Friday, May 20, 2011

March Buck Check-Up

It has been a cool, rainy spring in Ann Arbor. While decomposition on Needham Opossum zoomed right along, seemingly unhindered by the chilly temperatures, the process seemed a lot slower on the head of March Buck. Today's inspection, however, revealed that decay is indeed happening, and that there are more carrion beetles in this neighborhood than I ever could have imagined.

March Buck

The first thing I noticed was that much of the deer's jaw was reduced to bone! (His incisors are starting to come loose, hence their kind of freaky appearance in this photograph. I'll probably be removing them soon and will let them dry out separately, as I'm afraid they'll become lost.) The carrion beetle larvae covered the nose...

Carrion Beetle Larvae

... as well as pretty much everything else (the deer's eye socket is visible in the upper-right corner of the above photograph). Their activity was audible: I could hear them scurrying about, inside the buck's head as well as under the leaf litter. Rove beetles also darted about, their black-and-yellow coloration and quick movements more wasplike than anything else. Flies continued to land on the carcass, but there wasn't a single maggot to be seen.

Eventually, I decided to turn March Buck's head over, just to see what the other side looked like. The moment I jarred the head, the beetle larvae scattered. They poured out of unseen places, a waterfall of segmented coleoptera, their skitterings louder than ever. The other side of the deer head was a pleasant surprise:

The skull, visible at last! The beetles have really done an amazing job thus far. I decided to keep the still-fleshy side against the ground, in the hopes that it will encourage more beetle activity. As the temperatures continue to warm, I can only assume that decomposition will move along faster than ever.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Fish Heads

Yesterday's trip to Magee Marsh proved to be wonderful for bird-watching, and the nearby shores of Lake Erie didn't disappoint in the dead fish department, either. Not only had there been a recent mass die-off of alewives (their dry carcasses and skeletons littered the beach, and were almost as numerous as the zebra mussels), there were also several dozen large fish that had washed up (or were in the process of washing up) onto the sand. Quite a number of different species were present, though I could only identify a few.

Despite the beautiful weather and perfect temperatures, the sunny conditions were simply not good for photography. I worked with what I had, but the shadows were dark and the bones and scales of the fish reflected the sunlight right back into my camera.

Dead Fish I

Dead Fish II

Dead Fish III

Many of the bodies were fresh, and others were soggy skeletons; some had been picked at by gulls, and still others were gradually being covered by sand, to become a part of Lake Erie once more.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Needham Opossum

On March 26th, a large male opossum was hit and killed right down the road from my parents' house. That day was also Steph's birthday, and she was a wonderful sport.

Needham Opossum

After his death, this opossum became rather well-traveled. After retrieving the body from the road, we brought it to the Matthaei Botanical Gardens to do a brief photoshoot.

Needham Opossum

Once finished, we made the drive back to my parents' street, and placed the body in their backyard for further decay. For a few weeks, it seemed like no sort of decomposition was taking place; sure, the color in the opossum's nose had faded, and the fur was soggy from rain, but no other changes seemed obvious. On one particular evening after a day of heavy rainfall, the slanting sunlight hit the carcass at just the right angle, making the beads of water that clung to its fur sparkle -- I kicked myself for not having my camera with me at the time.

Finally, the hair started to fall from the skin, and on a warmer day, the flies and carrion beetles arrived.

Needham Opossum: Day 16
Day 16

From that point on, decomposition happened fast. Crows and, most notably, turkey vultures visited my parents' backyard, picking at the carcass. It moved from place to place, decaying more and more every day.

On Day 29, the opossum's body smelled so bad that I could hardly stay still long enough to take any photographs. I've worked around plenty of fragrant carcasses, but on this particular day, the odor was at a level I'd not yet experienced.

Needham Opossum: Day 29
Day 29

April was a very rainy month. We had several torrential downpours, which only made the opossum appear more grotesque. By Day 34, the carcass, which never truly bloated, had collapsed and begun to liquefy. Bones poked through the soggy skin, and the odor, thankfully, lessened.

Needham Opossum: Day 34
Day 34

As the flesh began to peel away from the skull, it became obvious that this animal's head had been crushed when struck on the road. By Day 37, the skin had shriveled and turned black, giving the opossum's mouth a somewhat terrifying-looking sneer.

Needham Opossum: Day 37
Day 37

When I visited the carcass this morning, it was little more than a skeleton half-covered in a thin layer of mummified skin. A few beetle larvae crawled across what was left; it's interesting to note that not once did I see any obvious sign of maggots in or around the body.

Needham Opossum: Day 40
Day 40

I will continue to keep a close eye on this opossum. The body has proven to be a fascinating subject for observation and photography, not to mention a fragrant gardening companion.