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.

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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 worse 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.

Anyone, 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: they jaws are permanently articulated, with cylindrical articular condyles wrapped in incomplete bone-tunnels. (I hope I can show you this properly one 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 remove 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 than 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!

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:

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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:

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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:

 

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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:

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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.

I’ve been lucky enough to acquire another beautiful specimen. It arrived in a box (though not from Amazon, despite what the box itself might suggest):

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What’s inside?

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Can it be? It is!

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Now I’ve wanted a tortoise for a long time, because they are (Darren will back me up here) the freakiest of all tetrapods. Their scapulae and coracoids have somehow migrated inside their rib-cages (which bear the shell), and their dorsal vertebrae are fused to the shell all along its upper midline. Just ridiculous. Look, this is what I’m talking about. Compare with the much saner approach that armadillos use to having a shell.

Here’s my baby in left anterodorsolateral view:

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And in right posteodorsolateral:

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Can anyone tell me what species I have here?

Here he is (or she?) upside down, in left posteroventolateral view.

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Come to think of it, can anyone tell me the sex of my specimen?

Here he or she is in anterior view, looking very stern.

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The problem is — and I can’t quite believe this never occurred to me until I had a tortoise of my own — how on earth do you deflesh such a creature? I have no idea (and obviously no experience). Any hints?

I was relaxing on the Sunday afternoon before last, when there was a knock on the door. A couple of friends of mine had popped round with a plastic sack containing a fox and a pheasant that they’d found. (They rightly pointed out that it sounded like a pub.)

The fox is a treat for another day. Here’s the pheasant:

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(Don’t judge me on the state of our kitchen floor — that’s not important right now.)

It was 86 cm long from beak to tip of the tail-feathers, and massed 1393 g. The wingspan was hard to measure, because the wings want to pull back in towards the torso, but my best estimate is 73 cm.

Here’s the right wing extended:

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Shamefully, I’ve not really played with a dead bird before, so it was a new experience for me to feel how astonishingly unmuscled the wings are. There’s nothing there but skin, bone and feathers. The wings are of course operated by tendons, which are powered by the massive breast muscles — something that shouldn’t be surprising since (A) it makes mechanical sense to concentrate the muscles near the centre of mass, and (B) everyone knows birds do this with their hindlimbs, hence the ridiculously thin legs of flamingoes.

I had planned to do a Brodkorb (1955) on the pheasant: plucking it and weighing the feathers; then skinning it and weighing the skin; then eviscerating it and weighing the viscera; and so on. turns out that this is a lot harder than it sounds. I physically couldn’t pull the feathers out of the wings, for example. After a not-very-long struggle, I gave up and pulled off the skin and feathers together.

Here’s the nude bird, looking like a dinosaur. (Who’d have guessed?)

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Note the very distinctive and knobbly fatty deposits.

At this stage, since my Brodkorb-style teardown was a bust, I thought we might as well eat the parts of the pheasant that I didn’t want for science. So I trimmed off the breasts — you really get a sense of how massive the flight muscles are when you do this for a bird that started out intact — and the legs:

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These fried up nicely — though they were hard to photograph through the steam:

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The breasts were very tasty, more like pork than chicken in both flavour and texture. The legs were much tougher to deal with — it was hard to get the meat off them. Still a good flavour, though.

I’d removed the head-and-neck assembly, and the feet, for science. Once I’d removed the guys, I thought I’d simmer the rest of the carcass for stock, but once that process had been under way for quarter of an hour or so, I had to admit that it was smelling of poo. I assume I’d not removed the guts sufficiently. I admitted defeat and tossed the carcass in the trash.

Then I gently simmered the head/neck and feet for an hour or two. Here’s how they looked (and check out how the yellow fat deposits have congealed into nodules):

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What’s that? You want a close-up? Sure!

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And one of the feet?

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Those spurs are nasty!

Anyway, I picked off what flesh I could from the head/neck, and peeled away the scaly skin from the legs and some of the toes:

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I’ve not peeled all the toes, because once that’s done only cartilage keeps the phalanges articulated, and that will come away with more simmering, leaving me with a jigsaw puzzle. The plan now is to keep one of the feet in its relatively intact state and skeletonise the other. Then I can use the whole one as a key to reassemble the bones of the other.

The skull, of course, I will continue to deflesh. More simmering will be needed before I can proceed. After a couple more iterations, I’ll put the skull out under a cage for invertebrates to clean up the remaining shreds of soft-tissue, before rinsing, cleaning, degreasing and drying.

Further bulletins as events warrant.

References

  • Brodkorb, Pierce (1955). Number of feathers and weight of various systems in a Bald Eagle. The Wilson Bulletin 67(2):142.

What’s in Mike’s freezer?

February 26, 2016

What’s that in Mike’s freezer? Let’s take it out and have a look.

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Onto the table out in the garden …

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Unwrap another layer …

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Hang on! That looks like … It can’t be, can it?

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It is! It’s a buzzard!

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A buzzard with extremely serious claws!

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And a serious beak as well!

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Further bulletins down the line, when I get a chance to play with it properly.

(Title stolen shamelessly from John Hutchinson’s blog.)