Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been fortunate enough to acquire two medium-sized native mammals, both roadkill specimens in good conditions: a fox and a badger:

2016-03-27 15.09.09

But I’ve found from bitter experience that prepping out the entire skeleton of good-sized animals like these is a lot of dirty smelly work. So I decided to make things easier on myself by only prepping the skulls of these two.

Step one: remove the heads.

What follows is not pretty. Parental advisory: you should avoid this post if you feel a misguided sentimentality about the already-dead corpses of deceased animals.

I considered several approaches, as recommended by commenters on this blog and people on Twitter, but ended up taking the butcher’s approach — mostly because I have a good, sharp knife, but lack some of the tools needed for other approaches.

I took on the fox first. I cut through the skin surrounding its neck, and peeled it back far enough to reveal the neck musculature:

2016-03-27 15.10.55

From there, it was pretty easy to slice away the muscles down towards the vertebrae — but impossible to get right to the vertebrae themselves, because they’re surrounded by gloop including not only muscles, but ligaments, fascia and tendons:

2016-03-27 15.12.03

I’d hoped to be able to feel my way to an intervertebral joint, and ease it apart with the knife. But that turned out to be difficult. It was also going to need a lot of force, and I was worried that down in among all that gloop, I might slip and cut myself.

So I used our the axe we use for chopping firewood. It would have been terrible for dealing with the flesh, but it was fine for the bones:

2016-03-27 15.14.12

Then it was the same procedure for the badger. I started by cutting a ring around the skin of the neck and peeling back.

Straight away, it was obvious that the badger is a much more serious piece of kit than the fox. It’s not as long, but it’s heavier, and much more muscular, and it has way tougher skin. I don’t know if foxes and badgers ever fight, but if they do, my money is on the badger every time. It would bite much harder and its claws are epic, too. The only thing the fox would be better at is running away.

2016-03-27 15.16.27

Then, as with the fox, I sliced away the meat till I reached the bony core of the neck:

2016-03-27 15.17.43

And again, the axe finished the job. I was left with a pair of decapitated corpses:

2016-03-27 15.18.40

And, more importantly, a pair of heads:

2016-03-27 15.18.48

Also, some evidence of my activities in the bloodstained chopping block. I hope the neighbours don’t see this and leap to the wrong conclusion:

2016-03-27 15.22.33

What to do with the sadly unloved postcrania? I have no further use for them, so I decided to bury the bodies. I went down to the bottom of our garden, only to find all the sheep in the adjacent field coming over to see what I was doing:

2016-03-27 15.23.42

Best stay back, sheep! Or you could be next!

I dug a hole, which is a lot more work than it looks. Predictably, given than I am England during what passes for springtime, it suddenly stared hailing while I was digging. But eventually, I was done:

2016-03-27 17.27.03

In went the postcranial pair:

2016-03-27 17.27.38

And pretty soon, you’d never have known anything had happened here.

2016-03-27 17.33.02

Next time: exciting adventures with the badger head!

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.

The process of reassembling my cat skull continues. I now have the sphenoid and both nasals now back in place, and the time has come for the now-traditional multiview. (Previous examples: pig skull, wallaby skull, sheep skull.

Click through for seriously high resolution (9602 × 7642).


And here it is on a black background:


As though you need to be told: the top row shows the dorsal view, the middle row (from left to right) shows posterior, right lateral and anterior views, and the bottom row shows the ventral view.


Regular readers will remember that I recently fished my cat skull out of the tub where invertebrates had been hard at work defleshing it, and put it to soak — first in soapy water, then in clean water, and finally in dilute hydrogen peroxide. It was in a pretty terrible state, having either been smashed by a car, or damaged by my rather unsophisticated process of removing the head from the torso. Here’s a reminder:


After bleaching in H2O2, the skull parts looked much better, but were still very delicate. Here is the main portion of the cranium, missing the braincase and the right upper jaw, upside down, in right posteroventral view.


Putting it back together was difficult. I am using regular water-soluble wood glue, largely so that if I make a mistake I can just soak the wrongly-joined bits apart and try again.

I started by gluing the braincase (at the top of the plate in the first picture) onto the back of the main cranium piece. Unfortunately, as you’ll see below, I wasn’t able to get a very clean join — I can only assume that one or other part was slightly distorted by whatever force broke the skull apart. Still, having done that, I had a better platform to reattach the right upper jaw (lower left of the plate). I was then able to reattach the broken-off part of the right zygomatic arch (at about 4 o’clock on the plate, just to the right of the lower of the two dentaries, and below a vertebra). It didn’t fit quite right, but what can you do? FInally, I was able to reattach another small piece — at 6:30 pm on the plate — which I think is part of the left auditory bulla.

That gave me a workable cranium (though I have some bits left over — see below.) It was time to repair the right dentary. Its articular cylinder (not really a condyle, despite its name) had somehow got blasted off, as had its retroarticular process: it was quite satisfying to figure out how those Shards Of Mediocrity fitted onto the main part of the dentary.

With that done, I had to glue together the two dentaries. That’s hard to do: it’s awkward to brace them in position for the glue to set, and difficult to get the angle between the two bones correct so that the two articular cylinders both sit neatle in their receptacles in the cranium. Here’s the solution I came up with:


I rested the cranium upside down, covered the jaw with some thin, pliant plastic (actually a sandwich bag) and used the cranium itself as a perfectly proportioned brace to hold the dentaries in place. Then I was able to glue them more or less correctly, and to reinforce the joint with more glue once the first lot had set.

I’ve still not got it quite right — the mandibular symphysis is wonky — but I think it will do. And if I change my mind, I can always soak the mandible apart and try again.

(As a matter of fact, I’d already done that once, having initially glued the dentaries together at the wrong angle, so that the assembled mandible was too narrow, and wouldn’t articulate properly with the cranium.)

So now I have a pretty good mandible and cranium, as well as the first five cervical vertebrae (all but one of the postzygs of C5, which was lost in the head-removal process.) Here is the whole thing, put together, in dorsal view:


(You can see where the left zygomatic arch is damaged: the bones are not articulating correctly, as they do on the right.)

And here is the same assembly in left dorsolateral view:


And finally, the skull in anterodorsal view:


Note that the left canine is truncated. I am completely certain that this, at least, is not my doing, and must be damage that was done in life. Note, too, how the mandible is visibly wonky from this angle. Hmm. Maybe I will reset it again.

At the end of this process, I have a pretty nice cat skull. Unfortunately, I have seven shards left over, none of them more than about fifteen millimeters long. Here they are:


I’d welcome any help in figuring out what these bits are, and where on the skull they should be reattached. I don’t want to just throw them away. Click through for much higher resolution to get a better idea of what’s what. The top right piece is such a weird shape that someone must know what it is. The two peices at bottom right seem to be pairs, but I don’t know what they are a pair of. The rest? No idea.

I leave you with the dorsal view again, but this time in glorious 3D for those of you who have been wise enough to get some red-cyan 3D glasses. (Seriously folks, they’re like fifty cents a pair. Just get some. You won’t regret it.)


Some time soon: those first five cervicals in more detail.

Just under a year ago, the children across the road, who know I’m interested in comparative anatomy, told me that they’d found a dead cat by the side of the road, and asked whether I wanted it. Silly question, of course I did!

I’ve learned from bitter experience that prepping the whole skeleton out of an animal is a very time-consuming process — so time-consuming that I usually just don’t get around to it. This time, I thought I’d just do the skull. So I removed the head (not a pleasant process) and discarded the body.

I did the usual sequence of simmerings with the head, peeling off the skin and fur, then removing muscle, till I was down to just bone, gristle, and the hard-to-remove bits of soft tissue that always adhere in one place or another. At that point, I left the bones in a plastic tub in the woodshed, with a couple of holes in the lid so that invertebrates could get in and deal with the remaining gloop.

Yesterday I had a look (and a smell), and it seems all the soft-tissue is gone, thanks to the hard work of the tiny collaborators who never make it into the acknowledgements. So I soaked the skull pieces in soapy water for a day. Then today, I rinsed them off and left them to soak in pure water for a few hours. Finally, I changed the water, and added some H2O2 to degrease the bones. They are now foaming away merrily. Tomorrow I’ll take them out, rinse them off one more time, dry them, and see what state they’re in.

Here’s how they look today, after rinsing:


And here is a closeup of a mandible (slightly foreshortened):


“But Mike”, you ask, “Why is it in so many pieces?”

I actually don’t know. As I was taking the head apart, it seemed to be whole, but as it got down to the raw bone, it was apparent that the skull was very badly damaged. In the picture above, the main part of the cranium is upside down, half way down the left hand side. Below it is the rest of the cranium, the left side of the upper jaw. Above that is the back of the cranium, most of the braincase. The whole thing just came apart into three pieces — and not along sutures. This is breakage.

I’m not sure how it happened. At first, I thought it must be how the cat died — maybe struck a glancing blow by a car. But I increasingly wonder whether I stupidly did this myself in the process of removing the head from the torso. (I did not use a scalpel.)

Anyway, we’ll see how well the pieces can be reassembled once they have dried out. I’m optimised that I can still wind up with a pretty good cat skull.

Thomas 2015 figure 2

Left lateral skull schematic (above) and left skull photograph (below) of OMNH 58340. The skull is angled at the ‘alert position’ indicated by the horizontal semicircular canal. Natural fenestrae are shaded gray. Dashed outline denotes conjectural sclerotic ring. Anterior is to the left. Abbreviation: mf – maxillary foramen. Thomas (2015: fig. 2).

As stinkin’ ornithischians go, Tenontosaurus is near and dear to my heart. For some reason beyond the ken of mortals, the Antlers Formation of southeast Oklahoma has yielded only a small handful of Acrocanthosaurus (Stovall and Langston 1950; Currie and Carpenter 2000), one partial Deinonychus skeleton and a few dozen shed teeth (Brinkman et al. 1998), the single, lonely, woefully incomplete holotype specimen of Sauroposeidon (Wedel et al. 2000a, b) – and roughly five flarkjillion skeletons of Tenontosaurus. I know a lot of those skeletons intimately: between 1994 and 2001, I went on about two dozen OMNH digs to pull them out of the ground, and I worked on a couple as a volunteer preparator.

Thomas 2015 figure 18

Anterior skull schematic (above) and photograph (below) of OMNH 58340. The two images are set to the same scale, demonstrating the amount of displacement in the right side of the skull. The schematic was reconstructed by digitally mirroring the left side of the rostrum and suspensorium in order to approximate the actual appearance of the skull. Natural fenestrae are shaded gray. Anterior is out of the page. Thomas (2015: fig. 18).

I was off to Berkeley in 2001, so I missed the fun when another crew got the best-ever Tonto specimen, OMNH 58340. Except for the back half of the tail, which had eroded away, almost every bit of the skeleton was preserved in perfect articulation, even the hyoid apparatus, terminal phalanges, proatlas, and atlas cervical ribs. The skull was a bit disarticulated – half of the rostrum had floated out of position, and the stapes and palpebrals were missing – but it’s still the nicest Tonto skull ever found, and one of the best-preserved fossils to ever come out of the Antlers Formation.

Now that skull has been very thoroughly described by Andrew Thomas. Andrew wrote it up for his MS thesis under my first mentor, Rich Cifelli, and it was published last month in Palaeontologica Electronica (Thomas 2015). I had dinner with Andrew and his family when I visited the OMNH in the spring of 2014, and he showed me a down-scaled translucent 3D print of the left half of OMNH 58340. I learned more about ornithischian skulls playing with that thing over dinner than I had in the previous two decades of (admittedly quarter-assed) study.

Thomas 2015 figure 10

Medial view of the left side of the virtual skull of OMNH 58340 with the vomer present (10.1), allowing a view of the articulation of the vomer with the pterygoid, and with the palatine and vomer removed (10.2), allowing a view of the joints between the maxilla, lacrimal, prefrontal, jugal, ectopterygoid, and pterygoid. The vertically striated texture present on the visible surfaces of many elements, notably the lacrimal, maxilla, and premaxilla, is an artifact of the process used to isolate CT images of each element from the remainder of the data set. Abbreviations: f – flange; pp – posterior processes; tp – triangular processes. Thomas (2015: fig. 10).

So there’s me, playing with a down-scaled 3D print of a Tonto skull. Why am I telling you about this? Because if you want to print your own, you can – digital models of the complete cranium, and all of the individual elements, are available as STL files published along with the paper. Getting to the models takes some doing – they’re in a ZIP file linked from the paper’s Appendix 4, which you can access directly here.

Thomas (2015) has a lot more than just cool 3D models – there’s a lot of descriptive goodness, including the cranial endocast, cranial nerves, inner ear labyrinth, and hyoids; a whopping 62 figures, most in full color; and a phylogenetic analysis that incorporates the new morphological data on Tenontosaurus. No revelations there – despite all the nice specimens, Tonto remains an enigma from the murky realm between basal ornithopods and Iguanodontia. But if Oklahoma’s most abundant dinosaur is a bit of a phylogenetic mystery, it’s also becoming a paleobiologic gold mine, thanks in large part to the bone histology studies of Sarah Werning and colleagues (Lee and Werning 2008; Werning 2012 – also see Horner et al. 2009 on histology of Tenontosaurus from the Cloverly Formation of Montana). With the publication of this paper, Andrew Thomas is now part of the “Tenontaissance”. Congratulations, Andrew, and well done!

Now if we could just get some more Sauroposeidon



Now that, faithful readers, is a monument to evolution and its endless forms most beautiful. I’m talking about the wall of ceratopsian skulls at NHMU, of course, not the back of Brian Engh’s head (bottom center).


If you don’t know them all on sight (yet!), here’s a cheat sheet. I goofed on a couple myself: before I looked at the sheet I figured Coahuilaceratops as Pentaceratops and mistook Kosmoceratops for Vagaceratops. Still, 12 out of 14 isn’t bad for a minor-league ceratopsian scholar such as yours truly.


Here’s the chasmosaurine-centric view from lower right.


And the centrosaurine-centric view from distant left.

The world needs more things like this. Good on ya, NHMU.

For other NHMU posts, see:

Natural History Museum of Utah: Barosaurus