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 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!

Several drinks later, they all die and somehow become skeletonised, and that’s how they all land up on a table in my office:

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Top left: pieces of monitor lizard Varanus exanthematicus. Cervical vertebrae 1-7 on the piece of paper, femora visible above them, bits of feet below them. Awaiting reassembly. The whole skeleton is there.

Top right, on a plate on top of some lizard bits: skull, cervicals and feet of common pheasant Phasianus colchicus. The skull has come apart, and I can’t figure out how to reattach the quadrates. One of the feet is cleanly prepped out and waiting to be reassembled, while the other retains some skin for now.

Bottom left: skull and anterior cervicals of red fox Vulpes vulpes. Lots of teeth came out during the defleshing process, and will need to be carefully relocated and glued after the skull has finished drying out.

Bottom right: skull and anterior cervicals of European badger Meles meles. The skull is flat-out awesome, and by far my favourite among my mammal skulls. If tyrannosaurs were medium-sized fossorial mammals, they’d have badgers’ skulls for sure. A few teeth that came out have been glued into place; once the glue is dry, this skull is done.

 

I wanted to do a three-way comparison between my carnivoran skulls, but I’m too impatient to wait till I’ve got the fox’s skull out of its head. So here are the two I have now: the badger (left) and the cat (right):

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(Both skulls appear with their first three cervicals.)

As you can see, the badger is more impressive in every way. It’s physically bigger of course, but also much more robust, as most easily seen in the zygomatic arches and the fully fused skull. Also relevant is the huge sagittal crest, which you will recall anchored hugely oversized jaw-muscles. In comparison, the cat’s jaw muscles were like those of pussy-cats.

It’s like the difference between a tyrannosaur and an allosaur.

You can see the crest more clearly — and general robustitude — in anterodorsolateral view:

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We really do underestimate what awesome animals badgers are. One of the many reasons I would never participate in a badger cull is simple, straightforward fear.

Do not meddle in the affairs of badgers, for they are unsubtle and quick to bite your arm off.

There’s no sense in decapitating a badger if you’re not going to make good use of the severed head. So here’s what I did with mine. First, a reminder of the state it was in after yesterday’s adventures:

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Ideally, I would have liked to skin the head — it would have made subsequent stages easier and less messy. But as I noted last time, badgers have very tough skin, and it was hard to do anything with it. I feared that the force necessary would at best damage the underlying bone, and at worst give me a nasty cut.

So I satisfied myself with trimming away the flesh collar, leaving the head-and-anterior-neck segment a little shorter, and of a suitable size to go into the saucepan:

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See?

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Then it was a simple matter of filling with hot water …

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… then bringing it all up to a simmer, and giving it a couple of hours while I played some Skyrim and watched an episode of Elementary. Once I’d drained the water off, here’s the result of the first simmer:

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As you can see (you may need to click through to make it out properly), that tough skin has contracted so hard that it’s pulled away from the skull at the top, exposing part of the distinctive midline crest.

Anyway, with the skin now softened it was relatively easy (though disgusting) to peel it off. Once all the rest of the superficial soft-tissue was gone, the massive massive muscles that attached to the midline crest were apparent.

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I broke these off:

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You can see one of them in the last photo. It really is a substantial piece of equipment: and you can see as well that the muscle mass going through the zygomatic arches is substantial.

You may also notice that at this stage, I’ve left the nose intact. That’s because I didn’t want to risk damaging the delicate nasal turbinates by pulling the soft-tissue away too roughly. Instead, I left it on for the second simmer:

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As you can see, it came out from that with the meat much more cooked, and so easier to remove:

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In my previous adventures preparing mammal skulls, I’ve found that one of the most satisfying moments is when the mandible (lower jaw) comes away from the cranium. You really feel that you’re making progress then, and it becomes much easier to reach some of the tricker areas of soft-tissue. That doesn’t happen with badgers: their jaws are permanently articulated, with cylindrical articular condyles wrapped in incomplete bone-tunnels. (I hope I can show you this properly once preparation is complete.)

Anyway, I was able to do a much better job of removing the meat this time: only scraps are left, and I was also at this point able to remove and begin cleaning the first few cervical vertebrae. I have the atlas, axis and damaged third. (I discarded the last of these, since it’s not complete.) Here’s the state of it at this point:

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And that skull in right lateral view, hopefully dispelling any remaining misconceptions you may have had about badgers being cute:

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As you can see, there were still plenty of scraps of hard-to-remove flesh clinging on, especially around the jaws and the base of the cranium. So it was time for simmer number three. I will spare you yet more photos of my saucepan, and instead skip straight to the skull as it appeared after this phase, and after I’d removed more of the flesh. Much nicer:

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You may be wondering, what is the best way to clean the teeth of a dead and partially prepared badger skull? Sometimes the obvious answer is the right one, and this is one of those occasions. A toothbrush is the tool of choice, and it works wonders with the base of the cranium, too. (Warning: do not allow the toothbrush to re-enter civilian society after this experience.)

Here we have the skull with the mandible open:

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Do not get bitten by a badger.

Skull in dorsal view:

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(I will prepare nicer, scientific-quality photographs in orthogonal views once preparation is complete — as I have done for other skulls.)

One of the many things that’s impressed me about this badger is how very much meat there was on its skull. I kept it, or most of it, and now you have the privilege of seeing the skull and its soft-tissue together:

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This is dramatically different from how we think of heads, or at least of how I do. I think this is because when we hear “skull”, we’ve been conditioned by years of Scooby Doo and Indiana Jones to think “human skull”. And I think that human heads much more closely match the profile of their skulls than those of badgers do theirs.

Of course this is just another way of saying that there is a lot more muscle on a badger skull, which is another way of saying that this is a seriously powerful animal. I know I keep making this point, but I think it’s a point well worth making. The world has had quite enough of this kind of thing (from here):

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And its time that we all started to give badgers the credit they deserve. They are basically small bears with misleadingly endearing facial coloration.

(BTW., when I say that I kept the meat, I mean that I kept it until I’d taken that photo. Then I threw it away. I’ve not kept it permanently, I’m not a sicko. No, I’m not.)

I leave you with one of the less successful old music-hall jokes:

  • First man: I say, I say I say! What’s the best way to remove the brain from a dead and partially cooked badger skull?
  • Second man: Actually, there is no good way. The best I’ve found is to shove a chopstick through the foramen magnum, swirl it around to break up the tissue, then shake the bits out and repeatedly rinse.
  • First man: That’s disgusting.
  • Second man: I never said it wasn’t.

Here is the residue, in our sink:

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Fiona, if you’re reading this: I promise I will have this all nicely cleaned up before you return from your parents’ house with the boys.

(Did I mention that Fiona had taken the boys to her parents’ house? It’s not because of the dead badger. It’s just coincidence. I think.)

 

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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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.

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

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

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And, more importantly, a pair of heads:

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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:

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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:

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

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

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In went the postcranial pair:

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

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Next time: exciting adventures with the badger head!