Sunday, January 27, 2013

Book Review: Roger M. Knutson's Flattened Fauna

The previous book review, Bernd Heinrich's Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death, can be read here.

A couple of years ago, I borrowed a copy of Flattened Fauna: A Field Guide to Common Animals of Roads, Streets, and Highways, written by Roger M. Knutson. It was the 2006 revision, and I leafed through it, but never really found myself interested. More recently, I acquired the older edition, published in 1987. I imagine the newer printing has some updated information and content, but the general gist is the same — simple, silhouette illustrations included. Keep in mind that this review is of the 1987 edition, which is still widely available.

Firstly, if you're looking for a serious field guide, don't bother with Flattened Fauna. It's a bizarre combination of both scientific text and dark humor, but to be honest, the attempt falls rather flat (pun intended). It's very likely a parody of the standard field guide; nevertheless, if you're looking to learn more about a) roadkill and b) animals, this is not an ideal choice. And if you're looking for a laugh, it's not a good choice, either.

Flattened Fauna, as the title implies, focuses solely on animal pancakes — the kind of roadkill that has been compressed into the pavement, and is usually beyond identification. Each animal profile is accompanied by an illustration of the general "silhouette" of its flattened corpse; these diagrams are neither interesting nor helpful. If there's one thing that I've learned in all my travels and dealings with roadkill, it's that no two animals look the same. Rarely do animals flatten into perfect, pelt-like silhouettes; they become mangled and dismembered. It's a very violent process. Very few of the book's silhouette illustrations come close to what I've encountered on the road.

The field guide covers a couple dozen animals — reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals — and for most of them, does include information about their habits, appearance, and range. This would be welcome, but the accounts are brief and the facts aren't always correct, which is problematic. For instance, the author states that the crow is the largest all-black bird seen dead on the road — having seen my fair share of roadkill ravens, I can very well attest that such a claim is false. There are other errors as well; the statement that the only herring gulls found dead in the road are juveniles, for example, was rather perplexing.

If you want to learn more about birds, pick up a Sibley's field guide that covers your region. If you want to learn more about mammals or reptiles or amphibians, pick up a corresponding field guide to those animals, as well. They will provide you with far more useful information that will help you in identifying animals, both those living and those dead on the road.

The "field guide" portion of Flattened Fauna aside, there is a lengthy introduction that is a somewhat interesting read — though it's hard to say if any of it should be taken seriously, if the book is indeed a parody. Perhaps it is the ambiguous nature of the text that puts me off so. One of the more jarring passages discourages the collection of "flattened specimens" — if only for safety and a few other "humorous" reasons. As this book includes migratory birds and furbearing mammals, the omission of legalities concerning their collection is rather disturbing. Perhaps this is remedied in the revised 2006 edition — but there's no reason such information should have been left out in the first place.

Parody or not, I cannot recommend Flattened Fauna. The attempts at humor left a bad taste in my mouth, and perhaps it is this short passage, on the very first page, that set the negative tone:
The road fauna is made up of creatures who are victims of their own habits [...]
Animals hit on the road are the victims of human habits: our habits of encroaching on their habitat, our habits of crisscrossing the country with highways and byways, and our habits of changing the environment so drastically in the last century that wildlife — especially reptiles and amphibians — cannot, and will not keep up.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

From the Collection: Raccoons

I don't write too often about my personal skull collection! But in the winter months, when animals (both living and dead) are hard to find, I figure that it's something I should start to do. I'll begin with raccoons (Procyon lotor), of which I own several specimens. All were found in lower Michigan (mostly in and around Ann Arbor).

This skull belongs to a sub-adult raccoon. All of its adult teeth had grown in at the time of its death, but the sutures on the skull are not fused and the skull itself is quite small, with a length of 4.25 inches. I found this specimen in March of 2011 at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens in Ann Arbor, and originally described it in this post.

This second skull came from an adult male. It's larger than the juvenile, and the largest raccoon skull in my collection, measuring about 5 inches in length. I found it in November of 2010, also at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens, and its corresponding blog post can be read here.

The third skull pictured came from an extraordinarily old adult male raccoon. The sutures are completely fused, including the ones on the (visibly short) rostrum, and the sagittal crest is quite pronounced. In addition, his canine teeth were dull and broken at the time of his death. This skull likely belonged to a rather stocky individual, as it measures 4.5 inches. I found this skull in 1998 (or thereabouts) in Livingston County, MI. The skeleton had been sitting out in the sun for a very long time, explaining this skull's flaky, bleached appearance.

I own a few other raccoon skulls as well, including this one that I neglected to write about:

Deer Trail Raccoon

This skull was found in March of 2011 on a well-used deer trail at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens. The bones had been trampled by the hooves of many deer; they were broken and splintered, and some had been pressed deep into the earth.

Why own so many skulls from the same species? Well, for one, it's quite enjoyable to compare their differences:

click for larger view

When compared next to one another, the differences between the juvenile and adult raccoon become more apparent. Smaller size aside, note the petite, delicate shape of the juvenile's skull.

click for larger view

Different too are the skulls of the adult raccoon and the old raccoon. We all have learned that no two humans are alike — well, the same applies to other animals, too! Raccoons, in particular, have quite a bit of genetic diversity. Some are very large, and others not so much; some have long tails, and others have stubby tails; some have chocolate-brown coats, others have gray coats, and still others are "blonde". This genetic diversity can be observed in their skulls and skeletons, as well — and it's seen here, with the shorter, stockier skull shape of the old raccoon.

click for larger view

Lastly, here are all three raccoon skulls seen from above, showcasing their sagittal crests — or lack thereof. (The old raccoon is on the left, the adult in the middle, and the sub-adult on the right.)

From these photographs, it's quite possible you've noticed that I don't whiten my skulls — or at least, not these specimens. There are a few reasons for this, the first being that, quite honestly, I like skulls looking a little bit dirty! As professional as whitened skulls are, I find their level of near-glowing whiteness a little distracting. In addition, the color of a skull can sometimes tell you a lot about where it was found, when the animal died, and how it decomposed. For example, the juvenile raccoon was found in the floodplain of a small creek, caked in dried dirt. As a result, the skull is stained a brownish color. That visual information would be lost if I were to soak it in a bath of peroxide!

The next collection post will feature a few members of Mustelidae — the weasel family! If you've got any requests regarding angles or close-up shots of these skulls, or the information discussed, let me know.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Birthday Girl, Birthday Squirrel

Today's my 25th birthday! I've spent approximately 20 of those years fascinated by dead animals, and maybe one of these days I'll share some (embarrassing) childhood photographs of me posing with beach finds and my skull collection. For my birthday, Steph made me a beautiful painting that I'll share in a separate entry — but I was also gifted a present from the road on our way home from a hike.

This female gray squirrel had been hit by a car in our neighborhood. So recently was she hit, her body was still very warm and she was alarmingly lifelike. Her coat was thick and soft for the winter, and her hind feet resembled tiny, furry snowshoes.

One of her hind legs was badly broken by the impact. Other than that, there was no superficial damage to the rest of her body; after I skinned her, I observed that even her insides seemed relatively intact.

This evening, I put the gray squirrel's skinned body outside for the remaining gray fox. Hopefully, he will find it during his nighttime prowl and enjoy a tasty meal.

On the topic of roadkill, I've encountered several different species, just within our small neighborhood:

• Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus)
• Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus)
• Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)
• Snowshoe Hare (Lepus americanus)
• Star-nosed Mole (Condylura cristata)
• Gray Fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus)
• American Robin (Turdus migratorius)
• Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina)

Some, like chipmunks and squirrels, can be unpredictable and hard to avoid. Others, like snapping turtles and gray foxes, not so much. People do drive at excessive speeds down our road, which is unfortunate, as this area is full of wildlife.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

2012 in Dead Animals

Happy new year! It is January 1st, 2013, and here along the Chocolay River it's a bone-chilling 11°F outside. Looking back at this past year, I took an incredible number of photographs — both of dead animals and otherwise. As I did last year and the year before that, I'd like to showcase my favorites — and it was a little hard, this time around, selecting the best.


The winter months are tough for photography. The cold weather keeps me from going outside often, and the snow covers any potential subjects. The chilly temperatures also limit animal movement in general, so finding them dead or alive is a challenge. In January I didn't photograph any subjects "in the field" — but I did photograph my skull collection, a few of which are pictured here.


February Shrew II

Like January, February is also a challenging month for photography. A friend's dog, however, provided me with a most tiny and delicate subject: a short-tailed shrew.


Dryocopus pileatus

Photographing a pileated woodpecker was an incredible experience. After I was done photographing her, she was sent to the Bird Division at U of M's Museum of Zoology. 


Deer Fragments III

After the snow melts — and before vegetation returns to the forest floor — spring is a good time to find the remnants of animals. 


Star-nosed Mole I

2012 was unique in that I saw and photographed many animals that I'd never before seen so closely. This star-nosed mole was one of them.

Because Steph drove to Munising every day for her internship, she saw many dead animals along M-28 — which made the summer months full of photography. This doe, broken and bent into an impossible pose, was one of them.


Coyote III
This coyote was one of the most powerful subjects for me this past year, and the post I wrote about it is probably one of my favorites.


Gray Fox I

I do realize that this year-in-review post is a little canid-heavy, but that's because 2012 was full of coyotes and foxes. This gray fox pup, hit along Lakeshore Boulevard in Marquette, was a heartbreaking find.


Spine II

In Autumn we spent a lot of time searching for mushrooms. An off-trail hike on Presque Isle Park revealed the bones of a deer long dead. 


Tiny Skeleton I

At some point over the summer, a warbler struck one of our windows and died. It wasn't until October that we found out; by then, its body, undisturbed for months, had turned to a feathery skeleton. 


Frost-Covered Doe III

November was a busy month, and I didn't take many photographs. A drive south of Marquette yielded this roadkill doe, her fur covered in frost. 


Neighborhood Gray Fox II

The most emotional subject for me in 2012 was this gray fox, hit in our neighborhood. As I recounted in this post, Steph and I would see her trot by our house in the mornings and evenings, and she would leave her tracks in our backyard. She was one of two in a mated gray fox pair: since her death, the male has wandered onto our property, leaving his footprints in the snow. He has visited her body, as well, and I wonder if he knows whose it is.

I am hoping for 2013 to be a productive year, both in photography and also around the house. Though it seems like a long way off, spring is indeed coming, and with it, Steph and I will embark on a vegetable garden adventure in our own backyard. In addition, I have a backlog of animal skins that I must flesh and tan — some will become educational pieces, and others will be crafted into items of clothing. As always, I am looking to improve my photography, sharpen my artist's statement, and, most importantly, continue to educate by means of dead animals.