“Is it a dinosaur?” read a recent headline above the image of a “strange” carcass found in India. The sight of this half-decayed corpse caused quite a stir, and images of the creature have since been popping up on news sites and social media with various sources claiming that the identity of this “dinosaur-like creature” has scientists “baffled”.

Discovered in a substation in Jaspur, Uttarakhand that has been abandoned for over three decades, the body is reportedly just under 30cm (one foot) long. Stand-out suggestions for the identity of the creature have ranged from a dinosaur to a “genetically distorted goat fetus,” and some excitable reports simply state that “it could be anything.”

Intriguing-looking carcasses typically grab lots of attention, and inspire catchy headlines and speculations. While it’s certainly exciting to wonder about never-before-seen monsters and relict creatures of the ancient past, are they really all that mysterious or hard to identify?

I asked a couple of paleontologists – people who identify dead things (including dinosaurs) for a living – what they thought about this latest finding.

“Seriously, no scientist is baffled,” said dinosaur paleontologist Thomas Holtz Jr. of the University of Maryland in an email. “Or if they are, they better get their money back for any zoology courses they took!”

In those zoology courses, paleontologists and other life scientists study, in great detail, what features distinguish different types of animals, living and extinct, from the cranium to the coccyx. Paleontologists regularly use this knowledge to identify long-gone species from sparse fragments of bone. A case like this Indian “mystery” – a nearly-complete skeleton of a modern-day animal – is far less challenging.

“It is very clearly a carnivoran mammal, and almost certainly some variety of mustelid (weasel family),” said Holtz.

Ask an expert to identify a skeleton, and you’ll be treated to a list of anatomical insights. Holtz keyed in on the characteristically mammalian teeth of this Indian animal, as well as the distinctive heel bones in its foot – features common to mammals, but that you definitely won’t find in dinosaurs.

“In fact, it only “looks like a dinosaur" if you don't know what dinosaurs look like,” Holtz remarked, “or for that matter what mammal skeletons look like.”

“You can also look at the limb bones,” said Leigha Lynch of Oklahoma State University. Mammal limb bones grow and assemble differently than other animals, so they – like this Indian carcass – have “a very mammal-like limb bone shape.” The hip bones, she pointed out, are also very distinctly mammalian, quite unlike those of reptiles, birds, and other animals.

Lynch’s research revolves around modern and extinct species of mustelids – the group that includes weasels, martens, and ermines (all of which live in India today), among others. Compared to other mammals, she explained, these small carnivores have a “very unique, elongated body plan,” as well as “elongate and very flat skulls.” These animals’ long bodies, long heads, and short snouts are among the features that allow them to live, move, and hunt in their own particular ways.

This yellow-throated marten is just one species of mustelid that can be found in India today. Image: Thai National Parks

“My first thought was that it could be a mustelid,” she said, but added that its features are also a good match for a civet or mongoose, which are also found in India, and are about the right size and shape, too.

You might be surprised at how much identification info is held within an animal’s skeleton – or how closely scientists have to look to find it. By the end of my conversation with Lynch, she was trying to estimate the position of the carcass’ eye socket relative to its molars, because even that, believe it or not, might help narrow down what type of animal it is! (Of course, those details can be hard to see from a picture online).

It’s not a surprise that creature carcasses stir up so much awe and confusion – skeletons don’t always look like the fully-fleshed animals we’re used to seeing, and a body half-way through decaying can look very strange indeed, giving rise to all sorts of claims of sea monsters and beasts of folklore. But every skeleton has features that make it identifiable, as long as you know where to look.


Header image: Nicholas Smale