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Jagged-toothed mystery monster; needs identifying

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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It’s Friday and I’m about to go away on fieldwork for a while, so let’s have some fun (even though substantial media interest in the new Isle of Wight azhdarchoid pterosaur Vectidraco continues unabated). Why not knock yourself out and have a go at identifying this bizarre skeletal tetrapod, surely one of the weirdest things you’ve ever seen (yes yes, hyperbole). Hey, if you’re a regular reader and have never bothered to go through all that hassle of registering with Scientific American in order to finally leave comments… maybe now’s the time to change your ways and finally join the elite. Yes? Of course.

In actuality, the thing shown here is – as (nearly) always – actually dead easy to identify, and to those of you who can get it straight away, may I please ask you to show a little restraint and let the less gifted/nerdy have a few bashes first. Go on, let them; it can be funny. If you really can’t help yourself, at least have fun by peppering the comments thread with clues.

While we’re here, a reminder that there’s now a Tet Zoo podcast. We (= myself and John Conway) recently released episode 3, an entire 1.5 hrs or so devoted to discussion of bigfoot, inspired mostly by the incredible Ketchum et al. (2013) DNA study. Feedback so far has been great (see this article at Sharon Hill’s Doubtful News, for example). Please consider sponsoring to help cover our hosting costs (even tiny sums of cash are helpful), and note also that we like receiving listener’s questions. Ok, until next time.

Ref – -

Ketchum, M. S., Wojtkiewicz, P. W., Watts, A. B., Spence, D. W., Holzenburg, A. K., Toler, D. G., Prychitko, T. M., Zhang, F., Bollinger, S., Shoulders, R. & Smith, R. 2013. Novel North American hominins, next generation sequencing of three whole genomes and associated studies. Denovo 1 (1) 13 February 2013.

Darren Naish About the Author: Darren Naish is a science writer, technical editor and palaeozoologist (affiliated with the University of Southampton, UK). He mostly works on Cretaceous dinosaurs and pterosaurs but has an avid interest in all things tetrapod. His publications can be downloaded at He has been blogging at Tetrapod Zoology since 2006. Check out the Tet Zoo podcast at! Follow on Twitter @TetZoo.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Pristichampsus 8:28 am 03/22/2013

    I know what this beastie is, most certainly. I’ll keep from revealing it. But an enormous clue, the lower incisors, just fucking look at them. If the lower incisors don’t give it away, you are a hopeless case, really…

    Link to this
  2. 2. greg_t_laden 8:35 am 03/22/2013

    Well, if you only had the lower front teeth, and not a very good picture, then it could be confusing because that anatomical adaptation is convergent from multiple different tissues in distantly related animals. I think you should demand that the name of this feature be supplied with the name of the species.

    A very important clue is the eye area of the skull.

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  3. 3. Cameron McCormick 8:40 am 03/22/2013

    Ha, just saw this the other day. I believe this species has an Indochinese-Sundaic distribution.

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  4. 4. Finback 8:41 am 03/22/2013

    I’m going to make your impression of the “samurai” Bigfoot sound my new ringtone.

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  5. 5. Pristichampsus 9:01 am 03/22/2013

    Greg, I am unaware what other animals have such odd lower incisors, do tell…

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  6. 6. Pristichampsus 9:10 am 03/22/2013

    Greg, just looked it up on Wikipedia (surprisingly good article). Pectinate incisors, as opposed to actual incisors and their spaces making up the comb, narrows it down to 2 kinds of animal.

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  7. 7. greg_t_laden 9:24 am 03/22/2013

    Pristichampsus #5, it’s a tooth comb, found on several species of animal.

    Pristichampsus #6 … see, I it’s a useful clue! The wiki article is good but it seems to ignore a new world primate case which is arguably different but should be mentioned.

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  8. 8. cromercrox 10:05 am 03/22/2013

    If Bigfoot had comb-shaped incisors and glide from tree to tree, this would be Bigfoot. Don’t tell Ketchum.

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  9. 9. Heteromeles 10:22 am 03/22/2013

    Wouldn’t it be cool if some of those teeth turned up in a Paleogene deposit…

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  10. 10. Neil K. 10:42 am 03/22/2013

    Easy indeed. This species is charismatic, distinctive and monotypic. Unless it isn’t.

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  11. 11. naishd 11:10 am 03/22/2013

    I like the way it’s going so far. Well done everyone, lots of col-lues (ha ha!) but no actual releasing of the answer. Let’s please let it carry on for a few more hours, at least. And where are the token spoof answers?


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  12. 12. Heteromeles 11:20 am 03/22/2013

    Does this species qualify as a cryptid?

    On a side note, I can certainly imagine a knock-off Batman style vegan hero named after this animal. Possibly in the style of The Tick

    Link to this
  13. 13. Heteromeles 11:21 am 03/22/2013

    Actually, when I first saw the mouth, I was thinking frilled shark or sixgill…

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  14. 14. greg_t_laden 11:23 am 03/22/2013

    Note the apparent lack of upper incisors. Cattle have this features.

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  15. 15. BrianL 12:13 pm 03/22/2013

    There are actually two species of this sort of animal and I don’t dare say which one this is, being not particularly well-versed in them.

    They may not have turned up in Paleogene European deposits, but there were, if I remember correctly, mammals in that place and age that shared at least of some of their peculiar locomotion with this type of animal. Some North American fossils have also been considered related to them. One such fossil has a name suggestive of a type of celestial bodies as well indicating a fossil mammal.

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  16. 16. greg_t_laden 12:21 pm 03/22/2013

    There are also two sexes of each species. That could matter with teeth.

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  17. 17. Bosli 12:30 pm 03/22/2013

    Hi there,

    I will ultimatley pick Colugo. I was hesitating with a Malagasy lemur.

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  18. 18. Marcus C 12:38 pm 03/22/2013

    Saw the note about signing up for an SI account, so finally did.

    My tolken spoof answer: It’s a “lemur”! Just not a real one!

    Saw one today.

    Link to this
  19. 19. EWilloughby 1:12 pm 03/22/2013

    I agree that it’s definitely, absolutely, without question a lemur. Perhaps one of the flying variety, though.

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  20. 20. Yodelling Cyclist 6:20 pm 03/22/2013

    Do I have to say both gorgonopsid AND ropen myself? At comment 20?!?

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  21. 21. Dprus 6:38 pm 03/22/2013

    The teeth are reminiscent of a crabeater seal. Let’s see…not a possum….skull’s too long to be procyonid and the shape’s not caniform or viverrid….Someone mentioned pectinate incisors, but colugos and lemurs have fair-sized canines…..

    Link to this
  22. 22. Halbred 6:56 pm 03/22/2013

    I don’t think it’s a colugo, what with the lack of upper incisors and (apparently) canines…

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  23. 23. MickLinux 7:02 pm 03/22/2013

    I don’t know for sure … but can anyone confirm if the name of this animal (it is an animal, isn’t it?) has very few letters? You know, something significantly less than, for example “Pterodactyl”?

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  24. 24. Jerzy v. 3.0. 7:15 pm 03/22/2013

    I had an opportunity to visit New Britain and just couldn’t resist casually asking about lights and unexplained mysteries and strange animals to the resort staff. They had no clue about ropen.

    But plenty and variety of fruit bats, especially huge, day-flying Pteropus neohibernicus.

    @12 more like George of the Jungle, for the habit of hitting tree trunks in flight…

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  25. 25. vdinets 7:41 pm 03/22/2013

    Obviously an otter from a coastal population. Lower incisors adapted for scraping barnacles and other sedentary organisms off rocks, other teeth sharp-pointed for catching fish, eyes enlarged for diving in dimly-lit kelp forests ;-)

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  26. 26. Heteromeles 7:53 pm 03/22/2013

    @Jerzy: gotta admit though, if I had a cloak that allowed me to glide and camouflage like a colugo, I’d at least think about getting into the superhero business. Probably by taking an phone with me and phoning in crimes in progress, but still.

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  27. 27. Yodelling Cyclist 8:20 pm 03/22/2013

    OK, my real guess is the same as number three. (Just in case anybody thinks I’ve gone utterly mad).

    Not the one that has to dodge the really big eagle, to be a bit clearer. (And possibly more clearly wrong).

    Link to this
  28. 28. TJGehling 9:48 pm 03/22/2013

    I’ve been reading TZ since version 1, but it took an “unknown” skull to get me to finally register here. But it was worth it because this animal is one of my favorites. I’ve always loved the [blanking] [thingy]. Sure, it isn’t really a [thingy], and sure, it doesn’t actually [blank], but that isn’t its fault. It is beautiful in its own way.

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  29. 29. cpilbro 10:59 pm 03/22/2013

    I was originally planning to use this critter as an analogous species for plesiadapiformes (i.e. Phenacolemur). However, they are just too derived in their dentition to compare to early primates…

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  30. 30. AlHazen 12:54 am 03/23/2013

    Those are truly, deeply, weird premolars! Going by them alone, I’d say it was probably something in the Triconodontid area.
    …But the skull looks too fresh for that. (Grin!)

    So… those comblike incisors remind me of something. Is it a dermopteran?

    (((And, just for the record: I find Scientific American’s log-in requirement annoying, and its login PROCEDURE… VERY annoying. Username changed to AlHazen in honor of Ibn al-Haytham, and, mainly, because I had to change it to SOMETHING other than my former (and real) name, Allen Hazen.)))

    Now to read the first 29 comments to see how my guess stacks up.

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  31. 31. SRPlant 4:48 am 03/23/2013

    It’s a Bittern (Botaurus unlikelii).
    The novice could be thrown by the absence of the rhamphotheca, but the eye of the experienced tetzooer is immediately drawn to the tell-tale comb-like structures (used for preening) at the anterior extremity of the lower mandible. Also of note are the large cranial concavities used to direct its boom at unsuspecting ornithologists.

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  32. 32. naishd 6:46 am 03/23/2013

    Thanks, everyone, for playing, and playing so well :)

    Yes, we ALL HATE THE SCIAM REGISTRATION AND LOGIN SYSTEM and have done everything we can to change it (by which I mean: get rid of it). Bora and the other SciAm staff are on our side; alas, the people at the top of the pile JUST DO NOT GET IT (they clearly aren’t the sort of people who read or use blogs) and it’s they who have prevented change.

    Anyway.. it should be obvious throughout this entertaining comment thread that the skull is something to do with dermopterans, or colugos. But the real challenge: who can get it to species?


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  33. 33. BilBy 7:01 am 03/23/2013

    Darren – also, can you bug SciAm about a ‘recent comments’ sidebar? Then threads won’t die when new posts are put up. My guess for the skull? It has a tooth comb so it can only be an impala, obv.

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  34. 34. Cameron McCormick 7:39 am 03/23/2013

    But the real challenge: who can get it to species?

    I’d guess (and already vaguely did back in comment 3) that it’s Galeopterus. It appears that Cynocephalus has larger upper canines and second incisors than those of the other colugo, and it seems the cusps are either much less developed or absent.

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  35. 35. tai haku 7:42 am 03/23/2013

    Is it Galeopterus variegatus?

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  36. 36. David Marjanović 9:48 am 03/23/2013

    I can’t tell Galeopterus from Cynocephalus.

    Greg, I am unaware what other animals have such odd lower incisors, do tell…

    Some of the Eocene antilope-sized and -shaped hyraxes did.

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  37. 37. Hai~Ren 11:34 am 03/23/2013

    I’ve missed these “guess the animal” posts.

    I am somewhat surprised at the ideas given here that the skull is from a colugo. Its synapsid features show that it is from the Synapsida but its dentition features and tremendous cranial ridges show that it is of the Permian gorgonopsian group. It is a shame that there is no scale in the picture becuase this is making the skull look small, it must really be large and this would show its gorgon identity best. I have done a big study of these animals and know this.


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  38. 38. John Scanlon FCD 12:13 pm 03/23/2013

    Of course pectinate incisors may be mostly about grooming, but those cheek teeth are really strange. The molars seem to be almost zalambdodont, and I don’t know if there’s a word to describe the premolars. These things are supposed to be folivores, so WTF?
    Maybe they have a little secret. What is the aerial equivalent of krill in a tropical forest habitat?
    What kind of thingy? Starts with a G.

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  39. 39. Marcus C 1:18 pm 03/23/2013

    I agree with Cameron and tai haku. A dorsal view would be clearer, but the hint of a ridge between the nasal canals and a skull shape suggests it is that it is a Sunda colugo (Galeopterus variegatus).

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  40. 40. Mark Robinson 1:17 am 03/24/2013

    Bah, late to the party. I agree with #1 that the incisors did turn out to be a big clue but, if like me (a layperson), you haven’t seen such things, you then have to rely on search skills to narrow it down. (“Pectinate teeth” gave me fish and snails but “pectinate incisors” hit the bull’s eye).

    The lack of prominent canines, the relative size and incompleteness of the orbit, and the size of the blade at the back of the mandible lead me to prefer G. over C. as the genus (altho’ I suppose it could be a female or sub-adult C. – I have no idea what the variation is).

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  41. 41. Dartian 8:06 am 03/25/2013

    There are actually two species of this sort of animal

    Molecular data have revealed deep divergences between different lineages within one of these ‘species’, which suggests that it should be split into at least three separate ones. The reference (surely we don’t need to pretend anymore that we don’t know what this is?) is:

    Janečka, J.E., Helgen, K.M., Lim, N.T.-L., Baba, M., Izawa, M., Boeadi & Murphy, W.J. 2008. Evidence for multiple species of Sunda colugo. Current Biology 18, R1001-R1002.

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  42. 42. Hai~Ren 11:56 am 03/25/2013

    Dartian: Reminds me a lot of the greater slow loris, which now encompasses 7 species.

    Makes me wonder if there are other small-medium mammals in Southeast Asia with widespread distributions that are actually a lot more diverse than we traditionally think. After all, pig-tailed macaque and clouded leopard were once considered a single species each, but have since been split into Indochinese and Sundaic species.

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  43. 43. Jerzy v. 3.0. 6:32 pm 03/26/2013

    Actually, macaques and slow loris were split as “species” with differences on a level of traditional subspecies of modern mammals. Some biologists simply changed definition of the species.

    This is a minor pewee of me – so many “real”, deeply distinct and genetically unique mammal species are overlooked and unstudied, why drown them among such pseudo-species?

    But certainly there can be “real” species, deeply divergent by traditional definition in S Asian mammals.

    In S American mammals, there is species-level genetic distinction among collared peccaries and oncillas from C America and S S America. Paradoxically, nobody is especially interested in splitting those “solid” splits.

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  44. 44. John Harshman 7:27 pm 03/26/2013

    Yesterday on the U.S. news show 60 Minutes there was a segment on Nile crocodiles in Botswana. (Very cool underwater movies.) So what species was that really?

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  45. 45. vdinets 12:02 pm 03/27/2013

    Jerzy: to claim a science-based split, you have to do a lot of work: big sample size, including some samples from the contact/overlap zone, nuclear DNA, searching old literature for available names, all that old-fashioned crap called “science”. To do a bogus split, all you need is a few skins, or even sound recordings, and a quick analysis of mtDNA. And you get to put your name on the new “taxon”. As soon as you publish it, it gets picked up by the media, excited birdwatchers, happy nature reserve managers who now have another endemic… even if fifty years later someone would go through the pains of exposing your fraud, what do you care?

    John: as far as we know now, there’s only non-sacred niloticus in Botswana. Of course, you’d have to do a lot of tests do prove a negative, but I haven’t heard of any suchus south of DRC yet.

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  46. 46. David Marjanović 5:42 pm 03/27/2013

    Some biologists simply changed definition of the species.

    There never was a single definition of “species”. There are about 150 now.




    The More or Less Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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  47. 47. vdinets 7:00 pm 03/27/2013

    David: I resent your irony. In DRC, anyone can gather a private army and seize a province or two. In PRC, you don’t even have the basic human right to wear shorts – they are considered totally inappropriate thanks to heavy missionary infestation.

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  48. 48. David Marjanović 11:04 am 03/28/2013

    I didn’t say the PRC was any better (though I didn’t know about this particular bit).

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  49. 49. notostracan 7:36 pm 03/29/2013

    Darren has succeeded in getting me to register on this new site just to ask what this is! I’ve been googling various Colugo skulls (after trying many other groups of animals first of course) and from the google image results, I’m not comfortable with Galeopterus variegatus yet. It’s an incredibly interesting looking skull to me (very much the layperson) – it’s driving me mad not knowing what it is! :O

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  50. 50. John Harshman 10:00 am 03/30/2013

    It’s weird, all right. Aside from the tooth combs, why would an animal that supposedly eats mostly fruit have the molars and premolars (and apparently, weird, multicusped canines and upper incisors) of an insectivore? And are those tooth combs really for grooming? And what’s with the mostly toothless premaxilla? Mammals are strange.

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  51. 51. David Marjanović 3:49 pm 03/30/2013

    The premolars – are there really canines? – don’t quite look like an insectivore’s. The cusps look extremely tall, rounded, and there don’t seem to be any cutting edges. Some triconodonts have somewhat similar teeth, but what they really look like are conodonts! Mwahah.

    The toothless pmx is very weird, and flatly denied by Wikipedia.

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  52. 52. John Harshman 9:02 pm 03/30/2013

    According to Wikipedia: “The dental formula of colugos is: Upper:, lower:” So yeah, not only are there canines, they’re the third tooth, and the two in front of that are upper incisors. And the upper incisors have been displaced way toward the back.

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  53. 53. Hai~Ren 6:29 am 03/31/2013

    I highly recommend Colugo: The Flying Lemur of South-east Asia by Norman Lim, perhaps the best publication dedicated to the biology and ecology of colugos. It’s a little dated now (published in 2007, refers to literature up to 2005), but it’s a comprehensive overview of much of what is known about colugos.

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  54. 54. David Marjanović 3:06 pm 03/31/2013

    …Oh, yeah, now I can see the suture between pmx and mx. Yep, it’s far back, behind the second upper tooth.

    …So. What reason is there to identify the canines as such??? They’re almost molariform.

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  55. 55. notostracan 12:06 pm 04/6/2013

    Sooo…I’m going to be the slow one who has to ask… was it Galeopterus variegatus? When you search for “Galeopterus variegatus skull” on google images, these pics show up now, so confirmation of the species on this page may help future searchers :) .

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  56. 56. SRPlant 1:54 am 04/9/2013

    @ notostracan; It seems doubt still reigns. As a keen student of the Semmelweis reflex my money’s on the bittern.

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