Bones that Look like Other Bones: A Mini Post about Foxes and Badgers

It’s been a while since I’ve made a Comparative Anatomy post! But after running into an issue with a possible fox/badger bone fragment, I figured it might be time to make a new one. And if you have any particular comparative anatomy posts that you’d like me to make in the future, please feel free to contact me about it!

Badgers and foxes – two animals that I have literally never seen in the wild until I moved to England. Honestly, I don’t even think I ever really though about either of them until I moved here. And yet, both are relatively common around Britain, which has caused me to become quickly familiar with their bones on the off-chance that they get mixed into an assemblage I’m currently working on (one of the many problems you face as a zooarchaeologist who works in a regional area that is so different from the one you grew up in!). There’s way more detailed comparative guides out there (see “References” below), but here’s a quick little post showing off some of their anatomical similarities and differences:

Skulls

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On the top is the skull of a badger. On the bottom is the skull of a fox.

At first glance, fox and badger skulls may look very much alike! However, there are some significant differences that will make telling the two apart a lot easier than you’d think. Possibly the biggest difference is in the general characteristics of each skull – badger skulls tend to be a bit “chunkier” and more robust, yet also shorter with a less elongated “snout” area, so to speak. Foxes, on the other hand, are more flat, with more elongated, perhaps even graceful arches and curves and are a bit thinner in comparison.

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On the right is the back of a fox skull, and on the left is the back of a badger skull. Note the difference in sagittal crests!

Another key difference can be seen if we look near the back of the skull where theses long ridges (called sagittal crests) can be found. Both foxes and badgers have relatively prominent sagittal crests, but badgers’ crests are a bit bigger for the most part.

Teeth

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The lower right mandible and teeth of a badger.

Badger and fox teeth look relatively similar as well. They have a sort of curvy, “wave”-shape that you can also see in dogs (see my Teeth post for more information). However, there are slight differences. Badger teeth, as you can see above, are arguably flatter, especially in the back molars.

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The lower mandible (and teeth) of a fox.

Fox teeth, on the other hand, are much more sharper and tend to be in greater number than badgers.

Long Bones

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From left to right: badger humerus, badger femur, fox femur, and fox humerus.

There are better and more detailed guides out there that get into all of the long bones of both badgers and foxes (see “References” again), but for the sake of brevity we’ll just be looking at two: the humerus and the femur. Again, you could argue that a general rule of thumb is that fox bones, unlike badger bones, are a bit thinner and longer. Badger bones are more robust, but shorter.

The humerus in a badger is very characteristic of this, as it is very short, yet robust. The hole at the bottom of the humerus is very oval shaped. In foxes, on the other hand, the humerus is much more elongated and thin. They also have a hole at the bottom of the bone, but this one is arguably more circular than ovular.

As for the femur, possibly the best indicator for what species you’re working with can be found at the “neck” at the top that leads to the little round bump known as the “femoral head”. Foxes don’t really have much of a “neck”, so the femoral head basically sits on top after a bit of a dip. As for badgers, their “neck” is much longer and more visible – the top of the bone clearly thins out into this “neck” as it leads to the femoral head.

Phalanges

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On the right are two fox phalanges, and on the left are two badger phalanges.

Honestly, if you’re tasked with differentiating between the phalanges of a fox and badger…yeah, uh…good luck! Again, you could roughly estimate based on general size, as foxes generally tend to be larger – but at the phalanges level? Hmm…

You know what, let’s just put down “small to mid-sized terrestrial mammal” and call it a day, yeah?

References

Johnson, E. (2015) A Skeletal Comparison of Domestic Dog (canis familiaris), Red Fox (vulpes vulpes), Badger (meles meles), and Domestic Cat (felis catus). Retrieved from https://ifeelitinmybones.files.wordpress.com/2015/09/a-skeletal-comparison-of-dog-fox-badger-and-cat.pdf.

McGowen-Lowe, J. (2015) The Difference Betweeen Fox and Badger Skulls. Retrieved from http://www.jakes-bones.com/2015/12/the-difference-between-fox-and-badger.html

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Bones That Look Like Other Bones: A MiniPost About Rabbits and Hares

Note: Is it morbid to look at rabbit and hare skeletons on Easter? Maybe. But more importantly, please remember that caring for rabbits as pets is a commitment – don’t buy them as an Easter Day gift for kids if you’re not committed to caring for them! More information can be found here.

So, moment of truth: how long did it take you to realise that rabbits and hares are two different animals? I’m pretty sure I was hitting double digits in age before that dawned on me…embarrassing? Maybe. But it’s an easy mistake to make: rabbits and hares look extremely alike! And that’s not just limited to their outsides either…today’s mini comparative anatomy post is about the bones of hares and rabbits!

Good rule of thumb with differentiating between hare and rabbit bones is to look at the size of the bones – hares are generally larger than rabbits. This is definitely noticeable just looking at the skulls of a hare (on the left, above) and a rabbit (on the right, above).

Hares also have larger, stronger hind legs, which can also be easily seen when you compare these bones to rabbit bones – in the above photo, are two femora, with the larger and more robust femur belonging to the hare.

Despite being from different species, however, both rabbits and hares do share similar physical traits in their skeletons, with explains why some archaeologists may have some confusion when it comes to differentiating between the two (for example, compare the two tibia bones above – besides the difference in size, they’re rather similar!).

If you’re interested in more archaeological work on hares, check on the Exploring the Easter E.g. project undertaken by the AHRC and the University of Nottingham!

References

Elena, S. (2008) Rabbits and Hares: No More Confusion! http://www.orcca.on.ca/~elena/useful/bunnies.html

Langley, L. (2014) What’s the Difference Between Rabbits and Hares? National Geographic. https://relay.nationalgeographic.com/proxy/distribution/public/amp/news/2014/12/141219-rabbits-hares-animals-science-mating-courtship

From the Question Bag: Fish Remains in Scotland

James Green asked: I know in the US South amia calva is one of the most common fish remains found in sites. What is the most common there?

Well, as someone who seems to have been knee-deep in fish bones since 2014, I’m glad you’ve asked! Let me preface this by saying my area of expertise is North and North-east Scotland – so the Orkney Islands and the Covesea Caves. And this is based on my experience as well! So I might miss out on some more common fish finds. But here are the common fish remains that I seem to run into time and time again.

Atlantic Herring (Clupea harengus)

Atlantic herring

The bane of my zooarchaeologist life…the reason why I strained my eyes during my masters dissertation…the fish that made me hold my breath while I worked because a sigh could easily send the vertebrae flying…let me present to you: the Atlantic herring.

Not necessarily something I find in abundance at my sites, but I’ve found a couple (read: about one hundred bones) here and there. It’s also found on the other side of the Pond!

Pollack (Pollachius pollachius)

Pollack bones

Not necessarily the bulk of many of my fish bone assemblages, but I find that the pollack shows up time and time again – especially pollack vertebrae! Of course, the vertebrae of  a fish are some of the most durable parts of a fish’s skeleton – that’s why you will see them more commonly than other, more fragile bones.

Whiting (Merlangius merlangus)

Whiting bones

Similar to the Atlantic herring, the whiting has also caused me much distress due to the tiny size of its bones. Very common in some Iron Age contexts that I’ve worked in, the bones of a whiting are so small that I’ve had to use a scanning electron microscope to analyse them for butchery marks and signs of erosion! Not to mention the many hours I’ve had to move their bones around with tweezers…fish bones are surprisingly hard work.

Atlantic Cod (Gadus morhua)

Atlantic cod bones

Last, but not least – especially not least – is my good friend, the Atlantic cod. Surprisingly one of the most common fish bones I find at sites! So common, in fact, that it’s the easiest fish for me to identify by eye. But maybe that’s not so surprising – after all, cod is still one of the most popular fish for food! And I don’t blame people, I do really enjoy fish and chips.

Remember to send me any questions or topics you’d like to see me cover about zooarchaeology or archaeology by contacting me!

A Thanksgiving Blog Post Without Turkeys, ‘Cos I Don’t Have Any Turkey Bones

As an American, I feel a bit obligated to make a themed-post for Thanksgiving. But here’s the problem: I don’t have any turkey bones in my collection.

So, what’s a zooarchaeologist blogger to do? Well, the next best thing: here’s a minipost looking at the bones of domestic fowl and why it’s important to differentiate between domestic and wild birds in an archaeological assemblage.

Have a happy Thanksgiving, fellow Americans!

In zooarchaeology, domestic fowl usually refers to domesticated species of birds such as chickens, turkeys, and guineafowl. Of course, this can vary greatly depending on the regional and temporal contexts of an assemblage.

Differentiating between domesticated and wild birds are just as important as differentiating between domesticated and wild mammals. This gives us a better idea of what kind of food and other animal products accessible to the inhabitants of a site, as well as what may have been hunted (and in some cases, gives us an idea of the technology needed to hunt!). If it’s more of a funerary or ritual context, bird remains (especially ones that have evidence of human modification) may also help us better understand beliefs of the past!

Chicken

Probably the most pervasive domestic fowl across the world, the chicken is probably one of the most identifiable bird bones out there due to how different their bones look in comparison to most other birds. I always associate chicken with this rounded look, in contrast to the sort of sharp, edged look that other bird bones have.

There is a current interdisciplinary project going on looking at the social, cultural, and environmental impact of the chicken called the Chicken Project.

Bantam

“Bantam poultry” usually refers to chicken or ducks that have are different breeds from what we normally call chicken/ducks, resulting in some morphological differences. The bones above are from a game hen, which is the closest thing I have in my collection to bantam (I do have a bantam chicken as well, but it’s currently being decreased!).

Compare those bones to the chicken bones above – See the difference in rounded bone versus sharp bone?

Guinea fowl

Guinea fowl are native to parts of Africa, but have been introduced elsewhere as domesticated fowl. Apparently it’s a bit similar to turkey, but I’ve never eaten it myself (feel free to let me know what it’s like if you’ve eaten it!).

Differentiating between something like bantam poultry and guinea fowl would be a bit difficult, as you can see – there’s certainly some similarities in the size and shape of bones! However, I’d argue that guinea fowl bones have a been more thickness on them, but to be fair I’ve rarely had to work with them in my projects in Scotland.

Geese

Geese are not always considered domestic fowl, but depending on the region and context of the site, it’s a possibility. I figured I would throw it in here for fun, though!

The size and thickness of goose bones is a good indicator for identification, especially in comparison to most other bird bones. Especially if you have the skull – that bill is a dead giveaway! Although it’s easy to confuse with a duck.

Bones That Look Like Other Bones: A MiniPost About Rodents and Fish

Yet another minipost in my comparative anatomy series! But this one might be the strangest paring of all.

Rodents and fish – could there be any more different animals? And yet, I find that students just starting out in archaeology tend to confuse the two together. To be fair, it’s very understandable – the size of rodent bones can be comparable to the size of many fish bones. So let’s break it down and see how different they really are.

Rat and Fish Cranium

For starters, let’s look at the cranium of a rat (left) and an Atlantic cod (right). As you can see, most elements of the skeleton look completely different. The rat has the sort of skull you would expect to see with any animal, while the fish…well, fish are basically made of a head and a tail, so most fish bones you find will be part of the cranium. As I’ve mentioned before in my previous post on fish bone, they will also have a different sort of texture and look compared to mammal bone – in my opinion, its a very “fish-like” texture, a bit shiny and flaky. Always a good giveaway that you’re dealing with a fish!

Rat and Fish Vertebrae

So how is it possible to even confuse the two? Well, let’s look at something a bit trickier…here’s the vertebrae from a rat (left) and from a fish (right). Now, if you don’t know that there’s a difference in shape between rat and fish vertebrae, you might not be able to differentiate the two right away. And given how weird vertebrae can be in varying shapes between types of vertebrae in an individual body, who knows! Maybe they’re from the same animal?

Luckily, there is a visual difference between the two. Rat vertebrae look relatively similar to any other mammal vertebrae (“relatively” being the key word here, of course…but talking about the differences in mammal vertebrae is a post for a different day!). Fish, on the other hand, have very distinct-looking vertebrae and vertebral bodies. Unfortunately, distinguishing between the two can be more difficult if the vertebrae are more fragmented – I’ve seen many students get the two confused if most of the vertebral arches and “wings” are missing.

“But Alex!” I hear you say, “these bones look so different, I don’t believe that anyone could get them confused!” Okay then…let’s take two random, slightly fragmented bones from a herring and a mouse then, shall we?

Mouse scapula and herring fragment
Can you tell the difference?

As you can see, it can get tricky! Fragmentation, size, preservation of bone – these are variables that you encounter with archaeological bones that make things a bit more challenging than you’d think! The best way to get better, of course, is to practice, practice, practice. It gets easier…

…well, eventually.

 

Bones That Look Like Other Bones: Rodent Week Edition

According to Twitter, last week was #RodentWeek. So here’s another comparative anatomy minipost about some commonly found rodents: squirrels, rats, and mice!

Skulls and mandibles from left to right: squirrel, rat, and mouse.

Now, when it comes to differentiating between these three, size matters. As you can see from the above photo, there’s a huge difference between the skull of a squirrel and the skull of a mouse!

Rats and squirrels may be a toss up, depending on the age and size of the animal – but there’s differences in the shape as well! Personally, I’ve always associated squirrels with a more rounded cranium than rats, who normally have a more flattened skull, but your mileage may vary on that.

Skulls from left to right: Squirrel, rat, and mouse

What will be very difficult is if the only elements available to you are the incisors, or the front teeth. Again, size is beneficial here, as otherwise incisors will more or less look the same across the board for rodents!

Also, take another look at those skulls – lots of similarities between the mouse and rat, less so for the squirrel. And you can kinda see what I mean about the more flattened top of the rat in comparison! There’s a similar elongation that both the rat and mouse share as well.

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Mandibles from top to bottom – squirrel, rat, and mouse

For the most part, identification of rodent remains requires close examination. As you can see above, there are many slight differences between the different rodents, but it requires a bit more study than say, differentiating between a rodent and a frog.  In some cases, complete identification may not be possible without some references on hand!

That said, those incisors are often huge clues that point towards a rodent – if all else fails, at least you might be able to point to that! Those incisors also create a very specific gnaw mark on bones that will help ID the presence of rodents at the site (this will be the topic of a future blog post though!).

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Femurs from top to bottom – squirrel, rat, and mouse

I’ve spent most of this post (as I do with most of these comparative anatomy miniposts) talking about the skulls for identification – to be honest, skulls are usually the easiest part of the body to ID and compare. So here’s something a bit different – let’s quickly look at some long bones of rodents.

As I said previously, rodents require a bit more investigation in differentiating between them. As you can see by the femurs above, there are certainly some differences between a squirrel, rat, and mouse! Compare the straighter edge of the squirrel femur towards the more curved femurs of the rat and mouse, for example.

I hope these miniposts are somewhat helpful for you – obviously a more detailed comparative anatomy post would be much longer, but hey! Maybe one day I’ll write up some manuals – let me know if that sounds interesting to anyone!

Bones That Looks Like Other Bones: A MiniPost About Birds and Rabbits

I’ve been quite busy doing analysis on assemblages for my PhD project, so I don’t have much time for blogging these days. But in (belated) honour of International Rabbit Day, here’s a quick comparison of rabbits and birds!

Birds and Rabbits
Herring gull skull on the left, rabbit skull on the right

For the most part, rabbits and birds are quite distinguishable animals. I mean, one has wings and feathers and the other doesn’t – how could you mix them up?

Well…once you have just the bones, it can get tricky.

Rabbit Bird Tibias

Let’s take, for example, the tibia. Above is a photo of a bird tibia and a rabbit tibia – can you guess which is which?

They don’t look exactly alike, of course, but rabbit bones (rabbit tibia is on the bottom) have similar sharp characteristics you’d normally expect bird bones (herring gull tibia is on the top) to have.

Bird Rabbit femurs

Now this is a bit easy as the bones are marked, but you can see the similarities between the bird femur (game cock femur on the left) and the rabbit femur (on the right). Again, note the sharp edges of some of the rabbit bone that looks similar to many bird bones!

And if that isn’t confusing enough, rabbit bones tend to be just about as lightweight as bird bones!

It can be very tricky, but this is why comparative anatomy and reference collections are so important!

On Animal Teeth, or Why I’m Not a Dentist

Since my last post using comparative anatomy was rather popular, I figured I should write a similar post for this week, starting with the most important part of the skeleton for zooarchaeologists (in my opinion) – teeth!

In my experience, teeth are the best skeletal elements to recover. Why? They’re one of the more easily identifiable parts of the skeleton and one of the more variable skeletal elements across different species.

Unfortunately for me, they’re also some of the…well, grossest parts of the skeleton. Nothing will put the fear of root canals and cavities in you like looking at any worn down tooth from a cow or sheep!

Here is a small sampling of teeth from different animals and how you can easily identify them, in very informal and non-technical-sounding ways:

Pig

Pig teeth might be the weirdest looking teeth I encounter regularly (besides my own…and if you’re my dentist reading this, no I will never get braces, I can’t afford them!). The easiest way to ID them is to recognise how similar they look to human teeth…but just slightly off. Basically, I like to say that the molars look like human teeth that have popped a bit like popcorn. Yes, I’m aware of how gross that is – but that’s how I remember them!

Pig Teeth
Yuck – here are the teeth of a domestic pig.

Dog

Dog teeth have a sort of “wave”-like shape to them that makes them a bit distinct. Often, I’ve found that their molars and premolars not as pointed and sharp as a cat’s teeth (see below), but that isn’t always the case, of course. In any case, dog teeth are quite bulky in comparison to cat teeth.

Dog Mandible
A detailed look at a dog mandible (Photo Credit: Melissa Rouge, Colorado State University)

Cat

Cat teeth have a somewhat similar shape to dog teeth, but I’ve found that they are somewhat more pointy than most dog teeth (although again, this may not always be the case). In comparison to dog teeth, cat teeth are also relatively smaller and not as bulky. A larger set of teeth that may look cat-like could indicate you’ve got another member of the Felidade family (i.e; lion, lynx).

Cat teeth
The dainty, pointy teeth of a domestic cat.

Sheep

The easiest way to ID sheep teeth is to check for a “house shingle”-like appearance. I have found that in comparison to animals with similar looking teeth (cows and horses), sheep teeth are also rather thinner. Be careful, though – sheep and deer teeth are remarkably similar in size and appearance!

Sheep Teeth
The maxilla and mandible of a sheep – note that house shingle look!

Cow

As mentioned above, cow teeth are similar in appearance to sheep with a slight “house shingle”-like appearance. However, given the difference in size, cow molars and premolars will be larger and bulkier, usually.

Cow teeth
Compare these cow teeth with the sheep teeth above

Rodents

And finally, some of the smallest teeth you’ll run into: rodents! To be frank, if you find very small teeth, it is most likely from a rodent of some kind. The front incisors may be a bit more difficult to ID if found alone as they are much larger than the other teeth and may be mistaken for a bit of rib bone. These teeth are what create the pattern of gnawing attributed to rodents that looks like long striations or lines on the bone (more on that in a future post!).

Rat teeth
The skull and mandible of a rat – look at that incisor!

If you’re looking for a more in depth comparison of mammal teeth, I would recommend Mammal Bones and Teeth by Simon Hillson (1992). It’s a great guide that I use in my work with some really clear diagrams.

On Seals, the Dogs of the Sea

The other day, a group of archaeologists (myself included) stood around trays of assorted animal bones from a recent surface collection. It was just a cursory glance at the assemblage, but of course the mind immediately starts identifying bones that jump out at you.

“That’s a dog mandible…that’s a cow tooth…that’s bird, for sure…and that’s…a dog too?”

It was a fragment of a mandible that certainly looked like a dog at first glance…and yet, there was something a bit off. After looking at it for some time, it finally hit me: oh, it’s a seal. The dogs of the sea.

Seal and Canine Mandibles

When you start off in zooarchaeology, you start to find big indicators that immediately help you narrow down an identification – little “shortcuts”, if you will. Case in point – identifying seals based on comparing them to dogs.

Above, you’ll see a dog mandible and a sea mandible. Side by side, it’s a bit easier to see the difference between the two. But on its own, it’s not that difficult to mistake a seal mandible for that of a dog. I chalk it up to the teeth shape being very similar, and some slight similarities in the shape of the mandible itself (note – the mandible that was originally in question was smaller than the above mandible, so a bit easier to mistake for a dog!).

So with that in mind, it’s a bit handy to keep that in your mental toolkit. Got a mandible that looks like a dog’s, but something’s a bit…off? Might be a seal!

Seal Skull

Of course, there’s plenty of variation in dog skulls among different breeds that maybe that’s not the best conclusion to jump to, so here’s another tip: check the sort of overall bone there is. Does it look rather porous? Well, that’s an easy sign that you’re dealing with some sort of marine animal! So if you have a mandible that looks dog-like, but has a porous quality to it? Either it’s a mythical sea dog (in that case please send me photos)…or most likely, some kind of seal.

UPDATE: After further conversation with another zooarchaeologist, it turns out that dog mandible might actually be a wolf mandible! Oops…well, point still stands, I guess!

Seal pelvis