Friday mystery object #253

This week I have a lovely specimen from the hidden gem that is the King’s College Museum of Life Sciences for you to try your hand at identifying:


Any idea what this specimen might be? As usual you can put your questions, observations and suggestions below – let’s see if we can work out what this is!

Friday mystery object #213 answer

Last week I gave you this interestingly shaped piece of bone to identify:


Jake, Elisa, henstridgesj, Hew Morrison, Robin Birrrdegg, Daniel Jones and Daniel Calleri all made a correct identification of this being part of a sternum, a sternebrae or more specifically a manubrium from a fairly large (yet possibly juvenile) ungulate. This was all correct and the final piece of the puzzle is the species, which is actually a smaller Deer than most people were expecting. It’s from an immature male Fallow Deer Dama dama (Linnaeus, 1758) collected from Knowle Park in Kent.

Here’s what it looks like with the rest of the sternebrae (which are the individual elements of bone that make up the sternum, like vertebrae make up the spine) that I could find for the specimen:

Sternum of immature male Fallow Deer Dama dama

Sternum of immature male Fallow Deer Dama dama

So it was indeed the manubrium – the top sternebra which in humans articulates with the top ribs and clavicles, but which here would only articulate with the top ribs, because ungulates don’t have clavicles (as I’ve discussed before). Here’s a human sternum for comparison:

Human sternum

Human sternum

So well done to everyone – I hope you enjoyed the challenge!



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]

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:


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!

Happy Year of the Snake!

Today marks the start of the Chinese Year of the Snake and tomorrow we start the Herpetology phase of our collections review at the Horniman. How very apt!

Here’s a specimen labelled ‘Boa Constrictor’  that came to light while we were preparing for the review that I thought you might like:


Have a very prosperous and healthy Year of the Snake!

Friday mystery object #185

This week I have an interesting mystery object for you. It’s quite characteristic, but not necessarily very familiar, so it may prove a bit of a challenge:


Any idea what this piece of bone is and what it came from? You can put your thoughts below and I’ll do my best to get back to you. Good luck!

Friday mystery object #183 answer

On Friday I asked for help with identifying an object that I came across while working on the Horniman’s bird collections for our forthcoming Bioblitz review:


I must say that I was surprised at how many people came and checked out this post and offered suggestions – largely following a retweet from the excellent QI Elves. Many thanks to everyone who offered their suggestions. In this post I’ll look at some of the suggestions and let you know what I’ve narrowed it down to.

Here’s an annotated version of the image to help make my terminology clear:


There were quite a few suggestions of Moa, Ostrich, Emu, Cassowary or Rhea (which are all Palaeognaths), but this leg is way too small and although the hallux is reduced it is definitely there, whereas in the Palaeognaths the hallux is absent. Here’s the specimen alongside an Ostrich foot:


A Secretarybird was another common suggestion and it was the first possibility that I thought of myself. Secretarybirds use their long legs to walk the plains of Africa in hunt of prey, which they stamp and kick to death. However, when compared to a Secretarybird in the Horniman’s collection it proved to be different in the relative proportions of the tibiotarsus and tarsometatarsus and the total length to the toes:


Seriemas were also suggested – these birds fill the same niche as the Secretarybirds, but in South America. They have one short digit with a sickle-like hunting claw, almost like a Velociraptor, however the mystery object has fairly equal length digits.

Owls were suggested, but this leg is far too long to have come from any species of Owl. Here’s the specimen compared to the biggest (or second biggest) species, the Eurasian Eagle Owl:


The suggestion of Owl probably arose because of the curved claw, which also looks a bit like it might belong to an Eagle or Vulture. However, the bones don’t seem to be robust enough for any of these kinds of birds. The claw confused me quite a bit, since most of the remaining possibilities are wading birds that don’t have big curved claws. This led me to reassess the claw by straightening out the digit of the mystery object in Photoshop to see if the apparent curve and size of the claw is actually a result of the postmortem clenching of the foot:


When viewed like this, the claw seems proportionally smaller and less likely to be from a predatory bird, especially considering that with flesh and skin on the bone the claw would seem even smaller.

This realisation made me reconsider the long-legged birds that I’d discounted at first – in particular the Herons, Storks and Cranes. I did consider Flamingo, but they have webbed feet and an even more reduced hallux than seen in the mystery object. Conversely, Herons could be excluded because they don’t have such a reduced hallux:

Heron Foot Detail by TexasEagle

Some Storks have limbs with the right sort of proportions – as helpfully summarised by henstridgesj:

The ‘FMO’: 1:0.73
Various Cranes: 1:0.7 – 1:0.8
Marabou Stork: 1:0.74
Maguari Stork: 1:0.75
Lappet-Faced Vulture: 1:0.63
Secretary Bird: 1:1
Flamingo: 1:0.84
Seriema: 1:0.87

But their claws seem too small and straight. That leaves the Cranes – as suggested by The Shonko Kid, André Rodenburghenstridgesj and Skullsite’s Wouter van Gestel. This would fit the proportions of the elements of the leg, the length of the hallux and the size and shape of the claws. It would also agree with the highly ossified tendons – a trait common to Cranes.

So, I don’t have a specific answer for you this week (that’s two weeks in a row!), but I think this leg probably belonged to one of the Cranes. Thanks for your help in getting that far!