Interesting perhaps, but clearly not very challenging, since I think everyone managed to figure out what it is, despite the unusual viewing angle. Well done to Wouter van Gestel for being the first to comment.
Here’s an image of the same object from a couple of different (and somewhat more common) angles:
The large size and that very distinctive lower jaw, where the two halves of the mandible meet and run parallel for over half the length of the jaw, are unmistakeable (as noticed by Adam Yates). This is the skull of a Sperm Whale Physeter macrocephalus Linnaeus, 1758.
Nearby, I noticed a much smaller version of this specimen, housed in a much smaller version of the National Museums Scotland, which definitely deserves a mention:
The teeth of a Lego whale are probably not as efficient at keeping hold of a squid as the robust curved teeth of the real animal, and the skull is a bit less impressively huge, but it certainly has charm.
If you get a chance to visit Edinburgh I definitely recommend a trip to National Museums Scotland – not just for the Sperm Whale and the Lego, but also for one of the most impressive taxidermy dioramas I’ve ever seen. Here’s a small section to give you an idea:
It’s been a fantastic opportunity to catch up with natural history colleagues from around the world and to learn what everyone has been busy doing over the last few years. I also got to see some fantastic specimens held by NMS and I thought I’d set one of them as this week’s mystery object:
Do you have any idea what this might be?
As ever, you can leave your thoughts in the comments box below. Have fun!
You can’t tell from the photo, but it’s very dense and heavy. What you can see is that it has some quite well defined longitudinal ridges:
This isn’t something you normally find in horns, but you do find in tusks. So the question has to be, what kind of tusk is this?
I’ve talked about tusks before on this blog, and I’ve spent a lot of time identifying ivories over the years, after learning key diagnostic features from the wonderfully knowledgable Dr Sonia O’Connor, both in her training courses and working alongside her when I was at the Horniman Museum and she was visiting to do some research. This tusk reminds me of one of the more tricky ones we looked at.
The marine location suggests it could be from a Walrus. The overall shape isn’t bad, but Walrus tusks tend to be no more that about 75cm long at their longest. They also have a more squared-off section at the base and often a deeper groove on the sides partway along the length from the base, so it seems unlikely.
Really that just leaves something proboscidian – but here we hit the difficult bit. Mammoth tusks have been dredged from the sea many times, from fossils in sediments that became covered by sea level rises after the melting of glaciers around 11,500 years ago. However, Elephant tusks were transported in huge nubers to Europe by ship to supply the demands of the ivory trade between the late 18th and early 20th Century, so it is entirely possible that this is a relic of that trade (as suggested by Chris Jarvis).
In my experience, submerged Mammoth tusks are seldom in such good condition as this. While there is some degration and flaking towards the tip, there is much less of the deep staining or separation of dentine fibrils that I would normally expect from Mammoth tusk submerged for several thousand years.
However, if it was more deeply buried until recently it may have avoided the worst of that degradation, so that expectation isn’t good enough.
There is a method for distinguishing between Mammoth and Elephant ivory, that relies on an artefact of the tooth development process. This involves measuring the intersection angle of Schreger lines (an optical feature resulting from light interacting with dentine tubules) in a polished section of the tusk:
In Elephants the angle of intersection tends to be obtuse (>90o), whereas in Mammoths they are more acute (<90o). Of course, to see this would require cutting a section of tusk, so it may have to remain a mystery until the desalination treatment has been completed and I can see if there is an opportunity to check any broken surfaces or prepare a small sample.
The question in this case has to be, how important is it to know the identity, compared to the importance of keeping the specimen as intact as possible? That is a bigger conversation that will need to be had with my colleagues.
Last week I gave you this Blaschka glass model of a marine invertebrate to have a go at identifying:
It was a bit of a mean one, since it’s from a very poorly known group of animals – and I mean that in more than one way. The taxonomic group is poorly known and the model represents a group of animals, not just a single individual.
So while this looks a bit like a jellyfish, it’s actually a siphonophore, which is a type of colonial organism that has discrete cloned zooids which fulfil specialised functions, similar to organs that cooperative to create a metaorganism.
Generally in siphonophores, these zooids are arranged on a stem in an organised pattern, with either two or three main zones of specialised zooids, depending on the taxonomic Suborder.
The zooid zone common to all siphonophores is the siphosome made up of feeding zooids with stinging cells, reproductive zooids and sometimes zooids with defensive functions. The two other zooid zones are the nectosome, which is comprised of zooids that act like tiny jet engines for swimming and the pneumatophore, which is a gas-filled zooid at the top of the stalk that acts as a float:
The presence or absence of particular zones is indicative of the particular Suborder of siphonophore, where the Physonectae have all three zones, the Cystonectae lack the swimming zooid zone and the Calycophorae lack the float.
I’m telling you all of this because it helps in narrowing down the mystery object. As you can see, there is no single zooid at the top acting as a float, so it must be one of the Calycophorae.
Within the Calycophorae most families only have one or two swimming bells and although the nectosome in the mystery object is not quite up to the Blaschka’s usual level of detail, it clearly contains more than two zooids, which is a feature of the Hippopodiidae.
The Hippopodiidae only contains two genera, Vogtia and Hippopodius and the two can be distinguished by the shape of the nectophores – in Vogtia they’re pentagonal whereas in Hippopodius they’re a more simple crescent shape – as we see here.
Back when the Blaschkas were making their models, there were a few species included in the genus Hippopodius, but they only made one that’s mentioned in their catalogues:
However, as is sometimes the case with old collections, there has been a degree of dissociation of information from the specimens and one or two of our models have lost their data. This little squid is one such specimen.
I managed to track down the modern accepted name for this specimen, which is very different to the name used by the Blaschka’s when they made and sold this model. With that original name I was even able to figure out the order number from the Ward catalogue. I enjoyed the detective work and I hope you do too!
Let’s see if you all come to the same conclusion about this specimen as I did. I’ve added a couple of extra images below to help you in your quest. Have fun!
Last week I gave you this shiny green beetle with white spots (and apparently a penchant for making balloon animals) to identify:
I thought it might offer a bit more of a challenge, but I forgot about Google. It turns out that a Google Image search using the key distinguishing features provides some useful images to compare, making this easier than I expected.
As palfreyman1414 correctly recognised (followed by many others), this is the Spotted Flower Beetle Stephanorrhina guttata (Olivier, 1789).
Of course, when dealing with historic museum collections things are never quite that simple, so the specimen on display is actually referred to by the genus name Ceratorrhina which isn’t recognised today. Ceratorhina was synonymised with Cyprolais, which is a subgenus (containing the Horniman Beetle) that’s in the genus Eudicella.
Of course, that means that this specimen may have been named incorrectly in the first place, since I’ve seen nothing to suggest that Ceratorrhina has been directly linked to beetles in the genus Stephanorrhina which sometimes carry the synonym Aphelorhina in older collections information.
It would be interesting to work out how the incorrect name was applied to this display specimen, but I have an inkling that there was once a rogue curator who just liked to cause taxonomic trouble…
I enjoyed the variety of entertaining answers, ranging from a preschool drawing of a grandma with a beehive hairdo to a larval Alien, but I was also impressed by the range of cryptic clues about the identity of the specimen.
A favourite was a reference to “dealing with a pea covering” or variations on that theme, which gives us “Cope” and “pod”, which is what this is – a Copepod (which means “oar-foot” in Greek). For those of you unfamiliar with copepods are small crustaceans, many of which live as zooplankton and that as a group may make up the majority of the Earth’s animal biomass. They’re tiny, but there are countless billions of them.
This one isn’t as tiny as many of its relatives, because it has a rather different lifestyle to planktonic forms. This is a sea louse and it’s a parasite of fish. They feed on the mucus, skin and blood of fish and if they reach high levels of infestation they can be a real problem, potentially killing fish. This particular specimen has two trailing egg cases, which I think threw some of you. It was removed from a Brill and as Daniel Calleri recognised from a visit to the Grant Micrarium, it’s Lepeophtheirus hippoglossi (Krøyer, 1837).
If you’ve been to the Grant Museum and have photos from the Micrarium, or if you have any photos of tiny animals, you might fancy entering a Twitter and Instagram competition by sharing them with the hashtag #MicroMultitudes, Have fun with your photos!
Last week I gave you this mystery object to identify, found on a beach in Ireland:
It led to a lot of great cryptic comments relating to marine birds and sternum keels, but Lena was the first to comment and was spot on with the species (or at least as far as I can tell!)
Bird sterna are quite distinctive, with overall shape giving an indicator of mode of life. Long narrow but well-developed keels like this tend to be seen in marine birds that use their wings to fly underwater. The shape of the bottom and sides of the sternum tend to be quite specific to particular genera and species, making sterna pretty good for identification.
Last week I gave you this unassuming bit of bone, that I found with no identification in the Grant Museum of Zoology stores:
Daniel Jones and Daniel Calleri identified the element as a radius, but beyond that there was a general feeling that identification of species was a bit on the tricky side. Palfreyman1414 pointed out that it’s something approximately human sized, with Lena ruling out an ungulate, suggesting that it could be from a carnivore or possibly a marsupial.
I must admit that my mind immediately went to carnivores and I initially thought it could be from a Black Bear, since it’s fairly robust and about the right length. However, after checking the ever helpful Adams & Crabtree book I realised that bears are even more chunky than this.
It didn’t look right for a dog since they are straighter, have a flatter profile and a narrower distal end. However, it did look right for a big cat and I’m fairly certain that it’s from a Leopard Panther pardus (Linnaeus, 1758). If you want to compare a Leopard with a Dog radius you can see them compared in this paper, along with a good description of the bones of the Leopard forearm.
A bit of a tricky challenge – so next time I may try to do something a bit more distinctive!
Last week I gave you this part of a skull to have a go at identifying:
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:
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.
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!
Last week I gave you this zoomed in picture of a specimen to have a go at identifying:
It was a bit tricky, so I also gave you this bonus clue to help:
I was impressed to see that, despite the limited information available from the images provided, many of you managed to work out that this shows the lightweight ‘honeycomb’ structure that supports the casque of a hornbill.
That was the first challenge but, as ever, I was keen to see if you could get the identification to species – far more of a challenge considering the lack of a side view of the skull and lack of a scale. To make up for that I’ve decided to provide the necessary image here:
I won’t say what species this is in this post, as I normally would, just to give some more of you a chance to make the identification yourself. However, what I will say is that the very first response by Wood contained a link to an image of the correct species and later to a blogpost featuring this very specimen. In that post there is a discussion about the appearance of the casque, with speculation about whether it had been damaged during preparation, resulting in its appearance. However, as Richard Lawrence pointed out, this appearance is actually normal for the skulls of several species of hornbill.
I will also say that the discussion between Daniel Calleri & Dan Jones and Richard Lawrence about whether it was a hornbill from a genus starting with A or B was interesting and I initially thought it was an A, but am now convinced that it’s a C.
Last week I gave you this mystery object supplied by Dr David Hone:
This is the premaxilla of a fish, but that doesn’t narrow things down much, since there are 28,000 species of bony fish, leaving a huge range of possibilities.
There were several suggestions of Wolf Fish, which is what I originally thought it was myself, but that’s not what it is. Then the suggestions of various Wrasse species started cropping up – which is a lot more likely.
My first look at Wrasse teeth came when I tried to identify the fish used in the Horniman’s Merman:
There are a lot of Wrasse, over 600 species in fact, so it can be hard to narrow down the species, especially when few comparative specimens are available.
Last week I asked for your opinion on this mystery object:
It had originally been identified as Boa constrictor and then reidentified as Green Anaconda, but I didn’t believe either of those options.
There was some activity in the comments, from the initial observation that it’s a snake from Wood, to Andy Mills’ suggestion of Python, with palfreyman1414 and Daniel Jones and Daniel Calleri’s discussing how to tell whether it’s a boid or pythonid.
In fact, palfreyman1414 did some sterling work tracking down characteristics to help distinguish between these commonly confused groups, with this handy comment:
“The postfrontal bone, usually present, borders the orbit behind, rarely also above, and in the pythons a supraorbital bone is intercalated between it and the prefrontal bone.”
“Boids are, however, distinguished from the pythons in that none has postfrontal bones or premaxillary teeth”
The postfrontal character is a bit less obvious and I’m not fully convinced by it – not because there isn’t an extra bone in the pythons compared to the boas (there is), it’s just whether it’s a postfrontal, a supraorbital or a post orbital. That depends on the reference you read. To help get an idea of the bits we’re talking about, I’ve highlighted them here (purple for premaxilla, pink for the bit missing in boids, call them what you like):
Comparing overall skull shapes in snakes is not very effective, since the skull is very loosely articulated to allow it to deform when swallowing large prey, so when mounted they can be very variable in shape. Because of this you need to compare the shapes of the various bones that make up the skull to narrow it down.
Last week I gave you this crocodilian skull from the Grant Museum of Zoology to see if you had any thoughts about which species it might be:
It turns out that you did indeed have some excellent thoughts about the identification, with Cindy Nelson-Viljoen immediately getting it right, with astute observations from David Godfrey and palfreyman1414, plus another correct responses from Joe Vans (as well as Tone Hitchcock and Henry McGhie not via the comments section).
Part of my reason for wanting to show you this specimen was to force myself to look for some good online resources to get more familiar with crocodilian morphology. As it turns out, I did find a very useful comparative image, which shows the size and shape of the mandibular foramen (a large gap between the bones in the side of the lower jaw) is a helpful feature:
In this species the foramen is small, which when considered with the overall proportion is quite distinctive. Of course, this image does not include all 24(ish) living crocodilian species, but it does provide a pretty good range. Hopefully this will help speed up future croc skull identifications, at least allowing certain species to be discounted.
If you have any good tips for crocodile identification please share below!
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:
As always, I would love to hear your thoughts below and let’s see if we can find some good diagnostic features!
Last week I gave you this mystery object to identify:
It’s the kind of thing you find in museum collections quite often, but it will commonly be misidentified – especially in anthropology collections where (in my experience) it will commonly be referred to as a claw or big cat tooth.
However, nobody who commented went down that route, recognising that the hollow base and well defined crown indicates that it’s an open rooted tooth of some sort. In mammals an open root at this size that would suggest a pig tusk or perhaps a whale tooth, but this isn’t mammalian.
In fact, this tooth is from something even less cuddly than a whale, something crocodilian. This was recognised first by Carlos Grau, but others who came to the same conclusion included Jonathan Larwood, Daniel Jones, palfreyman1414, Wouter van Gestel and Charne. More specifically, this tooth is from a Gharial, Gavialis gangeticus (Gmelin, 1789). This Gharial from the Grant Museum of Zoology in fact:
Grant Museum of Zoology Specimen LDUCZ-Y215
Gharial teeth are a bit less conical than the teeth of most crocodiles and alligators. Presumably the curve helps prevent their main diet of fish from getting free when caught.
Gharials are sexually dimorphic, with the adult males bearing a big rounded bony knob on the end of their rostrum, this is where the name Gharial comes from, as this feature resembles a local earthenware pot called a “ghara”. Sadly, these distinctive crocodilians are critically endangered, with just a few hundred left alive in the wild. They are affected by habitat loss, egg theft and use in traditional medicines.
More mysteries next week and if you fancy hearing me talking about animals you might be interested in coming to Animal Showoff at the Grant Museum of Zoology next Thursday evening!