This week I am have a great guest mystery object from Andy Taylor for you to have a go at identifying:
Here’s what Andy says about the specimen:
On Sunday, myself and Sophie Bagshaw were working through specimens that were donated to me from a person who had been given them by a zoological park. The specimen in question was part of a huge shipment of almost 140 frozen specimens that were in various states of preparation and were mostly head specimens. … I have a large rodent skull that I’m struggling to ID
Andy and Sophie have been doing great stuff with osteology for educational purposes for a while now, so it was a real pleasure to get a question like this, and it seems like a perfect opportunity for the community here to add their thoughts.
Last week I gave you this skull from the collections of the Dead Zoo, which had been misidentified and that came to light when Dr George Argyros was doing some research on the carnivore skeletons:
The label attached to this specimen indicated that this is the skull of a Leopard, which is clearly wrong. The label also identified the specimen as having been collected in East Africa by Major A.W.V. Plunkett.
Labels like this worry me. Not because they contain a misidentification, but because they may indicate that someone in the past has mixed up the specimen labels. This is a much bigger problem than a simple misidentification, as it can mean the real specimen has become dissociated from its information.
The huge, robust teeth of this specimen should make it fairly clear that it belongs to one of those specialist bone-crushers – the hyenas:
However, there are three species of hyena to choose from (I’m leaving the Aardwolf of this, since they don’t match this dental morphology even remotely).
My first thought was that this specimen is on the small side for a Spotted Hyena:
Size is seldom a definitive feature, especially in species that display sexual dimorphism, but what is more useful is the detail of the tiny molar at the back of the maxillary toothrow. This is absent in Spotted Hyenas, but it occurs in both Striped and Brown Hyenas.
So you might ask, how do we distinguish between Striped and Brown Hyenas? This is a good question. For starters, it’s hard to find enough reliable good images of the Brown Hyena’s skull online that show the details needed to distinguish between the species.
However, a bit of searching highlighted that the Brown Hyena has a shorter and more robust angular process of the mandible than the Striped – and the mystery object.
This long angular process was spotted by katedmonson, but Adam Yates was the first with the identification of Striped Hyena Hyaena hyaena (Linnaeus, 1758).
This one proved a little trickier than I thought at first, due to the similarities between the Brown and the Striped species. But I’m a little relieved that the consensus fell on Striped, both here on the blog, and between myself and George, since the Striped Hyena is found in East Africa, whereas the Brown is limited to South Africa.
This at least agrees with the locality on the label, so it may well have simply been misidentified when the specimen was acquired – especially since it looks like it was skeletonised naturally, so it may have been found dead and already defleshed, making it harder to identify.
Since everyone seemed to have fun with last week’s mystery skull, I have another that was misidentified in the Dead Zoo’s collections and which came to light during Dr George Argyros’ recent research visit:
Do you recognise this species from its skull?
As usual, you can ask questions or leave suggestion in the comments box below. If you do know what it is, then please try to keep your answers cryptic, so everyone can have a go at working it out. Have fun!
Last week I gave you this skull from the collections of the Dead Zoo to have a go at identifying:
This specimen came to light during some research being carried out on carnivore bones by Dr George Argyros, a Professor visiting us from Emory & Henry College, Virginia. It was identified as Vulpes on the label, but both George and myself were doubtful.
The specimen’s spurious identification can be tracked back to when it was named in the Museum’s register as Vulpes fulva argentata or Silver Fox. This identification was assigned to the specimen when it was given to the Royal Zoological Society by N.H.P. Vickers in March 1900 (see page 127 of the monthly Irish Naturalist covering March 1900):
The Museum bought the specimen in skeletal form from the Royal Zoological Society of Ireland in 1903 and the name Silver Fox was kept until a later review of the taxonomic hierarchy in our database, which ‘corrected’ the name to Red Fox Vulpes vulpes.
However, this name change was not based on the morphology of the specimen. The characteristic lyre-shaped sagittal crest1 immediately made both myself and George think Urocyon and the small size of the specimen made both of us converge on an identification of Island Fox Urocyon littoralis (Baird, 1857) after independent bouts of measuring.
Last week I gave you this rugged skull, from a rugged place, to have a go at identifying:
As everyone spotted, this is a whale of some sort (what else has a skull that weird-looking?), but the question is, which species?
The location led to a few suggestions of Arctic / sub-Arctic species like Narwhal or Beluga, but they have a much flatter top section of the skull. In fact, those huge vertical lobes of the maxillae seen here is pretty unusual and quite distinctive (even if it is a ittle weathered and broken):
This reminded me of a specimen in the collections of the Dead Zoo and which I had to check, just to be sure of my identification:
As spotted immediately by Chris and not too long afterwards by Adam Yates and Wouter van Gestel, this is the skull of a Northern Bottlenose Whale Hyperoodon ampullatus (Forster, 1770).
This sub-Arctic species has a distribution across much of the North Atlantic. They tend to stick to quite deep water, which makes sense in the case of the specimen I shared from Iceland, since the Reynisfjara beach is infamously dangerous because it shelves off very steeply into very deep water, making the waves that break along the beach behave in an unusual (and frankly terrifying) way.
Occasionally this species will come into shallower waters, in one (somewhat tragic) case a female Bottlenose Whale swam up the Thames (and is now in NHM, London). Our specimen came from an animal stranded on the Irish coast and there are theories that maritime sound pollution is connected to them being driven into shallower waters.
Well done to everyone who worked out which species this skull is from – hope you’re ready for another mystery next week!
Last week I gave you a challenge to get your teeth into:
As I suspected, everyone managed to figure out what type of animal this is, since these teeth are quite distinctive (as mammal teeth often are).
To start with, there are canines and incisors in the premaxilla (the top jaw). These are missing from things like cows, sheep and deer. So it’s not one of them. The premolars are adapted to grinding rather than cutting, so it’s not some kind of pig or carnivore.
The molar teeth are low-crowned, unlike the teeth of grazers like horses which are high crowned, to cope with the wear and tear of silica-toughened grasses. This suggests an animal that browses on softer vegetation. Also, the lophs (those ridges of enamel that join the tooth cusps) are well defined and quite distinctive in their shape. That rules out most other herbivores, including the camels and their relatives.
I think it’s understandable that nobody got the correct species, since the specimen is a subadult (check out the molar in the jaw that’s still developing) which will somewhat alter the proportions compared to an an adult – especially considering the photos I gave you were restricted to the teeth and missed all the useful features of the rest of the skull.
So well done to everyone who worked out that the teeth belonged to a tapir!
At the Dead Zoo we get quite a lot of enquiries asking for identifications, and many of these requests are for teeth. Mammal teeth are usually quite distinctive – for instance, tooth morphology underpins a lot of small mammal palaeontology as teeth preserve well and can be identified to genus/species with reasonable accuracy. Additionally, they can often give a good indication of diet.
With that in mind, I took a photo of some teeth that I found in the collections, to see if you can work out which species they belong to:
For the mammal fans among you this is probably way too easy, so please try to keep your answers a little bit cryptic, just so that everyone has a chance to figure it out for themselves. Have fun!
Last week I gave you this nice robust skull to have a go at identifying:
It proved a little bit more of a challenge than I originally expected, at least in terms of getting a species level identification.
So despite a somewhat ursine (bear-like) overall appearance, that may have confused a few people at first, this has all the features you’d expect to see in a male sea lion. In that it’s big, craggy, has huge open sinuses opening into the orbital region (nobody wants their eyes to be overly pressurised when they’re diving) and the teeth are relatively undifferentiated in the back part of the mouth, but they’re well adapted for fighting up front.
However, it turns out that there aren’t a huge number of resources online to see and compare the skulls of these beasties (and the ones that do exist aren’t necessarily the easiest to navigate). So while almost everyone figured out the sea lion bit, the species choice went a bit off track.
Most people plumped for the Steller’s Sea Lion, which (it must be admitted) looks very similar. But this is actually the skull of a Southern Sea Lion Otaria flavescens (Shaw, 1800).
I talked about this species before on Zygoma (many years ago now), with a specimen from the Horniman Museum, where I provided some links to the Marine Species Identification Portal. Sadly, that resource has been retired, but fortunately Naturalis Biodiversity Centre rescued the content and has kept it available online. It provides drawings of the skulls of both Steller’s and Southern Sea Lions and if you take a look at few key features you’ll spot the differences.
One major indication is the length and shape of the palate. The Southern Sea Lion has a very long palate, which terminates almost in line with the mandibular articulation, whereas the Steller’s terminates further forward. There are a few other features, but that one is the most immediately obvious.
So, a hearty congratulations to a variety of folks on Twitter who spotted that this was the Southern Sea Lion, but there’s no shame in not getting the correct species if you picked Steller’s, given how few resources there are that allow a really good comparison. I hope you enjoyed the challenge!
Last week I gave you this guest mystery object from the comparative anatomy collection of the Harry Brookes Allen Museum of Anatomy and Pathology at the University of Melbourne, courtesy of Rohan Long:
This is one of those specimens that it can take a while to get your head around, as most of the key features are entirely missing. From the top, the skull almost looks mammalian. Perhaps a little like a large rodent missing part of its zygomatic arches:
Even from the side there are some similarities, although it looks a bit more like a turtle:
If you look closely at the underside of the skull, you’ll notice that it has a single occipital condyle, which is something you see in reptiles and birds, but that view of the underside also becomes clear that the front section of the mystery object doesn’t taper to create a bill, like you’d see in a turtle:
In fact, a bill is the most diagnostic feature that’s missing, and that’s because it’s fallen off.
Those cervical vertebrae are quite distinctively avian – and from a long-necked avian at that. Once you realise that this is the braincase of a fairly large long-necked bird, the next task thing is to look at birds with a bulbous and cleft region on the head, just at the base of the bill (most bird skulls taper down to the bill).
For me that indicates one species above all others – the Mute Swan Cygnus olor (Gmelin, JF, 1789).
I’d like to offer a hearty ‘bravo’ to Adam Yates, who was the first to comment and correctly identify this with a great cryptic clue:
It is an anseriform for sure the large oval basipterygoid articulations are a give away. With that profile, i’d lose my voice while trying to say the name of a certain Western Australian River.
I had a pretty good idea of what this was likely to be as soon as I saw it, based on my memory of a badly pest damaged taxidermy specimen of this species I saw about 12 years ago. But, the skull shap alone is distinctive, and the fringe of feather stumps around the eyes makes this fairly staraightforward to work it out – and a lot of you did just that.
This is the partially mummified skeleton of a Barn Owl Tyto alba (Scopoli, 1769).
That fringe around the orbits is made up of the nibbled down rachides (the stiff central vane of the feather is called a rachis and rachides is plural) of the feathers that created the facial disc. This structure acts a bit like a radar dish to help channel sound into the auditory openings (AKA earholes), and it’s what gives owls that distinctive flat-looking face, belying the shape of the underlying skull. The skull itself is particularly long and low for an owl, which is what screams Barn Owl to me, as other owls have a higher domed skull and relatively shorter bill.
This specimen is part of an exhibition showing some of the historical cabinet type displays from the early formation of the Museum. I couldn’t find a species identification, but I think I know what it is. The question for today is, do you?
Let me know what you think in the comments below – I’d be fascinated to hear your thoughts.
Last week I gave you this mystery skull to have a go at identifying:
I didn’t think it would pose as much of a challenge as it did, but as I hinted when setting the question, this specimen is on the chunky side and I think the robustness threw some of you off the scent.
Allen Hazen offered a suite of great observations and considerations (which is well worth a read), but katedmonson and Adam Yates were on the right track from the get-go in the comments and the Twitterati twigged pretty quickly. This skull is from a Raccoon Procyon lotor (Linnaeus, 1758).
Most Raccoon skulls I’ve seen have been smaller and a lot more gracile than this chunkster, so when I first spotted this specimen it took me a moment to recognise the species. In particular, this specimen has very well-developed muscle scars around the zygomatic arches (cheekbones) and sagittal crest (the ridge along the midline of the braincase) compared to the younger specimens that I tend to see, such as this one from my handling collection:
This robustness in the mystery object changes the profile of the skull to some extent, making it more rounded on top and wider across the cheeks. The canines are also larger and the various suture lines are more fully fused, making it seem to be from a more formidable animal than a Raccoon – like a Wolverine or Honey-badger (both of which were suggested on Twitter).
This sort of cranial variation within a species is always interesting to me, since it reflects the biomechanical forces acting on the bone during the animal’s life. It will be influenced by the sex and age of the animal as well, so it illustrates why it’s important for collections to hold several examples of any species, with different sexes and developmental stages represented.
Thanks to everyone for their comments on this – it’s always interesting to get an insight into your thought processes!
Last week I gave you a couple of skulls from the collections in the Dead Zoo to have a go at identifying:
It’s pretty obvious that they are rodents, based on those paired incisors. But there are a lot of rodent species out there…
These are small and, based on the size, we can immediately rule out all anything bigger than a Brown Rat. The anterior portion of zygomatic process, where it meets the maxilla (the front parts of the cheek bones) are broad and triangular, narrowing to very fine arches where it meets the temporal porocess (the rear part of the arch of the cheek bone). This is something I associate with voles.
The teeth are also distinctively ‘voley’ with their zig-zagging cusps.
There are still a lot of vole species out there, but if you’re familiar with identifying specimens from owl pellets in the UK you’ll probably recognise that the specimen on the left has a very distinctive second molar, with a small fifth cusp. This is a tell-tale indicator of the Short-tailed Field Vole Microtus agrestis (Linnaeus, 1761), while the more rounded cusps of the specimen on the right are more in keeping with a Bank Vole Myodes glareolus (Schreber, 1780).
This week I finally had a chance to look at some skulls in the Dead Zoo collections, and I thought I’d share the joy of that with you here:
Do you have any idea which two species these skulls might be from?
As ever you can leave your thoughts, questions and suggestions in comments box below. If you find this too easy, maybe make your answer cryptic, to give other people a chance to work it out for themselves. Enjoy!
Last week I gave you this piece of bone to have a go at identifying:
It was a particularly difficult challenge and I’m still not 100% sure of what it is, but I was very interested to hear your thoughts.
There was a general leaning towards one of the (many) bones of the skull – although since there’s a suture running through the middle of this, it must consist of at least two different bones that have fused.
This feels right to me, since there aren’t many other parts of the skeleton consisting of fused bony plates containing foramina. But as to which bones of the skull and which animal, that’s a much more difficult identification prospect.
Unfortunately this kind of identification usually depends on a combination of familiarity with a range of skulls and comparative collections to figure it out and, I’m sad to say, that I’ve had very little opportunity to immerse myself in cranial collections for several years now and I rarely get a chance to work on comparative material these days.
The best I could come up with is this being a section from the upper internal portion of the orbit of a Sheep Ovis aries Linnaeus, 1758 (or something quite similar).
I’m thinking this partly due to the V-shaped notch in the margin of the bone, which can be hard to spot in the initial photos, so here it is from the side:
I hope that wasn’t too disappointing as a challenge, and I apologise for not offering a definitive answer, but if I manage to track down some old specimen that is missing this exact section of bone, I’ll be sure to share it here!
In the meantime, please feel free to offer more suggestions and, if you have comparative material of your own, maybe see what you think? Thanks everyone!
Interesting perhaps, but clearly not very challenging, since I think everyone managed to figure out what it is, despite the unusual viewing angle. Well done to Wouter van Gestel for being the first to comment.
Here’s an image of the same object from a couple of different (and somewhat more common) angles:
The large size and that very distinctive lower jaw, where the two halves of the mandible meet and run parallel for over half the length of the jaw, are unmistakeable (as noticed by Adam Yates). This is the skull of a Sperm Whale Physeter macrocephalus Linnaeus, 1758.
Nearby, I noticed a much smaller version of this specimen, housed in a much smaller version of the National Museums Scotland, which definitely deserves a mention:
The teeth of a Lego whale are probably not as efficient at keeping hold of a squid as the robust curved teeth of the real animal, and the skull is a bit less impressively huge, but it certainly has charm.
If you get a chance to visit Edinburgh I definitely recommend a trip to National Museums Scotland – not just for the Sperm Whale and the Lego, but also for one of the most impressive taxidermy dioramas I’ve ever seen. Here’s a small section to give you an idea: