Friday mystery object #307

The last few months have been particularly busy for me as I’ve been working on a lighting project in the Irish Room of the Dead Zoo in Dublin, so I’ve not had much opportunity to dig out mystery objects and get good images for you to identify.

However, I have moved pretty much every specimen in the gallery and if you want to see how much stuff that entails there’s a 3D interactive map of the space available here (if you want to have a virtual tour of the whole museum check this out). All this moving means I’ve seen a lot of specimens, so here’s one of them for you to have a go at identifying:


For a some of you this will be way too easy, so let’s have your best cryptic clues, hints and riddles as to what this is.

Have fun!

Friday mystery object #306 answer

Last week I gave you this interesting skull to identify:

Specimen LDUCZ-Z1058 from the Grant Museum of Zoology

Specimen LDUCZ-Z1058 from the Grant Museum of Zoology

I didn’t mention that top of the cranium had been removed, probably as part of a postmortem, which is quite common for zoo specimens. Of course, this made the identification a bit more tricky.

That absent skullcap led to several suggestions of Tasmanian Devil, since they do have a very similar looking facial region to this specimen, with a short and blunt muzzle, robust zygomatic arch and even the same toothcount in the upper jaw. However, the Devils have an angular process of the mandible that projects medially (towards the midline) rather than backwards in a hook, so you wouldn’t see it in a side view.


The correct answer was first tenuously suggested by palfreyman1414 in a pleasingly cryptic manner:

I’d have sworn this was a commie go-between for Cressida and Troilus

Which hints at “Red” and “Pandarus” giving us the Red Panda Ailurus fulgens F. Cuvier, 1825.

Red Panda image by Mathias Appel, 2016

Red Panda image by Mathias Appel, 2016

These charismatic critters are another example of an arboreal carnivore that is adapted to feed on a highly vegetarian diet, but unlike the previous mystery object (a Kinkajou) these cuddlesome floofballs eat mainly bamboo rather than fruit – rather like their very distant relative the Giant Panda (despite the similarity in diet and common name, the Red Panda is actually more closely related to the Kinkajou than it is the Giant Panda).

Red Pandas are a bit less highly specialised for feeding on bamboo than the Giant Pandas, probably because they have a more varied diet that also includes fruit, eggs, birds and small mammals. The poor nutritional quality of bamboo does mean that they spend a lot of time sleeping and they tend to move fairly slowly in order to conserve energy, although they can be very playful, especially in captivity where they can access higher quality foods.

Sadly, this playfulness and supreme floofyness is a bit of a problem for the wild Red Panda population. There is demand for wild caught Red Pandas in the pet trade and they are hunted for their thick fur right across their range through the foothills of the Himalayas, despite being protected by legislation in every country.

Friday mystery object #305

This Friday I’m giving you a game of heads or tails from the Collections Resource Centre of the Dead Zoo:


I don’t normally add a photo of the tail, but in this case it should make the identification a doddle – literally a 50:50 shot at getting the right species. If you know what I’m talking about, then please be cryptic in your suggestions – don’t spoil it for everyone else!

If you don’t know why this tail is so significant then you should know that the skull is 10cm long and all will be revealed next Friday!

Good luck!


Friday mystery object #304 answer

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


The skull of specimen LDUCZ-Z144 from the Grant Museum of Zoology

I thought that some of you would find it a bit easy, but the most diagnostic features aren’t visible in the image and it’s a nice specimen, so I went with it.

There is a bit of similarity with the skull of a ruminant, as noted by palfreyman14141, while Gerard pointed out that it’s from Africa and James M. Bryan was the first to drop a solid clue pointing to the correct species. As jennifermccaire says, it’s the very first on the list (assuming the list is alphabetical) – an Aardvark Orycteropus afer (Pallas, 1766).

An Aardvark at Detroit Zoo by MontageMan, 2008

An Aardvark (or as I prefer to call it, a Tippy-toes McSnuffleface) at Detroit Zoo. Image by MontageMan, 2008

Picking up on palfreyman1414’s observation about it looking like a ruminant, Allen Hazen asked an interesting question about the teeth, because the diet of these bizarre looking animals almost entirely consists of ants and termites, and most other mammals with a similar diet (like Pangolins and Tamanduas) have no teeth at all.

Making the presence of teeth even more weird is the fact that Aardvark stomachs have a muscular pyloric region that grinds up food in a similar way to a bird’s gizzard, so they really don’t need teeth for the major component of their diet. To top it off, the teeth of Aardvarks are utterly unlike any other mammal teeth – they’re made of tubules of dentine (giving the Order the name ‘Tubulidentata’), with no enamel, no pulp-cavity and no root – so they keep on growing:

The weird teeth of the Aardvark, made up of tiny dentine tubules.

The weird teeth of the Aardvark, made up of tiny dentine tubules.

All of this suggests that their dentition is distinctly non-standard, so it probably isn’t just a vestigial feature inherited from a toothed ancestor – which reinforces the importance of the question ‘why do they have teeth?’

Bear with me.

A 60-80kg mammal living in hot and water-scarce regions of Africa, will struggle to get enough moisture from ants and termites to survive, even if they are nocturnal and sleeping in burrows during the hottest part of the day. So how do Aardvarks do it?

Cucumbers, that’s how.

There is actually a species of cucumber that has a symbiotic relationship with Aardvarks, and it’s unimaginatively, but descriptively, called the Aardvark Cucumber Cucumis humifructus Stent, 1927.

Aardvark cucumber. Image by B. Strohbach

Aardvark cucumber (not a golf ball). Image by B. Strohbach

These weird fruits develop deep underground and have a tough skin that keeps them viable for months. Outside they’re like a leather golfball, but inside they’re watery like the cucumbers you’d put in a Hendrick’s gin and tonic – and that’s where the Aardvarks get their moisture (the Cucumber, not the G&T).

Nothing but the Aardvark has a nose sensitive enough to detect the plant, or claws powerful enough to dig into the hard-baked earth to access the fruits (or possibly only an animal that mostly eats ants is desperate enough for some culinary excitement to go to all that effort for something that the rest of nature views as a lacklustre garnish). The Cucumber’s seeds need to pass through an Aardvark to become viable and those seeds get distributed underground with a healthy dollop of fertiliser in what is otherwise a harsh environment.

The leathery skin of the Cucumber is almost certainly the reason why Aardvarks are alone in having teeth amongst the termite and ant-eating mammals. It also explains why those teeth grow constantly – and why they get so worn down.

I think that’s pretty awesome.

Now you may be wondering if I’m making all this up, but honestly, the world really is that weird (and wonderful) when you look at it closely enough!

Friday mystery object #303 answer

Last week I gave you this mysterious bit of bone from the Thames to have a go at identifying:


A few ideas were put forward, but DrewM was spot on with the suggestion:

I think it’s the synsacrum of a bird, without the ilia fused – the foramina are for spinal nerves.

A synsacrum is a fused section of vertebrae including the sacrum (which is where the pelvis attaches to the spine). General opinion quickly agreed with that suggestion, but the taxonomic group that the synsacrum belongs to remained unguessed.

That is perhaps unsurprising, since it’s hard to find good comparative images of bird synsacra, especially with the hips and lateral (or side) bits knocked off and worn down.

chicken synsacrum

A Chicken synsacrum showing the section preserved in the mystery object

I had a go at looking through some of the comparative bird osteology collections at the Dead Zoo to get a feel for birds with a similar synsacral morphology.

The usual suspect for a bird bone found in the Thames (for me at least) is Chicken, since they’re so closely associated with humans and a lot of the bones washed up on the banks of the Thames are from butchery and food waste. The size was about right, but the vertebral centra (the middle bits) of the Chicken synsacrum become more narrow in the hip-line than in the mystery specimen.

Next I looked at ducks, whose centra taper more in the direction of the tail, then grebes whose whole synsacrum is more narrow overall:

grebe synsacrum

Synsacrum of a Great Crested Grebe

Eventually I made it to the gulls who seem to be a much better fit in terms of shape and the Herring Gull Larus argentatus Pontoppidan, 1763 was a good fit for size:

herring gull synsacrum

Herring Gull synsacrum

Now this doesn’t mean to say that the mystery object is certainly from a Herring Gull. I would want to have the object in my hand and comparative material available from several specimens to check the identification before being sure, but on the basis of the images that Keith Dunmall kindly provided, I think we’re in the right ball park.

More mysteries next week!

Friday mystery object #302 answer

Last week I gave you this egg to try your hand at identifying:


Eggs can be tricky, since they are largely similar in shape and, since egg collecting was banned many years ago, there are few modern resources for identification.

However, you can pick up clues by thinking about colour and pattern and working out what advantage it may have. So you might expect a brightly coloured egg to be laid in a well disguised and deep nest, where it’s unlikely to be spotted except by the parent, whereas a yellowy speckled egg is more likely to be camouflaged if laid in a fairly open, sandy environment.

So this egg was probably laid somewhere near the sea, which means it’s probably from a charadriiform bird (those are the shorebirds).

Now there are a lot of shorebirds, but this egg is pretty big and it lacks the strongly conical shape you’d expect from a cliff-nester like a Guillemot (the shape means it rolls in tight circle, making it less likely to be blown or knocked off a cliff). That actually narrows it down to a handful of birds that makes comparison easier. Curlew eggs, for example, are a similar size, but they tend to be more grey and have larger blotches, plus they’re a bit less elongated.

This particular egg has the shape and colour of a gull egg and large size means it’s almost certainly the egg of a Greater Black-backed Gull Larus marinus Linnaeus, 1758.

I would say more, but at the moment I’m at the natural history highlight of the year – the NatSCA conference. Here’s the Twitter feed in case you’re interested in the discussion:

Friday mystery object #301 answer

Last week I gave you this mystery tooth to have a go at identifying:


There were a variety of answers, but the first few took this as a worn canine tooth, presumably due to the respectable size and robustness. However, consensus shifted to this being an incisor, meaning it would have to be from a large animal – which is spot on. Moreover, it’s a large animal that was once resident in Ireland.

After that there were a variety of ideas brought up, from all manner of beasts including Sheep, Badger (or perhaps Pine Marten since a cryptic M.m. from the Irish fauna could be either Meles meles or Martes martes), Cave Bear, Coyote, Wolf and even Human. There was one just correct identification however, by Tony Morgan who recognised it as a Hyaena incisor.

It is in fact the lower left third incisor (or i3) of Crocuta crocuta (Erxleben, 1777) – the tooth you can see in this (very gnarly) Hyaena mandible, although it’s much less worn:

Hyena mandible

Hyaenas have an incredibly thick enamel layer on their teeth which creates a distinct neck on the incisor where it stops, which is further defined by the root of the tooth bulging laterally below – presumably to help deal with the forces of prey capture and perhaps the Hyaena’s impressive bite strength.


The robust skull of a specialist bone-crusher

You probably don’t think of Hyaenas as being native to Ireland, but until 39,000 or so years ago they ranged right across Eurasia, including those parts of Europe which were to be cut off by changing sea levels to form Ireland and Britain.

It’s strange to imagine a species normally associated with the African savanna strolling around the Emerald Isle, but it’s worth remembering that the world is a constantly changing place and wildlife moves around to cope as the environment alters. Borders and boundaries are very human concepts and other species only pay attention when you have a genuine barrier, like an ocean, a mountain range or (if you’re a Dormouse) a break in the tree canopy.

That’s one of the problems with current climate change compared to past climate variations. The speed of change is so great that some species don’t have time to move into new habitats and there are fewer suitable habitats available, because humans have cleared them for farming or building. Meanwhile, some other species can find suitable habitats and are able to move – but they will then often be considered an invasive pest. Now  the chances of Hyaenas returning to Ireland are pretty slim, but if they did I expect most people wouldn’t be too pleased, although you never know…

Kevin Richardson kisses hyena. Image by Kevin Richardson, 2007

Kevin Richardson kisses hyena. Image by Kevin Richardson, 2007