Have you ever lain awake at night thinking about all the things you’d love to do? I know I have: go fossil hunting, have a floofly maine coon called David Meowie, visit the Tower of London, boop all the dogs noses etc etc. Hopes and dreams aren’t always super fancypants, but finding the opportunity to actually do them can seem impossible. Well, it turns out it feels really quite marvellous when they become an actual, tangible thing; yesterday – calipers in hand – I started a project determining the species of Manchester Museums unidentified feline specimens! Wahay!
Dentition is definitely your best friend when it comes to broadly identifying what kind of animal a skull belongs to. Long, curved, yellow tinted incisors belong to a rodent; large, flat molars and incisors only on the lower jaw belong to a herbivore; big canines and pointed cheek teeth belong to a carnivore. From there, skull size and shape can help whittle it down further. It starts to get tricky when you’re trying to ID at the species level, especially if your skull is from an animal that belongs to a large family – like cats – which contains lots of species to choose from. Worse still, feline anatomy is really homogenous because…well…what they’ve got works a treat, and evolution has been very “why change it when it ain’t broke, dude” about it. Moreover, even though there can be great size disparity between species, there can also be massive differences within species too – so I’m in for a challenge over the next few months!
My plan, broadly speaking, is to take a buttload of:
- photographs – so I have a document of any non-measurable morphological characteristics, like the shape of the nasal profile.
- measurements – so I can compare between other morphological measurements that have been taken in other studies.
- descriptive notes – so I can note down any other important information, and also feel like Dana Scully writing field reports (a highly recommended tactic to remind yourself you’re a quaint but fierce science lady)
I started off with a trial sample of four random skulls from the collection to check I’m taking the right data. I ended up with three medium-large size cats, and one smaller – here they are in all their glory!
I’m pleased to report that all went very well! I also think I’ve successfully convinced the undergrad who is volunteering as my research assistant just how bloomin’ awesome skulls are, which is hip-to-the-jive. Furthermore, being able to look at a few different skulls allowed me to have a wee ponder over a couple of potential arcs within my project.
Whilst I was doing my prepatory research, I found a couple of papers that fleetingly mentioned about grooves in the canines possibly being of some use in IDing skulls. I had never even particularly noticed these grooves before, but they are definitely there. So, as a curious scientist, I’ve decided to see if I can discover more about this through my project.
Each canine I looked at appeared to have two grooves running almost parallel to one another. I didn’t notice any difference in shape between them, but with two suspected leopards, one without canines, and one juvenile it would be ridiculous to make any assumptions now. It’s an interesting concept though, and I look forward to seeing what I find out!
Okay so here we’re looking at the two bulb-like structures in the photograph. They’re positioned on the ventral side of the skull right at the back. They are actually hollow and house the middle and inner ear. These bony sphericals of joy are contrasting shapes and sizes in different skulls, so I’m going to try and make a record of the ones I examine and see if they can be a good indicator of which species is which. I certainly noticed a difference between two of them, but time will tell a) whether my sample size is diverse enough to ascertain anything and b) whether this is even a tangible thing in the first place.
I never know how to finish these things. Hopefully I’ll get better at this bit with each post I write. I think I’ll sign off by showing you the skull I almost exploded with excitement over – it’s a juvenile cat! I think I’ll be hard pressed to get a solid ID on this one, but it was really interesting to see all that potential for skeletal growth. The posterior section of the skull – where the brain lives – was much more fragile, and all the masticatory regions were really underdeveloped. Not just that, but you can see the permanent canines and two incisors looking all smug like “look out deciduous teeth, we’re gonna push you right outta the way!” Except they’re not, because the cat is long dead, so… sucks to be you permenant teeth!
Until next time, gang!