Friday mystery object #218 answer

Last Friday I gave you this skull to identify:


There was strong consensus on this being a mustelid – which is good, because that’s what it is. There was also good agreement on it being one of the Martens, which is where things become a bit more difficult.

After looking at a lot of different Marten skulls online without much success in finding a way of telling them apart, this diagram  proved quite helpful.

Images compiled by Mariomassone

Skulls in the sequence: M. zibellina, M. martes, M. foina

If you look at the skull in the middle of the top and centre rows, the auditory bullae (the rounded bones under the skull that house the anatomy used in hearing) have quite distinctive shapes in the three species pictured.

In addition, the the little nub of bone (called the mastoid process) that sticks out behind the ear hole (or external auditory meatus as it’s also known) is very differently developed in the three species. Looking at this character and checking back against other Marten skulls online the clues suggested that the mystery object is the skull of a Pine Marten Martes martes (Linnaeus, 1758).

So well done to everyone who commented – particularly Jake who got the ball rolling with a Martes identification from the start!

Friday mystery object #217 answer

Last Friday I gave you this lovely skull to identify:


I chose it because it was being used for an interesting project by a student at UCL, involving 3D surface laser scanning of the specimen to identify landmark characters of the skeletal structure of the faces of this family of primates:


This is a specimen that we actually have a fair amount of information about. It’s a male Grey Gibbon Hylobates muelleri Martin, 1841 collected before 1909, from Melian on the Hanta River in North Borneo. So of all the suggestions, Crispin (@brainketchup) was the closest (with agreement from henstridgesj) when he suggested White-handed Gibbon.

It turns out that this skull also has a taxidermy skin associated with it (which Jake has mentioned before), which shows a common feature of taxidermy specimens where the skull has been prepared separately – it’s mouth is stitched shut:


This makes for slightly dodgy taxidermy, but at least it means the skull is available for future research, instead of being stuck in a specimen intended mainly for display.

The skin of this specimen has also seen recent use, but for art rather than science. Artist Paul Robinson has used it as the basis of this somewhat freaky, but striking piece of work:

GIBBON by Paul Robinson

GIBBON by Paul Robinson

It goes to show that specimens in museums can find themselves being used in all sorts of interesting ways. To my mind this is really what museum collections are for – being used by people.

Friday mystery object #215 answer

Last Friday I gave you this perplexing specimen to identify:


It was labelled as a Crab-eating Raccoon, but the facial region is much longer and narrower than other examples I’ve talked about, and it’s much less robust:

Crab-eating Raccoon skull

Now the gracile build could just be because it’s the skull of a juvenile (which is what it looks like), but juveniles have shorter and relatively broader facial regions than adults, so that doesn’t work. Even the less robust jaws of the Common Raccoon are too short and wide for the mystery specimen (which I think may discount Robin Birrrdegg’s suggestion).

Another crab-eating option was suggested by Daniel Jones who thought Crab-eating Fox. Now the overall proportions are a good match for this species, but there’s a problem. If the mystery object had teeth this would be much easier, but there are the holes in the maxilla to give us clues about the shape and size of the molars and as Allen Hazen pointed out:

Three triple-rooted teeth. Are these three molars, or is the last premolar triple-rooted? If it’s three molars… Canids (usually) only have two upper molars…

This is indeed the case and so this skull can’t be from a Crab-eating Fox.

On a different tack, henstridgesj suggested that it might be a civet of some sort, pointing us in the direction of mystery object #143 for comparison:

African Civet skull

But again this really doesn’t look right – in particular the civets have a narrow constriction behind the orbital process, which is lacking in the mystery specimen. This was noticed by henstridgesj and he suggested that the closest option he’d been able to find was a Coati:

Coati skull

Now the specimen of Coati above is a mature male that was mystery object 54 and it doesn’t look much like our most recent mystery object, but on checking the skulls of juvenile and female Coatis I realised that this is probably the best option so far.

I still want to check some more specimens, but I’m really grateful for everyone’s input on this specimen – it’s been a challenge and you have all helped immensely!

I’ll  be back with another mystery object next Friday, but until then I’d like to wish you all a thoroughly enjoyable festive season!

Friday mystery object #215

This week I have a skull for you that I think has been misidentifed, but because its teeth are mostly missing it’s a little hard to be sure.


I’d appreciate your thoughts on what it might be and as usual you can put those thoughts in the comments section below. Let’s see if we can work out what this is!


After a weekend of discussion about the hashtag #bonegeeks for a crowd-sourced, social media based resource for images of bones, I have come to the conclusion that you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

The nub of the discussion centres on the word ‘geek’, which is a term that some people dislike and don’t identify with. This is fair enough – how one identifies with and adopts labels for themselves is a personal thing, a point that Alice Roberts made earlier in the year.

Language evolves and so terms take on new meanings to reflect common usage. To my mind this means that the term ‘geek’ has taken on a new and (to my mind) positive meaning as “someone who is interested in a subject (usually intellectual or complex) for its own sake“, so I am happy with that description for myself – but I can understand that others feel differently.

In order to try to come up with a better hastag for a bony resource I made a poll that included a range of suggestions, the most popular of which can be seen below:


Now obviously #bonegeeks comes out on top – presumably due to input from other people who self-identify as geeks, but there are enough people voting for alternatives to raise a warning flag that several people may feel actively excluded by use of term ‘geek’. In light of this I am unwilling to stick with #bonegeeks, but the general lack of consensus on alternative names leads me to reject the other options.

Where to go from here? The obvious answer is to go back to what we are trying to achieve and to think of a hashtag that is descriptive of the outcome rather than the contributors, so I suggest we use #bonepics so that both #bonegeeks and every other brand of osteology enthusiast who doesn’t consider themselves a geek can get on with making something rather awesome…


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]

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!

Oddjects No.2

Some interesting things have been coming to light in the reviews going on at the Horniman. Here’s an object that our Anthropology review team uncovered and asked me to identify.


It looks a bit like a bird of prey with a gimp mask, but it’s actually a charm from Nigeria.

Fortunately, I’d just gone through our bird skull collection and I immediately recognised this becowled bird skull as being from a Lappet-faced Vulture, so it was an easy identification – particularly since the skull is 18cm long and from Africa, which helped narrow down the possibilities considerably!

Here’s the Anthropology specimen compared directly to our Natural History specimen, so you can see what would be under the leather:


We’re also in the middle of our first collections Bioblitz at the moment, so expect to see a lot of activity on the @HornimanReviews Twitter feed!

Friday mystery object #171 answer

On Friday I gave you this fragment of bill to identify:

It’s quite distinctive in shape, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when so many of you came to the same conclusion as I did about what it was from. As it is, everyone recognised this as being part of the bill from a member of the Phalacrocoracidae (Cormorant family). Well done everybody!

There are around 40 species of Cormorant, so getting this to species is a bit more tricky and a few possibilities were mooted. However, the two which best fit the shape and size of this bill are the Little Black Cormorant Phalacrocorax sulcirostris and the European Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis. A quick comparison of the two on the excellent (P. sulcirostris and P. aristotelis) show that the bill proportions and shape of the bony palate in the mystery specimen are closest to the  Continue reading

Friday mystery object #170 answer

On Friday I gave you this pair of bones to identify:

It didn’t take long for the type of bone to be identified, with Anthony Wilkes immediately spotting that these are the quadrates of a bird. Then things got more tricky as the type of bird became the focus of the identification.

Robin was the first to recognise the family and likely type of bird, with henstridgesj concurring, with the agreement being on these quadrates being from a  Continue reading

Friday mystery object #168 answer

On Friday I gave you this specimen to identify:

As I suspected, the distinctive shape of the skull makes this specimen easily recognisable as an owl (family Strigiformes). However, there are a couple of hundred species of owl, so there were plenty of possibilities to make a more specific identification.

This specimen has quite a distinctive slope to the forehead in profile view and a very clear groove down the midline of the cranium, which combined with the length of around 58mm narrowed down the likely suspects considerably.

Jake was the first to suggest the species I think it’s most likely to be, with palaeosam suggesting the other possible option and RH cautiously suggesting both. This skull belongs to an owl in the genus  Continue reading

Friday mystery object #166 answer

On Friday I gave you this great skull from the Grant Museum of Zoology to identify:

A big list of you (Mieke RothJakemcarnall, Anthony wilkes, 23thorns, Cam Weir, henstridgesj, Rhea, leigh and Robin) managed to work out what this specimen was from and there were some really interesting explanations about how you came to your conclusions in response to Steven D. Garber’s comment:

Now, I’d like it even more if people explained why this skull looks the way it does.

This is a really interesting thing to consider, as it underlies the process of recognition and identification. As a biologist I might start by saying that the lacrimal foramina is on the edge of the orbit (as henstridgesj pointed out) which is indicative of a marsupial and that the dentition is indicative of a carnivorous mammal that isn’t a member of the placental Carnivora as it lacks carnassials, plus the dental formula appears to be ‘primitive’ from the photo ?.1.3.4/?.1.2.4 which narrows down the possibilities to just a few marsupial carnivores, and given the scale of the skull there is just one that fits the bill.

However, if I’m honest I’d say that the overall shape and robust structure of this specimen is very similar to specimens I’ve seen before belonging to the  Continue reading

Friday mystery object #159 answer

On Friday morning I gave you this skull to identify:

Then at lunchtime I added this image of the underside of the skull to make the task a bit more manageable:

Before the second image was added most people were thinking that the specimen was some sort of large rodent due to the pair of incisors in the mandible and the skull shape reminiscent of a Beaver. However, the second image shows the teeth in the upper jaw, clearly showing way too many incisors for the specimen to be a rodent, not to mention the fact it has canines and caniform premolars.

At this point it became clear that the skull was from a Marsupial and the identifications started getting a lot closer to the correct species. Several people suggested that this skull belonged to a Brush Tailed Possum and it’s easy to see why – they have very similar skulls. As you might expect this species and the Brush Tailed Possum are in the same family (Phalangeridae). The main visible differences are that the Brush Tailed Possum has a narrower skull with a less well developed zygomatic region (cheek bone). They also tend to have a less well-developed caniform first premolar.

As we’ve seen before these small differences in skull shape and size can be due to differences within a species – perhaps due to age or sex of the animal. This means that there may be a chance the the specimen is a Brush Tailed Possum, but the similarity between the dental configuration of this specimen taken in consideration with the slight differences in skull shape suggest to me that this is a  Continue reading

Friday mystery object #157 answer

Apologies for a late and rather short answer to last week’s mystery object, I was in Scotland for the wedding of a very good friend this weekend and haven’t had much time for writing.

On Friday I gave you this skull to identify:

It’s pretty distinctive and I wasn’t surprised to see the correct identification popping up in short order. The big scars above the eye sockets indicate that this bird had large glands for extracting excess salt, which means it was a marine bird. The shape of the bill, particularly the mandible, is also quite characteristic and the wide triangular pterygoid bones of the palate are a give-away for this group.

Pterygoid region highlighted

Pterygoid bones highlighted

Ian managed to get the correct species identification within the first hour with Barbara Powell and Robin reaching the same conclusion after some comparison at the very useful Seabird Osteology website. This is the skull of a  Continue reading

Friday mystery object #157

Over the last week or so I’ve been going through some of the bird skulls in the Horniman’s collection. Here’s a nice one that you might enjoy identifying:

As usual you can put your suggestions, comments and questions below and I’ll do my best to answer. Good luck!

Friday mystery object #155 answer

On Friday I gave you this mystery skull to identify:

It’s not particularly complete, but the bill is very distinctive so most of you got the correct identification. Well done to Ric Morris, Barbara Powell, Jake, biologycurator, henstridgesj and Robin for spotting that this is the skull of a  Continue reading

Friday mystery object #154

This week I have a specimen that is pretty distinctive for you to have a go at identifying, so it should prove pretty straightforward for anyone who has seen one of these before:

Of course, if you haven’t seen one of these before it may be a bit more of a challenge!

You can put your suggestions, observations and questions below and I’ll do my best to reply. Good luck!

Friday mystery object #153 answer

On Friday I gave you this fragment of an object to identify:

Many of the key features we look for when making an identification of a skull are in the facial region. The teeth are the most useful feature, but the relative proportions of the rostrum (muzzle) in the context of the whole skull and the particulars of the various elements that interconnect to make a skull all contain useful information.

It’s rather similar to recognising a person in fact – it’s much easier when you can see their face than it is when all you can see is the back of their head.

So how did everyone do? Well, there were various suggestions as to what it might be, but it was basically a guessing game, relying mainly on scale, gross morphology and the shape of the auditory bullae (aka the bulbous bit containing the ear bones). Most guesses focussed on the carnivores although there were some large rodents suggested.

I thought henstridgesj might have worked it out when he asked ‘Are the bullae double-chambered? Possibly, I can’t really tell, but if they are then it’s in the suborder Feliformia‘ and I answered in the affirmative, but the most obvious answer was somehow missed.

This object is almost certainly the rear part of the skull of a  Continue reading