Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Deer Skull Preserved

A white-tailed doe deer skull preserved by yours truly. (8/26/14)
There are some discoveries than can be made participating in high school cross-country that are just not likely to be found in other more traditional fall sports such as football or swimming. Chief among those would be finding decomposing animal remains on the field of play.

Each cross-country preseason, the student-athletes and coaches, travel to the courses we will be competing on during the regular season. Last Tuesday, while running with members of the girls team, we went slightly of course at Mendon Ponds Park, and came across the remains of a decomposed deer carcass. Half-joking, I told the girls I would be coming back later to retrieve the bones. Though it took me a few days, this past weekend, while on an early morning bottle return run, I drove back to Mendon and, searched back through the trails we had run earlier in the week.

The doe remains as we came across them. (8/23/14)
White tail deer are very common in upstate New York; I've even seen them within the Rochester city limits running down Monroe Avenue. The irony was not very subtle that when I walked along the trees looking for the trailhead, I came across a deer quietly watching me from four feet deep in to the woods. After inadvertently startling the watcher away, I was fortunate enough to once again happened across the site where the bones remained. Leaving the spine and other mystery bones behind, I respectfully retrieved the doe deer skull and carefully placed it in a bag for transport. (Unfortunately the jaw bone was not in the general vicinity.) NOTE: While I realize that it is illegal in some states, such as Iowa, to "live specimens", I found nothing online regarding the collection of wildlife remains in New York state.

The skull--sans jawbone--as it lay just off the trail. (8/23/14)
I had two thoughts as I drove home. Firstly, I contemplated whether I had somehow been disrespectful to the animal that had passed and whose skull I now carried home. This was certainly something worth considering, so I quietly promised myself to move forward in a mindful manner, conscious that the activity I was embarking on was not without cost.

My second thought was the activity: to determine the most practical way to preserve the skull, my thinking being that it would be an interesting display piece in my classroom. In the practices that followed, our engagement with the remains had now become part of one of an interesting cross-country anecdote. I am by no means a scientist and this post should not be read as set of how-to directions (though I frame it just that way!), but I do often pick up odd activities just to see where they go, and this is just the most recent flight of fancy. In a way, it relates back to a previous one. A number of years ago I took the hunting gun safety certification course because it seemed (and was interesting). One reason I've never pursued the hobby is the fear that I might actually (through luck rather than skill) kill something and would then be obligated to field dress it. One benefit of finding this gift-wrapped (and meat free) skull on the cross-country trail was the opportunity to look into the preservation of animal skulls and to give it a go...

In its original condition at the bottom of a bucket. (8/23/14)
Thanks to the Internet, the answer to the questions of "How to Preserve a Skull" was easily answered in six easy steps, giving me some basic guidelines for my little weekend project. If Steps 1, "Remove all flesh from inside and outside of the skull using one of several methods," and 2, "Dry the skull," had not already been well-handled by Mother Nature, the remains would still be in the park decomposing. The head did not require water maceration or the use of flesh eating bugs (two possible recommended approaches); it had clearly been laying at rest for a lengthy period of time. The top of the skull already had a bleached appearance due to exposure to the elements, though the underside that had been laying on the ground, including the teeth, was fairly stained.

A quick, cleansing boil. (8/23/14)
Despite the excellent condition of the skull immediately lifted from the trail, there were few odd matted strands of fur remaining, as well as small hairs that had yet to be picked out. This required a Step 2b not mentioned in the written portion of the linked page but is in the Youtube video near the end. Before repeating Step 2, to ease the separation of the remains from the skull, I placed it in boiling water to set for a short time. Using an old toothbrush, I carefully scrubbed in the open areas, careful not to disrupt the fairly intact nasal cartilage. Step 2b (which is not mentioned in the written portion of the linked page but is in the Youtube video near the end).

All the goodies necessary for a 24 hour hydrogen peroxide bath. (8/23/14)
Boiled, gently scrubbed and ready for "bleaching." (8/23/14)
Step 3 is "Bleach the skull," which oddly, based on other reading, would be a mistake. The goal is to give it a whitened appearance, but to use regular bleach would cause the bone to weaken and can lead to cracked teeth. I let the skull soak in 3% solution hydrogen peroxide for 24 hours, turning it occasionally to keep as much of it submerged as possible. It was still bubbling a little when I rinsed the skull of the next morning. I did not want to the skull to look artificial so I did not allow it to bleach completely white. My intention was to have the final preserved skull maintain the yellow-ish hue of natural bone. As a result of both boiling and soaking in hydrogen peroxide, the teeth also have a tendency to drop out. This happened and, as suggested, I glued them back (Steps 4 and 5 combined).

The first of two coats of polyurethane semi-gloss lacquer is applied. (8/24/14)
The last step was the application of a polyurethane lacquer to preserve the skull. The image above was taken on the picnic table in the sunshine, which accounts for it's clean white look. The photo the top of the post is the final product which I'm glad to report did maintain it's natural (thought thankfully cleaner) look. Though superficial I am hopeful that the presence of this artifact will serve as some sort of reminder... of just what, I have yet to fully process.

Tomorrow, as I continue setting up my classroom for the start of school next week, I will bring the skull to work. Among the books, team photos and artificial crows it is sure to give students, as well as student-athletes, (and myself) something to talk and think about.

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