Things to Make and Do, part 6: fun with ostrich heads

June 23, 2010

Please welcome my new best friend, Veronica the ostrich.  Well, Veronica the ostrich head, if you want to be picky.  She arrived yesterday morning, courtesy of the good folks at Ostrichfayre, very well packaged and still frozen and with a convenient little chunk of distal neck still attached.  Here I am with Veronica, having made my way through the packaging:

And here is Veronica herself, in left lateral view, measuring a healthy 24 cm (including that stump of neck, of course, so the prepped skull will be rather shorter):

Yes, of course I only love Veronica for her skull.  The soft-tissue is probably fascinating, too, but I don’t have the time (or the expertise really) to do a proper dissection, so it’s all about getting her naked as quickly as possible.

I started out, as usual, with a couple of hours of gentle simmering to soften all the gloop.  I used the three standard pieces of equipment: a large pot, an easily cleaned ceramic hob, and a very tolerant wife.  Here she is (Veronica, I mean), cooking up nicely:

Once she’d cooled down, it was gratifyingly easy to peel off the skin:

One thing I’d not appreciated about ostriches before I started playing with Veronica is how tiny their beaks are.  Most of the snout is not covered by beak, and the lower jaw in particular has only a few centimeters of keratinous covering.  You can see this more clearly in ventral view:

Here you can see the very slender mandibular bones running along the lateral edges of the lower jaw, with a thin sheet of muscle stretched between them, and that tiny beak only up on the tip of the jaw.

I also noticed that the trachea seems to be positioned asymmetrically, on the right side of the animal: I don’t know whether this was its permanent position in life, or whether it shifted around and simply happened to get cooked into this position.

For the next step, I carefully removed most of that muscular sheet and the trachea (and some of the neck musculature):

Now you can see the cartilaginous hyoid apparatus that anchors the tongue (that anchor-shaped thing).  This is very fragile, and I am frankly not at all optimistic about its chances of making it through the cleaning process.  I’m likely to end up with only the actual bones, so enjoy the hyoid while you can.  (I similarly lost all the hyoid junk from my monitor lizard.  Bummer.  I must remember to show you more of Charlie’s cleaned bones some time.)

I leave you with Veronica’s peeled head in dorsal view:

You can see that there’s more beak on the upper jaw than on the lower.

This kind of photograph is invaluable when it comes to putting the bones together at the end of the cleaning process.  You can see here that the small bones ahead of the orbits (lacrimals?) are pulling away from the main skull bones.  At some stage they’re likely to come away completely, and it’s photos like this one that will show me where to reattach them.

There is a lot of cartilage on this skull, which is likely going to be painful to remove without damaging the bones.  I gave Veronica another bath last night, and I’ll probably start trimming the softened cartilage away this evening.

Further bulletins:

22 Responses to “Things to Make and Do, part 6: fun with ostrich heads”

  1. Bruce J. Mohn Says:

    Hi Mike:

    I recently went through the nightmare of rearticulating an emu skull that I had cleaned via bacterial maceration and was wondering what technique you were going to use to strip your ostrich skull. The bacteria did their usually fabulous job, but the thinner bones deformed and absolutely refused to be chivvied back into their proper shapes and positions.



  2. Zach Miller Says:

    You lucky bastard! First a monitor lizard, now this? I’ve really GOT to get some kind of deal going with my local zoo. :-)

  3. Mike Taylor Says:

    Lucky? Nothing to do with it! One of the points I keep meaning to make in the Things To Make And Do series is how very much this is something anyone can do. Well, OK, I admit I was super-lucky to score the monitor lizard; but I got the pig’s head by walking into a butcher’s shop and saying “One of your finest pig’s heads, please, my stout yeoman!”. I got Veronica by googling for “ostrich farm” and emailing the ones in the UK asking whether any of them had any heads to spare. I urge you, and anyone else who loves anatomy, to do the same.

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Hi, Bruce. I ought to point out that I am absolutely no expert on this kind of exercise. I’ll tell you my technique, but you certainly shouldn’t jump to any dumb conclusions such as that this is the right way to do it.

    All I do is simmer for an hour or two, then remove what soft tissue will come away easily without any risk of breaking bones, using a pointy-ended chopstick, occasionally a scalpel, and sometimes a toothbrush once I get down to small scraps of flesh. Once I’ve removed what I feel confident about — i.e. whatever doesn’t require a lot of force, so that I can be sure I’m not going to be breaking any of the fragile bones — I start the cycle again. At each stage, I take plenty of photos so that I can see which bones are coming away and how they articulate; later on, I’ll refer to these to help me put the bones together.

    If I end up with fragments of flesh that I can’t remove — for example, in the cranial nerve foramina of my pig skull — I leave it for bugs to deal with. (The pig spent a few months under a bucket in the back graden, weighed down with a brick just in case a fox or something wanted to nick it.)

    Then, bleaching. For robust bones I’ve sometimes used diluted domestic bleach; for more delicate bones (like those of Veronica’s skull) it’ll be hydrogen peroxide.

    Finally, I do whatever gluing is necessary. For some specimens (e.g. the pig skull) there’s very little of this — just a matter of fixing the loose teeth in place (using photos taken earlier to get them in the right sockets). For Veronica, this is going to be a much bigger job — she’s all delicate little bones. I’ll post again in a day or two, showing the progressive breakdown of her skull across consecutive simmerings.

  5. Nathan Myers Says:

    We have an emu farm nearby. I need to visit.

  6. Bruce J. Mohn Says:

    For anyone who’s interested, here’s a link to my source for emu material

    I bought a raw skeleton from them and after bacterial maceration I now have a beautiful clean set of bones ready for mounting.

  7. […] 24, 2010 Yesterday, I followed up Veronica‘s second simmering by taking more flesh of the bones, and in doing this I stared to take […]

  8. brian engh Says:

    Mail order ostrich noggin?!? Haha Mike Taylor you’re my hero!

    These posts are really great because they show all the various stages of soft-tissue deconstruction. They really give a great sense of all the layering that makes up an animal’s fleshed-out head. Good photos!

    I bet you could get tons of unusual carcasses if you got in touch with a reptile/amphibian dealer/importer (for the pet/exotics trade)… This is really weird, but one day at work a co-worker presented me with a bag that contained the skin and skull of a green-tree monitor (Varanus prasinus – uh, not so common a species!). Apparently when my co-worker’s friend divorced her husband (who worked in the reptile trade) she came across the skin and skull when she was cleaning out the stuff he left behind. Apparently it was imported from southeast Asia, and didn’t survive, so the husband guy (who was apparently interested in anatomy) skinned it and cleaned down the skull. I guess his ex-wife didn’t think it was good memorabilia, and so somehow I ended up with it…
    “You like reptiles and stuff right?”
    “Oh, uh, sure. What’s this?”

    Anyway, might be something to look into. There’s lots of unusual species being imported, and the stresses of capture and import tend to take a pretty high toll on most animals. That probably means there’s vietnamese toads and african tortoises and agamas and geckos and monitors going out in the trash all the time… Hmmm… parrots and mammals too probably…

  9. […] 25, 2010 After the third simmering, Veronica the Ostrich Head started to come apart beautifully — more so than she should have done in one or two places, […]

  10. Have you thought of using ants to get rid of the fiddly bits of flesh?

  11. Mike Taylor Says:

    Using ants: not specifically, but I’ve certainly used inverts of various kinds, just by leaving nearly-clean bones in boxes with air-holes or (for big bones) under buckets. It works well, though it takes longer than I’d like.

  12. […] photographing the right cervical rib from cervical vertebra 3 of my ostrich, Veronica [see earlier Part A, Part B and Part C for context].  I thought you might like to see the result, so here it is: Third […]

  13. Jamie Stearns Says:

    Why no “stinkin’ theropods” category on this series?

  14. Mike Taylor Says:

    It’s implied by “ostrich”.

  15. […] Cleaning and bleaching is complete!  Here are all the bones of Veronica’s skull [see earlier part one, part two and part three], laid out as they were in life (though of course much more widely […]

  16. […] Paleo-Chef: Mike Taylor at SV-POW! demonstrates the art of boiling ostrich heads (all in the name of science, we promise). (Ed. note — not for the […]

  17. […] 19, 2010 Work continues apace with Veronica, my tame ostrich.  (See previous parts one, two, three and four).  I’ve been photographing the individual bones of the skull — a […]

  18. […] we have here is the part-way assembled skull of our old friend Veronica, in dorsal view, with anterior to the left.  The long pointed bones down there are the nasals: you […]

  19. […] who not only dig up fossils and study dinosaurs, but also spy on them, dissect them, and mail order their severed heads to skeletonize them. I have also heard rumors that they are working on a time-traveling three-part combining robot […]

  20. […] I love the hands of ratite birds. Yes, those are little claws attached to the three vestigial fingers (thumb/first finger at top, long middle finger, and tiny third finger bound to it). Darren Naish covered some of this in a previous post, and let’s not forget SV-POW’s excellent series of “things to make and do” involving various critters including ostriches. […]

  21. […] and are not piped up past it. I’ve not dissected enough bird heads to show this clearly, but when I was taking Veronica apart the trachea was pretty visibly ending in the mouth cavity, not plumbed up past the mouth into the […]

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