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Big box of bones #1: The big cat


About a month ago I got an email from someone called Ben Williams. He said he had some old skulls he collected when he was a boy, and would I like them ? I said yes, and I got this amazing box of brilliant skulls which I am going to write about for the next four or five weeks.

The first skull I am going to write about is this one:

I knew straight away it was a kind of big cat. I knew that because of the shape of the skull, which is just like my cat skull, and because it only had three cheek teeth. Big cats, like tigers, lions, jaguars and leopards, are really just big versions of normal cats. If you watch them at the zoo, they walk just like big pussy cats too.

Here is a picture of this big cat skull next to my cat skull.

And this is a picture of my cat skull next to a lion skull from when I visited CAHID in Dundee.

This skull was about 17.5cm long (that's the condylobasal length) and about 12.5cm wide (that's the zygomatic width). These were important to help identify it. But there was something else important to remember.

One of the adult cheek teeth was still coming through. That meant it had just pushed out a baby tooth, which meant this big cat wasn't fully grown yet. That meant the skull might be smaller than the skull of an adult.

Even so, I knew it couldn't have been a lion or a tiger because it was still far too small. Mr Williams thought it might have been a snow clouded leopard which is one of the smaller big cats. I thought it might have been, because the size was right, and it looked about right. But a snow clouded leopards canine teeth are about 2 inches long, and this skull's canines were only about 1 inch long. Because the canine teeth were loose in the skull, I thought maybe the original teeth had fallen out and other different ones were put in. The other skull I thought it might have been was a female cheetah, which was about the right size.

I emailed my friend Paolo who works at a museum in London and sent him pictures of the skull because he works with other big cat skulls. He wasn't sure, but he said it was probably a leopard. He didn't think it was a snow clouded leopard because  snow clouded leopard skulls are so rare. He didn't think it was a cheetah because the nose bit wasn't wide enough (cheetahs have to breathe in a lot of air to run so fast) and he didn't think it was wide enough to be a jaguar.

Leopards are pretty amazing animals. They can run at 36mph, they can climb trees while carrying a dead body, and they have a beautiful coat.

The back of the braincase had been sawn off. I don't know why that has been done. I have learned that this is done when skulls are used in animal rugs, so that is probably where this skull came from. It means you can't see the saggital crest, which is a thin bit of bone that the jaw muscles are attached to. Animals with strong jaws have saggital crests, but animals like sheep and deer don't because they only eat grass and plants.

The top part of the skull has all the teeth, apart from one which is missing from the very front.

The bottom jaw has the canines missing, and there is something very strange with the left hand side of the jaw.

The jaw is the wrong shape. It looks like it has been broken and rehealed. That must have been really painful. When it rehealed, it was thicker when you look at it from above, but the bit where the two back teeth are seems to have got knocked off. That meant it couldn't chew meat on that side, which must be tough if all you are a carnivore.

Here is a really good blog post about a tiger that had a broken jaw that was almost the same as my leopard. Because the broken jaw meant that tiger couldn't eat it's usual prey, it hunted humans for two years, because humans are easier to catch and kill. I don't know if this leopard was hunting humans, though.

There were some other cracks on the skull too:

This crack happened along the lines of the skull plates next to the left canine. I think this happened after the leopard died because if it was alive the bone would have tried to heal itself.

The right cheekbone was also broken. I think that happened while it was alive but I'm not sure. The bone feels strong but the outside bits haven't joined back together.

This is a brilliant, brilliant skull. I was lucky it was already in the UK because sometimes a law called CITES stops certain skulls being sent from one country to another. It was really kind of Mr Williams to send me these amazing skulls, and I'm going to write about the next one next week !

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Anonymous said...

Hi jake that is really cool, I might check out the red doe on ebay to.


Anonymous said...

The back of the skull of big cats is often sawn off when they're part of an animal skin rug (like you might see in an old film, with the head still attached)

Jake said...

Hi Anonymous !

Thanks for that ! My dad read that too when someone was trying to trick scientists by leaving a skull from a rug in a place where there supposed to be a big cat called the Beast of Bodmin. Maybe that explains why it got here !

Anonymous said...

Oftentimes the calvaria (upper cranium) is cut off to expose brain matter during an animal autopsy, called a necropsy. Zoos usually preform necropsies to determine the cause of death. Nice skull btw, leopards are hard to come by in the US where I live.

Jake said...

Thanks !

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