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Reading the stories of skulls

Posted: April 7, 2011 - 4:29pm
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This brown bear skeleton at the University of Alaska Southeast library was harvested and assembled by Tony Nizich.   Photo by Kevin O'Malley
Photo by Kevin O'Malley
This brown bear skeleton at the University of Alaska Southeast library was harvested and assembled by Tony Nizich.

 

“The diversity and complexity of life is ever apparent in the equally varied and beautiful forms that are animal skulls.”

— Mark Elbroch, from “Animal Skulls”

 

My goal in school was basically to get out of the classroom. I stared outside until recess and longed for field trips. Field trips meant getting to go outside and traveling from one box to another.

There are things that happen in school that shape our lives forever. On one particular field trip to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, my St. James Elementary School class viewed a large four legged reptile with a long tail and a huge head with teeth that seemed bigger than a third-grader. The body of this enormous animal was cool but the skull was what shaped its life. The skull made this prehistoric critter successful, a survivor in its time. As geological time scales go I knew nothing of the Mesozoic Era and the Jurassic Period that went on 150 million years ago. I did feel at home at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. This led me to spend the rest of my life looking for skulls.

The skull defines an animal’s relationship with place, ancestral history and its role in the food chain. It tells a story of a bear’s diet, a river otter’s semi aquatic way and a coyote’s sense of smell. The skull protects the brain and harbors the senses.

The skull also contains the teeth, the ultimate survival tool. The teeth in mammals are specialized for individual species; some are for killing or holding prey, others for grinding vegetable material. The dental structure in mammals varies tremendously — for example, insectivore pincers on shrews, chiseling incisors of beavers and canines carnassials for shearing.

What else can the skull tell us about predator/prey relationships or an animal’s connection to its environment?

How about bats? If you have ever compared bat skulls you will quickly notice that some bats have extremely long nose bones. Bats are insectivores and echolocate their prey. What would a long nose be for? Some bats are nectivores and this means they survive off the nectar of flowers. These flowers have developed into the shape to fit a bats nose. This means bats are pollinators, too.

Natural history museums’ skull collections are collecting dust due to the discovery of DNA. Prior to the 1950s, science relied on animal skeletons for species study. DNA analysis gives us important clues into an animal’s diet and can explain environmental factors that affected ancient animal populations. We no longer have to kill animals to obtain important information about past and present generations.

Let’s not forget those collections. Take a moment to visualize a skull you experienced in nature or at a museum. The educational value of holding the actual skull goes way beyond DNA and computer models. There is nothing like holding a river otter skull in your hand. What are the stories about the river otter’s way of life? How did it die? The actual skull in hand is a real link to the past. If you journal and collect skulls respectfully and responsively you can make connections between an animal skull and its niche in an ecosystem. I tend to leave skulls in their natural state. I may never know why. I would guess that as a kid at the natural history museum, a mental photograph was all I could leave with and that is the method I still practice today.

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