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!
Most people spotted that this was a canid of some sort – but there was a lot of discussion about exactly what sort.
Allen Hazen made an interesting observation about the reduced second molar (missing in the specimen, but the socket shows that it was there and smaller than you’d expect from most dogs), plus the remarkably convex facial profile. Useful observations that have a bearing on the identification.
The Dhole Cuon alpinus (Pallas, 1811) is an endangered Asiatic Wild Dog, that hunts in clans and feeds on a variety of medium to large mammals that are usually killed after an extended chase.
I’d not seen the skull of one of these before, but I was aware that they have a convex profile, so it was my immediate suspicion when I saw the mystery object and the species was confirmed by the unusually simple structure of the first molar and very reduced second molar, which are almost cat-like in their adaptation for shearing meat.
All in all, an exciting skull to find – and there are other unidentified canids in the same box that I’m itching to take a look at, so keep your eyes peeled for more mystery mutts.
On Twitter the prevailing hypothesis was that this is the skull of an Alien Xenomorph, which was also proposed by Daniel Calleri, but most the comments here on Zygoma were a bit more down to Earth.
The identification started being narrowed down by Sisyphus47 and palfreyman1414 who recognised it as a reptile, which was narrowed down further by joe vans to a fossorial (or burrowing) lizard.
Allen Hazen, John D’Angelo and Daniel Calleri took it another step further and identified this as an amphisbaenian or worm lizard, but Rebecca Watling went even better and identified it as the skull of a Red Worm Lizard Amphisbaena alba Linnaeus, 1758. The morphology is very close and the size is right, so that’s the identification I’d also reached.
Amphisbaena alba by Diogo B. Provete
I’ve talked about Amphisbaenia before, but this one is a good bit bigger than most other species and the skull is oddly similar to that of a Weasel. I’m not really sure why, because the diet of these strange reptiles is very poorly known. It seems likely that they’ll eat invertebrates and small vertebrates, presumably in burrows, which does actually sound similar to a Weasel.
This week I have a mystery specimen for you that was only identified only as “Pygostylia” when it came back from being conserved:
It look a few minutes for me to work out what family this bird belongs to, because it’s been treated with alizarin and it just looks plain weird (if you want a bit more information about this sort of preparation check out my latest Specimen of the Week on the Grant Museum of Zoology blog). I still haven’t narrowed it down to genus yet, so your thoughts would be much appreciated. Have fun!
It’s been a while since I last wrote much on my blog, apart from the regular Friday mystery object. Mainly that’s because I’ve been busy getting to grips with a new collection at the Grant Museum of Zoology, where I am now the Curator. Just before I left my previous job at the Horniman Museum & Gardens I curated an exhibition that has a nice Eastery link (which will become apparent), that I thought might be worth writing about.
Despite the suboptimal exhibition space in Naples (thanks to the fact that the building it was meant to be displayed in was a pile of charcoal), the quality of the science, the objects in the exhibition and the vibrant and exciting artwork by the awesome palaeoartist Luis Rey made it well worth considering for the Horniman, which tries to get in a blockbuster temporary exhibition every year.
This exhibition focuses on the eggs, offspring and parental care of dinosaurs. A family focus is right up the Horniman’s street, and that’s what led to the change in the exhibition title, to bring more focus on that family element, without losing sight of the DINOSAURS!
Star of the exhibition
Of course, making an exhibition intellectually fit into a museum takes more than just changing the name, so the temporary exhibitions at the Horniman include objects from the permanent collection, with links to activities and other content. So while working out my notice from the Horniman I was feverishly selecting objects and writing text to help build that link before I left.
It has to be said that seeing members of the public engaging with your work is incredibly satisfying, so when the exhibition opened in February I was delighted to see people reading my text and really getting interested in the objects I’d picked to tell the story of parental care in living animal groups.
I was also keen to take the opportunity to help the Horniman build closer links with one of their patrons (and a living legend for pretty much every naturalist out there), Sir David Attenborough, who kindly agreed to loan the Elephant Bird egg he found when filming Zoo Quest in Madagascar. This for me is the ultimate version of an egg hunt.
Have a great Easter weekend – I hope you get all the eggs you could ask for!
Last week I gave you this ungulate skull to try your hand at identifying:
It isn’t made any easier by the fact that it’s a female, so it lacks the horns or antlers that make identification easier. As with many ungulates it looks a bit sheepy (as I’ve mention before), but it has some clear indicators that helped you rule out what it’s not.
Jake spotted that the size was about right for a Roe Deer, but the auditory bullae (the bulbs on the underside of the skull that house the ear bones) are too massive and the proportions of the braincase are quite different.
Joe vans also ruled out deer, since it lacks lacrimal pits (large openings in front of the eyes that hold scent glands in cervids). Joe also noticed that the mandible is extremely pinched in just behind the incisors.
The incisors themselves caught the attention of Allen Hazen, who noted the extreme size of the first incisor, which he correctly recognised as being a bit of a giveaway to some people, although only when considered in the context of a variety of other features.
While Daniel Calleri summarised these odd features and added the observation of the decent sized occiptial condyl (the place where the atlas vertebra attaches to the skull) and small paracondylar processes (the bony extensions either side of the occipital condyl and just behind the auditory bullae).
These sorts of observations are exactly what are needed to differentiate between species that are very similar in overall morphology. However, without either an excellent reference collection, or even better, a well researched key, it’s almost impossible.
Last week I gave you this mystery object to get your input on:
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”.
Labelled “Sheep” but actually a Gerenuk.
This is what a sheep looks like:
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):
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.
It was a bit of mean one, because although the family is fairly distinctive, it has poor species representation in online resources or indeed the literature.
The cranium is quite low and long, with some similarities to an otter, but the rostrum (or muzzle) is a bit too narrow and the teeth aren’t quite the right shape. Also the orbits are orientated more vertically, whereas otters have orbit that are at more of an angle so the eyes are closer to the top of the head.
Narrowing down the species was a step too far however, after all, there are around 34 species spread across Africa, Madagascar and Asia and Europe and they are generally quite similar in cranial morphology, with only a few species having good descriptions of the skull.
To help challenge the lack of images of mongoose crania online, I’m pleased to say that this specimen does have an identification – it’s a Ruddy Mongoose Herpestes smithii Gray, 1837. While the name Ruddy Mongoose makes it sound like it’s annoyed me, it actually refers to the reddish-brown of its coat.
A Ruddy mongoose from Daroji wildlife sanctuary in Karnataka, India. By Kalyanvarma, 2009
This species is endemic to India and Sri Lanka, where it lives in dry, forested hills and feeds on pretty much anything it can get hold of, from snakes to bird eggs. As with other mongooses (or should that be mongeese?), they have a mutation that prevents snake neurotoxins from bonding at receptor sites, meaning that they are immune to some types of venom – pretty handy if you’re going to eat snakes!
Last Friday I gave you this odd looking V-shaped bone to identify:
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:
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.
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
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.
Last week I gave you this mystery object from the Grant Museum of Zoology to have a go at identifying:
If you’ve been checking the mystery object recently you’ll notice that this specimen has a feature of the palate that I made reference to in the answer to mystery object #267 – the Tasmanian Devil. It’s incompletely ossified, which is a characteristic of marsupials.
The large curved canines and pointed premolars suggest some predatory activity, while the flattened molars suggest some grinding of vegetation, making this one of the marsupial omnivores, in the Order Peramelemorphia.
The large size of the skull and the long curved canines make this specimen rather distinctive – as first spotted by Richard Lawrence, this is indeed a Continue reading →
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:
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:
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!
It already had an identification of sorts on a label, but I didn’t believe it for a moment:
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:
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.