Many thanks to everyone who played pin-the-skull-on-the-carnivore. The answers are down at the bottom of this post, so if you’ve just arrived here and want to take the challenge, go here before you scroll down.

To fill up some space, let me point out how crazy variable the skulls of black bears, Ursus americanus, are.

My bear skull - left lateral reversed

Here’s the one I helped dig up, missing the occipital region. Note the double inflection in the dorsal outline that separates the forehead from both the snout and top of the head, and the way the nasal bones stick out at a very different angle from the maxilla.

Page Museum black bear skull

Here’s the skull of a black bear from the La Brea tar pits, in the Page Museum in L.A. I don’t know if this one was female or juvenile or what, but the dorsal margin of the skull is one mostly-smooth curve from occiput almost to incisors, with the nasals scarcely deviating at all. Lest you think these differences were caused by evolutionary change rather than intraspecific variation, similar “roundhead” bear skulls from modern times are here and here and near the bottom of this page.

It’s this variability that first got me thinking about doing the Carnivore Skull Challenge. I saw a couple of photos of skulls of wolverines, and except for having carnassial cheek teeth instead of flatter premolars and molars, the wolverine skulls look like they could fit right into the span of black bear skull variability (in shape; obviously they’re not nearly as big). Then I saw a hyena skull and thought that it wasn’t that far off from a wolverine either. A little more searching for plausible distractors and I was all set.

Here are the answers, by the way:

Carnivore skull challenge - answersIt’s kind of ironic, then, that the first two people to venture identifications picked out the black bear right away. In the very first comment, Dean got it almost all right except for swapping the seal and the fossa. Dean was also the first to get all of the skulls correctly identified, albeit on his second pass. Markus Bühler (of Cthulhu-sculpting fame) was the first to get them all the first time. Tom Nutter, our own Darren Naish, and microecos Neil also aced the test, although in light of the Page Museum bear skull shown above, I was amused to see Darren’s “D: Bear. Because forehead.” I guess it’s one of those presence-of-forehead-means-bear, absence-of-forehead-does-not-rule-out-bear things that logicians are always going on about.

I was really happy to see people getting the wolverine and hyena mixed up, because they really do look strikingly similar to me. It’s almost like hyena + bear = wolverine.

Brian Engh asked on Facebook when I was going to do one for sauropods. Patience, good sir! It’s on my to-do list.

Finally, speaking of bear skulls, you can get a sweet tiny bronze one with a hinged jaw as part of this already successful Kickstarter, or from once the Kickstarter ends.

Something very different, and very unexpected, tomorrow.

Carnivore skull challenge

In this image I have assembled photos of skulls (or casts of skulls) of six extant carnivores. I exclusively used photos from the Skulls Unlimited website because they had all the taxa I wanted, lit about the same and photographed from similar angles. The omission of scale indicators is deliberate.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to match these skulls with the animals they came from. Here are their currently-understood hierarchical relationships, scientific names, and common names (aside: I know this is ugly, is there a way to make nested tables in WordPress?).


– – Herpestoidea

– – – – Eupleridae

– – – – – – Fossa, Cryptoprocta ferox

– – – – Hyaenidae

– – – – – – Brown hyena, Hyaena brunnea

– – Arctoidea

– – – – Ursoidea

– – – – – – American black bear, Ursus americanus

– – – – Musteloidea

– – – – – – European badger, Meles meles

– – – – – – Wolverine, Gulo gulo

– – – – Pinnipedia

– – – – – – Mediterranean monk seal,  Monachus monachus

If you accept the challenge, leave your guesses as comments below, but only if you’ve played fair–no checking websites, references, or your own skull collection! Don’t worry about being wrong, I freely admit that I would have flunked this bigtime if anyone else had inflicted it on me. I decided to set up this challenge after I noticed the striking similarity between two of these critters in particular; I’ll tell you which two when I post the reveal in a day or two.

Lots of researchers post PDFs of their own papers on their own web-sites. It’s always been so, because even though technically it’s in breach of the copyright transfer agreements that we blithely sign, everyone knows it’s right and proper. Preventing people from making their own work available would be insane, and the publisher that did it would be committing a PR gaffe of huge proportions.

Enter Elsevier, stage left. Bioinformatician Guy Leonard is just one of several people to have mentioned on Twitter this morning that took down their papers in response to a notice from Elsevier. Here’s a screengrab of the notification:


And here is the text (largely so search-engines can index it):

Hi Guy

Unfortunately, we had to remove your paper, Resolving the question of trypanosome monophyly: a comparative genomics approach using whole genome data sets with low taxon sampling, due to a take-down notice from Elsevier. is committed to enabling the transition to a world where there is open access to academic literature. Elsevier takes a different view, and is currently upping the ante in its opposition to academics sharing their own papers online.

Over the last year, more than 13,000 professors have signed a petition voicing displeasure at Elsevier’s business practices at If you have any comments or thoughts, we would be glad to hear them.

The Team

(Kudos to the team, by the way, for saying it like it is: “upping the ante in its opposition to academics sharing their own papers online”. It would have been easy for them to give no opinion on this. Much better that they’ve nailed their colours to the mast.)

I was going to comment on Elsevier’s exceedingly short-sighted and mean-spirited manoeuvre, but happily the Twittersphere is on it already. Here are a few thoughts:

This doesn’t directly affect me, of course, since I’ve had the good fortune not to have published in an Elsevier journal. But it’s another horrible example of how organisations that call themselves “publishers” do the exact opposite of publishing. The good people I know at Elsevier — people like Tom Reller, Alicia Wise and The Other Mike Taylor — must be completely baffled, and very frustrated, by this kind of thing.


Every time they start to persuade me that maybe — maybe — somewhere in the cold heart of legacy publishers, there lurks some real will to make a transition to actually serving the scholarly community, they do something like this. It’s like a sickness with them.

Do scholarly publishers really need to be reminded that “publish” means “make public”? Yes. Yes, they do. Apparently. Remember how I called legacy publishers “enemies of science” back at the start of 2012? Yup. Still true. And, astonishingly, as Rafael Maia noted, Elsevier seem determined to lead the way.

Have they learned nothing? Will they never?

Publishers ... You're doing it wrong