Tetrapod Zoology

Yet again I became distracted the other day, this time by that ‘Jaws’ photo. The previous article is required reading. Thanks to everyone who provided comments, and had a go at identifying the carcass. While many people suggested ‘short-faced dog’, a cat identification seems to have been more popular. Time to try to provide some answers…

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What can we see from the one existing photo? First off, this animal definitely has small incisors, large canines, and then an assortment of post-canine teeth. This combination immediately rules out loads of possible contenders, most notably diprotodontian marsupials (all of which lack lower canines, and possess only two, hypertrophied lower incisors), and shows that it’s a carnivoran. So ‘Jaws’ is definitely not a thylacoleonid, a koala, or a monkey, as some have informally suggested. In an effort to come to a definite identification, I started by drawing the animal’s head, focusing in particular on the teeth. My drawing has a sad, yet hilarious, quality about it, and you can see that it’s not completely accurate. Nevertheless it’s good enough. I then made various notes on the teeth…

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1. Right at the back of the right side of the upper jaw we see what looks like two, closely spaced teeth, both of which sport centrally placed, tall, subtriangular cusps.
2. The right upper canine is clearly shorter and blunter than the left. Its crown is evidently broken. Note that it is separated by a short gap from the two, subtriangular-cusped teeth discussed in (1). It is not possible to say whether this gap was present in life, or whether it was originally occupied by a small tooth.
3. Small upper incisors are evidently present. I had originally thought (from cropped versions of the photo) that two large incisors were present, but close examination of larger images shows without doubt that a few incisors are present.
4. The left upper canine is complete, unlike the right. The tooth is slim, sub-conical, gently curved, and with a pointed tip.
5. The left lower canine is similar in shape to the left upper canine, but definitely shorter. That’s expected, of course: the lower canines are shorter than the uppers in virtually all mammals.
6. A few small white specks in the photo show that small lower incisors are present between the canines. Only two or three are visible. They are less than half the height of the lower canines.
7. The right lower canine is, obviously, conical.
8. A substantial gap separates the right lower canine from the first post-canine tooth. The gap is about equivalent to half the length of the lower canine. The first post-canine appears short (both anteroposteriorly and in terms of cusp height) and simple, but no detail is visible.
9. The second post-canine is much longer anteroposteriorly, and also taller in terms of cusp height. No detail is really visible, but it seems to have two cusps at least.
10. The third post-canine is the largest and tallest of the three. There is the suggestion of a tall anterior cusp, followed by a notch. There might be a tall posterior cusp further back.

In carnivorans, the eye is typically positioned immediately above the most posterior teeth in the toothrow (that is, a straight vertical line can be drawn between the most posterior teeth and the posterior part of the eye). If we do this with the ‘Jaws’ carcass, we have to conclude that the most posterior visible teeth are probably the most posterior teeth in the dentition (though the possibility of one more posterior tooth does remain). In the upper jaw, ‘Jaws’ has two visible post-canines. The space immediately posterior to the canine allows the possibility of a third tooth, and the fact that there might be one additional tooth right at the back of the toothrow (and out of view) allows the possibility of a fourth tooth. So – at absolute maximum – ‘Jaws’ had four upper post-canines.

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This immediately rules out dogs (where there are always five post-canines) and essentially leaves us only with cats and mustelids: mustelids can be ruled out because their heads are generally much longer, and their limbs much shorter and more robust, than those of the ‘Jaws’ carcass. And the idea that the carcass is that of a cat is obviously far more parsimonious than other, far more speculative possibilities (such as, that the carcass is of a new type of mustelid). A felid identification is in line with the other details of the carcass: it is, after all, a short-faced animal with large, slim canines and gracile limbs. Its near-parallel upper canines, gently diverging lower canines, and neat, parallel incisors also look exactly cat-like: in short-faced dog breeds, the canines diverge strongly, and the incisors are often a real mess, projecting outwards at odd angles, looking decidedly uneven, and being separated by irregular gaps [Colin McHenry was good enough to mock up the adjacent cat skull image for comparison].

Is it a domestic cat? In the frustrating absence of size data, it’s not possible to be completely sure, but I get the impression from the surrounding sand and seaweed that this is not a particularly big animal. Given that domestic cats (feral or otherwise) are all over the planet and tremendously abundant, and in the absence of any contradictory evidence from the animal’s overall appearance or morphological details, I think this is the most sensible conclusion.

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So, ‘Jaws’ is a domestic cat [here's my domestic cat. Not dead].

Given that cats are familiar animals, and given that the details of their anatomy are (in contrast to those of so many animals) accessible and well documented in easily available literature, you might wonder how experts at two major museums were (supposedly) unable to identify ‘Jaws’ (Shuker 1996). While I can’t pretend to know exactly what happened in these cases, I get the impression from other cases of this sort that (1) the relevant experts were mis-quoted (they might say, for example, that a definite identification can’t be reached, which then becomes translated as ‘it’s unidentifiable’), or (2) no relevant experts ever really examined the evidence in question (there are lots of experts at museums, but they’re not all experts at identifying mammal corpses). Whatever happened, I really, really doubt that a mammalogist would – if they looked at it properly – fail to identify this carcass as that of a cat.

With ‘Jaws’ identified as a domestic cat, here endeth the mystery of yet another of those ‘mystery carcass’ cases so beloved of cryptozoologists. The reason that these cases come along so often, and then persist for so long, is, quite simply, because they’re not the focus of interest of the ‘right’ people: that is, those who actually have the required, specialist knowledge. For other cases of this sort see…

Ref – -

Shuker, K. P. N. 1996. The Unexplained: An Illustrated Guide to the World’s Natural and Paranormal Mysteries. Carlton, London.

Comments

  1. #1 zach hawkins
    May 11, 2009

    very well sumd up darren, im considering starting my own blog on z tetrapod`s, it is my best area of zoology, do you have any tips, sorry if its of topic.

  2. #2 Nemo Ramjet
    May 11, 2009

    Just title your pencil drawing something like “The inexorable vision of the end of being.” and you can hustle it off to some art twats at TATE Modern for a couple of hundred thousand pounds.

  3. #3 Darren Naish
    May 11, 2009

    Looking back at my article, I’m wondering why I did the drawing at all: why not put the labels straight on to the photo? I think some subconscious urge made me think ‘If you draw it, you will know it’. And, actually, this is kind of true – drawing something does force you to work out the details.

  4. #4 khalil
    May 11, 2009

    Is that a Bengal cat? I am have one myself.

  5. #5 Jeff Johnson
    May 11, 2009

    Good work Darren! I am satisfied with the conclusion. Jeff

  6. #6 Mike from Ottawa
    May 11, 2009

    Based on comparison with two living examples in my house, I’m pretty confident that the cryptid lying on, I assume, Darren, is a brown tabby.

    And the other one, subject of the post, I think there’s an echo of Matt Wedel’s recent SV-POW! post “MYDD” – Measure Your Damned Dinosaur. Maybe Darren should do a Measure Your Damned Cryptid post.

  7. #7 Darren Naish
    May 11, 2009

    Tigger Mamum-Ra is an ordinary tabby. In the photo she’s lying on my wife’s ‘baby bulge’, so you could say that she’s lying on baby Emma.

  8. #8 Zach Miller
    May 11, 2009

    I feel the same way about drawing things, Darren. That’s why I get so worked up when I read a paper that describes a dinosaur (or whatever) based on fairly complete material (like Mapusaurus) and there’s no skeletal or life restoration.

    Your cat looks just like my cat!

  9. #9 Craig York
    May 11, 2009

    Well, I’m not terribly surprised, but I am a little
    disappointed. You did say in the previous post that
    there was ” some weirdness going on ” and I got my hopes up
    a bit. But thats just me. Amateur I certainly am, but I like
    to think I can at least recognize good science when I run
    across it. Keep on, and a long and happy life to T. Mamun-Ra.

  10. #10 William Miller
    May 11, 2009

    I’m glad I finally actually recognized one, though I wasn’t very certain…

  11. #11 Metalraptor
    May 11, 2009

    “Measure Your Damned Cryptid post”

    Guilty as charged. Ah, it was a cat. I was starting to think such after a lot of the posts on the previous article starting to come together providing evidence for the theory. Great article Darren.

  12. #12 Jerzy
    May 11, 2009

    Yep, a cat. I hope my zoology lecturer didn’t read it. But, hey, it was not in a curriculum.

    Can I, can I ask about a Cool Pleistocene Megafauna week?
    And as reported by eyewitnesses on cave walls, figurines etc., please? Did Homotherium have sheathes for canines? Was it wooly or Merck’s rhino with dark mid-body? Did giant moa really have a cockerel-like crests?

  13. #13 Darren Naish
    May 11, 2009

    Jerzy, that does sound like a very neat topic and I’d love to cover it. However, I think I might struggle in getting hold of the right images – few are in the public domain, and fewer exist in digital form. If you, dear reader, can help, then you know what to do…

  14. #14 zayzayem
    May 12, 2009

    I think the drawing helps clear up where the individual teeth are.

  15. #15 Dartian
    May 12, 2009

    Darren:

    Tigger Mamum-Ra is an ordinary tabby.

    An ‘ordinary’ cat? There is no such thing!

  16. #16 DDeden
    May 12, 2009

    Well, if not a highly endangered short snouted dingoroo, then perhaps a slightly smushed pallas cat?

  17. #17 Jerzy
    May 12, 2009

    Sorry Darren! Don’t have access to a nice library with archeological journals (others neither for that matter).

  18. #18 ech
    May 13, 2009

    another one from a few days ago:
    http://www.montauk-monster.com/the_montauk_monster/the-montauk-monster-is-found.html
    This is pictures and video of a mammal lying on its back; I’m assuming it’s a dog; can anyone tell, perhaps from the teeth/jaw or rear foot?

  19. #19 Christopher Taylor
    May 13, 2009

    Darren covered the Montauk beastie already.

  20. #20 ech
    May 14, 2009

    “Darren covered the Montauk beastie already.” – Was this in reply to my post? If so, my link is about a different carcass, the article’s URL is misleading.

  21. #21 Hai~Ren
    May 15, 2009

    ech is right, it’s a new carcass. No idea what it is, although I am thoroughly fed up with all the commenters insisting that it’s a turtle without its shell, even though it’s obvious that the carcass a) Doesn’t have scales b) Has fur, and c) Doesn’t have a gaping hole in its back.

  22. #22 ech
    May 15, 2009

    “ech is right” – heh, but I was wrong about it being on its back. At least I didn’t say it was a turtle.

  23. #23 eddie
    May 15, 2009

    Yes. It’s a cat. But what type of cat?
    I was thinking lion because of the ear, proportionally much smaller than Darren’s tabby, but the scale is unknown. If those ‘footprints’ are a reliable clue, then it’s domestic cat sized. Can’t be a cub as the broken tooth speaks of life experience.
    I wonder what happened to its rear end.

  24. #24 eddie
    May 15, 2009

    What’s really puzzling to me is that even though you can use the dental analysis to tell a cat from a dog, there was initially some doubt as to whether it was a marsupial or placental mammal.
    Also, that dark band around the neck says ‘collar’ to me.

  25. #25 eddie
    May 15, 2009

    Check out
    http://teethtellatale.duit.uwa.edu.au
    for info on marsupial teeth.

  26. #26 Dartian
    May 16, 2009

    Seems like Darren’s meticulous and eminently sensible explanation doesn’t satisfy everyone…

    Eddie:

    It’s a cat. But what type of cat?

    A common cat (either domestic or feral). There are millions of them in Australia. To suggest that it’s anything else – including any other feline species – would require making several extra, unlikely assumptions. In other words, such a suggestion would be unparsimonious (and hence unscientific).

    I was thinking lion because of the ear

    A lion’s ears are round, not pointed like that. The head and body proportions are also wrong for a lion (or for any other pantherine cat). And how would a lion end up in Australia?

    What’s really puzzling to me is that even though you can use the dental analysis to tell a cat from a dog, there was initially some doubt as to whether it was a marsupial or placental mammal.

    Those ‘doubts’, assuming they were intended to be serious, were only uninformed opinions unbacked by evidence. Anyone who really thought that it could be a koala, for example, obviously didn’t bother to look up what a koala’s limbs and dentition look like. (Anyone with internet access can, within seconds, find thousands of good koala images and verify for himself/herself that that alternative is a total non-starter.)

    that dark band around the neck says ‘collar’ to me.

    Not to me, really. (And anyway, if it was a collar mark it would not support your lion suggestion. How unlikely would not a collar-wearing lion be?)

    Bottom line: it’s in all likelihood a common cat, just like Darren has demonstrated.

  27. #27 eddie
    May 16, 2009

    Dartian, I was describing how my initial impressions were modified by closer examination of the evidence. (the suggestion of maybe collar I took as strengthening the tabby hypothesis, as with the suggestion of maybe footprint) I apologise if that wasn’t clear enough for you.
    Your remark about searching the web for info was helpful. That’s just how I got the link I shared.

  28. #28 Esty
    May 21, 2009

    Merci Darren, I enjoy your posts…everytimes I, er, take time to read them ! Great science – great link btw academia and “real world”

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