Saturday, July 31, 2010


On August 13, Steph and I will be moving from Marquette to Ann Arbor. It will be a tough move to handle, as Marquette has been such a wonderful home for me. With easily-accessible nature, the beautiful Lake Superior, good friends, great music, nice art galleries, and a wonderful view of the mountains from our apartment, I will be very sad to leave. Though Useless Creatures was started here, in Marquette, it will proceed in Ann Arbor.

Ann Arbor is, after all, my home city. My original fascination with animals -- alive and dead -- began there, and it will continue there, as well. The region is home to a whole different host of wildlife, and that will be reflected in my photographs, stories, and commentary.

I worry that I'll encounter only roadkilled animals in the Ann Arbor area, and I worry that trails for hiking will be harder to locate with ease. I will, however, do the very best I can to keep Useless Creatures going in the same direction as it was started. Though roadkill is easy to find, it's not my favorite subject, and I will try not to turn this into a roadkill-only series. Since I will be living (quite literally) down the street from my parents, I hope to use their wooded backyard for some decomposition studies, which I have been wanting to do ever since I started this project.

Marquette has been wonderful to me, and I love this city dearly. I hope to visit on a semi-regular basis in the future, to hike Presque Isle Park and keep the inspiration alive.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Deer Skeletons of Presque Isle

I'd like to cover a couple topics in this post, so it will be a longer one.

A few days ago, I decided to check up on First January Deer to see how the decomposition process was coming along. Remember, Steph and I had moved the skeleton in March to a more sheltered area. This was the first time in several months that I had looked for the skeleton, and with the grass, thistle, and tansy so thick, it was a bit of a challenge to find it. To be able to locate First January Deer, one would have to know exactly what they were looking for, and where.

I was pleased to discover that the bones were all still there, and every one of them was disarticulated. The ribs, which were all once connected to the vertebral column, were lying together in a heap, and the vertebrae themselves had all scattered. The skeleton was very clean -- not a scrap of muscle or tendon remained -- and it was stained a warm, honey color. Slugs casually slimed over the bones.

It's interesting to compare the skull of this deer with the jawbone of the same deer; I had taken the jaw home with me on the day that I'd first found the skeleton, as it was mostly clean. The color of the jaw is a cold, white hue -- it seems raw and unfinished, and it reminds me of the winter. In contrast, the skull has a "completed" feel to it; it went through those final stages of spring- and summertime decay. When photographed together, the skull and mandible are mismatched:

Earlier this month I also checked up on Second January Deer. Interestingly enough, most of her bones were still articulated! All her vertebrae and ribs were still attached. Oddly, her skull was a few feet away from the rest of the skeleton, but besides that, the bones really hadn't scattered. Despite their proximity, First January Deer and Second January Deer are in two very different habitats. Perhaps their surroundings have something to do with the speed at which they decay.

Something that I've found to be consistent with wintertime deer kills (April Deer, as well as the January Does) is that the nasal bones are missing -- deer noses are bitten off by very hungry scavengers. Last April, I found a doe skeleton far back in the bog; most of the bones were stained a deep bog-brown and though disarticulated, the skeleton was almost entirely in one heap. It had been there for a couple years, but the skull was intact -- including the nasal bones.

Between that observation and the fact that a) the skeleton was not scattered everywhere (as First January Deer was before being moved) and b) no bones were broken (the ribs and leg bones of the January Does were broken, perhaps by scavengers seeking marrow), this leads me to believe that that doe ('Bog Deer', as I call her) had died in the summer, when food is more plenty and scavenging isn't as desperate.

Here is a side-by-side comparison of the skulls of April Deer (top), Bog Deer (middle), and First January Deer (bottom). All three were found in the Presque Isle bog area; perhaps all three does were related in some way.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

On Raccoons

Raccoons seem to be one of the most common dead animals I find. Usually, I see their bodies on the side of the road. There have been times when I've driven down the highway and seen raccoon after raccoon after raccoon, and I wonder -- if so many raccoons are hit by cars, how on earth does the species continue to thrive?

Raccoons have larger litters in areas where mortality rates are high. Unsurprisingly, the leading cause of death for raccoons is traffic. These animals are not fast by any means, and when shuffling across the freeway, they cannot dodge oncoming traffic (that's not to say cars cannot brake for raccoons -- I see almost no excuse for hitting a raccoon on a 25-mph residential street, for instance). In addition, raccoons are omnivorous and will scavenge the dead bodies of other animals along the roadside, making them even more prone to being hit by cars.

Today, I spotted a young raccoon along M-28. It had only recently died. I initially photographed it around 1 PM, when the sun was high in the sky and glaring down -- creating some pretty harsh shadows, something that just isn't conducive to the type of photography I want to achieve.

July Raccoon I

I took a few photographs, including the one above, then returned at around 6:30 PM, as the sun was lower in the sky and traffic was much more sparse.

I will forever be uncomfortable photographing roadkill along the highway, as I can only imagine what people in their cars must be thinking. I often wait until there are no cars coming in either direction before I crouch down and point my lens at the subject. Luckily, the traffic on U.P. highways is often non-existent, especially in the morning or evening.

July Raccoon III

By 6:30 PM, the raccoon, having sat in the sun all day, was starting to smell like death. Flies were swarming around its nose and mouth, though they vacated the premises while I photographed. It's interesting to note how brown this individual's teeth are.

July Raccoon IV

Raccoon feet fascinate me, so I made sure to photograph this individual's hind paws. The claws were surprisingly sharp, and the vibrissae are very visible. According to Wikipedia, these specialized hairs are used to aid in identifying objects before they are even touched.

I have photographed three roadkilled raccoons for this project, and each one of them has been a different experience. They are beautiful animals in both life and death; often the closest we get to see them is when they are dead, on the roadside.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Last Animal of June

Up until now, one of the most obvious omissions from Useless Creatures has been the body of a rabbit. Eastern cottontails are common here and seem to be quite comfortable in urban settings, and we see them often enough, hopping around our apartment complex at dusk and early morning. In the evening, the color of their fur camouflages perfectly with the ground or sidewalk, and when stock-still, they are almost impossible to see.

A few weeks ago, while driving, we spotted the body of a large rabbit near the intersection of Presque Isle Avenue and Wright Street. It's a pretty busy stretch of road, and before Wright Street hits Lakeshore Boulevard, it runs right through a wide expanse of lawn -- the perfect grazing site for cottontails. There was no way I could photograph the animal, as it was in the middle of the road and the traffic in the area is just way too constant. A day later, the body was gone.

This past week, Steph spotted a rabbit that had been hit, on US 41 just outside of Marquette. We didn't pull over at the time, as we were on our way back from the veterinarian, it was rush hour, and the afternoon sun was glaring down. We decided we'd return later in the day, when that particular stretch of road is in the shadow.

Now, I've photographed several roadkill animals, but none along so busy of a road. The highways in the Upper Peninsula aren't 75-mph freeways, but they can be busy, and few people obey the 55-mph speed limit. Luckily, there was a turn-off nearby where I could park, and when I returned around 7:30 PM, traffic had died down considerably.

June Rabbit I

The rabbit was quite small, and looked like it had died relatively recently. With the exception of its missing eyes, it was very intact. The body laid on the side of the road, away from cars' tires, and was surprisingly peaceful. Accumulating around it was the debris and detritus that collects on roadsides: pieces of plastic, gravel and grit, plant bits, and chips of paint. The fur looked very soft, but I didn't think to touch it.

June Rabbit II

As far as I know, I hadn't viewed a wild rabbit so closely before, and I marveled at its very long and fluffy hind feet. Rabbits, as cute as they tend to be, are rather mysterious to me; they're bizarre animals, and there's a misconception that they're rodents (they're lagomorphs).

June Rabbit III

We drove along this stretch of road a day or two later, but by then, the rabbit's body had disappeared completely. I'm hopeful that a scavenger took off with it, and not a highway clean-up crew.