Friday mystery object #320

I hope everyone had a lovely Christmas break!

This week I have another specimen from the Dead Zoo to identify – this one has an identification already, but the taxonomy is rather archaic and I think that once you’ve investigated the modern version of the name, you’ll realise that it’s wrong.



Skull length = 121mm


So, any idea what this name should actually be and, more importantly, what the identification actually is?

As always, you can put your thoughts, questions and suggestions in the comments box below – have fun!

Friday mystery object #319 answer

Last week I gave you this unidentified skull from the Dead Zoo to have a go at identifying:


It seems that everyone recognised this as the skull of a gull straightaway – the scars from the salt-glands on the top of the head and the shape of the bill combined to make it a bit of a give-away.

However, working out which species of gull is a bit more tricky, since many are remarkably similar in morphology, making size an important factor for consideration (I’ve talked about this before).

Now size is always a somewhat tricky thing to use for identification, for a variety of reasons. One is that there may be an overlap in size between species, another is that there will often be sexual dimorphism within a species that means you can’t just compare the length against another specimen of a species without considering sex. Then of course there’s age – if it’s not fully grown, it’s going to be smaller. Of course you also have to consider whether the bill sheath is present or absent, as this will add a few millimetres.

On top of all these issues, there’s the problem of how you actually measure the length in the first place. This is something I’ve researched in the past (link to pdf) and it’s a more significant problem than you might think. For example, when looking at the image I originally provided for the mystery object, it looks like the skull measures around 125mm, but if I chop the scale bar from the image, reduce the transparency to 50% and lay it directly over the centreline of the image of the specimen, it turns out to be around 128mm.


Length is apparently 128mm

Add to this the fact that in the original image you can see a shadow under the scale bar, it becomes clear that the scale is somewhat elevated. This is because I raise the scale to be near the vertical midline of the specimen, to help keep everything in focus and limit the effect of parallax error. Normally this is good, because it allows a more accurate estimation of the length of a 3D specimen with a longest axis near the vertical midline, but in this case the longest part of the specimen is actually at the lowest part of the skull, so the elevated scale will make it look slightly shorter than it really is (due to the parallax error I was hoping to avoid…). This means that the specimen is probably closer to 129mm or 130mm in length.

With this in mind, the discussion about the lengths of various gull skulls between Wouter van Gestle (of Skullsite fame), Ric, Tim Dixon, Richard Lawrence, Gerard van den Brink and jennifermacaire needs to be reconsidered.

Richard Lawrence reported skull lengths for a variety of gulls as follows:

6x GBBG: 129 to 141 mm
2x LBBG: 117 mm
6x HG: 111 to 117mm
9x YLG: 111 to 126 mm ( larger with beak sheath though so would be smaller without).

So factoring in a length of 129-130mm for the mystery object it seems to fit well into the range for the Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus Linnaeus, 1758. So well done to everyone who went for GBBG – this does seem most likely to be a skull from the largest gull species.

Great Black-backed Gull by Andreas Trepte, 2010

Great Black-backed Gull by Andreas Trepte, 2010

Friday mystery object #316

Back to bones this week, with a mystery skull for you to identify. Any idea what species this skull belonged to?


I don’t think it will prove too much of a challenge for the bone geeks among you, so please try to be a bit cryptic with your answers to keep it fresh and fun for those who are not so familiar – and that’s a cryptic clue about what it’s not right there 🙂

Have fun!

Friday mystery object #314 answer(ish)

Last week I gave you this guest mystery object, courtesy of Joseph van Sambeek:

Mystery object. Image by Joseph van Sambeek, January 2000

The bony struts reinforcing thin plates of bone show it’s from something that lives in water all the time and which lacks lungs – you can tell this because this structure is what you get when you’re dealing with forces moving in a variety of directions, rather than mainly dealing with the constant force of gravity or compensating for buoyancy that is unavoidable when you live in water, but have lungs.

This means that many of you recognised it as being the neurocranium (that’s the bit of the skull that surrounds the brain) from a fish – more specifically from Sarah Gibson:

The first image is the skull roof, showing the elongated frontals and parietals (front of snout is left in first three images). Second image is a left lateral view, showing the internal parasphenoid that would pass between the two eye sockets. Third image is a ventral view, showing the bottom of the parasphenoid. And obviously last image is posterior view, showing the foramen magnum where the spinal cord would pass through, over the occipital condyle. It just may not look like a skull to some because it’s missing the eye sclera bones, jaws, cheek bones, pretty much anything that is not the skull roof or braincase.

However, as we all know, there are a LOT of different sorts of fish – around 33,600 described species and counting. This can make fish a nightmare to identify. However, there are some great resources out there, like Osteobase which has a very useful identification guide for various elements of a range of fish.

Alas, Osteobase didn’t have anything that fits this mystery specimen, so narrowing down to a species is rather difficult. I had the advantage of knowing that the specimen was collected in Baja California, although that was of little help in trying to get in an approximate area of the fishy family tree based on morphology, and there are still a ridiculous number of fish species is the area.

Sarah Gibson suggested that it may be a Barracuda, and it certainly fits in many aspects, but the shape of the frontals and parietals and details of the point of connection between the parasphenoid (that’s the bottom bar bit you see in the side view) don’t quite fit.

I had almost given up hope, when it occurred to me to concentrate on understanding the unusually large occipital condyle that Allen Hazen noticed, which suggested that it might be a taxon with an extremely extended rostrum (like the paddlefish or swordfish that Jennifer Macaire suggested) but with a weedier body and defined neck region since there would be no need for such a large articulation in a fusiform fish (they’re the muscular type that taper at both ends and have no neck, so don’t move their heads).

With this bizarre sounding fish in mind I was able to fairly rapidly narrow down the possibilities to one of the three species of cornetfish that live in the Pacific. I was delighted to find some great images of the skull of a Red Cornetfish, which matches the morphology very well.

Red Cornetfish Fistularia petimba from the Gulf of Mexico. Image by SEFSC Pascagoula Laboratory; Collection of Brandi Noble, NOAA/NMFS/SEFSC

Red Cornetfish Fistularia petimba from the Gulf of Mexico. Image by SEFSC Pascagoula Laboratory; Collection of Brandi Noble, NOAA/NMFS/SEFSC

However, the Red Cornetfish doesn’t really occur in the eastern Pacific, so it’s very unlikely to be that species. The Reef Cornetfish does occur in the eastern Pacific, but has only been reported in Californian coastal waters since November 2015 and this mystery specimen was collected back in January 2000 (which doesn’t make it impossible to be a Reef Cornetfish, just very unlikely). Which leaves us with the most likely identification (although by no means confirmed) of Deepwater Cornetfish Fistularia corneta Gilbert & Starks, 1904.

These long, thin fish can reach up to 2m, but they have tiny mouths that limit them to eating crustaceans, marine worms and smaller fish that they pick up from near the surface of reefs and the sea bed – presumably being harder to spot as a predator thanks to their very small frontal projected area.

I’ve asked Joe to check his specimen against the images of the cornetfish, since there’s nothing better than having a specimen in your hand when attempting an identification.

I hope you enjoyed the challenge!

Friday mystery object #306 answer

Last week I gave you this interesting skull to identify:

Specimen LDUCZ-Z1058 from the Grant Museum of Zoology

Specimen LDUCZ-Z1058 from the Grant Museum of Zoology

I didn’t mention that top of the cranium had been removed, probably as part of a postmortem, which is quite common for zoo specimens. Of course, this made the identification a bit more tricky.

That absent skullcap led to several suggestions of Tasmanian Devil, since they do have a very similar looking facial region to this specimen, with a short and blunt muzzle, robust zygomatic arch and even the same toothcount in the upper jaw. However, the Devils have an angular process of the mandible that projects medially (towards the midline) rather than backwards in a hook, so you wouldn’t see it in a side view.


The correct answer was first tenuously suggested by palfreyman1414 in a pleasingly cryptic manner:

I’d have sworn this was a commie go-between for Cressida and Troilus

Which hints at “Red” and “Pandarus” giving us the Red Panda Ailurus fulgens F. Cuvier, 1825.

Red Panda image by Mathias Appel, 2016

Red Panda image by Mathias Appel, 2016

These charismatic critters are another example of an arboreal carnivore that is adapted to feed on a highly vegetarian diet, but unlike the previous mystery object (a Kinkajou) these cuddlesome floofballs eat mainly bamboo rather than fruit – rather like their very distant relative the Giant Panda (despite the similarity in diet and common name, the Red Panda is actually more closely related to the Kinkajou than it is the Giant Panda).

Red Pandas are a bit less highly specialised for feeding on bamboo than the Giant Pandas, probably because they have a more varied diet that also includes fruit, eggs, birds and small mammals. The poor nutritional quality of bamboo does mean that they spend a lot of time sleeping and they tend to move fairly slowly in order to conserve energy, although they can be very playful, especially in captivity where they can access higher quality foods.

Sadly, this playfulness and supreme floofyness is a bit of a problem for the wild Red Panda population. There is demand for wild caught Red Pandas in the pet trade and they are hunted for their thick fur right across their range through the foothills of the Himalayas, despite being protected by legislation in every country.