Friday mystery object #347 answer

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

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It was a bit mean of me to only show the incisors, but I thought it would be way too easy otherwise and I thought that some of you would manage to get it. I was not wrong.

Despite the sparse information, James Bryant, Jennifer Macaire, Allen Hazen, sallie reynolds, Michelle Tabencki, Kaitlyn, Rémi and a tentative few others leaned towards one of the sabre-toothed cats, with most people opting for Smilodon. That is indeed what these teeth belonged to and if you want to be specific they’re from Smilodon fatalis Leidy, 1869.

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Reconstruction of Smilodon fatalis skull. Image by Bone Clones, 2000

The mystery specimen and I go way back as it’s the one in the Geology Department of Bristol University, where I did my undergraduate degree many years ago. It inspired me to do a project on Smilodon, which sent me around a variety of UK museums in search of specimens to measure.

That was the start of my behind-the-scenes experience in museums and I met some fantastic people, including the legendary Andy Currant at the NHM, London, who was so helpful, knowledgeable and welcoming that it left an indelible mark on my attitude to collections access and curation.

I still have a soft spot for Smilodon and of all the palaeontological questions that I’d love to see resolved it’s how their bizarre canines worked. I never considered the “Akersten canine-shear-bite” [opens as pdf] as being biomechanically plausible, not least because it requires the jaws to close during the bite, which would in turn require these incisors to penetrate the skin and some (or all) of the underlying tissue of the prey.

While these incisors are robust, they’re just not the right kind of shape for that type of action as the straight and fairly level row would dissipate force quite evenly during a bite, rather than allowing the high point loads well suited to penetration.

There are other, more plausible methods proposed (e.g. Brown, 2014), but without seeing Smilodon in action it’s one of those mysteries that may never be satisfactorily resolved. And who wouldn’t want to see something as terrifying as a gigantic, sabre-toothed feline in action?

Smilodon californicus and Canis dirus fight over a Mammuthus columbi carcass in the La Brea Tar Pits. By Robert Bruce Horsfall, 1913

Smilodon californicus and Canis dirus fight over a Mammuthus columbi carcass in the La Brea Tar Pits. By Robert Bruce Horsfall, 1913

 

Friday mystery object #130 answer

On Friday I gave you this specimen to identify:

I thought that some of you might find it a bit tricky, since this is a shell from a group of animals that aren’t that familiar to most people.

Barbara Powell was the first to spot what this shell came from and her identification was supported by Dave Godfrey, Julie Doyle and henstridgesj. It’s a   Continue reading

Friday mystery object #111 answer

On Friday I gave you this object (from the NHM) to identify:

It was a bit of a tricky one for those of you who haven’t seen the First Time Out exhibition (jackashby and David Godfrey obviously did see it). This fossil skull looks like it belonged to some kind of pig rather than a primate – yes, that’s right, I said primate.

The main feature visible here that indicates that this skull may belong to a primate is the enclosed orbit, which isn’t a particularly strong characteristic since various ungulates also have an enclosed orbit – as I said, it’s a tricky one.

The type of primate is the Koala Lemur Megaladapis edwardsi Forsyth Major, 1894 from Madagascar. It was an arboreal, slow moving, gorilla-sized folivore – with superficial similarities to Koalas (hence the name). It is hypothesised that the extended bony nasal region may have supported a prehensile top lip, that would have been beneficial when foraging for leaves in the trees.

I won’t go into much detail here, because other curators have provided their interpretation for this object as part of the First Time Out project, so I will leave you with a link to that information. However, I would be interested in taking a closer look at the dentition and complete skeleton of one of these animals – I’d like to get a better grip on this apparent convergence on a suid cranial morphology and more gorilla-like body. I wonder what it might have looked like?

Gamorrean Guards by Dextar FX

Friday mystery object #110 answer

On Friday I gave you these objects to identify:

Apart from their superficial similarity to chocolate pralines or denuded molluscs several of you managed to identify that these are in fact teeth.

In particular Dave Godfrey, David and Styracosaurus Rider pwned this object with a definitive genus identification of   Continue reading

Back from extinction

Imagine if you could bring a species back from extinction – what would you choose and why would you choose it? There are so many factors to take into consideration it all becomes a bit bewildering – do you choose something on the basis of how well it would reintegrate with existing ecosystems, how useful it might be, how much novel information we could learn from it, how plausible it would be to actually carry out the resurrection process, or simply how awesome it would be to see something that hasn’t walked the Earth for millions of years?

I recently asked four palaeontologists what species they would choose to resurrect and their responses were presented at a Café Scientifique balloon debate at the Horniman Museum, as part of the International Year of Biodiversity activities in conjunction with the Royal Society (who are celebrating their 350th anniversary!). The result was a very enjoyable evening for all involved and an insight into some of the considerations that should be taken into account when contemplating resurrecting extinct species.

Continue reading