Here at SV-POW! Towers, we like to show you iconic mounted skeletons from unusual perspectives. Here’s one:

Apatosaurus louisae holotype CM 3018, mounted skeleton in the public gallery of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History: head, neck, torso and hip in right posterolateral view. Photograph by Matt Wedel, 12th March 2019 (my birthday!)

Oh, man, I love that museum. And I love that specimen. And I love the one that’s standing next to it (Diplodocus CM 82, natch.) I’ve got to find a way to get myself back out there.

That’s all: just enjoy.

Skull audit: Wedel responds

February 9, 2022

Left to right: alligator, beaver, black bear, armadillo, cat, ostrich. I know, the archosaurs aren’t mammals, and the alligator isn’t even a skull. But if you can’t have a lounge lizard crash your mammal skull party, what are you even doing with your life? Not pictured: about four rabbit skulls I forgot I had boxed up, plus a couple of turtles (yeah, yeah) sitting on a friend’s desk, in their locked office.

It warmed my crooked little heart to see Mike Taylor, noted sauropodologist and disdainer-of-mammal-heads, return mammal skulls to the blog’s front page yesterday. Naturally I had to support my friend and colleague in this difficult time, when he may be experiencing confusing feelings regarding nasal turbinates, multi-cusped teeth, and the dentary-squamosal jaw joint.

My skull collection is split across home and office, but I had to go in to campus this afternoon for a video recording thing, so I got most of the office set, shown above, on that jaunt.

After the workday ended, I had just enough time before the light faded to assemble and photograph the home collection:

Back row: peccary, pig, deer, sheep, dog. Middle row: opossum, rabbit. Front row: opossum, marten (both hemisected). Not pictured: emergency backup sheep, moar rabbits

I’ve blogged about the bear, the pig, and the hemisected skulls, but I think that’s it. I should do more skull blogging, most of these have a story:

  • I prepped the armadillo, cat, rabbit, and sheep skulls myself (besides the bear and pig). The first two I found in the woods, the mostly-decomposed rabbit was a gift from my father-in-law, and the sheep head I obtained from the market down the street ($10, and I ate the meat).
  • The alligator head and deer skull were gifts, from Vicki and from my brother Ryan, respectively.
  • The rest I purchased here and there over the years, usually when they were on deep discount. The peccary is a memento of a trip to Big Bend back in 2007 (I bought it at a taxidermy shop a long way outside the national park), and the dog came from the seconds bin at the Museum of Osteology — I plan to saw off the top of the braincase to see the cranial nerve exits, just as in the preparation by Peter Dodson shown in this post.

I have more heads awaiting skull-ization in various freezers, too. Couple more pig heads at work, and at the house a strategic reserve sheep head, plus skunk, squirrel, and rat. Plus a partially-mummified but mostly defleshed armadillo whose saga deserves a detailed recounting:

NB: the stray bits toward the bottom of the image are from a cat. Mr. Armadillo’s limb bones and vertebrae are still in the armadillo kit.

In the first comment on Mike’s post yesterday, I expressed envy that he had the better skull collection. After pulling together all my critters, I think I just have a worse memory. In my defense, it’s been almost two years since I was in the office regularly, and about half the skulls in the home collection are recent-ish acquistions (~last three years), so a lot of stuff had either fallen out of memory or not gotten properly established yet. But Mike has definitely prepped more — and more exotic — skeletons, and it was his enthusiastic collecting and blogging of dead animal bits that inspired me to start my recent-ish spate of skull preparations. More to come on that front as time and opportunity allow, probably starting with this:

 

These are out as I consider how to reorganise my office.

Back row, left to right: artiodactyls: pig, sheep, deer. Front row, left to right: carnivorans: otter, cat, fox, main badger, emergency backup badger. Not pictured: wallaby, rabbit, squirrel.

The pig skull came from a hog-roast, and was very crumbly by the time I had prepped it out. It’s subsequently had an accident when it fell off a loudspeaker in my youngest son’s room, so it’s not the pig it once was. (I have a plate of pig-skull shards that I know full well I will never reassemble, but can’t quite bring myself to toss out). The sheep is of course a ram, the horns being the giveaway: shame the right horn is broken off at mid-length. The deer awaits reassembly.

I think all the carnivorans have featured here previously, with the possible exception of the emergency backup badger which I opportunistically harvested from a rotting roadkill about a year ago.

We’ve seen the wallaby and squirrel here, too. I think the rabbit has yet to put in an appearance, but we have more than enough rabbit stuff on this here sauropod blog so I’m not going to lose sleep over that.

Other mammals available to me: I have a rat, a hamster and a gerbil in various states of decay in plastic tubs in the woodshed. Come summer (since this is definitely an outdoor sport) I might see what can be done to get the skulls out of those. You will excuse me if I don’t go out of my way to extract a gerbil postcranium.

Back in June, I saw a series of tweets by sculptor and digital artist Ruadhrí Brennan, showing off the work he’d been doing on sculpting brachiosaurid skulls: Giraffatitan, Brachiosaurus (based on the Felch Quarry skull USNM 5730) and Europasaurus. Impressed, I asked if he would send a Giraffatitan skull, and here it is!

Right lateral view

You can immediately see two things: one, it’s good. (I’ll have more to say about this.) And second, it’s small, It’s leaned up against a stack of smallish coins in this photo, to give me the true lateral perspective I wanted, and those coins (10p, 20p, 20p, 5p) also make a decent ad-hoc scalebar.

In fact, it’s sculpted at 1:10 scale — about 9 cm from the tip of the premaxilla to the rearmost projection of the parietals, implying about 90 cm total length for the skull MB.R.2223.1 (“t 1”) — a figure surprisingly difficult to find in the literature (can anyone help?) but consonant with how big it seems in real life.

Anterior view

At that scale, the detail is pretty amazing. Its not just that the overall proportions of the skull are so true, but the visible junctions between the bones — as for example between the paired ascending processes of the two premaxilae, as apparent in anterior view — but the texture of the bone, including things like vascular foramina for the lips but also just straight-up bone surface. It’s a lovely job.

Right anterodorsolateral view

This view is a pretty good match for what we used in the second Shedloads of Awesome post back in 2008 — in fact, let’s just put them side by side so we can compare more easily.

As you can see, I slightly muffed the photography of the model — I could do a better job of matching the aspect I tried. But we’re in the ballpark, and it’s easy to see from this angle how much the model skull really couldn’t be anything other than what it is. That said, there are a few places where it seems the bone junctions don’t quite match those of the real skull. Most obviously, in the real skull the lacrimal seems to laterally overlap the nasal dorsally and the maxilla/jugal ventrally, whereas in the model it fits in more neatly with both. But I am inclined to think this is not so much a mistake as a correction to allow for poor articulation and distortion in the original — a restoration, in other words.

Here’s a different oblique view:

Left anterodorsolateral view, from a rather more dorsal and less lateral perspective than the previous image.

The story here really is just what an odd shape this familiar skull is when viewed in this perspective, and a valuable reminder that we should all try to avoid getting too suckered in by the over-familiar lateral views of various things. 3D objects are weird. They trick you. That’s why, for example, two scapulae that look very different in photos might actually be very similar in reality: the difference is in the angle of the photograph, not in the photographed bones.

Anyway, moving on from that cautionary tale …

The key takeaway is really just that this Giraffatitan skull is very nice, and it leaves me wishing I also had the Camarsaurus one for comparison … even though camarsaurs are ugly and stupid.

Oh, what’s that you say? You want a Giraffatitan skull of your very own? Well, you can have one: get it from the Scaled Beasts shop!

These are nice. Click through to empiggen.

I ripped them from Parker (1874), which appears to be a free download from JSTOR, here, and tweaked the colors just a bit.

If you are here for serious science, these guides to the abbreviations used in the plates will come in handy. I hacked the second one, below, to include the descriptions of the plates above, which are the last in the series, not the first.

EDIT: Nick Gardner pointed out that the copy of Parker (1874) at the Biodiversity Heritage Library is a slightly sharper scan, so if you’d prefer that version, it’s here.

Reference

Parker, W.K. 1874. On the structure and development of the skull in the pig (Sus scrofa). Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 164: 289-336.

 

Here’s how my pig skull turned out (prep post is here).

Verdict? I’m reasonably happy with it. As Mike wrote in the post that kicked off the “Things to Make and Do” series, “a pig skull is a serious piece of kit”. It’s big and substantial and it looks awesome sitting on the shelf. I learned a lot prepping it, and in particular I learned a couple of things that I will do differently next time:

  1. From now on I will cut the meat off first and grill only that, and not put the skull through the thermal stress of getting dry-cooked. Even with indirect heat, I think smoking the whole head did adversely affect the quality of the bone. The forehead and the rami of the mandibles in particular lost a little integrity. I painted the whole skull with a mix of 50% PVA (white glue, like Elmer’s) and 50% water, so it’s solid, but the surface bone is just slightly rough, I think because of degradation of the cortical bone.
  2. Before this I had only prepped small bones–small mammal and reptile skulls, vertebrae and long bones of domestic fowl, cannon bones and hooves of cattle. Stuff like that takes maybe an hour or two max to simmer, and to whiten, and that’s how I approached the pig skull. And it took forever, because I was doing short cycles, which meant doing a lot of them. I did a sheep skull this past holiday break, which I will post about soon, and I learned that the trick with bigger bones is just time. Simmer for 12 hours, not 2 hours, whiten for 2 or 3 nights, not just one. The sheep skull probably took more time from start to finish, but it was a lot less effort, because for much of that time it was just simmering, or soaking in dilute hydrogen peroxide.

With their deep lower jaws, pig skulls look rather lumpen in lateral view. But they look awesome in anterodorsal view, like dragon skulls. Here you can see that the prenasal bone is a little darker and less crisp than the other bones of the face. That’s because it was still ossifying from a big block of cartilage. I scraped off most of the cartilage, but not all, and what remained dried and hardened into an incredibly tough, translucent, slightly yellowish shell. 

I still have two pig heads on ice. I probably won’t do anything with either of them until I get some more time off, but I am looking forward to prepping another pig skull, in part to see how much better I can do the next time. But I’m still happy to have this one. To paraphrase another line from Mike’s old post, this is something that everyone ought to do.

Edit: here are some links about cooking pig heads and prepping skulls.

 

This is something I did over Thanksgiving break in 2019. I meant to blog about it sooner, but you know, 2020 and all. So here I am finally getting around to it. (Yes, I know the ruler in the above photo is the worst scale bar ever. I was, uh, making a point. Which you got. So go you!)

For reasons unknown to me, the strip of skin between the mid-snout and the ear on the right side of the head was already off when I took possession from the local butcher. But it did show the ear muscles to good advantage, as well as the parotid gland–the knobbly white thing between the eye and ear that looks like grits, or eggs, or white beans. You have a parotid gland in front of each of your ears, too (par-otid = “next to ear”), each with a duct that crosses the cheek to bring saliva into your mouth. If you push your tongue into the upper-lateral “corners” of your cheeks, you can feel the little papilla where the duct opens, and if you push against the papilla with your tongue you may feel a little saliva leak out. You also have paired submandibular and sublingual salivary glands, but those will have to wait for another day.

Here’s the head from the back, after I’d gotten the right ear off. The bluish-white hyaline cartilage over the occipital condyles is clearly visible about 2/3 of the way up from the bottom, with the faintly yellowish stump of the medulla oblongata in between, going up into the braincase. Tons of neck muscles are visible here, and maybe someday I or someone else will get around to labeling them in this photo–but it is not this day.

What was I doing here? Getting off the ears, and as much skin and subcutaneous fat as possible, in preparation for brining and smoking. I like this photo, the little piggy looks positively happy about having its skull prepped.

Right, into the bag with you then. I did the same brining and smoking routine that I did for my first smoked turkey back when–see this post for details.

And here we are about 15 hours later. Note how much the color of the meat has changed from the brining.

Time to extract the brain. I already showed a version of this photo in my post on the $1 brain-extractor (a.k.a. drain rooter, see this post), but it bears repeating: the brain is mostly lipids and if you cook the head with the brain still in it, the brain will turn into liquid fat and seep into the bones and you’ll spend the rest of your days trying to degrease the skull before you die, unloved and weeping, on a pile of rags. So no matter how you’re planning to cook the head, yoink the brain first.

Onto the grill, with a drip pan underneath, foil heat shields in place to keep the heat indirect, and foil-wrapped mesquite smoke bombs visible under the grill, right on top of the coals. This is about all I do with my grill anymore; smoking is really no more work than anything else and the results are pretty much to die for. YMMV.

Same shot an hour later and the smoking is coming along nicely. I ended up smoking this head for three hours, an hour and a half on each side. 

And into the roasting pan for a few minutes’ rest at the end of the cooking. And it was cooking, not just specimen prep–we ate this pig head in lieu of a turkey for Thanksgiving, and it was amazingly delicious. One thing to note in this photo is how the temporalis fascia has pulled away from the skull at the upper left, exposing some bare bone. This would be a problem later on.

Defleshing, both to get the edible meat off, and to get as much of the rest of the soft tissue off in preparation for simmering. In this anterior view, you can see that the right side of the animal’s forehead (viewer’s upper left) got exposed during the smoking process and the bone is stained brown. 

Even with the meat cooked all the way through, disarticulating the jaw took some doing, and then some follow-up meat removal. Check out the very round, almost hemispherical mandibular condyles, which fit up into the sockets of the temporomandibular joints. Birds and other reptiles mostly do it the opposite way, with rounded quadrates on the cranium that fit into articular sockets on the lower jaw.

Ready for simmering. Pro tip: if you need a really big metal pot in which to simmer skulls or other large osteological specimens, but you don’t want to go bankrupt, look for a tamale-steaming pot. They’re comparatively thin-walled and lightweight, but still plenty sturdy for just about any application you are likely to think of. 

Our kitty, Moe, helped with the clean-up of the roasting pan.

The first simmer. At this remove, I don’t remember how many rounds of simmering I did, but it was at least two, maybe three.

Post-simmer, I put the skull into a sink-full of warm, soapy water for a defleshing. Notable bits you can see on the right side of the photo are the ridged surface of the palate (about 7:00 on the plate), the long straight cartilage of the nasal septum (going vertically up the right side of the plate), and the incisors at the extreme upper right, sitting on the edge of the sink. Most of the incisors fell out during the wash, which was fine, because most of them were horribly stained from the smoking process and would require a lot of scrubbing and bleaching to get back to a nice and natural-looking white.

The condition after the first simmer. You can see that the supraorbital foramina, on the forehead between the eyes, still have goop in them. This was true of pretty much all of the nerve and blood vessel passages. It took a lot of time, some ingenuity, bamboo barbeque skewers, and running water this way and that to flush out all of that crud. And the bones are still weird colors at this stage, pre-whitening, especially the groady dark patches on the forehead. It wasn’t the areas of bone that were directly exposed to smoke that were the problem, it was the areas just adjacent where the periosteum cooked against the bone.

Same stage, left lateral view. Note the empty sockets for the incisors, and the infraorbital foramen (above the upper teeth and about a third of the way between eye socket and the nose), which on this side is divided in two by a strut of bone. There’s another gross dark patch on the back of the zygomatic arch. All of those took pretty aggressive scrubbing to remove.

Back into the pot for another simmer. The perforated plate at the bottom sits on a lip of metal about three inches above the bottom of the pot so you can steam tamales with this thing. I used it to keep the bones off the bottom of the pot so they’d have no chance of getting scorched.

Here’s a significant jump forward in time. By this point I’d degreased and whitened the skull by soaking it in dilute hydrogen peroxide (I use the cheap stuff from the dollar store down the street, and it works fine), applied glue to several of the skull sutures that were threatening to come apart, and epoxied the prenasal bone back into position between the nasal bones above and the premaxillary bones below. The prenasal bone is a pretty cool structure, you can see it in other views (including a cross-section!) in this post. I also glued the incisors back in at this stage.

Believe it or not, this was the largest skull I had ever prepped myself–the largest osteological preparation of any kind, in fact–and it was a lot more work than I anticipated. But the effort was worth it, and now I have a really cool pig skull on my bookcase. I’ll show the finished skull in a follow-up post (no, really, I will!). EDIT: And I did! 

For other posts on pig skulls, see:

Get your red-cyan glasses — you do have some, right? — and check out this glorious image. Best full-screen it, it’s worth seeing!

And here is the lame 2D version for those of you who have still not spent 99 lousy cents on a pair of 3D glasses:

What are we looking at here?

Well, the smaller skull at bottom left is my new badger, which we saw a couple of days ago. Since then it has dried out, and I was easily able to figure out which teeth belong where, and glue them in with a drop of wood glue. I’ll photograph it in more detail at some point, but for those of you who can’t wait, there’s always the TNF of my first badger skull.

On the right is, if I’m not mistaken, a sheep — specifically a ram, given the horns. I don’t actually remember this one’s origin story, but it’s been sitting on a box next to our oil tank for a couple of years, with the flesh bits slowly decaying off and the bone cleaning itself up the way nature intended. A couple of days ago I cleaned it up a bit with my trusty toothbrush to remove some bits of moss and lichen, then soaked it for a few hours in very dilute bleach. It’s dried out beautifully, and is very robust. It’s big, too.

Everything else you see belongs to a deer — I assume, based on the horn bases. This is another one recovered from the depths of time. Some years ago, I put it a big water-filled pan and left it outside and forgot about it. In that time, not only had all the meat rotted off the bones, but the water had clarified and everything in it had died, so it didn’t even smell particularly. When I took the bones out, they were a nasty brown colour and little soft, and I thought I was going to have to discard them all. But once they had dried out they seemed a little more robust — though still brown. Then I left them overnight in dilute bleach, and when they had dried from that, they were their present much more appealing whitish colour, so I think they’re going to be OK.

Most of the cranium is intact in a single piece, though some of the sutures are wobbly and will need stabilising with wood glue. The mandible is in two parts, but both seem in decent condition. Right at the bottom left of the photo is a shard of bone by the tip of the mandible: this is the left nasal, which flaked off, but should be repairable. Everything else is vertebrae: atlas right behind the skull, axis by the snout, C3 just above it, and damaged C4 just below the atlas.

When it’s been put together a bit more, I will post some better photos, and I’ll see if anyone can identify the species.

Last week, while Fiona and I were out walking, we noticed a decaying roadkill badger a bit over half a mile from our house. Yesterday we were out walking again, and we saw that it had decayed to the point where there was not much to the flesh at all. I prodded it with my foot and found that the skull was about ready to come away.

So when we got home, I popped straight back out in the car with some plastic bags which I used as improvised gloves, found the badger, managed to pull its head away from the remaining connective tissue (not a pleasant process) and bring it home. I simmered it gently for a couple of hours — outdoors on a portable hob, I’m not a barbarian — then cleaned it with a toothbrush and left it to cool. Today I soaked it in a soapy water for a couple of hours, then rinsed it off and soaked it in very diluted bleach for a couple more, taking care to harvest all the loose teeth that came out during each stage. Finally I rinsed it off, and here it!

European badger Meles meles, skull in left lateral view, with teeth. Pound coin for scale.

What next? I’ll give it couple of days to dry properly, then figure out which teeth go in which sockets and glue them in place. Then, bam, I have a second badger skull to go with my first, and I’ll be in a position to directly compare two skulls of the same animal.

This is a really nice, quick process compared with most of my preparations. The trick is to find a carcass that has already gone through the nastier stages of decomposition.

Note that the jaw is articulated, by the way. Unlike most animals, the skull of the badger locks the jaw in place with unusual joints in which the mandibular fossa of the cranium wraps around the cylindrical articular condyles of the jaw. I’ll try to include photos next time.

I leave you with a cheap-and-cheerful 3D anaglyph of the skull. Did I ever mention that you should get some cheap 3D glasses? You should get some cheap 3D glasses.

For reasons that I will explain in a later post, I am parting with one of my most treasured possessions: the badger skull that I extracted from my roadkill specimen four years ago.

As a farewell, I finally photographed it properly from all the cardinal directions, and prepared this multiview:

Don’t forget to click though for the full resolution version!