Sunday, December 30, 2012

Snakes and Snakes

This week, Steph and I traveled to Traverse City and Ann Arbor, visiting our families for the holidays. While in Ann Arbor, we took a trip to the Museum of Zoology's new offsite storage facility, which hosts the University of Michigan's incredibly large fluid specimen collection. Back in April of 2011, I photographed a handful of mammals that were preserved in jars — this time, we got to take a peek at the preserved mollusks, fishes, amphibians, and reptiles.

It was fascinating — and a little sad — to see jars and jars of box turtle hatchlings, or, in a few cases, a single sea turtle head, occupying its own container. Some jars were packed with caecilians; others with newts. What really caught my eye, however, were the snakes.

Fluid Preservation III

While liquid preservation does a great job at keeping an animal's body intact, it does not often save the pigmentation of scales, skin, or fur. As a result, older specimens take on a pale, colorless appearance. That wasn't the case, however, for a few blue-hued snakes, whose coils provided an unexpected splash of color amongst shelves of ghostly specimens:

Perhaps what I like the most about the snake specimens is that their natural shape lends itself well to being in a jar. While mammals and turtles look awfully awkward crammed into a container, the snake specimens seemed to fit just right, their coils winding gracefully within the glass.


Refracted light, created by the curved glass and the liquid inside, also caused the specimens to take on a completely different appearance:


It's always such a treat to see what goes on behind the scenes at the museum! These photos cannot come close to representing the scope of how large the fluid specimen collection is — it is vast, and more than a little overwhelming.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Neighborhood Gray Fox

Shortly after moving back to Marquette in July of 2011, Steph and I were treated to a sight that I will not soon forget: it was around sunset, and we both just happened to look out our living room window — there, trotting through our front yard, was a gray fox. I had never seen one before, and I marveled at how swiftly it moved, like a shadow through the deepening dusk. Later, when the snow started to stick, we'd see the fox's tracks in our backyard and along the neighboring bike trail.

This year, especially in the late-summer and autumn, we spotted the gray fox several times. We decided it was likely a female, as we'd heard that a gray fox was raising her litter just a few houses down the street. She'd pass by mornings and evenings, invariably using the same path; her movement was more catlike than canine, and she walked with confidence, always seeming to know exactly where she was headed and why. One August morning, as she trotted down the street back toward her den, she paused to sniff a piece of garbage in the road; she then turned, squatted, and urinated on it. It was a fascinating display of fox behavior that one does not normally get to witness.

Having the opportunity to observe a gray fox was a special one, and knowing that our yard was within a gray fox's territory was even more special. 

*      *      *

On Monday morning, I pulled out of our driveway and made my way through the neighborhood, headed to work. I crossed the Chocolay River and turned down another street — and that's when I spotted an animal, dead on the side of the road. It was gray-brown, with a bushy tail, and I hoped against hope it was a stray cat, or even a raccoon.  It wasn't — it was a gray fox.

I pulled over, then crouched down beside the body. A snowflake landed on her snout. Her entrails had burst from her belly, but in the chill of the night, she had nearly frozen, minimizing the gore. Without a second thought, I lifted the body, and cradling it in my arms, I put it in my car and drove back home. 

Upon my arrival, both Steph and I lost it. I cried and cried, kneeling over the body, petting the soft winter fur. It didn't feel like it was mine to touch, or look upon so closely. Here was a fox, presumably the same one who we'd see now and then, a wild animal living at the edge of town. And now she was dead, and it almost felt as if the family pet had died. This was the neighborhood gray fox — it was a gutting, horrible thought.

The body went in the freezer and I went to work. I tried not to think about it, but the gray fox and her death dominated my thoughts for the remainder of the day.

As of this writing, a few days later, I still haven't fully recovered. I think of all the roadkill animals that I've seen and photographed; some of them affect me more than others, but this was the first time I was ever reduced to sobbing. It is, of course, because this animal was familiar to me — it wasn't just another anonymous raccoon on the side of the highway.

Today I decided to start working through some of my grief — in doing so I would begin to honor the life of this gorgeous, remarkable animal. The gray fox came out of the freezer this morning, and this afternoon, I photographed her. She was still very frozen: her front legs stuck straight ahead, and her nose, which had been pushed against the inner wall of the freezer, was off-center. Her eyes were frosted with ice.

The resulting photographs are haunting, disturbing, and beautiful.



Neighborhood Gray Fox V

Neighborhood Gray Fox II


Perhaps this gray fox is not the same one we observed. Time will tell: a winter storm is about to hit our area, and any tracks left in the snow will help answer lingering questions. Regardless of whether or not this fox was the neighborhood fox who called our yard home, I will grieve for her.

See also: Young Creatures, from July 11, 2012.

Sociable