Sunday, August 19, 2012

Coyote Bones

It's been nearly a year since I found a coyote dead in the road, brought her home, and skinned her. My journey with her is nearly complete; her skin has long-since been tanned, but over the months, her body has been decomposing in the backyard. In recent weeks, the process of decay has slowed down considerably; the remaining tissue is hard and dry, and no longer attracting insects. Her bones are half-buried in the dirt, their color taking on the same hue as the soil on which they rest.

Coyote Ribs

At some point in June, I decided to remove the head from the body, for fear of losing small teeth and skull fragments. I submerged it in a tub of water, to macerate; there it stayed for several weeks, creating quite the amazing stink.

Finally, at the start of this month, I deemed the maceration to be finished. I removed the remaining bits of tissue (which was not a pleasant endeavor), soaked the skull in peroxide, then set it aside to dry. Like everything before, Coyote's skull proved to be quite the puzzle:

Besides having to deal with a whole array of loose teeth, the back of the skull was in pieces – fractured when the coyote was struck by an automobile. Some of the fragments are still missing, and despite searching for them in the backyard, I was unable to recover them. Rebuilding the skull was another challenge; some of the pieces refused to fit back together just right, as the bone had cracked and buckled from the collision.

After some initial frustration, however, I was able to reassemble Coyote's skull. Seeing it (mostly) whole, for the first time, was pretty amazing.

This coyote was a healthy, mature individual. Her sagittal crest is well-developed, some of the sutures on her rostrum are fused, and her teeth are strong, white, and slightly dulled from some years of use. The only faults I could find with the skull are related to the collision: her auditory bullae are missing, and a few teeth are smashed, which probably happened when her head hit the pavement:

I have one other complete coyote skull, purchased at a powwow last spring, and it's interesting to note the differences between the two. The purchased skull is much smaller, belonging to a juvenile animal; the sagittal crest is less prominent and none of the sutures are fused.

The rest of Coyote's skeleton is still outside. I'll likely be cleaning the bones soon, before colder weather sets in.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Wolves in the Library

Whether you're visiting Marquette, Michigan or you're a resident of the area, I recommend a trip to the Peter White Public Library! Currently, there is an excellent exhibit in the Huron Mountain Club Gallery, and it offers a unique opportunity to view taxidermy wolves, up-close and personal.

Wolves and Wild Lands in the 21st Century is produced by the International Wolf Center and discusses several subspecies of wolf, their ranges, and their interactions, both positive and negative, with humans and wildlife. The exhibit is made up of five mounted wolves, as well as a mounted coyote, and there are plenty of interpretive signs that accompany the taxidermy. In an area where wolves are a constant hot-button issue, this is a great exhibit to see!

Wolf Exhibit 

The taxidermy is all quite excellent, and it's interesting to note that none of the wolves were mounted to appear ferocious or threatening – a practice that is all too common with predator taxidermy. There are many myths, superstitions, and irrational fears surrounding wolves, so it's good to see them portrayed in a more natural manner.

Wolves and Wild Lands in the 21st Century runs through September 25th at the Peter White Public Library.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Young Creatures

I do a whole lot of driving, and I'm always afraid that I'll witness an animal get hit by another car. It's happened before, and it's an awful feeling; you can't tell the other person to brake, nor can you make them swerve, and you become helpless and powerless, left only to look away when the collision takes place. Similarly, one of my more prominent fears is that after braking for an animal, or persuading it to cross the road, I'll come back later to find it dead.

That's what happened yesterday evening, to one of Steph's coworkers. A young gray fox was trying to cross Lakeshore Boulevard in Marquette – a slow, 25-mph stretch of road right in town – and it was obviously terrified and confused. She ushered it across the street, then continued on her way. When she returned, it was dead. Steph alerted me – it was a drop-everything-and-go sort of alert – and within minutes I was in town. The body was still warm when I arrived.

When I lived downstate, red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) were a far more common sight – alive as well as dead along the roadside. Here, however, gray foxes (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) seem to be more numerous. Sadly, they're hit quite often, as I've seen their bodies both in town and along the highway. I do see living gray foxes from time to time, though – there's one in our neighborhood, and occasionally I'll glimpse her trotting past our house in the morning. They're gorgeous creatures; the gray part of the name is a bit of a misnomer, because they're quite orange, too.

Gray foxes are a bizarre, unique animal, and I've always thought of them to be more primitive than other canids. Certainly, they are nothing like the domestic dog. In life, gray foxes are catlike when they walk; their muzzles are quite short, and their pupils become slits when they contract. Gray foxes also possess the amazing ability to climb trees. Here is a great video demonstrating this incredible skill. I did notice that this fox's claws were very sharp, just as sharp as those of a cat – likely to aid in vertical climbing.

What truly gave away this fox's age, however, were its teeth. Many baby teeth were still present, although a few adult canines could be seen poking through the gums. As the blood and misaligned jaws in this photograph depict, the fox was struck in the head and likely died instantly. 

A juvenile gray fox, however, was not the only young animal that I photographed yesterday. In the morning, Steph had alerted me to a few dead skunks along M-28, so I drove east to check them out. I passed plenty of turkeys, both toms and hens, feeding along the roadside, which I should have taken as a sign; I didn't end up photographing the skunks, and instead, I pulled over to check out a bird on the shoulder of the highway. It was a fledgling turkey, and not far from it was its mother, also dead.

Both turkeys had only just been hit; they had only just been scavenged, as well. The corpses were still warm, and their body cavities were devoured completely.

The fledgling turkey had been in an awkward stage of plumage when it died. Baby feathers remained in most places, while adult feathers were growing in on its tail and wings. None of the feathers had an iridescent shine; they were still mottled and brown, perfect camouflage for a young bird.

What surprised me the most was the relative size of the turkey's feet to its head. Turkey feet are huge! They have to be, for a bird that spends most of its time walking.

It's both ridiculous and dismaying to imagine a fox getting hit on a 25-mph stretch of residential road, or a turkey family getting plowed over, likely when taking a slow stroll across the highway. Right now, many young animals – especially skunks, raccoons, and foxes – are getting hit by cars as they wander away from their mothers and dens. It's a time to be cautious when driving, and to remember that young animals, so unsure and curious in this big world, can be very unpredictable.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Life and Death on the Beach

Whenever I feel like I'm up for a challenge, I head over to Presque Isle Park in search of dead gulls, as there are always plenty of them strewn across the shore. I find them difficult to photograph because, simply put, gulls aren't all that interesting to me, at least not visually. These days, I challenge myself to photograph them in different ways, and as I mentioned in the Square Gulls entry last month, I try to frame my compositions in a more abstract, ambiguous manner.

A few days ago, I took a trip to Presque Isle. I photographed one herring gull that had washed ashore near the breakwall, then headed to the other side of the island, where the beach is sandy. It's a popular spot for swimming and sunbathing; as a result, there isn't usually much to find, but I thought I'd take a look anyway.

The first thing I saw was a group of crows, picking at the sand a ways down the beach. As I approached, they all took off, but when I reached the spot where the crows had been, I didn't see much of interest. A second glance, however, revealed something dead, further up the dune. It was a porcupine! It had been there for quite some time; the corpse was little more than dried skin, quills, and bones.

The dessicated body rested on its back, and there was no sign of predation. Why a porcupine ended up on the beach is a little mysterious; it was a good distance from the water and didn't appear to have washed ashore. The molars were very worn, indicating that the animal was old when it expired. Had this elderly porcupine wandered to the beach to watch its last sunset, before dying? It's a nice theory, but probably not accurate.

As I was photographing the body, the crows bombarded me with their angry caws. They hadn't been that close to the porcupine, so what had they been eating?

Then I saw a maggot, and then another – and then dozens. The maggots were leaving the body, having eaten everything they could, and they had nowhere to go. They were rolling down the dune, faltering in the sand, collecting in pools of wriggling, desperate activity. The crows had been eating the maggots that, in turn, had eaten the porcupine. Amazing!

I took a few videos of the maggoty spectacle:


The crows weren't the only ones that had taken an interest in the maggots. Ants, too, had arrived at the scene:

Between the pools of maggots and what resembled an explosion of porcupine quills, the beach wasn't exactly safe for bare feet! After cutting the skull from the body, I made my exit – and watched the crows gleefully return to the beach and their maggot meal.

The porcupine's skull cleaned up beautifully. It was a bit tedious to work with, thanks to the quills, but the final result is a gleaming, perfect specimen: