSNs and I know how much time and effort goes into producing a Journal and I know how core the Journal is to the running of an SSN – it’s seen as a benefit of membership and therefore giving away the content freely is seen by some as devaluing membership.

At the SSN I am most involved in (the Natural Sciences Collections Association – NatSCA) we make all of our Journal articles freely available, but only a year after publication, so there is still a benefit to joining (among other benefits of course!).

I may not be able to legally share the final version of the paper with everyone, as I don’t hold the copyright, but I hold the copyright of the earlier drafts, so here is an earlier draft of the paper if you want to get the gist of the mermaid research.

I won’t go into detail here about the contents of the paper, since I’ve been busy writing for other blogs where I look at different aspects of mermaids:

how to make a mermaid is explained on Henry Nichol’s excellent Guardian science blog Animal Magic;

why Henry Wellcome may have collected mermaids is explore on the Wellcome Collection’s blog;

an accessible summary of the mermaid research on the Horniman merman is available on the Horniman website,

and there is a nice blog by Vicky Pearce on the Horniman blog.

Hopefully this mass of mermaid information will inspire discussion, where I really hope to find out about more mermaid specimens and stories.

If you have any information, thoughts or questions please either use the #mermania hashtag on twitter or leave a comment below. Enjoy!


Friday mystery object #223 answer

Last Friday I gave you this fine feline to have a go at identifying:


I was a little suspicious of the identification attached to the specimen, but Al Klein suggested the same species – the Jaguarundi Puma yagouaroundi (É. Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, 1803) [link opens pdf].

My reasons for suspicion were the nature of the post-orbital constriction (the narrowing of the braincase behind the eyes), the nature of the zygomaticotemporal suture between the temporal process of the zygomatic and the zygomatic process of the temporal bone (the bit where two bones meet to make the arch of the cheek) and the shape of the nasal bones where they meet the frontals (the V shaped bones above the nose area).

The observation by henstridgesj that the skull was similar to the previous mystery object (Leopardus tigrinus) was a good one, so I decided to research the genus Leopardus in a bit more detail, to see if there was a better match.

It turns out that the skull I found that matched this one most closely – especially with regard to the relative lack of a post-orbital constriction and the nasal-frontal junction – was the highly arboreal Margay Leopardus wiedii (Schinz, 1821) [link opens pdf].

Margay - Leopardus wiedii, Summit Municipal Parque, Panama. By Brian Gratwicke.

I’m always a bit reticent to re-identify specimens that have original labels from the supplier attached as this one does, but this comes from suppliers (Dr.s Schlüter & Mass) that I know have seriously misidentified or mislabelled specimens in the past (e.g. labelling a African Lappet-faced Vulture as an Andean Condor from Bolivia).

Of course, the real identification may be even more complicated, since the South American cats have a bit of a track record for hybridising to the point of masking distinct species, so any identification I make will be laden with disclaimers and caveats. The joy of real-world animals when contrasted against nice simple biological concepts…

Friday mystery object #223

I hope you’re not all fed up with cats yet, because here’s another:


I have concerns about the identification attached to this one, so let’s see if your thoughts agree with what I have written on the label.

As always, you can put your thoughts below and they will be very welcome!

The Mermaid

As you may already know, I’ve been doing a lot of work on a mermaid specimen in the collections of the Horniman Museum & Gardens over the last few years.

The upshot of all that activity is that I have a paper written in a journal that will be hitting the bookshelves any day now. As you may have heard me say before, the specimen is not made of a monkey attached to a fish – I know that after undertaking painstaking examination of the specimen using CT scanning equipment and DNA sampling and good old fashioned anatomical investigation.




Instead it appears to be a real creature of uncertain taxonomic affiliation. The teeth suggest a link to the Wrasse family, the tail to the Carp and the torso to no known living group, so I have designated this specimen as the type for its species and have named it Pseudosiren paradoxoides. Full details can be found in the paper which is due out next week in the Journal of Museum Ethnography – I’m so excited!


Today is #MuseumSelfie day as part of #MuseumWeek, so here are few selfies of me trying to recreate the look of specimens from the Horniman’s natural history gallery.






Utterly ridiculous, but fun nonetheless. If you have some similar selfies why not link to them below in the comments section? After all, I don’t want to be the only one looking silly!


Friday mystery object #222 answer

Last Friday I gave you this fabulous feline skull to have a go at identifying:


No one got quite the right species, but several people (Crispin, manwhohunts, Maxine and Alex Klein) managed to narrow it down to the correct genus.

The flat frontals give the forehead a slope rather than the usual curve we’ve seen in previous cats of this size, making the cranium appear very domed in contrast. The post orbital processes are quite short and gracile (slender). The jaw is quite short while maxilla bone above the canines appears pinched in and the nasals are steep and protruding somewhat.  These are features that appear in the genus Leopardus – the South and Central American small spotted cats.

How to distinguish between different species of Leopadus is more of a problem. Daniel Jones picked up on the incredibly robust bone margin of the foramen magnum (the hole the spinal chord goes into), which may be distinctive, but so far I’ve not seen the underside of other small Leopardus species skulls, so I can’t be sure.

All I know is that this is the skull of an Oncilla Leopardus tigrinus (Schreber, 1775), a small and mainly ground-hunting South American forest cat. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, cats are so difficult to identify!



11 questions to a museum blogger for #museumweek

Twitter has provided some great opportunities for sharing blogs, photos and other interesting content relating to museums. If you’re interested in museums, from either a personal or professional perspective, you should definitely try using twitter.

This week is #MuseumWeek, which provides me with an excellent and relevant excuse for being tardy in responding to Jack Shoulder’s 11 questions to me, which he shared last week on #MuseumBlogs day.

1. Who are you and what do you like about blogging?

I’m Paolo Viscardi, curator, bonegeek and staunch advocate of museums and science. Blogging for me is something that I don’t really enjoy doing, but I really enjoy the outcomes, when I feel like I’ve shared information, ideas and some of the good bits of my amazing job.


2. What is the most popular post on your blog?

Last year I published a post called Atacama ‘alien’ mystery is no mystery, which wasn’t directly about museums, although they do get a mention. It’s had around 45000 views so far, with almost 14000 of those on the day it was posted. There have been 136 comments, not counting the offensive or trolling ones I deleted. It was a controversial post in that it challenged some very odd ideas, that some conspiracy theorists seemed to take quite seriously, without applying much critical thought.

3. And which post on your blog did you have the most fun writing?

Back in 2011 there was a lot of hype about a prediction of the Rapture (the ascent to Heaven in advance of the end of the world) by evangelical Christian Harold Camping. I had a lot of fun writing the post Jesus disappointed by Rapture flop, which took the position that the Rapture had actually  happened and only one person ascended, who wasn’t even a Christian. Since most of my posts are observational or factual it made a nice change of pace and gave me a chance to play with ideas.

4. If you could go behind the scenes of any museum, which one would it be and why?

Most of my museum experiences involve going behind the scenes. I rarely go to see exhibitions and I’m usually visiting other museums in order to meet other curators, or to do some research. I’ve not yet been to the West Coast of America, but if I ever make it over there I’d love to get behind the scenes at the Page Museum at Rancho La Brea to take a look at some of the amazing fossil mammal material they have in their collections.

Smilodon at the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits. Image by Dallas Krentzel

Smilodon at the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits. Image by Dallas Krentzel

5. If you could interview anyone, anyone at all, for your blog, who would you talk to and what would be the first question you ask them?

I’m interested in observing the physical world and trying to understand it, so I’ve never considered doing interviews. I suppose I could interview other scientists, but I’m not really a natural people-person and I would struggle to know what to ask!

6. What is your earliest museum memory?

This is a question I’ve (sort of) answered for Meet a Museum Blogger on Museum Minute a while back, so I’ll repeat that here:

“Seeing the door into the Palaeontology department at the Natural History Museum in London (the one next to the Megatherium specimen) is one of the clearest memories from my childhood – it was at that point I realized there must be people working behind the scenes in museums and that I could be one of them.”

Megatherium at London NHM. Image by Ballista

Megatherium at London NHM. Image by Ballista

7. What was the last museum you visited what did you see?

Apart from the Horniman, which I visit every week day for work, the last museum I visited was the Città della Scienza (Naples Science Centre) at the start of March. That was a scouting trip for a potential temporary Dinosaur exhibition for the Horniman. I was impressed by the museum’s tenacity in the face of outright criminal assault, following an arson attack a year ago to the day of my visit, that razed the main museum site to the ground

8. Share a museum selfie?

I hate taking selfies, but since they’ve become so popular I was persuaded to take one with the Horniman Walrus – just awful…

selfie with walrus

Since then I’ve taken a lot of selfies, and thankfully I’ve managed to look a bit less smug in those…

9. If time and money were not an issue, which museum in the world would you most like to visit?

As someone with a soft spot for Smilodon it would have to be the Page Museum!

10. Which museum do you think more people should know about?

The Horniman is a pretty small museum that does some pretty big things, but I know that outside the museum sector we’re not as well known as we could be. That said, I love the Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL and the Natural History Museum in Dublin – two of my favourite places that shockingly few people seem to know about!

I do think that all museums deserve to be known about though, which is why I’ve been working hard with colleagues at the Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA) and a variety of partner organisations (like the NHM and Linnean Society) to get a better idea of what museums are out there that hold natural science collections. At the moment the project is in its early days, but we’ve developed a crowdsourced map of UK natural history collections that you can see – and add to – on the NatSCA collections pages.

11. What’s the oddest search term that has led people to your blog?

“Rat poo”. It’s a surprisingly common search term too, with almost 400 people finding the site through some variation on that theme. I suppose that’s what happens if you show people pictures of rat poo though…


On that somewhat unsavoury note I will pass on the baton to some more museum bloggers:

Here are my questions for Jake, Claire and Russell:

1. Who are you and what do you blog about?
2. Why do you blog about museums?
3. And which post on your blog was the hardest to write?
4. Which is your favourite museum?
5. Do you think you’ll still be interested in museums in 20 years time?
6. What is your earliest museum memory?
7. What was the last museum you visited and what did you see?
8. Share a museum selfie?
9. If you could build a museum, what kind would it be?
10. What is the most popular post on your blog?
11. What’s the oddest search term that has led people to your blog?

And here’s what you have to do:

Answer the eleven questions – you can adapt them a little to fit your blog.

Include the BEST BLOG image in your post, and link back to the person who nominated you (that would be me, or this blog post).

Devise eleven new questions – or feel free to keep any of these ones here if you like them – and pass them on to how ever many bloggers you would like to.