Crowdsourcing: Make no bones about it

This leap frogs a few Doing the dirty job posts, but I think the following story is worth sharing and compelling enough to stand on its own.

Right now, I have extracted DNA from the collected scats, analysed the genetic information, and moved on to washing out the scats for prey remains to determine the diet of leopard cats in Singapore. Most of the remains are hair, bones, feathers, scales and exoskeleton.

A day in the office: typical crime scene.

However, here comes the problem: I belong to the generation of biologists with comparative anatomy and mophology swapped out from our curriculum in favour of cell biology and molecular genetics — therefore, not too good at identifying animal bits at all. To compensate though, I did a fair bit of reading up on hair and skeleton before starting.

Bones are a little more tricky than hair (which I have a reference collection of), but excellent diagrams help a lot. Every now and then, strange things pop up, but are usually relatively easy to resolve.

After more than 30 samples, something odd appeared that I have yet to encounter. It was a bone fragment that looked like a product of two fused bones. Unfortunately, it was not complete, otherwise it may have been easier to identify. So there it started: the case of the mystery bone.

I had my suspicions of what it may be, but I also needed to know where to look and had no comparative material for skeletons. The Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research collection is closed to prepare for the move to its new premises, and I did not want to be a nuisance to the collections manager. So, knowing that Twitterverse is full of accomplished workers in the field of science, I decided to try crowdsourcing to get more experienced/expert opinion in bone identification:

In a nutshell, I must say I was humbled by the responses and the helpful scientists on twitter.  Full story and final reveal on the mysterious bone below.

N.B.: Some tweets may have been lost if tags have been changed or if they are of a different time series.

It was a shot in the dark, but I also tagged @JohnRHutchinson as he lectures on evolutionary biomechanics at the Royal Veterinary College and listed musculoskeletal anatomy as an interest. @Projectnoah has a page in identifying animals through osteology. In less than 5 mins, there was a response and retweet!

Definitely showed my ignorance by not photographing the proximal and distal end (highlighted subsequently by others too), but was home by then [1 a.m. in the morning], so had to do my best in explaining the parts. The rest is history.

By then, I had talked about my initial hunch [fused twin bone – typically for structural strengthening for shock absorption (hopping) or flight], and there were two lvl 999 experts that thought it was possible too. @TKleinteich works on vertebrate functional morphology, focusing on amphibians. But the plot twists, and a healthy discussion developed with @PaoloViscardi, curator of osteology, geology and paleontology at Horniman Museum and Gardens.

This was interrupted by some hilarious comic relief.

Eager to return to the discussion, a note on the largest diet item below: larger prey items have been recorded (e.g., wild pig and deer), but those are more likely from opportunistic scavenging than a prey item. It was difficult to add details and explain in 140 characters, half taken by addressee tags. And the plot thickens. @TetZoo is paleozoologist extraordinaire and author of Tetrapod Zoology.

The next day, I quickly snapped and posted the proximal and distal portions of the bone.

With leads from the discussion,  I stole off into the zoology teaching collection to hunt for some bones in order to solve the mystery.

Finally, with three experts in agreement that mystery bone is an anuran radioulnar, I was confident enough to declare the case cracked, with the conclusion that everyone should try crowdsourcing sometime. Thanks to all who contributed!

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