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…
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…
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.
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.
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…
- Mystery of the Erongo carcass
- Santa Cruz’s duck-billed elephant monster
- What was the Montauk monster?
- England ‘does a Montauk’
- A Russian sea monster carcass is claimed to be that of an ancient ‘archaeocete’ whale
Ref – –
Shuker, K. P. N. 1996. The Unexplained: An Illustrated Guide to the World’s Natural and Paranormal Mysteries. Carlton, London.