Friday mystery object #245

This week I have a guest mystery object for you from Dr Nick Crumpton at the NHM.

Hello Zygoma fans. Nick Crumpton here from across the way at the Natural History Museum in South Ken.

Well, this fellow completely stumped me for a few hours this week on finding it in our teaching collection:

mystery245

Until, that is, I called on the always helpful advice of Mr Viscardi (OK, and a certain Mr Garrod too…)

I’d love to see whether anyone can work out what it is, and how they figured it out!

You can leave your suggestions and thoughts in the comments section below – enjoy!

Friday mystery object #232 answer

Last Friday I gave you this nice robust skull to identify:

mystery232

There was a healthy discussion about possible identifications, with the importance of scale mentioned more than once (by Jake, palaeosam, Lena and Robin Birrrdegg). Not only is this a robust skull, it’s also quite large, ruling out the British carnivores – and it clearly is a carnivore judging by the canines and the well-defined sagittal crest.

The lack of cutting and puncturing premolars and molars means that cats, dogs, hyaenas and other very carnivorous large carnivores can be ruled out, narrowing down the likely options in the right size range to the bears, as recognised by palaeosam, Ric Morris, Robin Birrrdegg, Will Viscardi, cromercrox, cackhandedkate, Lena, Daniel Calleri, henstridgesj and Carlos.

The species is a bit more difficult to work out, but the big sagittal crest and fused sutures suggests that this is not an juvenile bear, meaning it’s too small for a bear of the Brown  or Polar variety. That still leaves quite a range of other possible bears, but the pronounced forehead and long square muzzle rules out the Giant Panda, Sun Bear, Spectacled Bear and Asiatic Black Bear, while the big robust incisors rule out the Sloth Bear. That leaves the American Black Bear Ursus americanus Pallas, 1780.

Ursus americanus by Mike Bender/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2008

Ursus americanus by Mike Bender/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2008

So well done to cromercrox, Carlos and Robin Birdeggg who all got the species correct!

Friday mystery object #223 answer

Last Friday I gave you this fine feline to have a go at identifying:

mystery223

I was a little suspicious of the identification attached to the specimen, but Al Klein suggested the same species – the Jaguarundi Puma yagouaroundi (É. Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, 1803) [link opens pdf].

My reasons for suspicion were the nature of the post-orbital constriction (the narrowing of the braincase behind the eyes), the nature of the zygomaticotemporal suture between the temporal process of the zygomatic and the zygomatic process of the temporal bone (the bit where two bones meet to make the arch of the cheek) and the shape of the nasal bones where they meet the frontals (the V shaped bones above the nose area).

The observation by henstridgesj that the skull was similar to the previous mystery object (Leopardus tigrinus) was a good one, so I decided to research the genus Leopardus in a bit more detail, to see if there was a better match.

It turns out that the skull I found that matched this one most closely – especially with regard to the relative lack of a post-orbital constriction and the nasal-frontal junction – was the highly arboreal Margay Leopardus wiedii (Schinz, 1821) [link opens pdf].

Margay - Leopardus wiedii, Summit Municipal Parque, Panama. By Brian Gratwicke.

I’m always a bit reticent to re-identify specimens that have original labels from the supplier attached as this one does, but this comes from suppliers (Dr.s Schlüter & Mass) that I know have seriously misidentified or mislabelled specimens in the past (e.g. labelling a African Lappet-faced Vulture as an Andean Condor from Bolivia).

Of course, the real identification may be even more complicated, since the South American cats have a bit of a track record for hybridising to the point of masking distinct species, so any identification I make will be laden with disclaimers and caveats. The joy of real-world animals when contrasted against nice simple biological concepts…

What is a curator?

What is a curator?

Every so often I’ll meet someone who asks me what I do; this draws the response “I’m a natural history curator”*. Sometimes I will then be faced with the dreaded follow-up question “what does that mean?”

I hate it when this happens, because the curatorial role involves lots of different things and it can be hard to summarise them in any kind of concise and intelligible way. Different museums expect different things from curators, which will usually depend on the rest of the staffing structure. So when I answer I can only really answer for myself and what I think MY curatorial role entails.

DSC02587

The most obvious responsibility is “curating collections”, which is not actually an explanation in any meaningful way. To curate more or less means to “take care of”, but these days the museum sector has become professionalised and there are other specialists who take on much of the duty of care; conservators, collections managers, documentalists and so on.

What I bring to the care side of things overlaps with these roles, but my spin is to bring subject specialist knowledge to the mix.

This allows me to help other departments by providing them with useful information. For example, non-specialist staff will largely have to go by what’s written on an object label, whereas I am expected to check that information and challenge old taxonomy and misidentifications. I may also provide additional or new information about objects by researching their history or identifying parts of their composition.

A nice illustration of this can be seen in these two objects – one from the Horniman Museum & Gardens‘ Anthropology collection (top) and one from the Natural History collection (bottom):

Oddject2

The Natural History specimen had originally been mislabelled by the original supplier as the skull of an Andean Condor from Bolivia, which I had spotted and corrected to Lappet-faced Vulture (a species from Africa) after a bit of research. The Anthropology specimen was originally identified as being an  ‘eagle skull’ charm from Nigeria and it was simple to provide a more detailed species identification after having done the work on the Natural History specimen.

This sort of fact-checking and enrichment of data is essential for museums if we are to provide an accurate, reliable and authoritative resource for our audiences.

The same need for fact-checking also applies to quality television programmes, so it is perhaps unsurprising that museum curators will often be involved in documentaries, either as a presenter (like George McGavin or Richard Fortey), an expert that gets wheeled in to provide context (I think all curators have done this!), or as a shadowy figure behind the scenes baby-sitting an object or advising on content (I was scientific advisor for Ben Garrod’s excellent Secrets of Bones for example and I have fond memories of fiercely guarding an Indian Elephant leg at the filming of the Royal Institution’s Christmas Lecture “Why Elephant’s Can’t Dance“).

elephantleg1

An Elephant leg that I had to babysit for 14 hours (with no comfort break) for the filming of a Royal Institution Christmas Lecture

I’m all for getting collections used like this, since I think that the real value of collections lies in their use. This may be scientific, educational or artistic use – it doesn’t matter which, as long as the use doesn’t significantly compromise the objects and contributes to a wider understanding or appreciation of the world. In some cases you can manage both – a project I’ve been involved in with fine art photographer Sean Dooley is a good example of this.

Another large part of what I do is science communication. Museums were one of the earliest methods by which the general population could access decent quality information about the wider world and, despite the rise of the telly, museums still serve as an important interface between the academic world and the public.

This means that I get to research topics (in varying amounts of detail) that are relevant to our collections and audiences and produce exhibitions, give talks and write articles communicating that research. Sometimes this will be somewhat on the dry side (like a methodological paper about measuring skulls), while other times it will be a bit more fun, like my stint as #ExtremeCurator:

For me science communication and museum advocacy goes beyond the museum walls and 9-5 working hours, so I also organise free monthly science-related events in a London pub, I’m a trustee of the Natural Sciences Collections Association, I do evening talks all around the UK, I tweet and of course I am a #MuseumBlogger here at Zygoma.

This last activity has been both hard work and incredibly enjoyable. The hard work comes from the discipline required to organise and write a weekly blogpost, while the enjoyment has come from the fantastic community that has developed around the Friday Mystery Object posts (which have now been running for about five years). I’ve found that my knowledge has increased a huge amount and I’ve been able to encourage and help support other people in their interest.

My favourite example of this is Jake, who has been reading my blog since he was seven! Now he’s twelve and has already published an incredible book on bones that I was lucky enough to be able to help with. It’s the unexpected things like this that make blogging so worthwhile and which make my job the best job in the world!

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*my job title is actually “Deputy Keeper of Natural History”, but that’s a term even less familiar than “curator”.

Friday mystery object #216 answer

Last Friday I gave you this mystery sternum to identify:

mystery216

I had a rough idea of the family, but I was less certain about the species. As it turns out I’m now less sure of the family than I was before, in light of some useful comments.

At first I thought this was the sternum of a member of the Strigidae or the ‘True Owls’ – something that Jake also thought with his suggestion of Tawny Owl Strix aluco, but henstridgesj and Daniel Jones raised the possibility of it being from a seabird and Daniel Calleri suggested it could also be from a member of the Halcyonidae or the ‘Tree Kingfisher’ family.

With the Christmas and New Year break I haven’t had a chance to get to our stores to check specimens, but there is a very useful website that deals with seabird osteology (helpfully called Seabird Osteology) which has some images of sterna. Several of the Procellariiformes (the order containing the Albatrosses, Petrels, Shearwaters, etc.) have a similarly short sternum with a double notched bottom margin, as do some of the Laridae or the Gull family.

I also checked an image of a Kookaburra from a previous mystery object, which doesn’t show the sternum well, but which does hint at a double notched bottom margin:

Laughing Kookaburra Dacelo novaeguineae skeleton

Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae) skeleton

This has left me slightly less confident that last week’s mystery object is from an owl, but here are a couple of other owl sterna for comparison:

Barn Owl Tyto alba sternum and coracoid

Barn Owl (Tyto alba) sternum and coracoid

As you can see, the Barn Owl sternum above doesn’t quite have the double notch, although the size is about right. The Eurasian Eagle Owl sternum below (ignore the coracoids and other bits of the pectoral girdle) is a much closer fit, although substantially larger.

Bubo_bubo_sternum_coracoid

Eurasian Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo) sternum, coracoid, furcula and scapula

I’ll see if I can find a Tawny Owl sternum to check against, because the shape does seem pretty good for one of the Strigidae and the size is about the same as a Barn Owl, which is in a different family, but has a size range that overlaps with the Tawny Owl. Of course, it could also be from one of the other medium sized owls, like the Long-eared or Short-eared Owls… more to come!

UPDATE 14:30 on 3rd January 2014

Here’s a Tawny Owl sternum!

Tawny Owl (Strix aluco) sternum

It’s pretty close, but the notches seem a bit deeper, so perhaps one of the Asioninae (Eared Owls) might be a better match for the mystery object?

Friday mystery object #214 answer

Apologies for the lateness of the FMO this week, my excuse is a rather apt bout of illness, where some of the alveolar bone of my mandible has been lost due to an infection, leaving me feverish and thoroughly miserable.

But enough about my me, this is the mandible I’m supposed to be talking about:

mystery214

There was a fascinating discussion about the possible identification in the comments last week, so a big ‘thanks!’ to all of the contributors who provided their informative observations (too many to mention everyone by name!). A mustelid of some sort was quickly agreed upon and the general consensus moved towards an otter of some kind, before starting to drift away again.

Two comments in particular were particularly pertinent. The first was from Daniel Jones:

Alright . . . instantly the foramina on the mandible anterior to the premolars scream Otter! However, the incisors don’t. The incisors just lateral to the canines should be larger and longer than any of the other incisors among the otters (even the Asian Short-clawed Otter).

Now my identification for this specimen was indeed Asian Short-clawed Otter Aonyx cinerea (Illiger, 1815), so this comment made me a bit concerned. However, on checking some images online I realised that the long lateral incisors are present in the premaxilla, but not the mandible – an easy detail to miss.

The second comment was by Allen Hazen:

Anyway… The talonid on the first molar of the one in the picture is BIG.

The reason I found this comment useful was that the long and broad talonid (that’s the flatter grinding section on the molar) is what confirmed the Asian Short-clawed otter identification for me (although the small size was a good first clue).  This became quite clear from an image on the Otter Specialist Group webpage.

The Asian Short-clawed Otter presumably has this large talonid because it has a diet mainly composed of crustaceans rather than fish, and it needs the extra crushing area on the molar to crack open tough exoskeletons.

Who would think you’d get teeth as formidable as these on such an adorable little critter?

#bonegeeks

There are some great resources online for finding images of comparative material for skulls, but the postcranial skeleton tends to be quite badly represented online even for common species. I’d love to change that, but it’s a big challenge for one person.

Paramastoid process of Pig (Sus scrofa)

Paramastoid process of Pig (Sus scrofa)

That’s why I’d like to set up #bonegeeks on Twitter (and maybe on other social media as well). The way I see it, people who have access to skeletal material could easily take snaps of bits of postcrania from known species (preferably with something for scale) using their phone and share the image to Twitter, Tumblr or Facebook with the name of the species and the bone (and perhaps where the specimen is held).

With the #bonegeeks tag it should be easy to collate images and hopefully start building up a comparative collection of images to make identifications easier.

It could start with a bone of the week to get the seldom depicted bones better represented and I’m sure #bonegeeks would be willing to respond to requests if there were particular bones that someone wanted to see.

I wonder if this could work… shall we give it a go and find out? Please add your thoughts on this idea in the comments section below or on Twitter using the #bonegeeks hashtag.

Oh and here’s how the idea got started: [View the story “#bonegeeks” on Storify]

World Rhino Day 2013

I thought I’d do a quick update on rhinos here on Zygoma, since the theft of their horns from museum collections is something that I’ve been keeping an eye on for a while.

For the museum professionals out there it has been tough, with more thefts taking place since I published on the situation from a museum perspective at the end of 2011. On a more heartening note, there have been more arrests as well.

Of course, things have been far tougher on the rhino populations.

Poaching rates in South Africa show a steep increase since 2009, when the new wave in poaching was started after a rumour that a Vietnamese official was cured of liver cancer using powdered horn. It will be interesting to see whether the increase in poaching rate will follow the trend of the last few years, following the recent arrest of a man reputed to be one of the kingpins of the poaching and smuggling operation from South Africa.

rhino_poaching_prediction

Since the boom in poaching, rhino populations have been in decline around the world. In some cases that decline has been very rapid. In 2011 the Western Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis longipes Zukowsky, 1949) was declared extinct and the Javan Rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus Desmarest, 1822) now only has one surviving subspecies, made up of maybe 40 individuals. All of this because of a single story about cancer.

As with most anecdotal claims for cancer cures (from use of vitamins to homoeopathy) there is no good evidence that rhino horn has any effect. Spontaneous remission happens and, assuming the story about the Vietnamese official contained any shred of truth there were probably numerous other treatments being used at the same time, making it impossible to identify which treatment had any effect.

If rhino horn was effective, then you might expect the countries that use it, like China, to have a lower cancer mortality rate than other parts of the world – but this is not the case. Even practitioners of Traditional Asian Medicine have explicitly stated that there is no evidence that rhino horn can cure cancer.

Moreover, if rhino horn did have any effect on a cancer, that effect should also be found by using powdered cattle hooves – a cheaper and more sustainable product. Rhino horn use is not sustainable at all. If the poaching rates continue to increase as they have been, my very quick and dirty calculations suggest that rhinos could be extinct in South Africa in as little as 10 years.

predicted_SA_rhino_decline

This is why it’s so important to raise awareness of the problems facing rhinos and communicate the fact that rhino horn is not a cure for cancer. Time is potentially very short for the populations that remain.

Friday mystery object #205 answer

Last Friday I gave you these tiny bones to identify:

mystery205

Several suggestions were put forward with soph coming close with the suggestion of a broken furcula and Lena and henstridgesj correctly suggesting the clavicles (or collarbones) of a Cat Felis catus Linnaeus, 1758.

Cat clavicles, like the clavicles of a variety of other animals, are much reduced and are no longer connected to the scapulae (shoulder blades). This allows the scapulae to move much more freely during running, which can increase stride length and in the case of Cats it allows the animal to fit through holes big enough to get their heads through (assuming the Cat isn’t a bit too portly).

These sorts of vestigial structures are interesting from an evolutionary perspective, since they serve little or no direct function, but they still develop as a result of inheritance from ancestral forms that did use them.

In the case of Cats that form would have been around quite some time ago (probably 61.5 – 71.2 million years ago) since the closest related group to the Carnivora with a well-developed clavicle (that I can think of) would be the Chiroptera (bats), where it plays an important role in flight.

Since that divergence of the Chiroptera and the lineage giving rise to the Pangolins, Carnivora and Ungulata the clavicle has been pretty much completely lost, so it’s interesting that even a vestigial form occurs in Cats.

It’s funny to think how such small bones can raise questions that lead us through millions of years of evolution in search of answers, but that’s the nature of studying nature!

Friday mystery object #204 answer

Last Friday I gave you this unusual tooth to identify:

mystery204

It had me a bit stumped, as I couldn’t think of many things big enough for a tooth this size and I could think of even fewer with a tooth this shape.

My first thought was one of the smaller toothed whales, since this would be in the right size range and the open root is similar to what you see in a Sperm Whale:

Tooth of a Sperm Whale in a Hand by Lord Mountbatten

But the low and wide shape was all wrong for most of the whale teeth I can think of, except perhaps for the rather odd tusks found in the mandibles of some species of beaked whale.

In fact, I was thinking that it might be the tusk of a juvenile or female Gray’s Beaked Whale, given the shape of the male’s tusks.

However, Laura McCoy made a very useful observation (initially via ermineofthenorth) about the upper incisors (or premaxillary incisors) of the  Continue reading

Friday mystery object #203 answer

Last Friday I gave you this rather large scapula that I discovered in a crate in the Horniman’s stores to identify:

mystery203

It wasn’t an easy one, since there are relatively few distinctive features on a scapula compared to something like a skull.

Jake has talked about scapulae on his blog before and that provides a good place to see that this specimen is most likely from an ungulate – but an ungulate much bigger than a Red Deer. This led to suggestions for Cow, Horse, Aurochs and one of the larger species of deer. 

Outside the comments section on Zygoma there were also suggestions of Giraffe and Giant Irish Deer and I wondered about Camel.

All in all, there were a lot of suggestions, but none of these looked quite right when I searched for comparative material – although finding good images of scapulae online wasn’t easy. I did, however, find a useful video explaining the differences between Horse, Cow (or Ox) and Camel scapulae:

This was enough for me to rule out each of those animals, although the closest was the Cow – in particular the relative sizes of the two faces (called fossae) on either side of the raised ridge called the spine. However, the shape of the acromion (the hooked bit of the raised spine that points towards the shoulder joint) didn’t seem blunt enough for a Cow.

The size differences in the fossae turn out to be about the same in Sheep and deer as in Cow, which led me back in the direction of Jake’s deer scapulae, which seemed to most closely match the shape, if not the absolute size.

Taking the size into account I realised that this animal must stand almost twice the height of a Red Deer, which narrows it down to just one modern species – the Moose or Eurasian Elk Alces alces (Linnaeus, 1758), which can stand at over 2m at the shoulder compared to the Scottish Red Deer’s (still imposing) 1.22m.

Bull Chukotka Moose by Beloki

I still need to double-check my identification against a confirmed Moose scapula, but from looking at some images of Moose skeletons online it seems that the shape of both the fossae and the acromion fit well.

So a big thanks to everyone for their help in identifying this and special props to newcomer Jeanie who seems to have been spot-on about this being from a cervid. Thanks!

Friday mystery object #201 answer

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

mystery201

It was not an easy one and I was hoping that nobody would work out what it was, but as usual some of you managed to figure it out. So, big congratulations to cackhandedkate and Jake who suggested the surface of a tongue and henstridgesj for working out that these 2mm hooks are from the tongue of a cat – a BIG cat.

These are in fact the barbs or aculei  from the tongue of a young Tiger Panthera tigris (Linnaeus, 1758)

aculei_tiger_tongue

This small sealed box has no date associated, but the style of the label and the number suggest that it probably one of the early specimens acquired by Frederick Horniman before he built the Horniman Museum, dating to 1886 or perhaps earlier.

The aculei on cat tongues are interesting adaptations not seen in other carnivores (at least none that I can find any information for). The rows of hooks are ideal for grooming – like a stiff brush, but they are also a useful tool for removing meat from bones.

This is particularly handy when you have a relatively short face with incisors that form a broad straight row for clamping windpipes shut, unlike the narrower incisor row that you find in the dogs, which act a bit like like tweezers for removing meat on bone.

Photo of Tiger grooming by Tennessee Wanderer on Flickr

Photo of Tiger grooming by Tennessee Wanderer on Flickr

The aculei are made of keratin, the same protein that claws, hair and horns are made from. It may seem quite difficult to evolve lots of small claws on your tongue, but you might be surprised to know that the cells that secrete keratin (called keratinocytes) are the the most common cells on the surface of your skin (including your tongue) where they play an important role in fighting infection and repairing damage.

In order for these cells to secrete enough keratin to grow a small claw, they need to get a bit bigger so they can secrete more of the protein. They also need a simple mechanism that gives the resulting structure a useful shape.

Mammalian tongues are already covered in little structures called ‘papilla’, with three types containing taste buds and one type, the filiform papilla, that provide grip on the surface of the tongue, making it easier to eat ice-cream. It’s these filiform papilla that have adapted in the cats to make a structure with enough grip to lick the meat off a bone.

I’m actually a bit surprised that more mammals don’t have tongue barbs like cats, although there are other animals out there that have specialised tongues with other keratinous structures, like the horny tips of Woodpecker tongues and the tiny bristles of some Fruitbats.

Still, nothing says ‘obligate carnivore’ like a tongue covered in sharp hooks. Considering the length of the aculei I wouldn’t fancy being licked by a Tiger – their tongue looks like it could take human skin right off. However, it has given me an idea for how to quickly and easily remove wallpaper using a Tiger and a bucket or two of Bovril.

Friday mystery object #201

This week I have a mystery object that’s a bit dusty and not much to look at, but which is one of my favourite historic specimens at the Horniman Museum.

I have the feeling that it might stump everyone this time, but let’s see how you do. Any idea what this is?

mystery201

Scale = 10mm

As usual you can put your comments, questions and suggestions below and I’ll give you some clues if you need them. Good luck!

Friday mystery object #200 answer

Last week I gave you this object to identify:

mystery200

It was a bit of a mean one, since it had no scale bar and the specimen is quite old and dried out, so it doesn’t look much like the living animal.

I had hoped that this would mean that nobody would manage to identify it, but I wasn’t at all surprised when correct suggestions started coming in.

Dave Hone was the first to get the correct kind of animal, although he was a bit thrown by the outer surface – vannabarber was also on the right track, but thrown by the texture. In fact the texture led to some interesting suggestions, including pumice, fossil, bezoar and Pompeian pinecone.

In the end, henstridgesj made the right connection and identified the species, with Anna Pike, rachel and Crispin Wiles all coming to the same conclusion. This is the dried and shrivelled remnant of a Gumboot (or Giant Western Fiery) Chiton Cryptochiton stelleri (Middendorff, 1847). Also known as the ‘Wandering Meatloaf’ for obvious reasons!

Cryptochiton stelleri (Gum Boot Chiton) by Jerry Kirkhart

Chitons are an ancient class of mollusc called the Polyplacophora – a name that means “bearing many (or several) tablets (or plates)”. They get this name from the eight plates (also known as valves) that they have on their backs.

Most chitons have these valves visible (see below), but the huge Gumboot Chiton has the valves hidden underneath their rubbery girdle.

Tonicella lineata

Tonicella lineata showing the eight valves characteristic of chitons

Chitons are remarkably conservative animals, having changed little since the group arose around half a billion years ago. They have few predators and manage to live a blameless and slow-paced life feeding on algae and detritus on rocks in the world’s oceans, that they rasp off with a fairly simple rasping radula.

There are few ways of spending time on the sea shore that are more enjoyable than turning over rocks in the quest for chitons. Except maybe finding washed-up bones. Or maybe finding both together!

chiton-bone

Friday mystery object #199 answer

On Friday I gave you this rather beautiful object to identify,which came to light during our mollusc Bioblitz last week:

mystery199

It turns out that it didn’t prove much of a challenge and was identified to species level in no time. So well done to Kevin, Anna Pike, @benharvey1 and Carlos Grau!

In fact, Carlos went a step further than identifying the specimen and told the very story I was planning to tell in this post. It’s great to hear stories like this about specimens or species, so I’ll share it with you in Carlos’ words:

This picture immediately brought back memories of my old seashell-collecting guide I had when I was about 12 and haven’t looked at for years and years (I will look for it next time I’m at my parent’s). The book said that this species was considered so valuable that fakes were made in rice paste by Chinese artisans, and that the counterfeits are now more rare and valuable than the actual shell! I remember finding that bit of information amazing.

It’s been so long I had to Google the book, it’s “Guide to Seashells of the World” by R. Tucker Abbott.

The animal is… Continue reading

Friday mystery object #197 answer

On Friday I gave you this skull to identify:

mystery197

As I suspected, it wasn’t too much of a challenge. Jake got in quick with the suggestion of a Sri Lankan Python, with Gina Allnatt, Kevin and Rhina Duque-Thues all agreeing with a generic Python sp. identification. Nicola Newton also suggested Python, but she was of the opinion that it was probably a Royal Python or Carpet Python on the basis of the size.

I agree with Nicola and think that this is most likely the skull of a Royal (or Ball) Python Python regius (Shaw, 1802), based on the size of the specimen and the shape of the supratemporal and frontal bones compared to other Pythons I was able to find images for (if you don’t know which bones I mean you can see what I mean on a handy annotated picture of a Python skull from the Digimorph website).

Pet ball python - normal phase, probably an import (rescue). By Mokele

The skull is one of several similar specimens from the old King’s College teaching collection, so it’s a pretty good bet that the skulls came from either research animals or pets. The Royal Python is a fairly small African Python that is commonly sold as a pet because it has a mild temperament – so that helps offer a bit of support for the identification, although what’s really needed is a detailed identification key for Python skulls or access to good comparative material.

The lack of good resources for identifying the skulls of snakes is a bit frustrating. After working with bird and mammal skulls, where there are some amazing resources like Skullsite and the Mammalian Crania Photographic Archive I’m still searching for something similar for reptiles. Perhaps the Deep Scaly Project will deliver the goods one day… here’s hoping!

Friday mystery object #197

This week I have a skull for you to identify – to make a change from the more tricky specimens I’ve had recently. Any idea what this belonged to?

mystery197

As usual you can leave your comments, questions and suggestions below and I’ll do my best to respond. Enjoy!

Friday mystery object #194 answer

On Friday I gave you this rather unusual looking skull to identify:

mystery194

In fact, it’s so unusual that it doesn’t even look entirely like a skull, so it’s not surprising that the specimen proved a bit of a challenge.

Some elements (like the lower jaw) look a bit like they’re from a turtle, but other elements of the skull shape look more like they belong to an amphibian – from something like Necturus perhaps. Despite these similarities to some of the ‘basal’ tetrapods, the skull is actually from a fish.

The reason why it looks quite similar to a tetrapod skull and less like the average fish is because it belongs to a member of the Lobe-finned fish (Sarcopterygii) which are more closely related to the tetrapods than the more common and diverse Ray-finned fish (Actinopterygii). Despite the difficult identification, microecos managed to spot that this was a Lungfish and henstridgesj managed to identify the species as being the  Continue reading

Friday mystery object #192 answer

On Friday I gave you this unidentified specimen from the Horniman’s collections to take a look at. I had already had a go at working out what it is, but it never hurts to get a second opinion.

mystery192

It’s actually a bit of a generic looking overall shape, perhaps reminiscent of a owl or a maybe a pheasant of some sort. However, the nares (nostrils) are very small and round and set in a bill that is sharp, shortish and very solidly constructed, which is something you only really see in a few passerines, some parrots and the falcons. The skull is too big for a passerine and the bill is totally the wrong overall shape for a parrot, which leaves us with a falcon – a fairly small one at that.

From there the shape of the palate and the proportions of the cranium led me to a species identification that I’m pleased to say agreed with that proposed by Tony Irwin and Wouter van Gestel (who eloquently explained the indicative characters that I mentioned above). We all think that this is the cranium of a  Continue reading