Friday mystery object #417 answer

Last week I gave you a nice skull to have a go at identifying:

Pretty much everyone recognised it as a marsupial, thanks to the palatal vacuities and inflected angular of the mandible (as Allen Hazen alluded to).

The size, general shape of the skull and tooth shape narrows down possible species very quickly, as it’s quite large (at around 17cm) and quite kangeroo-shaped. That leaves the likely options as Eastern-grey, Western-grey or Red kangaroos.

Red Kangaroo skulls tend to average around 205mm long, Greys tend to average in the region of 145mm, so this falls between the two – either a small Red or a large Grey.

The sutures of the skull seem well-fused and there are quite robust muscle scars, suggesting a well-developed adult animal. For me this hints that it would probably be in the large end of the size range of its species, rather than at the small end of the size range – hinting at it being a Grey.

Another feature that hints at Grey Kangaroo is the crown of the third upper incisor, which in Red Kangaroos tends to be slightly broader than it is long, whereas in Greys it tends to be longer than wide.

Unfortunately, I’ve so far failed to find good enough verified images or specimens of Western Grey Kangaroo skulls to differentiate from the Eastern Grey.

I do know that this mystery specimen is identified as an Eastern Grey Macropus giganteus Shaw, 1790, but I am also aware that the taxonomy of these animals has been complex and confusing, especially since their ranges overlap so I don’t fully trust that identification. Sometimes a dose of scepticism is important when dealing with historic collections, so I think I’ll just leave it there after the tough week I’ve had.

Friday mystery object #412 answer

Last week I gave you this rather nice skull to identify:

I was hoping that it would catch some of you out, since at first glance it looks like the skull of some kind of canid. I thought I had caught out Joe Vans, but then he noticed one of the features that sets this skull apart from dog skulls – the pinched-in section in the mid-muzzle area. Then everyone started piling in with their observations and my hopes of being tricksy were fully dashed.

This is of course the skull of that paragon of convergent evolution, the Thylacine (AKA the Tasmanian Wolf or Tiger) Thylacinus cynocephalus (Harris, 1808).

I’ve written fairly extensively about convergent evolution between Thylacines and canids before, when I worked at the Grant Museum of Zoology, so I won’t go into huge detail here, but I will give you an annotated image showing some of the features to look for that help distinguish these marsupial carnivores from their placental dopplegangers:

A= 8 incisors vs 6 in canids
B= Lacrimal duct on outside of orbit
C= Inwardly deflected angular process
D= “Pinched” midsection of rostrum
E= Palatal vacuities

These physical differences between the Thylacine and the Eutherian canids are features common to many marsupials and they act as reminders that evolution is limited by what it has to work with. At the most fundamental level that means DNA.

In recent years the methods for successfully extracting and sequencing DNA from museum specimens has moved on in leaps and bounds. In 2018 these advances allowed the Thylacine’s genome to be assembled, allowing comparison with their morphologically similar, but taxonomically distant counterparts.

The team that did this went looking for similarities between protein coding genes in the different lineages at first, to understand what was driving the morphological convergence – but it seems that they were looking in the wrong place.

When they looked more closely, it was actually in the cis-regulatory elements (the non-coding DNA that used to be considered “junk”, but which is now recognised as playing a vital role in regulating development) that genetic convergence was seen. It turns out that these elements were also driving convergence in brain development between Thylacines and canids.

It seems that protein coding genes are quite stable – if they mutate they usually stop working properly, so the mutation often doesn’t persist. But mutations in cis-regulatory elements can change gene expression with less risk of catastrophic consequences. Unsurprisingly that means they are increasingly being seen as the main drivers in evolutionary adaptation. If you’re interested in finding out more about this fascinating research, a pdf of the 2019 paper on Thylacine/canid genetic convergence by Feigin, Newton & Pask can be accessed here.

I hope you enjoyed this short trip down the road of convergent evolution, with a hat-tip to the genetic drivers involved.

Friday mystery object #412

After last week’s foray into insects, I have a nice chunky vertebrate skull to for you to have a go at identifying:

Any idea what this might be from? I have a feeling this may be way too easy for some of you, so let’s keep the answers cryptic or perhaps poetic, so everyone gets a chance to figure it out for themselves. Have fun!

Friday mystery object #410 answer

Last week I gave you this rather fishy skull to have a go at identifying:

There was a lot of discussion about what it could be, which is unsurprising, since there are a LOT of fish species – with over 34,000 possibilities. This one proved additionally confusing, since it seems to have no teeth, as mentioned in the comments by Adam Yates. Fortunately, Wouter van Gestel flagged that some species with several rows of teeth tend to lose those teeth during preparation if it’s not done with sufficient care, which is useful to know.

I picked this object because I get a lot of requests for identifications of fish skull bones and this specimen is helpful, as it has the various bones of the skull labelled individually:

This specimen also happens to be a fish from a family that often comes up for identification. The neurocranium (or braincase) has a fairly characteristic shape in these fish, which is best seen from above on the skull (although unfortunately it’s not labelled in the image below):

The neurocranium tends to be a bone that gets found on beaches quite commonly. In fact, I have had a similar neurocranium as a mystery object in the past, so you may have seen one here before:

This shape is what I expect to see from members of the True Cod family, the Gadidae. Clearly a lot of other people recognised this as well, since Chris kicked off the comments with references to Gadus, Cod and Pollock and there were lots of suggestions of Cod and Pollock (AKA Saithe) on Twitter:

Unfortunatley, this is where it gets more complicated. Differentiating between different Gadids isn’t always easy. The size suggests it will be one of the larger members of the family – Cod, Haddock or Pollock being the main focus. Haddock is easy enough to dismiss, since they have small mouths, with lower jaws (composed mainly of the dentary and articular bones) that don’t project as far as we see in this specimen.

After that it gets really quite tricky – to the point where I am now doubting the original identification we have for the mystery object. This specimen was labelled as an Atlantic Cod Gadus morhua, although the original identification when acquired from Rowland Ward was Pacific Cod Gadus macrocephalus. But after a lot of searching of images from some pretty reliable online resources, I’m increasingly convinced that the specimen is a Pollack, Pollock or Saithe Pollachius pollachius (Linnaeus, 1758) – N.B. I’m ruling out P. virens since the lower jaw proportions are wrong.

The reason I’m thinking Pollack is based around a few small features of a couple of the bones of the skull. In particular, I’m interested in the shape of the hyomandibular and the opercular (Osteobase has these elements for Cod, but unfortunatley not Pollack). To give you an idea of the differences, here are the Cod elements (superimposed in blue) alongside the same bones of the mystery object (tinted red):

These differences are consistent across the skull specimens of Cod and Pollack that I’ve managed to find. The Cod has notch in the upper leading edge of the hyomandibular, unlike the Pollack, which has a more obtuse smooth line along the leading edge. The Cod also has a notch in the trailing lower edge of the opercular, that is just seen as a slight concavity in the Pollack.

I’d be interested to hear what you think about these suggested features!

Friday mystery object #409 answer

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

Everyone spotted that this is the skull of a toothed whale (or large dolphin), but after that, things got a little bit more confusing. In particular, the arrangement of the four pairs of teeth in only the front section of the lower jaw, seems to have thrown a lot people off.

There were several suggestions of Beluga whale, but they have around 40 teeth between the upper and lower jaws and clearly this doesn’t (and even if teeth had fallen out, you’d expect to see some empty sockets in the mandible). There were also suggestions of Narwhal, but they have a maximum of 4 teeth only in the upper jaw and one – or very occasionally two – form the Narwhal’s unmistakeable tusk(s). This is neither a Beluga whale nor a Narwhal.

However, the similarity of this skull to these two species did lead to speculation about whether this might be a hybrid between Beluga and Narwhal – one of the infamous Narlugas (or more accurately Belwhals). Ed Yong wrote about these real, but very rare, animals in the Atlantic a couple of years ago and I recommend having a read. If you do, you’ll discover that only one specimen is known and this is most definitely not it. As disappointing as this will no doubt be for some, we live in a world where hopes and dreams are routinely dashed against the rocks of reality, so let’s get ready to rock.

There are around 30 species of Oceanic dolphin, ranging in size from 50kg to 10,000kg. You can see that this one is a bit bigger than the specimen next to it and it has much broader and more chunky ‘cheeks’ (for want of a better term). This is something I normaly associate with the bigger dolphins that are usually referred to as whales – things like Pilot whales, Killer whales and the species in the Monodontidae that I mentioned earlier.

Most of the Delphinoidea have a lot of teeth to assist with prey capture, but this mystery object has got creative with just 4 pairs in the lower jaw (although obviously not as creative as the Narwhal). This limits the possibilities significantly, since it’s a fairly unusual condition. The other type of whales that only have a small number of teeth in just the lower jaw are the beaked whales, which primarily feed on soft-bodied cephalopods and have repurposed their teeth for competition. The mystery species has, perhaps unsurprisingly, done the very same. So, we’re left with the question of which of the bigger dolphins feeds on cephalopods and has an unusual arrangement of teeth?

The answer, as Adam Yates was the first to share, is the Grampus or Risso’s Dolphin Grampus griseus (G. Cuvier, 1812). They have between 7 and 2 pairs of teeth in their lower jaw and none in the upper. The live animals are quite heavily scarred from their interactions with those teeth.

Grampus illustration by Citron / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Stay tuned for another mystery object next week!

Friday mystery object #408 answer

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

Obviously the horns let us know that it’s some kind of bovid, but as has been noted before, there are a LOT of bovids. Overall horn configuration is a useful indicator of which general part of the bovid family tree to consider and I always find myself needing to check references to make sure I remember the general configurations.

A very helpful overview of horn morphology for the main subfamilies within the Bovide is illustrated by M. Van Bolt in a paper by Barbara Lundrigan from 1996*

Horn morphology in the main subfamilies within the Bovide. Illustrated by M. Van Bolt in Lundrigan, 1996*

Capturing the horn angle accurately in a photograph can be quite tricky, which is why I provided more than one angle:

A quick check shows that the horn shape of this specimen is distinctively Reedbuck. There are three species in the Genus Redunca, with fairly clear differences in things like the proportions of the maxilla and the shape of the orbit, but again the horns offer a clue.

Mountain Reedbucks have short horns, only in the region of about 15cm, a bit on the short side for this specimen, where they look to be around 25cm or so. The Southern Reedbuck has much longer horns in the range of 35-45cm, a bit bigger than this specimen. That leaves one Goldilocks species with horns 25-35cm long – the Bohor Reedbuck Redunca redunca (Pallas, 1767).

So well done to everyone who recognised this as a Reedbuck and special props to Goatlips who suggested Bohor Reedbuck. Hopefully the illustrated phylogeny I shared will help with future identifications.

*Journal of Mammalogy, 77(2):462-475, 1996

Friday mystery object #407 answer

Last week I finally got a chance to share a nice skull from the Dead Zoo for you to identify:

Bird skulls are always an interesting challenge, because the bill can give away some useful clues and there is a fantastic online resource available to help with their identification, in the form of SkullSite, run by Zygoma regular Wouter van Gestel. Perhaps unsurprisingly Wouter tends to be one of the first to get a correct answer when the mystery object is avian – and this one was no exception.

One of the useful features on SkullSite is the ability to do a custom search, which allows you to restrict the size range of skulls and the bill shapes to search through. This allows easy comparison between the skulls of possible taxa, making identification more straightforward, once you get your eye trained to recognise useful features.

In this case there are a few species in the same size range with similar shaped bills. The closest species in size and shape (that’s not a close relative) is the Great Bustard. However, the Great Bustard has much longer nares (the fancy name for nose-holes) than the mystery object and the bustard’s lacrimal bones (the small bones that flare out just to the front of, and above, the eye sockets) are much smaller and less pronounced than what we see in the mystery specimen.

That leaves the two species in the Family Cariamidae (or Seriemas) to pick from. The size of the specimen alone makes that fairly straightforward, as there’s around 15mm difference in the skull length between the two. However, if you want a morphological feature, the mandibular fenestra (the ‘window’ visible in the side of the lower jaw slightly back from the midway point) is proprtionally a lot larger in the Black-legged Seriema compared to that of the Red-legged Seriema.

The fenestra is small in the mystery object, while the skull is large, making this a specimen of the Red-legged Seriema Cariama cristata (Linnaeus, 1766).

A Red-legged Seriema in Reserva Ambiental, Piraju, São Paulo, Brazil. Image by Dario Sanches, 2010

I tend to think of Seriemas as the South American equivalent of the Secretarybird, since they are ground-hunting predators in scrubby environments that have a fondness for venomous snake snacks.

Both have long legs and small feet, neither fly much and both have eyelashes, as pointed out by Goatlips on Twitter:

I’d never really consider the bird eyelashes thing and it makes perfect sense for terrestrial birds foraging on the ground in arid environments to have some extra eye protection from sun and dust afforded by filamentous feathers around the eyes. It turns out this holds true for birds like Ostriches, Emus, Cassowarys, Rheas, Road-runners and the Ground Hornbills.

However, some other Hornbills that live in very different environments also have eyelashes as do those odd arboreal Hoatzins, so there must be something else going on with those lovely lashes that I’m missing.

I hope you enjoyed this bony challenge – please feel free to add your thoughts on the eyelash situation and perhaps mention any species you’ve noticed this feature in before. You never know, together we might figure out what those lashes are all about.

Friday mystery object #402

This week I have another specimen from the Dead Zoo for you to have a go at identifying:

Skull length approx. 170mm

It’s one of almost two thousand birds that will be put into storage as part of the big decant we’ve been working on.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the project and some of the complexities involved, I’ll be doing a virtual talk about it next Friday evening (GMT) for PubSci – it’s free and the details are here if you’d like to join in.

Have fun!

Friday mystery object #401 answer

Last week I gave you this gnarly looking skull from the Dead Zoo to identify:

I didn’t think it would be a difficult one, especially since it is a critter I’ve used as a mystery object before (although that was over 10 years ago!)

As I suspected, everyone figured out that this is the skull of an Alligator Snapping Turtle, but things have become a bit more complicated than they used to be over the last decade, since the single species that used to be in the genus Macrochelys has since been split.

The amount of splitting has varied, but at the moment it seems to have settled on two species being recognised; Macrochelys temminckii (Troost, 1835) and Macrochelys suwanniensis Thomas et al., 2014.

Variation of the squamosal in A. Macrochelys temminckii and C. Macrochelys suwanniensis. Adapted from Thomas et al. 2014. Zootaxa 3786(2):141–165

One of the key diagnostic features identified to differentiate between them is the angle of the squamosal (the bit of bone with the arrow pointing it above). In M. temminckii the angle is greater than 90° whereas in M. suwanniensis it’s less than 90°.

That suggests to me that the Dead Zoo specimen is probably the Suwannee Snapping Turtle Macrochelys suwanniensis Thomas et al., 2014. The only problem with this identification is that the collection locality is simply “Mississippi”, which doesn’t fit with the Suwannee river distribution of the species.

I’ll need to go back and look at a few other skeletal characters to confirm the identification once I’m back in the Dead Zoo, but my guess is simply that the collection locality wasn’t accurately recorded, since the specimen came from the natural history supplier Edward Gerrard rather being collected and properly documented by a researcher.

It certainly wouldn’t be the first time a representative locality has been given for a specimen meant for display or teaching rather than research!

Friday mystery object #391 answer

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

I think it’s quite a distinctive skull, so I didn’t provide a scale and I asked for cryptic clues to avoid spoiling the challenge.

The overall skull shape is fairly standard for an Artiodactyl, but while this specimen has no incisors in the upper jaw, there are fairly obviously empty alveoli that show where the teeth used to be. That means it’s not a member of the Ruminantia (the deer, antelope, cattle, giraffes and weird deery-antelopey type critters like chevrotains) since they all lack upper incisors.

That leaves the pigs, hippos and camels – and it’s clearly not one of the pigs or hippos.

The camel family is a bit odd. There are three wild species, but then an additional four entirely domesticated species. The proportions of this skull are a bit long for a Llama, Guanaco, Alpaca or Vicuña. That leaves the Dromedary, Wild Bactrian or Domesticated Bactrian camel as possibilities.

Dromedary skulls tend to have a horizontal nasal region then a steep rise to the braincase immediately behind the orbits, but this specimen has a more gentle slope running from the nose to the top of the braincase, so it’s Bactrian.

Unfortunately the Wild Bactrian camel is critically endangered and poorly represented in collections, so it’s hard to find enough comparative material to differentiate the wild and domestic Bactrians.

Well done to everyone who figured out that this is one of the double-humped ships of the desert. There were some great clues in the answers!

Friday mystery object #390 answer

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

It came from a cabinet of cave bones, but Nigel Monaghan (Keeper of the Dead Zoo) wasn’t convinced that this specimen was actually found in a cave.

Partly that’s because it’s a fairly fragile specimen with poorly fused sutures – these don’t usually stay connected in cave deposits, but also because it’s from a species that you wouldn’t expect to find in the kind of caves that the rest of these collections came from. So what is the species?

I don’t think this is a very difficult one since I’ve done very similar specimens before (regular visitors should have had an advantage), so I was looking for cryptic or entertaining answers – and I was not disappointed. Tony Irwin got a great clue in, with a pun that reflected the genus:

I think we need to focus (did I spell that right?) on the shape.

It is of course the skull of a seal in the genus Phoca – and the blunt shape of the anterior portion of the auditory bulla suggests to me that it’s a Harbour Seal Phoca vitulina Linnaeus, 1758 rather than the very similar Spotted Seal, which has a slightly more accute angle on the anterior auditory bulla.

So well done to everyone who figured it out! Now we just need to figure out how it either got into a cave or (possibly more likely) got put into the wrong cabinet.

Friday mystery object #390

This week I have a mystery object that my boss, mentor and the Keeper of the Dead Zoo, Nigel Monaghan, found while working on a collection of cave bones:

Now Nigel has already worked out what it is thanks to a website that has images of skulls with id tips that you may have seen before (yep, this one), but do you recognise what this is?

I think this is a nice straightforward object, so maybe a good one for some fun cryptic or otherwise entertaining answers? Have fun!

Friday mystery object #385

This week I have a mystery object from the Dead Zoo that I think you’ll probably find easy to get to genus, but then I think it’ll get much more difficult:



If it proves too hard to work out the species I have a clue that might help and I’ll add it to the post next week. Have fun!

Aaand, here’s your clue! This is where the label says it’s from. I hope that helps!