The pheasant comes apart

March 26, 2016

A couple of weeks ago, I was given a pheasant, which I reduced to science and food. When we last saw it, it was down to a skinned and partially defleshed head/neck and feet. It’s been through a couple of defleshing rounds since then, and today I was able to take it fully apart:

2016-03-26 12.31.09

At the moment, the bits are laid out on this plate, drying. Small amounts of soft-tissue remain (and more on the second foot), which may need the attentions of invertebrates to fully clean.

It pains me to admit, but even though I have kept the cervical vertebrae, for most people the skull will be the interesting part. Here it is in a little more detail, disarticulated into about ten units. The mandible is to the right of this image; the rostrum to the left of it, and the main cranial section to the left again:

2016-03-26 12.31.47

To the sides are the bones that laterally connect the rostrum to the braincase: zygomatics, quadrates and what have you. They are laid out roughly in the right positions, though the two quadrates may have been switched. Once everything is clean and dry, I’ll glue it back together, using my ostrich skull to help guide me.

The feet are trickier. Here’s the one I took apart:


2016-03-26 12.31.35

At the top of the photo, you see a mass of ossified tendons, which operated the toes from more proximal areas. This is how all bird feet work, and it’s such a great scheme that it seems weird everything doesn’t do it.

Below these, we have the tarsometatarsus to the right, and the four digits to the left. Each digit has its phalanges in the right order, but I don’t know what order the digits themselves should be in. To help me get that right, I pulled out of prepping the other foot down, hence its current semi-zombified state:

2016-03-26 12.31.23

I’m hoping it’s still intact enough to guide me as a reassemble the bones of the other foot. (Once that’s done, I may also take this one to completion, or I may decide that one pheasant foot is enough.)

Anyway, it’s nice to be progressing this specimen. Next, I need to figure out the best way to decapitate a medium-sized mammal (like a fox or badger) without damaging the skull, and using no special equipment.


Although it would be nice to think that our site views have octupled in the last day because of Mike’s fine and funny posts about what search terms bring people to SV-POW!, the real reason is that we were blessed by incoming links from both pages of this article.

Now, as any person who has ever accomplished anything whatsoever knows, it is super-important to avoid or you’ll still be up 23 hours from now reading, “6 Mind-Blowing Ways that Comedy Writers are Secretly Destroying Your Productivity”. (I’m kidding, that article doesn’t really exist–but if it did, I’m sure it would consist entirely of descriptions and links to six other Cracked articles). But that’s only true because most of the articles there hit the sweet spot at the intersection of funny, surprisingly informative, mercifully short, and well-written. would be a more honest URL, but I assume it was taken.

Anyway, I’d like to return the favor, so here’s a list of the 6 SV-POW! Posts Most Likely to Blow the Minds of Readers. If I missed some goodies or recommended some stinkers, let me know–the comment thread is open.

Amphicoelias vert reconstruction by Mike

1.How big was Amphicoelias fragillimus? I mean, really?

Who doesn’t want to read about the bizarre real-world mystery surrounding what might have been the world’s largest dinosaur? If you’re not sold, consider that the picture above shows a single vertebra that was–or at least might have been–seven and a half feet tall.

long nerves of sauropods

2. Oblivious sauropods being eaten

The mercifully short version of this much longer post, in which I consider the consequences of the world’s largest animals having the world’s longest cells.


3. The sauropods of Star Wars

Weapons-grade anatomical pedantry.

Umbaran starfighters

4. CONFIRMED: the Umbaran Starfighter is an Apatosaurus cervical

Yes, there is a ship in Star Wars: The Clone Wars that is basically a flying dinosaur vertebra. It took us about five weeks to unravel that story–the post linked above has links to the rest of the saga.


5. SV-POW! showdown: sauropods vs whales

Our original linkbait post. Don’t miss the shorter follow-up with more critters.

Is that your flexor tubercle, Saurophaganax, or are you just hungry to see me?

Is that your flexor tubercle, Saurophaganax, or are you just hungry to see me?

6. Friday phalanges: Megaraptor vs Saurophaganax

A deliberately goofy post in which I wax poetic about the largest predatory dinosaur claws ever discovered.

So, that was a big pile of superlatives and Star Wars. If you’re hungry for more substantial fare, you might start with our Tutorials page or our Things to Make and Do series on dissecting and skeletonizing modern animals. We also blog a lot about the evils of obstructive publishers and the need for open access to the scientific literature–you can find those posts on our Shiny Digital Future page.


A parting shot in my desperate quest for attention: this Star Wars ship flying around in the background in Firefly and Serenity is at least partly my fault–full story here. Oh, and my co-blogger Mike Taylor has written an insightful and affordable book about Doctor Who; read about it here.

Sculpey allosaur claws

A few weeks ago I threw this picture into the “Night at the Museum” post and promised to say more later. Later is now.

I started sculpting dinosaur claws because of the coincidental arrival of two things in my life. One was a cast of OMNH 780, the horrifically awesome thumb claw of Jurassic megapredator Saurophaganax maximus, which I blogged about here. (If you’re curious, I’m using it to amaze people at public talks, so it is serving a semi-legit educational purpose.)

The other is this video of Adam Savage’s TED talk on how he got into sculpting two very different birds. I’ve watched it about a zillion times and shown it to loads of friends, because Savage so nicely captures what it’s like to be obsessed by interesting things. We have different objects of desire, and, okay, I don’t have 20 gigs of photos of anything, but when I’m having a lousy day, watching that video reminds me why I do what I do. You should blow off the rest of this post and go watch it right now.

Back so soon? So, I am a little obsessed with theropod claws right now (aesthetically and fanboyishly, not scientifically), and I thought it would be cool to try my hand at making them. Also, I’ve been wanting to do some molding and casting, and I wanted to be able to practice on cool stuff without having any ethical concerns about trading in fossils or replicating someone else’s specimen. More on the molding and casting in a future post.

A final boring note before the actual instructions: I have no idea what I’m doing. Those two claws in the photo above? The little one on the right is the first thing I’ve sculpted out of anything more serious than Play-Doh, and the big one on the left–the subject of this post–is the second. If I can do this, you can do this.

On to the  how.

1 - raw sculpey

Sculpey isn’t really clay in the traditional sense. It’s slightly oily plastic that polymerizes when baked. When it first comes out of the package, it’s surprisingly brittle and crumbly. You have to knead it for a while before you can do anything useful with it.

2 - kneaded sculpey

Here’s a lump after some kneading. My work surface here is a dinner plate covered with aluminum foil.

3 - rough sculpting with fingers

At the local hobby store you can buy a set of clay sculpting tools, in plastic for about five bucks or in wood for up to thirty. But unless you’re a professional sculptor you can skip all that folderol and just use your fingers and crap you find around the house.

The main thing I learned during this stage? You can achieve just about any shape you want, depending on how much time you’re willing to invest. I worked iteratively, smoothing and resmoothing and smoothing some more.

4 - sculpting with popsicle sticks

Cheap tools in action: using popsicle sticks to smooth the edges of the claw. You can get a bag of 100 of these suckers at the dollar store. If you don’t already have a decent pair of wire cutters, you can get them at the dollar store, too, and you can use the wire cutters to cut all kinds of edges into the popsicle sticks. So that’s like 100 clay tools for a buck or two.

If it seems like I’m hating on fancy clay tools, it’s because IME real artists just get on with making art and don’t get too precious about it. Here’s Zak Smith on painting (warning–nothing bad in that post, but there is some NSFW stuff elsewhere on that site):

the process is as follows:  I take a very small paint brush with wet paint on it, put it on the paper, and move my hand around.  There is no magic or machinery involved and it is done freehand.  Sometimes I look at a real thing or person and paint it, sometimes its a picture i took, and sometimes i just make it up.  How to tell?  If its a picture with a title like “Lisa” then probably that’s from real life, if it’s, say, a zebra-man with two samurai next to it, then that’s made up.

“What kind of paint?”  The cheapest kind they have at whatever store I am at.

So it drives me crazy when I see wannabe artists shelling out thirty bucks for tools they could make or emulate for less than a tenth of that. (If you’re serious enough to have actual fancy tools, holster the angry comments, I don’t think you’re keeping the local Hobby Lobby in business buying the faux-fancy tools.)

5 - sculpting with floss pick

Need a clay knife? Floss picks work pretty well. I used this one a LOT. Here I’m angling the articular facet for the next phalanx.

6 - blood vessel grooves

Blood vessel grooves. I think I used the blunt end of a bamboo kabob skewer to install these, with some follow-up shaping with popsicle sticks. I also straightened and shortened the claw tip a bit from the previous photo.

Funny story: a few years ago I was going through the public exhibits at a certain nameless museum and at the “touch a fossil” table an excited young docent started to explain how the “blood groove” was there to let the blood flow out of the wound so the claw wouldn’t get trapped by suction. I tried to explain that it was really there to hold the vessels that nourished the keratin sheath that covered the bony claw in life, but he was unpersuaded. I wished, for the first and only time, that I had a cast Tenontosaurus claw with me so he could explain why herbivores needed “blood grooves” on their claws, too…

7 - this is distressing

Now: detailing. I didn’t want to sculpt the claw as it was in life, I wanted a fossil claw, something that looked like it might have been left out in the rain for 145 million years. The bone I picked up on the beach, and the exposed spongiosa is just perfect for putting a realistic bone texture on stuff. The rock is a rock. I used it for nicks and gouges.

8 - all cracked up

I carve cracks with a straight pin. I carve them fairly deep, a couple of mm, so if I accidentally smudge some clay over a crack I can cut or sand it off, post-baking, and get the crack back. I don’t worry about raised edges along the edges of the cracks–these sand off in a heartbeat after baking. Just carve away.

Right after the above photo was taken, I popped the whole plate in the oven for about 45 minutes at 295 F to bake the Sculpey. There are lots of different kinds of Sculpey and other polymer clays on the market, so read the instructions on the box before you bake. Also, the baking drives off the oils that made the stuff kneadable, so save your baking for a nice day when you can have the windows open. If you’re going to bake a lot of Sculpey, you might want a separate oven for it. The vapors from the baking Sculpey do make me feel a little ill, so I get some good airflow through the house and limit my exposure. Caveat sculptor.

9 - back after baking

Here’s the claw right after baking. Some areas are smooth and shiny from being in more intimate contact with the foil. If you’re not going to sculpt the other side of something and you want a perfectly flat, smooth surface, watch out for this.

10 - droopy

The only point of this photo is to show that the baked Sculpey is not rock-hard. The tip of the claw is drooping under its own weight here. For my first, smaller claw, I carved a groove in the flat side with a Dremel and put in a section of bent hanger wire to help it maintain its shape. For this second one, I figured the other half of the claw would give it sufficient thickness to hold its shape after baking, and I was right.

11 - second side sculpt

Here’s the reverse side, sculpted using the same techniques as I used for the first side, but not baked yet. I suppose there might be some kind of Sculpey Einstein out there who can do a whole claw in one go, but I couldn’t figure out how to do both sides without leaving fingerprints everywhere, or how to support the thing while it baked, so I did the two sides sequentially. If you think of a better solution, let me know, although really this is not much extra work–about an hour, max, while I was watching Mythbusters.

12 - macrophage choking on asbestos

Now we gotta talk about asbestos for a while (this is relevant, I promise). Here’s a photomicrograph of a macrophage (a kind of white blood cell) self-impaled on some asbestos fibers, in what started out as attempted consumption of foreign material by the macrophage, and ended up closer to a crucifixion.

Here’s the deal: you have macrophages roaming around in your lungs, and when they find stuff that isn’t supposed to be there–which is pretty much everything other than your own living cells–they eat the offending material. And by “eat” I mean “engulf and try to chemically destroy”, using all kinds of profoundly noxious stuff–hydrochloric acid, hydrogen peroxide, chlorine gas. And if the offending material is extremely resistant to such treatment, as is the case with asbestos, the macrophages just keep unleashing hell. Forever. Which doesn’t dissolve the asbestos, but does eventually dissolve your lungs. Asbestos by itself doesn’t hurt you much–it’s what you do to yourself trying to get rid of it that kills you.

Why am I bringing up this depressing stuff? Partly because you are in command of a human body and you should know something about how it works. And partly because, if you have been following this little how-to, very soon you are going to be sanding your Sculpey dinosaur claw. Which is made out of plastic. Which is going to shed tiny particles of plastic into the air while you sand it. Which you are going to inhale unless you are wearing a mask. Now, I don’t know the actual resilience of baked Sculpey particles under the chemical assault your macrophages are prepared to light them up with, and I don’t recommend that you perform the experiment on yourself. I got a pack of five of these:

13 - dust mask

for two bucks at the hardware store. If you can afford ten bucks for a block of Sculpey, you can afford to spend two more to save your lungs.

This goes for sanding just about everything, by the way. It’s like germs or radiation, just because you can’t see or feel the damage doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening. Also like germs and radiation, some simple precautions are all you need to avoid the vast majority of the problems. Or you can skip them, and someday someone like me may be using your corpse to teach people about how not to care for a human body. Your pick!

14 - sanding

Sanding. I only do one pass, with 220 grit. If you start with 60 grit, you can say goodbye to all the details you put in, because they are going to be gone very quickly. Basically I’m just trying to knock off the most egregious of the rough edges. I’m not trying to get a very smooth surface–that comes next.

I didn’t take any pictures of this, but after the sandpaper I scrubbed the whole claw with 000 steel wool. I had never used this stuff before–I only learned about it from that Adam Savage TED talk–and it is pretty amazing. For one thing, it will give whatever you are sanding a shockingly smooth finish. For another, it actually goes away as you use it. You’ll start out with a full-sized bundle and after sanding for 10 minutes you’ll be down to a half-size bundle. If you’re slouching in front of the TV, it will look like a metal cat shed all over your t-shirt. The chances of actually inhaling a tiny sliver of steel and having it get all the way down into your lungs are probably pretty slim, but I masked up anyway (there are still microscopic Sculpey shards coming off at this stage). Anyway, the steel wool gives a very even appearance to the surface, so you can’t tell what areas got really hit by the sandpaper, and for me it was one of the most satisfying parts of the whole process.

15 - finished claw

And here’s the final result. On the right the tip is a little blackened from over-baking, since the right side went through the oven twice, but it’s not bad. At this point you can paint or do whatever. I haven’t experimented with painting Sculpey yet, and online sources are mixed about what works best. You don’t want to use anything thick for a primer or you’ll lose the fine details. When I do finally get around to painting, I’m going to start with flat black auto primer, just like Adam Savage used on his Maltese Falcon (which I know was resin, not Sculpey, but still), and see if that doesn’t do the trick. If you know of something better, please tell us in a comment.

Next up in this series: molding and casting.

Is that your flexor tubercle, Saurophaganax, or are you just hungry to see me?

Is that your flexor tubercle, Saurophaganax, or are you just hungry to see me?

Up top there is a commercially obtained cast sculpture of a thumb claw of Megaraptor. Down below is an unpainted urethane cast of one of my favorite inanimate objects in the universe: OMNH 780, a thumb claw of Saurophaganax. I dunno how much of the Megaraptor claw is real [none, it turns out, but it’s based on a true story]; certainly the cast is faithful enough to record some tool-marks in the rugose part near the base. But I know how much of OMNH 780 is legit, and that is all of it. I would have put in a photo of the actual specimen but irritatingly I forgot to take any during my recent visit, and I didn’t have the Megaraptor claw back then anyway. Hopefully I’ll get back to the OMNH this summer, and then it is ON.

The kaiju-loving fanboys of CarnivoraForum undoubtedly want to know how these two compare. Well, much to my disappointment, the Megaraptor claw is a shade longer (28.7 cm max straight-line distance) than the Saurophaganax claw (26.3 cm). But the Saurophaganax claw is about twice as thick and way more robust, and the flexor tubercle which anchored the tendon that powered the claw’s movement is friggin’ immense. It’s like pitting an NBA forward against an NFL linebacker: one is a little taller, but the other one will pound you like a tent stake.

If anyone’s wondering, these claws are both waaay shorter than those of Therizinosaurus (half a meter and up), which still holds the longest-claws-of-anything-ever title. The problem for fans of excessive violence is that Therizinosaurus probably wasn’t doing terribly exciting things with its claws–grooming its feathers, making veggie kabobs, and scratching its ample behind, most likely.

Mmmmmm...suffering. OM NOM NOM NOM!!

Mmmmmm…suffering. OM NOM NOM NOM!!

The same was not true for Saurophaganax, which the unbelievers call Allosaurus maximus, a red-blooded all-American murder machine with a triple PhD in kicking your ass. When it wasn’t drinking camptosaur blood straight from the jugular, it was eating mud-mired diplodocids butt first while they were still alive. And what about those rumors that Saurophaganax was completely feathered in $100 bills, or that it was the direct linear ancestor of Charles Bronson and Steven McQueen? It’s probably too soon to say, since I just made them up, but I’ll bet your mind is blown nonetheless.

How dangerous was Saurophaganax? Let me put it this way: it’s still dangerous. Thanks to the high concentration of heavy elements in Morrison dinosaur bones, you’re supposed to air out the specimen cabinets before you start working so the radon can escape. Otherwise you might breathe in freakin’ radioactive gas and get cancer (in contrast to some “facts” in the previous paragraph, this is actually true). That’s right, Saurophaganax can kill you, just by lying around in a drawer. After 145 million years, it’s still reaping souls for Hades. By god, that’s giving them what for!

In short, the thumb claw of Saurophaganax is the most impressive instrument of dinosaurian destruction I’ve yet laid eyes on. If you want to see it in context, check out the mounted skeleton at the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History in Norman.

This idiot is going to die.

This idiot is going to die.