Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Much-Needed Distraction

 I was chatting with one of my best students whom I met along the path on my way to my car.  It was hard to pay attention because I've gotten behind in my paperwork, my sleep, and my blogging.  Lots of papers to grade, lots of planning for the near-term classes as well as plans for the coming summer.  So, as I was trying to pay attention, I was startled by the group of Ravens taking off from the woods next to us.  They were probably only 50 feet away, but I hadn't noticed them before they took off.  Nature always breaks my spells and puts me into new ones.  I had to investigate.  I walked up the slope into the woods and found the hindquarters of a deer (above photo), or what remained of such.  Basically, the rear legs, pelvis, and a few sacral vertebrae.  The bones were picked pretty clean, and looked pretty fresh.  No odor that my nose could detect, although the Ravens probably smelled the skeleton from quite a distance.  I decided I needed to come back with my camera.
When I returned with the camera, I didn't see any part of the front of the deer, so I moved in closer for a look at the ball-and-socket joint.  This live view was more impressive than any drawing in an anatomy book.  What an engineering marvel that we take for granted until it fails.  I found myself silently reviewing terms from my Comparative Anatomy class taken many years ago.  Ilium, ischium, and pubis came back easily, as did an old mnemonic device for distinguishing ilium from ileum.  How acetabulum (the socket) popped into mind after all these years, I'll never know.  I didn't see any other parts of the skeleton, so I packed up my camera and headed for class.  Just a few seconds later I came across the skull.
 So, here's the skull and part of the vertebral column.  As I took photos of the skull from several angles, another memory made an appearance:  my term paper in Comparative Anatomy titled "The Teeth of Mammals."  I still have it in my file cabinet!  The topic was inspired by my having collected some skulls of wild and domestic animals while wandering the forests and swamps of southern Louisiana.  Once I decided on the topic, I felt I needed more skulls.  So, I started visiting slaughter houses and acquiring skulls that were being thrown away.  I got cow, sheep, and goat, then from other unnamed sources added dog and cat skulls.  My goal was to find skulls representing the dentition of as many orders of mammals as I could find.  Needless to say, I didn't find any skulls representing the Proboscidea or the Cetacea.  I didn't realize at the time how ridiculously over-broad my topic was.
An added bonus of all these slaughter house visits was that I remembered how limited my experience with dissection in high school  was.  Here I had the opportunity to collect and preserve lots of animal parts that were going to be thrown away - specifically the eyeballs of cows and sheep.  These were expensive for a high school to buy from biological supply houses, but were an exciting way to learn about the human eye.  So, I filled two gallon jars with eyeballs of cows and sheep, brought them back to the lab and preserved them with formalin, then brought them home during Christmas break with the intention of donating them to my high school biology teacher.  I phoned him and said "Mr. ________, I've got two gallons worth of pickled mammalian eyeballs."  He said, "What's a mammalian?"  That reply was probably symptomatic of why I decided to major in physics instead of biology when I entered college.  That side trip wore off quickly, though, and my first roommate, who was a snake collector, pulled me back into the realm of biology.  My first degree was in Zoology.
So, this much-needed distraction has been an enjoyable reflection, and I think I'm ready to get back to correcting papers before I go back to the woods in search of mammalians and other kinds of aliens.

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