Friday mystery object #277 answer

Last week I gave you this pretty cool skull from the Grant Museum of Zoology to identify:


On Twitter the prevailing hypothesis was that this is the skull of an Alien Xenomorph, which was also proposed by Daniel Calleri, but most the comments here on Zygoma were a bit more down to Earth.

The identification started being narrowed down by Sisyphus47 and palfreyman1414 who recognised it as a reptile, which was narrowed down further by joe vans to a fossorial (or burrowing) lizard.

Allen Hazen, John D’Angelo and Daniel Calleri took it another step further and identified this as an amphisbaenian or worm lizard, but Rebecca Watling went even better and identified it as the skull of a Red Worm Lizard Amphisbaena alba Linnaeus, 1758. The morphology is very close and the size is right, so that’s the identification I’d also reached.

Amphisbaena alba by Diogo B. Provete

Amphisbaena alba by Diogo B. Provete

I’ve talked about Amphisbaenia before, but this one is a good bit bigger than most other species and the skull is oddly similar to that of a Weasel. I’m not really sure why, because the diet of these strange reptiles is very poorly known. It seems likely that they’ll eat invertebrates and small vertebrates, presumably in burrows, which does actually sound similar to a Weasel.

Weird, but pretty awesome!

Friday mystery object #277

This week I have a pretty interesting little skull from the Grant Museum of Zoology for you to try your hand at identifying:


Any ideas what this might be from?

As usual you can leave your answers below – I have a feeling that some of you will find this easy, so please try to be a bit cryptic with your suggestions. Have fun!

Friday mystery object #276 answer

Last week I gave you this specimen of “Pygostylia” to try your hand at identifying:

Click for large image

It was a bit of a tricky one, since the alizarin preparation technique has left an adult bird looking like a newly hatched chick. However, even long-billed birds like snipe and curlews start out with a relatively short bill that grows as they mature. The confusion caused by the bill led to suggestions of Cormorant, Little Bittern, Ibis, Scolopacidae and Whimbrel.

There were a few key pointers to help identify the family that this bird belongs to, not least the tiny legs, although one of them has fallen off as noted by John D’Angelo in a neat cryptic clue.

There are a few other pointers – the back and top of the skull shows an interesting feature where the hyoid loops around, which is much clearer here:


This is something I normally associate with woodpeckers, but you also see it in some other birds with very long tongues.

There is also a very short humerus, which is what clinched it for me:


The long bill and tongue and short legs and humerus make this a hummingbird (as spotted by Henry McGhie on Twitter).

Unfortunately I don’t think there’s enough information visible on the specimen to confidently identify it to species or even genus, but I think it’s probably a member of the Trochilinae, possibly one of the Mangos in the genus Anthracothorax F. Boie, 1831.

I’d like to write more, but it’s NatSCA conference time and I’m having too much fun catching up with wonderful people!

Friday mystery object #276

This week I have a mystery specimen for you that was only identified only as “Pygostylia” when it came back from being conserved:

Click for large image

It look a few minutes for me to work out what family this bird belongs to, because it’s been treated with alizarin and it just looks plain weird (if you want a bit more information about this sort of preparation check out my latest Specimen of the Week on the Grant Museum of Zoology blog). I still haven’t narrowed it down to genus yet, so your thoughts would be much appreciated. Have fun!

Friday mystery object #275

This week I have a genuine mystery skull for you to identify from the Grant Museum of Zoology:


I think I know what it is, but I’d be keen to see if you agree with me.Probably a bit on the easy side, so please keep your answers cryptic to avoid spoiling the fun for others!

Oh and apologies for the substandard photos – I used my phone with a tripod, which sort of worked, but it’s not ideal. Hope it’s good enough for you to make an identification!

Friday mystery object #274 answer

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


It isn’t made any easier by the fact that it’s a female, so it lacks the horns or antlers that make identification easier. As with many ungulates it looks a bit sheepy (as I’ve mention before), but it has some clear indicators that helped you rule out what it’s not.

Jake spotted that the size was about right for a Roe Deer, but the auditory bullae (the bulbs on the underside of the skull that house the ear bones) are too massive and the proportions of the braincase are quite different.

Joe vans also ruled out deer, since it lacks lacrimal pits (large openings in front of the eyes that hold scent glands in cervids). Joe also noticed that the mandible is extremely pinched in just behind the incisors.

The incisors themselves caught the attention of Allen Hazen, who noted the extreme size of the first incisor, which he correctly recognised as being a bit of a giveaway to some people, although only when considered in the context of a variety of other features.

While Daniel Calleri summarised these odd features and added the observation of the decent sized occiptial condyl (the place where the atlas vertebra attaches to the skull) and small paracondylar processes (the bony extensions either side of the occipital condyl and just behind the auditory bullae).

These sorts of observations are exactly what are needed to differentiate between species that are very similar in overall morphology. However, without either an excellent reference collection, or even better, a well researched key, it’s almost impossible.

Fortunately, there is a skull key for a subset of Antelope that occur in Tanzania, created by the Field Museum and the mystery object this week happens to be from a genus present in Tanzania. I’d recommend having a go at using the key, but if you’d rather just find out the answer I’ve provided a link to what it is here. Have fun with the key and enjoy your Easter!

Friday mystery object #274

Last week I talked about ungulates in collections being incorrectly identified as sheep. This week I have a specimen for you that is also not a sheep, although it does look a bit sheepish. Can you work out what it is?


You can leave your thoughts in the comments section below – I’m not sure they need to be cryptic, but it certainly adds to the fun!

Friday mystery object #273 answer

Last week I gave you this mystery object to get your input on:


It was labelled Ovis aries, which didn’t ring quite true for me, so I thought it would be good to see if you also had other ideas, since I’ve noticed that there is a tendency for ungulates of a certain size in museum collections to be assumed to be Sheep.

In other museums I’ve found female Red Deer, Gerenuk and on one occasion even a Badger skull that had been labelled “Sheep”.


Labelled “Sheep” but actually a Gerenuk.

This is what a sheep looks like:


You’ll probably notice the “Roman nose” that is quite distinctively sheepy, it also has no gaps between the premaxilla and maxilla and there is a small depression in front of the eye.

When you look underneath, one of the key things that jumps out is the difference in size of the auditory bullae (mystery on the left, sheep on the right):


So I’m pretty sure that the mystery object isn’t a sheep, but what is it?

There were lots of suggestions of exotic and interesting ungulates, but after looking at the skulls of a huge number of ungulates I can to the conclusion that Latinka Hristova and Jake were on the right track with the simple suggestion of Goat Capra hircus (Linnaeus, 1758).

Taking a look at Goat specimens on the incredibly useful Mammalian Crania Photographic Archive has convinced me that this is what the mystery object actually is. Not a million miles from Sheep I suppose, but they are different and it’s helpful finding some small differences that help distinguish between them.

Thanks for your input!

Friday mystery object #272 answer

Last Friday I gave you this skull to identify:


It was a bit of mean one, because although the family is fairly distinctive, it has poor species representation in online resources or indeed the literature.

The cranium is quite low and long, with some similarities to an otter, but the rostrum (or muzzle) is a bit too narrow and the teeth aren’t quite the right shape. Also the orbits are orientated more vertically, whereas otters have orbit that are at more of an angle so the eyes are closer to the top of the head.

The overall shape, dental configuration and median lacerate foramen all suggest it’s a member of the Herpestidae.

Narrowing down the species was a step too far however, after all, there are around 34 species spread across Africa, Madagascar and Asia and Europe and they are generally quite similar in cranial morphology, with only a few species having good descriptions of the skull.

To help challenge the lack of images of mongoose crania online, I’m pleased to say that this specimen does have an identification – it’s a Ruddy Mongoose Herpestes smithii Gray, 1837. While the name Ruddy Mongoose makes it sound like it’s annoyed me, it actually refers to the reddish-brown of its coat.

A Ruddy mongoose from Daroji wildlife sanctuary in Karnataka, India. By Kalyanvarma, 2009

A Ruddy mongoose from Daroji wildlife sanctuary in Karnataka, India. By Kalyanvarma, 2009

This species is endemic to India and Sri Lanka, where it lives in dry, forested hills and feeds on pretty much anything it can get hold of, from snakes to bird eggs. As with other mongooses (or should that be mongeese?), they have a mutation that prevents snake neurotoxins from bonding at receptor sites, meaning that they are immune to some types of venom – pretty handy if you’re going to eat snakes!

Friday mystery object #272

This week I have another specimen from the Grant Museum of Zoology for you to try your hand at identifying:


I have a feeling that it may be easy to get this identification to Family level, but species may prove a little bit more tricky.

I’d love to hear what you think it might be, so leave your suggestions in the comments box below. Have fun!

Friday mystery object #271 answer

Last Friday I gave you this odd looking V-shaped bone to identify:


It led to a lot of speculation on Facebook and Twitter, with ideas including a bird wishbone, hyoid or mandible. However, the comments on the blog tended to be a little more focussed in the area of the mandible of an ant-eating mammal.

The two little prongs at the anterior of this lower jaw are a bit of a give-away about which type of ant-eating mammal it is, as they are only seen on one family. When you look at the additional image I provided it becomes even easier to work out which:


As most of you correctly worked out, this is a specimen of Pangolin, of which there are four species in the genus Manis (thanks Allen Hazen for the correction – there are more like eight species in the family). I found this nice illustration of the skulls of the various species, to help narrow it down even further:

Anatomical and zoological researches: comprising an account of the zoological results of the two expeditions to western Yunnan in 1868 and 1875; and a monograph of the two cetacean genera, Platanista and Orcella. John Anderson, 1878.

Anatomical and zoological researches: comprising an account of the zoological results of the two expeditions to western Yunnan in 1868 and 1875; and a monograph of the two cetacean genera, Platanista and Orcella. John Anderson, 1878.

So it appears from the morphology of the premaxilla, zygomatic region and nasals that this is a Sunda Pangolin, Manis javanica Desmarest, 1822.

Manis javanica by Piekfrosch, 2006

Manis javanica by Piekfrosch, 2006

These unusual scaly insectivores are critically endangered due to poaching for their meat, skin and scales for the Chinese market, with their population suspected to have declined by 80% in the last 20 years, despite having a protected status. Sad to say that their ability to roll into an armoured ball does nothing to protect them from people.

Friday mystery object #269 answer

Last week I gave you this mystery object from the Grant Museum of Zoology to have a go at identifying:


If you’ve been checking the mystery object recently you’ll notice that this specimen has a feature of the palate that I made reference to in the answer to mystery object #267 – the Tasmanian Devil. It’s incompletely ossified, which is a characteristic of marsupials.

The large curved canines and pointed premolars suggest some predatory activity, while the flattened molars suggest some grinding of vegetation, making this one of the marsupial omnivores, in the Order Peramelemorphia.

The large size of the skull and the long curved canines make this specimen rather distinctive – as first spotted by Richard Lawrence, this is indeed a Continue reading

Friday mystery object #268

Merry Christmas mystery solvers!

This week I have an unusual object from the Grant Museum of Zoology for you to identify:


It’s pretty distinctive, but I’ve not seen many of these, so hopefully it’ll make an interesting object to identify. As usual, if you think you know what it is, please leave a hint or cryptic clue rather than just writing down the answer – it makes it more fun for other people that way.

Have fun!

Friday mystery object #267 answer

Last Friday I gave you this specimen to identify:


It was a pretty distinctive one, but a great specimen – and a nice robust example of this particular species.

The partially ossified palate and nasolacrimal (or tear) duct on the external border of the orbit shows that this is a marsupial, and the pointy, robust teeth suggest that it’s highly carnivorous with a penchant for carion, which narrows down the options pretty effectively.

As many of you recognised, this is a Tasmanian Devil Sarcophilus harrisii (Boitard, 1841) – so well done to Tone Hitchcock, Chris, Cindy Nelson-Viljoen, Ric Morris, henstridgesj, palfreyman1414, Lauren McCafferty, joe vans, Daniel Jones and Daniel Calleri, Allen Hazen and Michelle for getting this one right. The key was definitely in those marsupial characters, which immediately ruled out any of the highly diverse placental carnivores.

Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii), Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park, Taranna, Tasmania, Australia by JJ Harrison 2010.

As several of you alluded to, the Tasmanian Devil is undergoing a major decline in population at the moment, mainly due to a particulary nasty transmissible disease that causes tumours to develop on the face, preventing feeding. The tumours are spread between individuals when they bite each other, especially when feeding, which is pretty common Devilish behaviour.

In fact, Devils are pretty rough and tumble creatures in many of their behaviours. When breeding they have a large litter of up to 30 young, which have to compete for just 4 nipples in the pouch. Unsurprisingly, few of the litter survive and presumably those that do are pretty pushy.

Hopefully the Devils will survive their current population crash. There are some individuals who show some resistance to the facial tumour disease, which reflects the importance of genetic diversity within populations. It would be a great shame if the Devils went the same way as the other large marsupial carnivore, the Thylacine.

Friday mystery object #265 answer

Last week I gave you this lovely primate skull from the Grant Museum of Zoology to identify:


When I first saw it I assumed it was a Macaque of some kind. It’s obviously in the Cercopithecidae (or an Old World Monkey) based on the number of premolars – 4 in the upper jaw instead of the 6 you’d get in a Platyrrhini (or New World Monkey). Macaques are common in collections and they have a similar overall appearance to this specimen.

However, I then noticed the particularly deep hollows under the eyesockets and the flaring of the maxilla where it meets the nasals, which is not a characteristic of Macaques.


It actually reminded me a bit of a toned down version of a Mandrill skull, so I started by looking at the phylogeny of primates to get an idea of which species were more closely related to the genus Mandrillus.


Primate phylogeny from Goodman et al. 2005. Trends in Genetics. 21(9):511–517

As you can see the Mandrills share a sister relationship with the genus Cercocebus, which are the White-eyelid Mangabeys, so that’s where I started looking. It turns out that these infraorbital depressions are a Mangabey feature, so I then looked at the various types of Mangabey (not just those in the genus Cercocebus).

It wasn’t easy finding specimens for comparison, but I did find a very useful (if a bit old) paper on Mangabeys by Groves (1978), which gave good descriptions of the various species, allowing me to rule out the Sooty Mangabey and narrow the likely species down to the Golden-bellied Mangabey or, my personal preference, the Agile Mangabey Cercocebus agilis (Milne-Edwards, 1886).

These monkeys have a shorter, relatively broader face than the more familiar Sooty Mangabey, with deeper and broader hollows under the orbits.

So well done to everyone who recognised that this skull belonged to an Old World Monkey, with particular congratulations to Cindy Nelson-Viljoen and palfreyman1414, who all came close in terms of taxonomy and a big round of applause for inkydigit who narrowed it down to the right genus!

More mysteries to come next week…

Friday mystery object #265

This week I have a specimen that I’ve been looking at recently that you might like to have a go at identifying:

Mystery monkey

Mystery monkey

This was being used in handling sessions and needed a tooth to be reattached (huzzah for Paraloid B72), but I noticed that it lacked an identification beyond ‘monkey’ and I thought that could be improved upon.

Here it is laid out more usefully for identification purposes:

mystery265I know what I’ve narrowed it down to, but I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!

Friday mystery object #264 answer

Last week I gave you a tricky mystery object in the form of a dusty bag:

Bag o-bones

Of course, I’m not truly that mean, so I also provided a characteristic part of the specimen:


Despite being a bit broken, it’s fairly clearly the mandible of a felid, given the shape of that one molar and the limited sockets for the missing premolars, suggesting something with a very reduced tooth count – something that most of you spotted straight away.

The size is a bit small for a Tiger or Lion, it’s a bit big for a Puma or Cheetah and it’s not quite as robust as I’d expect from a Jaguar, leaving us with the likely identification of Leopard Panthera pardus (Linnaeus, 1758). So well done to joe vans and palreyman1414 for ‘spotting’ what it was (terribly pun, I know).

Here’s a nice Leopard skull from the Grant Museum of Zoology collections to give a sense of scale.


More mystery objects to come from the Grant next week, but if you’d like to see another specimen from the collection, my latest specimen of the week, that looks at the darker side of the Walrus might be of interest.