Osteomancy II – One in the Database is Worth Two in a Box

It’s hard to resist a box marked ‘unknown skull’. Opening and unwrapping the skull showed that it a pretty large bird, the beak being the major giveaway.

The skull emerges

The skull emerges

With no data on the skull I couldn’t tell where it had come from, which would have  helped narrow down what it was.

The roundness of the cranium and the large, generalised beak immediately rounded it down to just five species; the large ratites, and the lack of casque/helmet to just four .

a few bits missing unfortunately

a few bits missing unfortunately

I looked in our osteology collection for a rhea skull, an ostrich skull, and an emu skull to compare it to.

We only have a rhea skull in the collection so I first compared it to that.

the Rhea is on the left

the Rhea is on the left

To compare it to the other skulls I used The Bird Skull Collection

Judging by the size, and the general characteristics I concluded that the skull is from an ostrich.

I then wrote it a label, and had it accessioned so I could enter it on the database.

Ostrich in TMS

Ostrich in TMS


Osteomancy I – Pop goes the Weasel

Yesterday I found a skull labelled ‘weasel’ it didn’t look like the other weasel skulls; the cranium was the wrong shape, and the cranial sutures were visible, which is only the case for very young mustelids.
I first looked for any other data on the label, so I could narrow down my options. But no data! ( you will see this is a recurring problem)

twirly string!

mystery skull on the left, Mustela nivalis on the right.

The sharp teeth are suggestive of a carnivore or an insectivore. Instead of canines forming fangs the incisors perform this function. I also noticed the lack of auditory bullae, which have either fallen off at some point, or were never there.

hey look, an accession number -->

mystery skull on the left, Mustela nivalis on the right

My first thought was perhaps a fruit bat, but checking my Handbook of Living Mammals [Timothy E Lawlor, 1979] fruit bats may have large canines but their cheek teeth are simple compared to the dental set in the cranium I am investigating.

this book is great

Figure 35. Skull of a pteropodid (Epomophorus, x 1 1/2)

My second stop in the book was the insectivore section, where I found that the canine-like incisors, lack of auditory bullae and quadritubercular teeth are all diagnostic of the Erinaceidae family ie hedgehogs and gymnures. Checking against the diagram in the book the skull looked very much like the typical Erinaceidae skull figured.

a mystery no more

mystery skull resting on Figure 24. Skull of a[sic] erinaceid (Erinaceus, x 1)

Comparing the skull to other species of hedgehog using Animal Diversity Web it is possible it is a desert hedgehog or a four toed hedgehog, but it is mostly likely a European Hedgehog Erinaceus europeaus local animals are slightly more likely to turn up in the collection and we do have 12 stuffed hedgehogs.

Der Igel, l'Hérrison

A live European Hedgehog, © Michael Gäbler / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

If you are interested in seeing larger versions of the photographs, leave me a message in the comments.

Cave Fauna Documentation

One of the school workshops run by Leeds Discovery Centre uses specimens of Pleistocene animals found in Kent’s Cavern in Torquay.

My job was to locate which boxes these specimens came from, then to document them thoroughly on the database, so that they can be kept together ready for the Education officer.

Although the specimens had been added to the database and given a unique accession number there were very little


series of hyaena teeth from Kent’s Cavern

data on the database, and no photos.

So my first task was to hone my SLR camera skills and take photographs of the specimens to add to the database.

Using the old data cards I transferred the information onto the digital database, this was an excellent way to learn how TMS (The Museum System) works.

As TMS is not designed for natural history collections I had to learn which datafields to enter key information such as the scientific name and geographical locations.

Some of the specimens we wanted to use were one of a set, such as these hyaena teeth, and did not have their own unique accession number; so I learnt how to create daughter records, to keep the data all linked together.

One of the specimens was a cave bear jaw with a loose tooth , so it has been taken to the conservator to be stabilised, and I choose another bear tooth to replace it.

bear jaw with loose tooth

bear jaw with loose tooth

Once the records were as complete as possible I moved the specimens from plastic trays, to their own designated box, this move was then recorded on TMS.

Now these specimens are thoroughly documented, the school children of Leeds can learn about prehistoric megafauna from real specimens collected in the UK.