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:

mystery262

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 move). 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.

Panda penis bone (baculum) from the Berlin Museum für Naturkunde

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.

Panda hind limb bones showing plantigrade foot

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).

Panda skull side view

Panda_skull_top

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:

Panda_thumb_1

Panda_thumb_2

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 #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 #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