Friday mystery object #452 answer

Last week I gave you this guest mystery object from the comparative anatomy collection of the Harry Brookes Allen Museum of Anatomy and Pathology at the University of Melbourne, courtesy of Rohan Long:

Image by Yijie Cheng, 2023

This is one of those specimens that it can take a while to get your head around, as most of the key features are entirely missing. From the top, the skull almost looks mammalian. Perhaps a little like a large rodent missing part of its zygomatic arches:

Skull of a Striped Ground Squirrel

Even from the side there are some similarities, although it looks a bit more like a turtle:

Image of mystery bones by Yijie Cheng, 2023
Image by Yijie Cheng, 2023
Skull of a Loggerhead Turtle

If you look closely at the underside of the skull, you’ll notice that it has a single occipital condyle, which is something you see in reptiles and birds, but that view of the underside also becomes clear that the front section of the mystery object doesn’t taper to create a bill, like you’d see in a turtle:

Image by Yijie Cheng, 2023

In fact, a bill is the most diagnostic feature that’s missing, and that’s because it’s fallen off.

Those cervical vertebrae are quite distinctively avian – and from a long-necked avian at that. Once you realise that this is the braincase of a fairly large long-necked bird, the next task thing is to look at birds with a bulbous and cleft region on the head, just at the base of the bill (most bird skulls taper down to the bill).

For me that indicates one species above all others – the Mute Swan Cygnus olor (Gmelin, JF, 1789).

Mute swan skulls “Cygnus olor”. Technique of bone maceration on display at the Museum of Veterinary Anatomy, FMVZ USP.

I’d like to offer a hearty ‘bravo’ to Adam Yates, who was the first to comment and correctly identify this with a great cryptic clue:

It is an anseriform for sure the large oval basipterygoid articulations are a give away. With that profile, i’d lose my voice while trying to say the name of a certain Western Australian River.

Adam YatesJanuary 20, 2023 at 8:45 am Edit

This was backed up the ever-knowledgable Wouter van Gestel who runs SkullSite, which is the single most useful online resource I know of for bird skull identifications. Speaking of useful online resources, Rohan has been working on a project to make the collections of the Harry Brookes Allen Museum of Anatomy and Pathology available online – so be sure to check it out!

Friday mystery object #452

This week I have a guest mystery object for you to have a go at identifying, courtesy of Rohan Long:

Here’s another specimen from the comparative anatomy collection of the Harry Brookes Allen Museum of Anatomy and Pathology at the University of Melbourne.

I have identified and documented almost the whole collection of almost 500 specimens, except for a few dozen that I have so far been unable to identify – the “box of shame”. These specimens mostly comprise fragmentary or isolated elements.

However, one of these problematic specimens comprises a partial skull articulated with four cervical vertebrae. Despite these particular skeletal elements usually enabling ready identification, this specimen has confounded me for months. I have had various hypotheses as to whom the skull could belong to, but nothing has been quite right.

I have googled images, I have visited our zoology museum, I have looked at books, and I have not been able to find the identity of this skull. Can you solve this osteological enigma? 

Image by Yijie Cheng, 2023
Image by Yijie Cheng, 2023
Image by Yijie Cheng, 2023
Image by Yijie Cheng, 2023
Image by Yijie Cheng, 2023
Image of mystery bones, by Yijie Cheng, 2023
Image by Yijie Cheng, 2023

By the way, we have a brand new online database where you can explore our comparative anatomy specimens, along with our other public collections. It’s the first time in about a century that this significant collection has been accessible to people outside of our Anatomy Department.

I think I may know what this is, but both myself and Rohan would love to hear your thoughts!

Friday mystery object #450 answer

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

Perhaps not the most festive of objects to consider over the Christmas weekend, but it’s a very interesting one that is on display in the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales in Madrid.

I had a pretty good idea of what this was likely to be as soon as I saw it, based on my memory of a badly pest damaged taxidermy specimen of this species I saw about 12 years ago. But, the skull shap alone is distinctive, and the fringe of feather stumps around the eyes makes this fairly staraightforward to work it out – and a lot of you did just that.

This is the partially mummified skeleton of a Barn Owl Tyto alba (Scopoli, 1769).

That fringe around the orbits is made up of the nibbled down rachides (the stiff central vane of the feather is called a rachis and rachides is plural) of the feathers that created the facial disc. This structure acts a bit like a radar dish to help channel sound into the auditory openings (AKA earholes), and it’s what gives owls that distinctive flat-looking face, belying the shape of the underlying skull. The skull itself is particularly long and low for an owl, which is what screams Barn Owl to me, as other owls have a higher domed skull and relatively shorter bill.

You may have seen images of a similar looking specimen in the last couple of years, as a photo of a specimen on display as part of a special exhibition in Museum Natur und Mensch (Museum of nature and man) in Freiburg, Germany did the rounds on Twitter. Unfortunately I missed that exhibiton, but Markus Bühler did visit and wrote about it on his blog, which I strongly recommend taking a look at.

I hope you enjoyed the Christmas mystery object this year – let’s see what I can find for you in 2023. Have a very happy New Year!

Friday mystery object #450

This festive-feeling Friday, I have a mystery object for you that I spotted in Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales in Madrid earlier this year:

This specimen is part of an exhibition showing some of the historical cabinet type displays from the early formation of the Museum. I couldn’t find a species identification, but I think I know what it is. The question for today is, do you?

Let me know what you think in the comments below – I’d be fascinated to hear your thoughts.

Have an enjoyable festive season!

Friday mystery object #366 answer

Last week I gave you this unwelcome visitor to the Dead Zoo to identify:

I’ve given you something very similar before, which most people mistakenly identified as being this species.

It’s in the family Ptinidae, home of several species that are considered pests, thanks to their habit of boring holes in various different materials. They all tend to look quite similar, although the shape of the pronotum (the bit between the abdomen and the teensy head) is a useful feature.

As Andy Calver and Thomas Rouillar intimated on Twitter and joe vans hinted in the comments, this particular beetle is normally associated with boring holes in carbohydrate rich substances, which can include drugs, tobacco, bread and biscuits. It’s known as the Drugstore Beetle, Cigarette Beetle, Bread Beetle or Biscuit Beetle depending on your particular interest in what it destroys. Of course, other beetles can share some of these proclivities and therefore claim some of the same names, so for clarity the scientific name is Stegobium paniceum (Linnaeus, 1758).

In museums they can tun up for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they’ll be feeding on starchy glues in book spines, they love a dried plant in a herbarium, they’ll give animal hides and museum specimens a nibble, and about the only thing they like more than poisoned grain used as rodent bait would be some biscuit crumbs.

So well done to everyone who worked it out and if you didn’t manage it then never fear, there’s always next week’s!

Friday mystery object #352 answer

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

20170213_114120-01.jpeg

I thought that some of you would find it quite easy and I wasn’t wrong, although it’s not quite as straightforward as I thought.

Our regular ornithology expert Wouter van Gestel was straight in with an interesting answer that highlights some of the idiosyncrasies of museum specimens, where the colour of features like bills and legs can fade after death. This can make identifications tricky, since colour can play an important role in distinguishing between species in the same genus. In addition, the maturity of the animal can also complicate identifications, since juveniles can have different colours and markings to adults.

That makes this specimen doubly hard to identify and jennifermacaire pointed out an additional idiosyncrasy – the glass eye used by the taxidermist. The choice of eye is an important one, since eyes play an important role in making something look as it did when it was alive. In this case I think they used an eye that was too large with too much iris showing.

Both Wouter and Jennifer identified this as a Tropicbird, and both thought it was the White-tailed species. However, according to the Museum database the specimen is a young Red-billed Tropicbird Phaeton aethereus Linnaeus, 1758.

Red-billed tropicbird (Phaethon aethereus mesonauta) with chick, Little Tobago by Charles J Sharp, 2014

Red-billed tropicbird with chick – note the yellow bill on the chick. Image by Charles J Sharp, 2014

Now I’m going to check the identification again, since it isn’t unusual for specimens to be misidentified. This is a problem in museums, since specimens come from all sorts of sources and not all of them are necessarily expert.

I recently had to check the identification of a couple of Tern specimens from Jamaica for an enquiry. If the specimens had been the species they were originally recorded as, it would have been the only record of the species on Jamaica and it may have hinted at a lost population. In the end it was a simple misidentification of a common species.

20190215_114626

This is part of the reason why specimens in museums are so important – they provide a primary record that can be checked to ensure information about biodiversity is correct, so we can understand things like changes in population distribution with confidence.

Friday mystery object #327 answer

Last week I gave you this mystery bone to identify:

20171130_153340-01.jpeg

As I suspected, it was simultaneously easy and difficult: easy because it’s clearly an os penis or baculum; difficult because it can be hard to narrow down the species to which a baculum belongs without having specimens for comparison. For some reason people can be funny about penis bones and, despite the fact that male animals tend to be over-represented in museums, the baculum will often have been removed or not included in skeletal mounts.

That said, Steph came closest, getting the right family with the clue:

Bac to the bear-minimum I would guess?

If you remember one of my past posts I showed an image of the baculum mounted on the skeleton of a Giant Panda in Berlin (more about this below):

Panda_penis_bone

You can see that, although it differs slightly with a bit of a dip towards the tip, it’s rather similar in structure to the mystery object.

Oddly however, it appears that this baculum on the Berlin Panda specimen has been switched for that of a different bear species. Pandas have a very distinctive reduced baculum with wings (see below), that looks nothing like this, which is more similar to the os penis of a Spectacled Bear (or possibly a Polar Bear at a push).

The mystery object is actually the baculum of a Sloth Bear Melursus ursinus (Shaw, 1791).

20171130_153230

N.B. note that the writer of this label couldn’t quite bring themselves to write the full word “penis”

In future, should you ever find yourself with an unidentified bear penis on your hands, I suggest taking a look at this handy figure by Abella et al. 2013¹:

journal.pone.0073711.g001

Baculum in laterial view of: A Helarctos malayanus; B Ursus thibetanus; C Tremarctos ornatus; D Ursus americanus; E Melursus ursinus; F Ursus arctos; G Ursus maritimus; H Indarctos arctoides; I Ventral view of the Baculum of Ailuropoda melanoleuca; J Dorsal view of the baculum of Ailuropoda melanoleuca.

So in answering one mystery object we’ve uncovered a far bigger mystery – how did the Berlin Panda end up with the wrong penis?

 

¹Abella J, Valenciano A, Pérez-Ramos A, Montoya P, Morales J (2013) On the Socio-Sexual Behaviour of the Extinct Ursid Indarctos arctoides: An Approach Based on Its Baculum Size and Morphology. PLoS ONE 8(9): e73711. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0073711

Friday mystery object #284 answer

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

mystery284

It’s quite a distinctive structure and very particular to one particular group of mammals. It is of course an external auditory meatus (or ear hole as it’s more commonly known), but instead of opening directly into the auditory bulla (the inflated bony bulb that holds the ear bones) it has a long and robust tube.

Lee Post, Daniel Calleri & Dan Jones and Allen Hazen recognised this characteristic feature as belonging to a Beaver and Richard Lawrence went one better and narrowed it down to Castor canadensis Kuhl, 1820 – an identification that I agree with having seen the whole skull:

beaver_skull

I’m not sure if there’s any real functional reason for the ear tube, but it looks to me like it might be a “spandrel” a feature that’s an artefact of another adaptive feature – in this case the articulation of the mandible.

beaver_jaw

Gnawing through a tree trunk is no easy task, so it’s not surprising that the Beaver has some serious adaptations to deal with the work involved. Unlike carnivores, which have a fixed lateral mandibular articulation powered mainly by the temporalis muscles, rodents have a dorso-ventral articulation usually powered by the masseter muscles, which allows the jaw to move backward and forward. In the Beaver the sagittal crest suggests that the temporal muscles are more involved than usual which, with the orientation of the articulation, may necessitate the ear tubes as lateral braces against which the mandible can secondarily articulate. That’s my guess…

Great work on identifying this specimen using very limited information!

Friday mystery object #280

Last week the answer to the mystery object was a Gharial – a very weird crocodilian from India. I realised that I didn’t know much about identifying the Crocodyliformes, so I thought it might be fun to have a go at working out what this species might be:

mystery280

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts below and let’s see if we can find some good diagnostic features!

Friday mystery object #273 answer

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

mystery273

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”.

mystery273-gerenuk

Labelled “Sheep” but actually a Gerenuk.

This is what a sheep looks like:

mystery273-sheep

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):

mystery273-mystery_and_shee

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

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

mystery272

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:

mystery271a

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:

mystery271b

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 #271

This week I have a mystery object for you from the Grant Museum of Zoology that’s either a bit too easy, or a bit mean:

mystery271a

If you’re not a fully paid-up bonegeek, you might like to have a bit of an additional clue; if so, click here.

Please keep your answers in the comments section cryptic, so everyone gets a chance to have a go at working it out without spoilers. Have fun!

Friday mystery object #265 answer

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

mystery265

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.

Monkey_skull

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.

gr2

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 #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!