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:

mystery264

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.

leopard

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.

Friday mystery object #264

As I’ve mentioned a few times, I have recently started a new job as Curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL. If you’ve never visited, you should pop by, and if you have visited then why not vote for us in the Time Out Love London Awards, preferably right now, since voting closes today. I’d love it if we could beat our heavyweight neighbour, the British Museum!

PV_micrarium_2

Moving on to the real subject of the blog, I have finally had a chance to start hunting for specimens in the Grant to see if there are any unidentified items tucked away that might make good mystery objects – and my new colleague Tannis knew just where to look:

Bag o-bones

This bag-o-bones came to us from the Royal Free Hospital and was completely sealed up, making it hard to see inside. For those of you who like a challenge I’ll leave you with just this image, but if you’d like a slightly less tricky image to work from, you can see the single most distinctive part of the specimen here.

Do you have any idea what it might be? It’s pretty easy if you check out the distinctive bit, so please keep your answers cryptic if you can!

Oh, and if you like skulls, you might be interested in my first Specimen of the Week on the Grant Museum blog.

Friday mystery object #263 answer

Last Friday I gave you this mystery object that came up at a natural materials identification course that I delivered at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter last week:

mystery263

There were a variety of suggestions as to what it might be, but everyone (correctly) discounted the information on the label that it was a tooth.

There were some suggestions of wood and ivory, but there were two suggestions which were definitely in the right ball-park. Daniel Calleri suggested it might be something fishy, while Krista got it pretty much spot on when she suggested a dorsal barb from a skate or ray.

I’m pretty sure that it’s the spine from the leading edge of the first or second dorsal fin of a Spurdog shark in the genus Squalus Linnaeus, 1758.

Spiny Dogfish (Squalus acanthias) by Dornhai

Spiny Dogfish (Squalus acanthias) by Dornhai

These turn up every so often in collections, sometimes as decoration, sometimes as items found in Native American middens. Presumably they’re composed of keratin, which is a commonly occurring structural protein in vertebrate skin that can also form hair, horn, scales and claw.

Thanks for all your comments and well done to Krista!

Friday mystery object #263

It’s been a hectic couple of weeks and I almost forgot the mystery object again because I lost track of the days!

I was hoping to use an object from my new job at the Grant Museum of Zoology today, but I never got the chance as I’ve been zipping around all over the place. Yesterday for example I was at the lovely Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) in Exeter, delivering a training session on identifying natural materials.

There were a couple of items that curator Holly wanted me to look at while I was there and I thought one of them might be good for a mystery object. Apologies for the poor quality of the photo – I didn’t have my usual set-up to hand:

Mystery object at RAMM, Exeter

Mystery object at RAMM, Exeter

Any idea what this might be? If you want more information about it, just ask in the comments and I’ll do my best to reply. Have fun!

Friday mystery object #262 answer

Last Friday I gave you this pretty characteristic mystery object from the Berlin Museum für Naturkunde to try your hand at identifying:


There were lots of great comments – I must apologise for not responding to many (and for posting the answer to this mystery object so late), my excuse is that I’ve had an insanely busy week finishing up my old job at the Horniman Museum and Gardens and then getting started in my new job at the fantastic Grant Museum of Zoology at University College London (more to come about my big paolov.files.wordpress.com/…/mystery262.jpgmove). I also got started on a really interesting project looking at Gorilla osteology and I’m feverishly trying to prepare a training workshop on identifying natural materials for next week.
Back to the object. Several of you noticed the presence of a baculum (or penis bone) which shows us quite definitively that this was a male animal (although, I later realised that this baculum does not belong to this specimen!).


It also suggests that the specimen was prepared and mounted without the prudishness that many historical mounts were affected by (see Jack Ashby’s comments about this in his post on the Grant Muesum’s Ringtail).
Many of you also correctly recognised that the plantigrade (or flat-footed) posture, short tail and robust build suggested a bear of some sort.

The distinctive sagittal crest was the final feature needed for identification for some of you to work out that this is the skeleton of a Giant Panda Ailuropoda melanoleuca (David, 1869).

I tend to think of Panda skulls as looking like a cross between those of a Hyaena and a Gorilla, which makes sense when you consider the adaptations of the jaw musculature required for the Panda to process the large volumes of tough bamboo needed to provide enough energy for survival. The bone of the skull has to be able to manage the large forces produced by all this chewing, resulting in a big and robust sagittal crest, a thick and deep mandible and really deep muscle scars on the coronoid process.

These are all features you also see in big chewers like the Gorilla and Hyaena, but not in rodents and ungulates – I think this reflects the difference between groups that rely on temporalis muscle (which runs along the side of the braincase) in chewing compared to the masseter muscle (which attaches to the zygomatic arch or cheekbone).
The final clue to confirm that this is a Giant Panda is the ‘thumb’ on the front limbs:

This handy (excuse the pun) extra ‘digit’ is actually the radial sesamoid bone of the Panda’s wrist, that has been commandeered by evolution for use as a bamboo holder. There are a few other species that have done weird things with wrist bones to gain a digit, but this is clearly not a Mole or Elephant and Red Pandas have a much longer tail.
I hope you enjoyed some of the interesting bony features of this specimen – it’s great to have a chance to see under the surface of such an iconic animal!

Friday mystery object #262

Last week I had an enjoyable trip to Berlin where (probably unsurprisingly) I visited the Museum für Naturkunde. The collections were fantastic, with specimens like this absolutely spectacular Archaeopteryx:

Archaeopteryx

but that’s a pretty obvious object, much too familiar to use for the Friday mystery object. So here’s something that might be a little less familiar to test your skills:

mystery262

It’s a pretty distinctive specimen, but hopefully it won’t be quite as familiar as the iconic Archaeopteryx.

If you recognise it straight away, please use your imagination and leave a cryptic answer so others get a chance to test their identification skills. Have fun!

Friday mystery object #261 answer

Last Friday I gave you this object from the Horniman Museum and Gardens to identify:

mystery261

It’s an odd looking bone, but that makes it distinctive, so I wasn’t too surprised that everyone recognised it as being from something aquatic. In particular, Ric Morris and joe va both recognised it as the radius of a pinniped.

The broad end that articulates with the wrist is lacking its epiphysis, indicating that this is from a younger animal. This also makes it a little harder to make a definitive species identification.

I think that Ric Morris’s cleverly disguised suggestion of Grey Seal is pretty good, although I’m leaning slightly more towards Harbour Seal Phoca vitulina Linnaeus, 1758.

The odd shape is of course one adaptation of the forelimb that reflects a change in biomechanical requirements away from the load-bearing limb of a terrestrial ancestor and towards the hydrofoil shape and drag-force-resistant flipper of an active aquatic pursuit predator.

Seal underwater by Chillum, 2007

I will never ceases to be impressed by the power of evolution as a mechanism to reshape bone to better suit new purposes!

Friday mystery object #261

This week I have a mystery object for you, that I stumbled across when preparing a talk for the Natural Sciences Collections Association’s Bone Day last week:

mystery261

It’s a bit of an odd one, so I’d love to hear what you think it might be. As usual, if you recognise what it is please give everyone else a chance by sharing your knowledge below in the guise of a rhyme or cryptic clue.

Have fun!

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 #259

This week I have an object that I found hiding in an unnumbered box during a reshuffle of the Horniman bone room (more about that later):

mystery259

I managed to work out what it was and reunite it with other parts of the same specimen, which was very satisfying, but it took me four attempts where I checked against other specimens to get the correct identification. Do you think you can do better?

As always you can leave your questions, thoughts and suggestions in the comments box below. Good luck!

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 #257 answer

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

mystery257

You didn’t have much to go on, but most of you recognised that it’s a fibula (well spotted Ric Morris, Kevin, Mieke Roth and Flick Baker) and I was impressed by the variety of clever clues used to communicate that knowledge. However, Michelle went a step further and identified this as being from a large felid, in the size range of a Mountain Lion, earning loads of bonegeek points.

It took me a little while to work out what this was myself, since it was in a box with Ostrich bones and my first thought was that it might be from another bird. It has articulations at either end and a long midshaft, so it was obviously one of the long bones, but it’s very slender and wouldn’t be able to carry much weight on its own, so it was either a radius or fibula.

I started by looking at the radii of a some large birds, like Albatross and Flamingo. However, on comparison with a few specimens it became obvious that I was looking in the wrong area, since the articulations didn’t fit with those on a bird radius at all. They also didn’t fit the shape of any mammal radius I could think of, so I started considering fibulae.

I knew it couldn’t be a bird fibula, since they are fused with the tibiotarsus and would lack an articulation at the distal end, so I started looking at mammals. It was a bit slender for a dog, but pretty similar to a cat, if on the big side.

Then I remembered that I had a box of postcrania from the same collection as the Ostrich that this bone shared a box with. So I checked the mystery object against that and was pleased to find that there was only one fibula in that box, it was from the other leg and it was a mirror image. So it looks like this bone has not only been identified, but reunited with the Cheetah Acinonyx jubatus (Schreber, 1775) skeleton it came from!

Cheetah in Kruger National Park (South Africa). Image by Mukul2u, 2008

Cheetah in Kruger National Park (South Africa). Image by Mukul2u, 2008

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.