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:


  1. That skull is beautiful! What process do you use to clean bones? I've tried slow simmering and cold water maceration, and neither one really worked out very well...

    1. The process I use really depends on the skull! For the porcupine, it was decomposed (and dry) enough that I was able to peel off a good deal of skin and muscle. Some of the tougher stuff still remained, so I soaked it in 3% hydrogen peroxide to loosen it up. After all of the tissue was removed, I put the skull in another peroxide bath (for whitening), then rinsed it off in water.

      Other skulls require different processes. I tend to prefer cold water maceration (currently soaking a deer skull and coyote skull), though it's a horribly smelly, nasty process, and it can take a long time. Often I'll let insects clean skulls, but depending on the time of year, that can take a long time, too.

      Usually, I leave bones out for the insects, and when bug activity dies down, I'll macerate what's left. So far, that's worked pretty well for me.

      Someday, I'd like to have a dermestid beetle colony – that's the best way to clean bones and skulls!

  2. Nice videos Jorie! Aside from the smell, this sounds like fun to do and experience though someone I know might not appreciate them. I'll just have to admire your skulls I guess. Enjoy reading your blog.

    1. Haha, thanks, Tiff! If you ever want to try cleaning some skulls and leaving them at my place, you're welcome to! It can definitely get stinky...

  3. What a nice find and the skull looks beautiful! And a very interesting story as well.
    By the way, now your blog can be find in my "website" section :)