Saturday, October 19, 2013

From The Collection: This Year's Buck

Back in mid-March of this year, I found the body of a dead buck in Ann Arbor, at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens. I cut off the head, took it back to Marquette, and left it outside. For the next month, it went untouched, until finally in late April the weather was warm enough for the flies. And boy, did they ever arrive! By May, despite the cool temperatures, the buck's head was coming along quite well, playing host to a swarm of maggots. In June and July, the maggots pupated and emerged as adult flies, and decomposition began to slow. By late July, I was ready for the skull to be finished. Into a bucket of water it went, for the purpose of maceration. The skull soaked for a couple of weeks, and with the help of a pair of pliers, I was able to remove the last of the tissue. For another week or two, I degreased the skull, submerging it in a solution of water and dishsoap; finally, I whitened it in a peroxide bath.

By August 24, the buck skull was finished. Over five months had passed since I'd found the buck and removed its head. The result, I think, was well-worth the wait.

click for larger view

click for larger view

The antlers on this skull are pretty incredible. Three of the tines on the right side are broken — no doubt from clashes during the rut. The tines on the left antler are all intact, and the length of the eyeguard and especially the G2 are rather impressive. 

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When viewed from the front, the skull is pretty lopsided! I've got to wonder who this buck was battling, and just how big his opponent's antlers were.

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One thing I really love about this skull is the base of the right antler. There are all sorts of bizarre spurs and points coming out of it, as well as a bit of webbing between the main beam and eyeguard. The amount of beading on the antlers is pretty noteworthy, as well — they're very bumpy.

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When this buck died, he was getting ready to shed his antlers: the pedicles on both sides were deteriorating, the bone weakening. His death halted that process, but the evidence remains.

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Another cool thing about this skull is the evidence of coyotes! Before I found the body, it had been dragged and eviscerated by scavenging coyotes. They left their mark, quite literally, on several of the buck's tines: teeth marks!

Back in March of 2011, I found a dead buck at Matthaei, not too far from where I found this one. It's interesting to compare their skulls, side-by-side.

click for larger view
click for larger view

Judging by the wear on their teeth, there isn't much of an age difference between the March 2011 buck and the March 2013 buck. The difference in the size and strength of their antlers doesn't denote age — it simply denotes a difference in genes. It's safe to say that this year's buck had a much more impressive set of genes, and I sincerely hope he passed them along before his death.

Back in 1998, a four-point buck was hit across the road from the Matthaei Botanical Gardens. I have a very vivid memory of my mother cutting the head from the carcass; over the next several months, the skull was decomposed by backyard insects. I still have that skull in my possession, and it was a real treat to compare it to the 2011 and 2013 bucks:

click for larger view

On the topic of good genes, the 1998 buck certainly had them. He was quite young when he died — his teeth were still growing in — but his antlers were impressive, even for a four-pointer. The base of his antlers are quite remarkable, and are reminiscent of those of the 2013 buck. It's not too far-fetched to think that somehow, they might be related.

Thursday, October 10, 2013


It's nearly mid-October, and here in the Upper Peninsula, that means the warm weather is coming to an end. The leaves are at their peak colors, the plants on the forest floor are senescing, and every day the sun rises later and sets earlier. There's a distinct chill in the air, especially in the mornings and evenings, and everything smells of fallen leaves and pine needles.

The last few days have been blessedly warm and sunny, and the cold-blooded animals — the reptiles and amphibians and terrestrial arthropods — have been taking advantage of the heat. The meadowhawks — the dragonflies of late summer and early fall — have been as active as ever, hovering from one perch to the next, obelisking toward the sun. There has been a resurgence of blackflies; ladybugs and leaf-footed bugs have started to gather in our house, staking out places to hibernate for the winter.

The sunlight is especially welcomed by reptiles, who must bask for warmth. In a few weeks' time, the snakes and lizards and turtles will hide themselves away — but until then, they are soaking up as much sunlight as they can. Prime places for basking are exposed rocks, dry earth, and, sadly, hot pavement. As alluring as warm roads and sidewalks are, they become a death trap for reptiles, especially snakes, who are seeking heat.

Yesterday afternoon was brilliantly sunny: the leaves of the maples seemed to glow, and the air smelled of Autumn. We took a short hike in the Forestville Basin area, and on our way back to the car, I remarked that it was a good day to look for basking snakes. Not long after, I spotted a flash of black and green along the side of the road — and my heart jumped at the prospect of seeing (and maybe even holding!) a garter snake.

It was so lifelike — its colors were so very bright — and then I realized that it was dead.

The garter snake had only just been hit; its wound was tiny and the body was otherwise intact. Its eyes still shone with the intensity of a live animal; the color of its scales was incredibly vivid.

As I started to photograph the snake, it occurred to me that it looked anything but dead. Without any firsthand context, someone viewing the pictures would likely assume that it was still alive. My first course of action, then, was to flip the snake upside-down.

I couldn't resist holding the snake; having only just died, it was still extremely flexible, and its scales were so silky and soft.

I find the photographs of it in my hand to be my favorite; the first, especially, is ambiguous to the snake's state of death.

After photographing the snake extensively, I moved it off the road, setting it in a neat coil in the underbrush, then gave it an offering of sema.