Readers’ wildlife photos

Reader Mark Sturtevant sent some diverse photos from his Ikea Cabinet of Mystery.

About a year ago I had posted pictures showing a few specimens from my “Cabinet of Mystery” (from Ikea!). It is once again time open its glass paneled doors and peer inside for more oddities and curiosities.

We begin with a fossil that I picked up while on a class field trip to the famous Mazon Creek formation in Illinois. This site contains ironstone nodules with numerous fossils from the Carboniferous period. I found it pretty much impossible to split these nodules successfully, but there were many that were already split open by the regional freeze-thaw cycle, revealing whatever there was to reveal. Anyway, this large fossil leaf is from a seed fern known as Neuropteris. I found several of these, plus other kinds of ferns and horsetail fossils. All pretty common. Animal fossils are also known from this site, including some very famous ones. One observant member of our class found a horseshoe crab fossil!

Next we have an ammonite. I had long ago misplaced information about this purchased fossil, but a quick search online identifies it as a Cretaceous species named Discoscaphites. These are famous for their pearlescent surface, which one can see here. I suspect that what is going on is that the outer layers have been removed, revealing the pretty inner layer of the shell.

The next picture is a belemnite shell. Like the ammonites, these were cephalopods with a shell, but this piece is the rear-most tip of a larger shell which was elsewhere quite thin and so not often preserved. When a teenager, I convinced my parents to let me join an extended school-sponsored summer field trip. We hiked and camped through most of the major parks in Wyoming and South Dakota, and at an enormous and isolated hogback ridge formation in Wyoming we came across a huge deposit of belemnite fossils. I would be surprised to learn that kids get to go on field trips like that any more. It was amazing (and at times a little dangerous), but I thought it was an important part of growing up.

Back to some more purchased fossils. Next is a set of Eocene fossil bird footprints that are from the Green River formation in Utah.

Following that, the next fossil appears to be a crane fly, also from the Green River formation.

I like to collect fossils, and the next picture is a mystery fossil that my oldest son had collected when we lived in Flagstaff Arizona. The geology of Flagstaff is a complex. Right in the town you can drive by road cuts containing sandstone layers that date to the Permian and Triassic periods, and at various places there are much older deposits. Anyway, my son picked up this specimen while hiking in the forest in the back of our house. Note that one side is convex and the other is concave, and there are different textures on the two sides. The fossil could be something rather mundane like a shelled animal (Brachiopod?), but I don’t know of any species like this. I am wondering if it is a scute (a kind of bony dermal plate) from a reptile. Phytosaurs were Permian reptiles that were convergent on crocodiles, as shown here, and they had bony scutes. I know there are large bone beds of Phytosaurs just outside of town.

Not all treasures in my Cabinet of Mystery are fossils. The human skull in the next picture is one of the main prizes. I have always called it ‘Uncle Herbert’ for some reason, and I do suspect it to be from a male because of certain craniofacial features like the brow ridges and squarish eye orbits. In any case it was an amazing gift from my very generous parents. They were teachers, and so growing up we always had catalogs from Carolina Biological Supply around the house, and I was always poring through them and bringing up this or that cool thing. There were many Christmas mornings when I would awake to find a special box from CBS sitting under our Xmas tree. These might include things like embalmed animals for dissection, or insects for mounting. But one special morning there was a box that contained… dear Uncle Herbert.

Another item from CBS is shown in the next picture. This is a lump of tar from the famous La Brea tar pits, containing a beetle which I suspect is a species of water scavenger beetle. The La Brea tar pits are a system of tar seeps in the middle of Los Angeles, California. These seeps have been trapping animals and plants of all sorts for tens of thousands of years. Although their more famous victims include numerous saber-toothed cats and mammoths, they will ensnare anything. I don’t know how old this specimen is, but it is supposed to be ancient and the chunk of tar is as light as a feather, not sticky at all, and it smells like a plain rock.

Finally, we finish with a fossil tooth from an Albertosaurus, which is a smaller relative of T. rex. Dinosaurs would regularly shed their teeth and replace them with new ones, and Albertosaur teeth are presumably fairly abundant in some sites as I have seen a lot of these in rock shops.


  1. Frank Bath
    Posted November 11, 2017 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    I well understand and applaud Mark Sturtevant’s interest in fossils but not why he should want to keep a human skull, someone once lived in it, or am I being rather too squeamish?

    • Posted November 11, 2017 at 9:26 am | Permalink

      Bones are beautiful and mysterious, human bones especially so, and human skulls uniquely so. They can tell us stories if we know how to read them. Studying an old human skull is like having a conversation with someone from another time.

      • Dave
        Posted November 11, 2017 at 11:40 am | Permalink

        I can understand the “yuck” factor when it comes to keeping a human skull, and it obviously isn’t to everyone’s taste. It wouldn’t bother me, though, as I’m a keen collector of shells, bones and other biological relics. I haven’t got a human skull but if I did it would have pride of place on one of my shelves.

        In a spirit of reciprocity, I’d also be quite happy for my skull or any other mortal remains to be preserved for posterity after my death (I intend to donate my body to science/medicine). I quite like the idea of part of me “living on” as a specimen after my demise as a person.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted November 11, 2017 at 11:49 am | Permalink

          And “concur”.
          I have to have the “funeral directions” conversation with Dad now that I’ve agreed to be his & Mum’s executor.

          • chrism
            Posted November 12, 2017 at 6:14 am | Permalink

            I’ve still got my skeleton from med school, bought pre-ban in 1976. I kept her as some of the pencil markings on the bones were recognisably my brother’s writing – he had bought and then sold the same skeleton seven years earlier! Despite being female, we always called her Napoleon (Bone Apart – geddit?)

    • barn owl
      Posted November 11, 2017 at 9:40 am | Permalink

      I think you’re being squeamish, but then I’m a gross anatomy and neuroanatomy instructor for medical and dental school courses. 😉 We insist that students maintain respect for the human skeletal and cadaveric materials that they have the privilege to study. Human skeletons and skulls in particular are increasingly difficult to obtain, so more of the materials are now replicas (some of which are pretty high quality, but still not as good as the real thing).

      I collect non-human skulls, which are fairly easy to come by around here, as fire ants and other critters quickly remove the soft tissues from road-kills and other dead animals. People will bring skulls to me for identification, and then they usually don’t want to keep them, so I do (just added a raccoon skull that way). Sometimes I’ll tag features on animal skulls for bonus points on anatomy practical exams (obviously I only use human skulls for the real exam tags), and the students love it (well, they always like the opportunity for extra points). Most of them identify the bonus tags correctly too, even when they’re a little challenging (e.g. palatomaxillary suture on a feral hog skull).

      I love the photos of fossils too – they’re beautiful. 🙂

      • barn owl
        Posted November 11, 2017 at 9:50 am | Permalink

        Adding that if PCC(E) would ever want a skull tag quiz for his readers to try, I’d be happy to photograph some tags of various features on my animal skulls (similar to the tags I set up for the students, e.g. placing a piece of colored wire in a foramen I want them to identify).

        • Christopher
          Posted November 11, 2017 at 9:55 am | Permalink

          I second that suggestion! I would enjoy that and I doubt I’m the only weirdo on here that would.

        • Posted November 11, 2017 at 11:27 am | Permalink

          I would love to see that quiz here!

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted November 11, 2017 at 11:51 am | Permalink

          Third !

        • Mark R.
          Posted November 11, 2017 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

          Please do! I’m sure PCC(E) would post them.

      • Posted November 12, 2017 at 4:18 am | Permalink

        If you send me some photos of whole skulls, we can have an “identify the skull” post, which would be cool. Identifying the bits like the foramen or other stuff, which you suggest below, would be too tough, I think. Whole skulls would be great.

        • barn owl
          Posted November 12, 2017 at 9:47 am | Permalink

          I suspect that identifying whole skulls might actually be more difficult, since only readers who have some background in comparative anatomy/zoology might have a shot. Mammalian skulls in particular are very similar with respect to the openings through which cranial nerves exit, and in the placement of other bony features. Because of this, I think any reader with a health professions degree, or who otherwise has some basic knowledge of human anatomy, stands a good chance of identifying tags on a non-human mammalian skull. All of my skulls are from mammals (but I can probably get my hands on others), and of course I would only tag major features. I would also indicate the orientation of the skull for each photo (lateral, frontal, inferior, etc.), because your readers wouldn’t have the ability to look at the entire object.

          My students, fewer than 5% of whom (sadly, IMHO)have any undergraduate background in zoology or comparative vertebrate biology, are able to identify the mental foramen in a photo of a gharial skull, for example, even though the mandible is a very different shape from a human one, with an elongated mandibular symphysis. Of course readers of this website know why such similarities exist. I can send a few photos each of whole skulls and of “tagged” skull features, and see which you prefer for a quiz. If it’s whole skulls, I can photograph some from a veterinarian colleague’s collection too.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted November 11, 2017 at 9:42 am | Permalink

      I think you are reasonably normal. But 13- or 14- year old me was a bit different. I was not at all squeamish for one thing.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted November 11, 2017 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      When I came across human skull elements on a Zoroastrian-to-current mud volcano graveyard near Iran, it wasn’t squeamishness that kept me from collecting , It was anticipating a VERY difficult explanation at Customs.
      Herbert was clearly prepared as an anatomical specimen (see the clips to hold the upper part on), so as long as less than ~150y.o., one can safely assume that Herbert and/or his next of kin consented to this.
      Unless he was a pauper. Or an executed criminal.

    • Diane G.
      Posted November 12, 2017 at 2:25 am | Permalink

      Not to pile on, but… 😀 Sorry, Frank.

      Perhaps those of us with biology,anthropology, paleontology, etc. backgrounds just get used to handling specimens, human or not. (Now forgive me if you have that background too!)

  2. Merilee
    Posted November 11, 2017 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    Very cool, Mark, including Uncle Herbert!

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted November 11, 2017 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

      I’m with Merilee. Fabulous collection Mark, especially Uncle Herbert. (I’ve got a real Uncle Herbert. I can see a resemblance!)

  3. Posted November 11, 2017 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    If I am not mistaken, the tooth is not strictly a fossil – the enamel on the outside is the enamel that was on the Albertosaurus’s tooth! In other words, it’s a tooth! Mark is touching the same thing that the dino’s tongue touched! – MC

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted November 11, 2017 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      “Preservation of hard parts” is a perfectly fine style of fossilisation.
      In fact, the mineralogy of the tooth is practically certain to differ -a lot – from the original tooth. Phosphates recrystallised (Even if on very fine scale) ; loss of OM.Partial fluoride replacement of phosphate (One of the lines of evidence used to demonstrate the Piltdown Fake). … The borderline between “fossil” contra “sub-fossil” is a lot more recent than this.

      • Diane G.
        Posted November 12, 2017 at 2:27 am | Permalink

        I learn so much from you. 🙂

  4. Christopher
    Posted November 11, 2017 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    What lovely curiosities you have there. I am envious of your finds, especially the Mazon Creek find. I have family that live an hour north of there, and always plan on visiting…and then don’t. I have purchases some fossils from a local toy and science store, and I love them, but though they be of higher quality, they pale in comparison to those which I pull from the rocks myself. I’m also envious of your field trip. Those were the things of which my childhood dreams were made. I always assumed they were out of my reach and only happened to others. Kids need those experiences to give them a peek into what can be, what they can be. Your parents must have been wonderfully supportive. Good for you, and them.

    As for your mystery fossil, I’m betting it is a member of Brachiopoda. It is very similar to Juresania nebrascensi fossils from the warm inland seas of the Pennsylvanian Period that I frequently find here around the KC Missouri area. I’m pretty sure the Flagstaff area would have been included in these repeated inundations 300 MYA.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted November 11, 2017 at 9:47 am | Permalink

      I think that is the probable ID! Not as exotic as a scute, but it makes sense. This specimen has lost its hinge which would have fairly given away its phylum. Thank you!

      • Christopher
        Posted November 11, 2017 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

        Don’t thank me, thank Richard J. Gentile, professor emeritus, dept. of Geosciences, UMKC who gave a great talk at the Linda Hall Library in KC a couple of years ago and who wrote a great little book, Rocks and Fossils of the Central United States with Special Emphasis on the Greater Kansas City Area. It is my local fossil bible. I never completed my biology degree (money issues) and never took a paleontology course, so my knowledge is self-taught and not completely reliable. But I try! Incidentally, if anyone wishes to hunt for similar fossils in KC, the outcropping left over from mining at the Firefighter’s Memorial at Blue River Road near 71 highway is fantastic. Happy hunting! Cheers!

      • Diane G.
        Posted November 12, 2017 at 2:30 am | Permalink

        On the plus side, I did enjoy learning about phytosaurs. 🙂

    • Lars
      Posted November 11, 2017 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I think that you’re right – the second photo is of the upper valve, and the first photo of the lower valve, which was somewhat tub-shaped. I think that brachiopods like this lived on soft sediment surfaces and the deep lower valve helped stabilize the animal in the proper position – if a brachiopod got rolled over, there’d be nothing that it could do to roll itself back.

  5. Ken Kukec
    Posted November 11, 2017 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    Alas, poor Uncle Herbert! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest …

    When I first flashed on the pic of the horseshoe crab fossil, I thought maybe Jerry had got himself a new pair of kicks. 🙂

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted November 11, 2017 at 10:48 am | Permalink

      Ha ha, I thought of Hamlet as well when I saw the skull & that it had a name.

  6. Posted November 11, 2017 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    I recommend everyone interested in science and find themselves in Los Angeles take time to visit the La Brea Tar Pits and its excellent museum. I find it simply amazing that such a place is situated in the middle of the city. You can also combine it with a visit to LACMA (LA County Museum of Art) which is right next door.

    • Mark R.
      Posted November 11, 2017 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

      I’ll second that; it’s probably in my top three favorite museums. I lived in L.A. for about a year In the late 80’s. My friends would come visit and all demand a Disneyland visit. Nope, we’re going to La Brea Tar Pits. No one complained after seeing the museum; though inevitably we would do Disneyland. Man, I’m sick of that place and I haven’t been there for over 25 years!

      • Merilee
        Posted November 11, 2017 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

        I’m still sick from the teacups ride 40+ years ago🤢

  7. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted November 11, 2017 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Great collection. Jealousy is rife.
    Is my memory playing tricks, or is the Mazon Creek concretion bed (AutoIncorrected to “conception bed”!) home to the infamous ‘Tully monster” (genus “Tullymonstrum”, IIRC), and that’s what you were hoping for? A weird beats of “uncertain affinity”.
    I was pushing 50 before I found any belemnites -none as good as yours. The conical mark at the wide (oral) end is the trace of the phragmacone which is much more obviously homologous to the flaring shape of other pre-Cenozoic cephalopods – both orthocone (straight) and planispiral.
    Uncle Herbert – not enough detail on the picture to comment on gender, but from the lack of teeth I infer an elderly individual. ?
    MysteryConvex (top/bottom is a hostage to identification) makes me think of many indeterminate Pelycypod molluscs but MysteryConcave with its net-like pattern – no mollusc I know has internal marks like that. Could they be a post mortem byrozoan encrustation?
    My only dinosaur fossil is from the other end. A coprolite brought for me by my Water Brother before his death.
    Does the Ikea Cabinet of Mysteries include the Tomb of The Unidentified Bolt?

    • Posted November 11, 2017 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

      😄 So many questions! I think there is more than one source of Mazon creek fossils. Ours was about a half acre of stones and soft earth, in a fenced off area. This location is known to yield horseshoe crab fossils, hence that one find. But I don’t know if its a place for the Tully monster.
      Herbert was a geriatric, yes. The more pristine skulls cost a lot more.
      I think the mystery fossil is solved, thanks to Christopher above.

    • Lars
      Posted November 11, 2017 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

      Yes, Tullimonstrum is a Mazon Creek fossil. IIRC, it was recently diagnosed as a very aberrant chordate with its eyes out on stalks and the mouth at the end of that long “neck”.

    • Diane G.
      Posted November 12, 2017 at 2:33 am | Permalink

      “Does the Ikea Cabinet of Mysteries include the Tomb of The Unidentified Bolt?”

      I laughed out loud. 😀

  8. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted November 11, 2017 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    happened to use the desktop today -easier to comment:

    these specimens are beautiful to behold – thanks.

  9. Posted November 11, 2017 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful collection.

  10. Mark R.
    Posted November 11, 2017 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    Great collection Mark, these were a delight to learn about.

    Are you aware of Heritage Auction House ( They’re a huge and reputable auction house that often has science auctions, fossil auctions and geological auctions. Some of their offerings are crazy like entire triceratop skeletons selling for 10’s of thousands of dollars, but some items may be in your price range. Either way, it is fun to watch the auctions and see how much some of the items fetch. I’m on their mailing list because I buy comics from them and so I get all their beautiful marketing brochures detailing what’s in upcoming auctions. I don’t know if you can sign up for it without being a customer. Anyway, now I’m sounding officious.

    • Posted November 11, 2017 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

      I have not heard of that. But there are many sources of fossils and other natural history items to be found online. One could spend hours and barely scratch the surface.

    • Diane G.
      Posted November 12, 2017 at 2:40 am | Permalink

      “Anyway, now I’m sounding officious.”

      Not at all. I was reading along, thinking, “I wish I knew men* who were that easy to buy for.” Right before I realized how weird that would sound to “normal people.”

      (Apologies in advance for the mild sexism and insult to geeks.)

      *Women, for that matter.

      • Mark R.
        Posted November 12, 2017 at 10:29 am | Permalink

        Well thanks Diane. I have a hard time picking out gifts for a few people in my life as well. Now that xmas is right around the corner, the anxiety begins. 🙂

  11. Adam Yates
    Posted November 11, 2017 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    The mystery fossil definately is a productid brachiopod. Productids lived with the big convex valve buried in the substrate while the upper valve is often concave, sitting inside the larger valve. So that patterned concave surface you see in the bottom image is the upper valve, not an internal surface. Age is Carboniferous (I’m Australian and I don’t use the Mississippian/Pennsylvanian system!).

  12. Posted November 11, 2017 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing your great collection with us, Mark!

  13. Richard Portman
    Posted November 12, 2017 at 1:43 am | Permalink

    Nice! My favorite was the bird tracks what a thought provoking fossil! The lump of tar from La Brea quarry is also way cool.

  14. Diane G.
    Posted November 12, 2017 at 2:41 am | Permalink

    I’d forgotten about the Cabinet of Mystery! What fun to see it resurrected!

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