Friday mystery object #462

This week I have a great mystery object for you – it came in one of the best bits of post I’ve had for ages:

Here is the discovery that was inside:

Any idea what it might be?

As ever, you can leave your answers in the comments box below – but I suspect that some of you might know exactly what this is, so please try to keep your answers cryptic, so everyone has a chance to work it out for themselves. Have fun with it!

Friday mystery object #461 answer

Last week I gave you a guest mystery object from Catherine McCarney, the manager of the Dissection Room at the UCD School of Veterinary Medicine:

The first question I normally try to answer when undertaking an identification is “what kind of bone is this?”, but in this instance it’s not immediately obvious.

There is a broad section with articulation points, a foramen (or at least something that looks like a hole, which might be a foramen) and a flattish section that looks like it probably butts up against something with a similar flat section. This would normally put me in mind of the ischium of a pelvis.

But it’s not a pelvis as the articulations are all wrong and the shape of the skinny piece of bone that projects off doesn’t fit any functional ilium shape that I’m aware of.

The pectoral girdle has a similar set of structural features and this object starts to make more sense with that in mind. Things like turtles and whales may have a structure like this, but there’s something to keep in mind: despite being fairly large, this object only weighed in at 26g.

Turtles and whales have dense bone that helps reduce buoyancy, to make remaining submerged less energetically demanding, but this bone must be full of air spaces – which offers a clue as to likely type of animal it came from. A bird – as Joe Vans noted in the comments.

Considering the size of this object there are very few possible candidates. Most birds are pretty small and this object is pretty big, so we just need to look at some of the Ratites.

The comparisons I managed to find have led me to the conclusion that this is most likely part of the pectoral girdle of an Ostrich Struthio camelus Linnaeus, 1758.

Pectoral girdle of an Ostrich by Uwe Gille, 2006.

More specifically, I think it’s the coracoid (#2 on image), clavicle (#3 on image), and scapula (#4 on image) from the left hand side of the pectoral girdle of an Ostrich.

I was delighted to see that Wouter van Gestel agreed with this assessment in the comments, since he knows more about bird bones than I could ever hope to learn!

Finally I’d like to thank the fatastic Catherine McCarney for sharing this mystery object from the depths of the Vet School’s collections. I hope you all enjoyed this challenge!

Friday mystery object #459 answer

Last week I gave you this guest mystery object from Andy Taylor:

Image by Andy Taylor, 2023

Those paired incisors and the large diastema (or gap) behind them are characteristic of a rodent, so that narrows down the possible options by not very much, since there are well over 2250 species.

However, this specimen also has a very large infraorbital canal (that big forward-facing hole in front of the eye socket), which is a feature of the hystricomorphs – the group containing capybaras, porcupines, chinchillas, guinea pigs, hutias and suchlike. The teeth are an additional give-away for the group, with their discrete little patterns on the grinding surfaces:

Image by Andy Taylor, 2023
Image by Andy Taylor, 2023

The scale of this specimen threw me a little at first, as I’m used to dealing with metric, but this scalebar has 16 subdivisions, so it muct be imperial. Which really helps, as it means this skull is quite large for a rodent – somewhere in the region of 5 inches or 12.7cm. That immediately narrows things down a lot more.

An additional clue is in the narrow skull profile:

Image by Andy Taylor, 2023

A lot of rodents have a lower and broader skull and this kind of shape is what I expect to see from a species that moves through dense undergrowth rather than climbing, digging or swimming. This, combined with all the other clues, led me to the agoutis.

There are 12 species of agouti, so we’re still not quite there with the identification. Most species that I can find comparative material for have a significantly longer rostrum than this specimen (relative to the rest of the skull), but there are some species I’ve not been able to find a really reliable reference skull to compare against.

There is one species where I couldn’t find a great skull comparison, but which appears in living individuals to have a relatively short snout and the skull image I could find also appears to be less nasally advantaged than most agoutis. That was the Brazilian or Red-rumped Agiouti Dasyprocta leporina (Linnaeus, 1758).

I’d be keen to take a further look with some good quality reference material, but I’m reasonably happy with this. The advantage of good comparative material is that it really helps make those detailed observations about particular shapes and sizes that can be hard to properly recognise from a photo.

In a strange, but very welcome cooincidence, I had the good fortune to meet up with Andy last Friday evening. I was at the NatSCA conference in the UK – which was held just a short journey from where Andy lives. It offered a great chance to chat with a fellow bone geek and natural history fanatic and I hope to have some more guest objects from Andy and his amazing collection in the future!

Friday mystery object #459

This week I am have a great guest mystery object from Andy Taylor for you to have a go at identifying:

Image by Andy Taylor, 2023
Image by Andy Taylor, 2023
Image by Andy Taylor, 2023
Image by Andy Taylor, 2023

Here’s what Andy says about the specimen:

On Sunday, myself and Sophie Bagshaw were working through specimens that were donated to me from a person who had been given them by a zoological park. The specimen in question was part of a huge shipment of almost 140 frozen specimens that were in various states of preparation and were mostly head specimens. … I have a large rodent skull that I’m struggling to ID

Andy and Sophie have been doing great stuff with osteology for educational purposes for a while now, so it was a real pleasure to get a question like this, and it seems like a perfect opportunity for the community here to add their thoughts.

So, what do you think it is? Let us know below!

Friday mystery object #458 answer

Last week I gave you this skull from the collections of the Dead Zoo, which had been misidentified and that came to light when Dr George Argyros was doing some research on the carnivore skeletons:

The label attached to this specimen indicated that this is the skull of a Leopard, which is clearly wrong. The label also identified the specimen as having been collected in East Africa by Major A.W.V. Plunkett.

Labels like this worry me. Not because they contain a misidentification, but because they may indicate that someone in the past has mixed up the specimen labels. This is a much bigger problem than a simple misidentification, as it can mean the real specimen has become dissociated from its information.

The huge, robust teeth of this specimen should make it fairly clear that it belongs to one of those specialist bone-crushers – the hyenas:

However, there are three species of hyena to choose from (I’m leaving the Aardwolf of this, since they don’t match this dental morphology even remotely).

My first thought was that this specimen is on the small side for a Spotted Hyena:

Striped Hyena on left, Spotted Hyena on right

Size is seldom a definitive feature, especially in species that display sexual dimorphism, but what is more useful is the detail of the tiny molar at the back of the maxillary toothrow. This is absent in Spotted Hyenas, but it occurs in both Striped and Brown Hyenas.

So you might ask, how do we distinguish between Striped and Brown Hyenas? This is a good question. For starters, it’s hard to find enough reliable good images of the Brown Hyena’s skull online that show the details needed to distinguish between the species.

However, a bit of searching highlighted that the Brown Hyena has a shorter and more robust angular process of the mandible than the Striped – and the mystery object.

Image of Brown Hyena skull by David J. Stang, 2005.

This long angular process was spotted by katedmonson, but Adam Yates was the first with the identification of Striped Hyena Hyaena hyaena (Linnaeus, 1758).

This one proved a little trickier than I thought at first, due to the similarities between the Brown and the Striped species. But I’m a little relieved that the consensus fell on Striped, both here on the blog, and between myself and George, since the Striped Hyena is found in East Africa, whereas the Brown is limited to South Africa.

This at least agrees with the locality on the label, so it may well have simply been misidentified when the specimen was acquired – especially since it looks like it was skeletonised naturally, so it may have been found dead and already defleshed, making it harder to identify.

I hope you enjoyed the challenge!

Friday mystery object #457 answer

Last week I gave you this skull from the collections of the Dead Zoo to have a go at identifying:

This specimen came to light during some research being carried out on carnivore bones by Dr George Argyros, a Professor visiting us from Emory & Henry College, Virginia. It was identified as Vulpes on the label, but both George and myself were doubtful.

The specimen’s spurious identification can be tracked back to when it was named in the Museum’s register as Vulpes fulva argentata or Silver Fox. This identification was assigned to the specimen when it was given to the Royal Zoological Society by N.H.P. Vickers in March 1900 (see page 127 of the monthly Irish Naturalist covering March 1900):

The Museum bought the specimen in skeletal form from the Royal Zoological Society of Ireland in 1903 and the name Silver Fox was kept until a later review of the taxonomic hierarchy in our database, which ‘corrected’ the name to Red Fox Vulpes vulpes.

However, this name change was not based on the morphology of the specimen. The characteristic lyre-shaped sagittal crest1 immediately made both myself and George think Urocyon and the small size of the specimen made both of us converge on an identification of Island Fox Urocyon littoralis (Baird, 1857) after independent bouts of measuring.

Image of Urocyon littoralis (Island Fox) by Pacific Southwest Region USFWS, 2015.

For those of you interested in seeing the size range parameters for Island Fox skulls, this PDF of the Mammalian Species description of Urocyon littoralis is very helpful indeed.

So I offer a hearty congratulations to everyone who spotted that this skull is from the genus Urocyon, although I think most people were thinking of the Grey Fox, Urocyon cinereoargenteus.

Image of Urocyon cinereoargenteus (Grey Fox) by California Department of Water Resources, 1993.

1It probably shouldn’t really be referred to as that, since it isn’t actually sagittal, except perhaps where the two ridges meet at the very back of the skull – but you know what I mean.

Friday mystery object #456

Last weekend, I was fortunate enough to be able to visit Iceland, to witness some of it’s remarkable landscapes.

One location we visited was the infamously dangerous Reynisfjara black sand beach, with it’s “sneaker waves”, which regularly drag people out into the freezing waters.

Something else met its fate on those sands and it’s skull now sits outside the visitor centre. Any idea what it might be?

Worth noting there’s a footprint next to the skull, that gives a hint about the scale.

As always, you can add your questions, observations and suggestions in the comments box below. Have fun!

Friday mystery object #455 answer

Last week I gave you a challenge to get your teeth into:

As I suspected, everyone managed to figure out what type of animal this is, since these teeth are quite distinctive (as mammal teeth often are).

To start with, there are canines and incisors in the premaxilla (the top jaw). These are missing from things like cows, sheep and deer. So it’s not one of them. The premolars are adapted to grinding rather than cutting, so it’s not some kind of pig or carnivore.

The molar teeth are low-crowned, unlike the teeth of grazers like horses which are high crowned, to cope with the wear and tear of silica-toughened grasses. This suggests an animal that browses on softer vegetation. Also, the lophs (those ridges of enamel that join the tooth cusps) are well defined and quite distinctive in their shape. That rules out most other herbivores, including the camels and their relatives.

It turns out that this is a species that I’ve featured on the blog before (although it was almost 11 years ago!) Not a Baird’s Tapir as most people thought, but a Malayan Tapir Tapirus indicus Desmarest, 1819.

I think it’s understandable that nobody got the correct species, since the specimen is a subadult (check out the molar in the jaw that’s still developing) which will somewhat alter the proportions compared to an an adult – especially considering the photos I gave you were restricted to the teeth and missed all the useful features of the rest of the skull.

So well done to everyone who worked out that the teeth belonged to a tapir!

Friday mystery object #454

This week I’m back onto skulls for the mystery object – it’s been a while! Any idea what this handsome fellow from the Dead Zoo might be?

I’m sure that this won’t pose too much of a challenge for the more seasoned bone geeks among you, so why not try to keep the answers cryptic, so everyone can have a go at working it out. Have fun!

Friday mystery object #453 answer

Last week I gave you this LBJ (Little Brown Job) to have a go at identifying:

This is one of those birds that can be hard to identify in the field when it’s alive, but it can be even harder after spending over 100 years on display in a Museum.

I’ve mentioned this before – when dealing with taxidermy, damage to the pigments in fur and feathers caused by light exposure can significantly alter the colour of a specimen. This it will often happen preferentially – so you might find that black and red is affected more noticeably than brown for example, creating misleading colour combinations. This fading also happens on bills and claws, sometimes changing them to a light brown or yellow.

Another common issue with specimens is that on death the colour of skin can rapidly fade. This means that some common colour features that may be used in identification (e.g. yellow legs) may cease to be reliable. Some taxidermists paint these colour features back in, but some don’t.

All of this adds to the challenge, but when you have an inkling that you’re dealing with a faded specimen you can make some mental adjustments about how to interpret the appearance. This usually means putting greater emphasis on size, shape and pattern of features rather than on colour.

In the case of this specimen, most people narrowed it down to a member of the genus Linaria, but the issue with fading meant that the species that almost everyone opted for was the Twite, whereas the specimen is actually a male Common Linnet Linaria cannabina (Linnaeus, 1758), which I assume is in its winter plumage, unless the fading is REALLY bad (in the summer the males have quite a lot of red on the head and breast). The specimen was collected in Dublin and given to the Dead Zoo in 1915.

A useful feature for distinguishing between the species without relying on colour is the bill, which in the Twite is relatively small. Twites also have heavy streaking of the plumage, which should be somewhat apparent even in a faded specimen. Neither of these are apparent in this specimen.

There is a useful video guide made by the British Trust for Ornithology for distinguishing between Linnets and Twites in the field. It doesn’t extend to museum specimens, but it’s an excellent place to start!

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 #451 answer

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

In the ornithological community, birds like this are sometimes referred to as an LBB / LBJ (Little Brown Bird / Job), because they are small, brown and hard to identify (especially in the field) due to the large number of similar looking species.

This specimen has a robust, conical bill and grey-streaked breast, which led some of you to think it could be a juvenile Crossbill or perhaps a female Grosbeak. However, as indicated by Wouter van Gestel in an excellent cryptic clue (and by Tim Dixon in a rather rude one), this is a Corn Bunting Emberiza calandra Linnaeus, 1758. It was collected in County Dublin and donated to the Dead Zoo in 1880.

These seed-eating passerines were widespread in arable farmland across Ireland in the 19th and early 20th centuries. However, changing land use practices reduced the available habitat until they became locally extinct as a breeding species in the late 1990s – well within living memory for many people.

The Irish name for the Corn Bunting is Gealóg bhuachair and an interesting fact about these birds is that their populations are remarkably sedentary, allowing them to develop unique dialects in their breeding area. This means that even if this species is reintroduced to Ireland – assuming farming practices become better suited to their survival – the landscape will never again ring with quite the same song that these birds would have sung in the past.

Friday mystery object #451

Happy New Year!

2023 has started off with a bit of a bang. The Dead Zoo has been given the go-ahead for the next phase of a major redevelopment project, and yesterday I signed an employment contract accepting the position of Keeper of Natural History at the National Museum of Ireland, so it looks like I have a busy few years ahead!

But that has nothing much to do with the mystery object, so here’s the specimen I have for you to identify:

It’s probably a bit on the easy side for anyone with an interest in ornithology, so if you know what this is, please keep your answer cryptic to give everyone else a chance. If not, I hope you enjoy the challenge!

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 #449 answer

Last week I gave you this fairly distinctive mystery object to identify:

It’s a vertebra, it’s big and it’s very long. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that made it a fairly easy mystery to solve and most people correctly identified the species, although James Bryant went one better and recognised this as the sixth cervical vertebra of a Giraffe Giraffa camelopardalis Linnaeus, 1758. James also went on to share an interesting paper comparing the cervical vertebrae of the Giraffe and its closest living relative, the Okapi.

I found this specimen quite interesting beyond the extreme elongation, as it demonstrates quite a lot of asymmetry, which is a little unusual for vertebrae:

My guess is that this reflects a degree of “handedness” when fighting – and if you’re not familiar with what that looks like, you can see what I’m talking about here:

As it turns out, a preference for a particular side when fighting in Giraffes has been observed and was reported in a paper published by Granweiler et al. in 2021, so this asymmetry may indeed have a functional cause (perhaps testing this could be a nice student research project for someone?)

This ability of collections to inspire and help answer new questions, that help us better understand our natural world, is a huge part of why I love working in museums. It’s also why I enjoy sharing some of these objects with you here, so I get a chance to hear your thoughts – it means I learn something new every time. Thanks!

Friday mystery object #448 answer

Last week I gave you these bones to have a go at identifying:

These are of course three toe bones (AKA phalanges) from a large artiodactyly. The staining of the bone suggests that it’s a fossil and the fact that I work at the Dead Zoo in Dublin might have offered a contextual clue…

Three Giant Deer (female and two males) at the entrance to the Dead Zoo Irish Room gallery.

This is of course the proximal, medial and distal phalanx (the distal phalanx also being known as the ungual) from the outer side of the right hind leg of an Irish Giant Deer Megaloceros giganteus (Blumenbach, 1799). Well done to all of you who worked that out (to any degree of accuracy!)

We have quite a lot of Giant Deer in the collections of the Dead Zoo, with over 600 records on our database, ranging from individual bones to complete skeletons. This offers an unusually large sample for researchers and artists wanting to work on these huge, extinct cervids.

This toe came from the female skeleton on display in the Irish Room of the Museum. The wire armature running through holes drilled through the bones that held it in place failed. This is likely due to a combination of factors, since the skeletons were mounted well over a century ago, and the armature is made of iron, which will have been gradually corroding over time.

I suspect there may also have been an element of ‘messing’ by a member of the public, since the skeletons are on open display and these toes were well within reach of young children or even in the bashing zone of a backpack if some decided to sit on the specimen’s plinth. Obviously we try to discourage this sort of thing, but on a busy day it can be hard to keep track of everyone in the space.

It’s a shame this happened recently, as we undertook an overhaul of the Giant Deer on display before we reopened the Museum earlier this year. Fossil preparator and conservator Remmert Schouten worked with me to build new sections of armature to remount a skull, he cleaned the specimens, and undertook a variety of small repairs (including replacement of an ungual on one of the other specimens) to get all of the Giant Deer looking their best.

I’ll leave you with some of the photos and a couple of videos, one with Remmert talking about the work and one with me setting the context and overview of the project. It was an intense week of work onsite, but very satisfying to see the transformation of the specimens!