Friday mystery object #214

This week I have a stray mandible for you to have a go at identifying:


I think I know what it’s from, but I’d appreciate your thoughts. As usual you can put your thoughts, comment and questions below. I can’t wait to hear which critter you think it might be from!



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]

Friday mystery object #211 answer

Last week I gave you this very unusual object to identify:


Plenty of you recognised this as a vicar of some sort, painted on the cervical vertebra (or neck bone) of a large mammal. There were some great ideas from neanth, Lewis Thompson, henstridgesj, Ze-Jeff, Jake, ermineofthenorth, Carlos, Daniel Jones, andy J, Natasha and Daniela.

In particular, Daniel Jones made some very interesting observations about which vertebra from which animal, while Tony Morgan managed to identify the preaching subject.

It seems that this object is a cervical vertebrae from a Heavy Horse (by which I mean something like a Shire-horse, not just a greedy nag). Looking at the relative proportions and the angles of the processes I think it’s probably the 4th cervical vertebra.

Meanwhile, the subject of the piece appears to be John Wesley, co-founder of the Methodist movement in the 18th Century. Apparently this sort of British folk depiction of John Wesley (and his brother Charles) was quite common in the late 18th and early-mid 19th Centuries, and there are several examples online (1, 2, 3).

Finally there is a bit of a mystery attached in the form of  a label:


The date is written without the century, which is  a problem in collections that can be well over 100 years old. This could be from 1984 (unlikely), 1884 (the year Horniman started showing his collection, or 1784 (one of years in which John Wesley was active).

The handwriting looks familiar to me, so I’m going to go for 1884 and assume that this is a label that was added when the object was collected by Horniman, rather than it being a label added by the person who painted the vertebra – after all, who adds labels like this to their handiwork?

I hope this provides a good reason for why you should always write the year in full if you work in a museum.

Friday mystery object #210 answer

Last week I gave you this mystery object to have a go at identifying:


Jake was in like a flash, correctly identifying that the bone was a humerus – not an easy thing to spot considering the very strong curve and the deep groove at the head end. Jake also noticed that the humerus was adapted for something unusual, hence the weird shape.

There was a suggestion of pig by henstridgesj, which would have fitted the curve of the bone, but it was too small and the deep groove is at the wrong end.

Newcomer to the mystery object, Rute Branco, suggested that the object was the humerus of a (young) tortoise – a suggestion that I agree with (as does Daniella).

Tortoises have weird legs that need to carry quite a lot of weight, thanks to their bony carapace. They also need to get their legs inside their shell, so they have to be shaped for efficient retraction.

One of the differences between a terrestrial tortoise and an aquatic turtle humerus is the shape of the groove in the head, with terrestrial tortoises having a very steep and deep groove while swimming turtles have a slightly shallower and wider groove to allow a wider range of movement.

I can’t find enough comparative material to work out a species, or even genus of tortoise for this specimen, but I will keep my eyes peeled! Thanks for everyone’s input.

Friday mystery object #206 answer

Apologies for having such a belated answer to the belated mystery object from last week.

Things are really busy at the moment – I’m researching mermaids for a paper due to be submitted at the end of this month, curating an exhibition that’s due to open in September, double-checking the scientific accuracy in Jake’s book, doing talks, running PubSci, involved in recruitment for NatSCA, working on elements of the Horniman’s Bioblitz project and trying to write a grant application, on top of my more usual day-to-day work. That means I haven’t been able to spend the time on my blog that I would like. Hopefully everything will start getting back to normal in the next couple of weeks!

On to the answer – I’m afraid it will be brief… I asked what this bone was:


Carlos recognised this as a rib and there were a variety of suggestions about what it might be from, ranging from a cetacean to a mammoth. Some good ideas, but Lena came closest with speculation about dinosaurs.

This is in fact the rib of a Triceratops Marsh 1889.

There is a lot that could be said about Triceratops and other horned dinosaurs, but since I’m pushed for time I will just leave you with a link to an article by Darren Naish who knows more about such things than me and this brilliant stop-motion video from the 1925 film of The Lost World, which is simply iconic:

Friday mystery object #205 answer

Last Friday I gave you these tiny bones to identify:


Several suggestions were put forward with soph coming close with the suggestion of a broken furcula and Lena and henstridgesj correctly suggesting the clavicles (or collarbones) of a Cat Felis catus Linnaeus, 1758.

Cat clavicles, like the clavicles of a variety of other animals, are much reduced and are no longer connected to the scapulae (shoulder blades). This allows the scapulae to move much more freely during running, which can increase stride length and in the case of Cats it allows the animal to fit through holes big enough to get their heads through (assuming the Cat isn’t a bit too portly).

These sorts of vestigial structures are interesting from an evolutionary perspective, since they serve little or no direct function, but they still develop as a result of inheritance from ancestral forms that did use them.

In the case of Cats that form would have been around quite some time ago (probably 61.5 – 71.2 million years ago) since the closest related group to the Carnivora with a well-developed clavicle (that I can think of) would be the Chiroptera (bats), where it plays an important role in flight.

Since that divergence of the Chiroptera and the lineage giving rise to the Pangolins, Carnivora and Ungulata the clavicle has been pretty much completely lost, so it’s interesting that even a vestigial form occurs in Cats.

It’s funny to think how such small bones can raise questions that lead us through millions of years of evolution in search of answers, but that’s the nature of studying nature!

Friday mystery object #205

This Friday I have a mystery object inspired by something that might be making an appearance in Jake’s forthcoming book:


Any idea what these little pieces of bone might be?

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

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!

Friday mystery object #202 answer

Last Friday I gave you this big chunk of bone to identify:


I was hoping that it might be a little bit of a challenge because it doesn’t seem to have any really diagnostic characters, but your shape-matching skills were good and several of you managed to get a close identification.

Heather was straight in with the suggestion of it being the back part of the frontal bone (the bit that makes up the front and top of the skull) of an Aurochs – the very large, extinct ancestor of modern Cows. Wouter van Gestel also suggested one of the large bovids – the Asian Water Buffalo, and Ben Gruwier agreed with both Heather and Wouter in saying that it was from a large bovid.

This was as far as I had managed to get with the identification myself, however the specimen had a number (39.16), which I was able to check against the natural history registers. The first part of the number told me to check in the register for the year 1939 and it was the 16th entry for that year, so it was easy to find (unlike with some numbering systems with museum specimens).

It turns out that this specimen is in fact the frontal bone of a Gaur or Indian Bison Bos gaurus Smith,1827, and it turns out that the Gaur has a distinctive ridge between the horns, which is what this specimen is showing, so I should have been able to work it out from the morphology (I will be able to in future).

Gaur bull at Nagarhole National Park, India. By Dineshkannambadi

Bull Gaur can weigh up to 1.5 tonnes and stand 2.2m (7’2″) to the shoulder – they’re enormous. Their only natural predators are the Tigers and large Crocodiles they share their Southeast Asian forest habitat with, but even then Gaur have been known to kill Tigers by trampling and goring them.

Perhaps unsurprisingly these animals are far more risk from humans and have been hunted for meat and trophies until they have become threatened. They are protected by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), but illegal trade continues and their forest habitats are constantly being lost due to human encroachment.

It’s disheartening that so many of my mystery objects end with a comment about human activities driving a species towards extinction, but unfortunately it’s a massive problem in the world we live in. I wonder if there will be any wild Gaur left in 2039, just 100 years after this specimen was collected?