It’s been a pretty typical week. On Monday I stopped at Target to stock up on some essentials,
I’ve been so busy because it’s spring, that beautiful time of year when the birds sing, the flowers bloom, and we dig up decomposing bear paws out of our faculty members’ yards.
What you see me hunting for in the photograph above is a package wrapped in chickenwire that I buried almost two years ago. A series of most fortunate events in 2014 led to my friend Alice Wright happening upon an isolated bear paw. She generously offered to bring it up to Ann Arbor for me, and it sat in my freezer for several months, wrapped tightly in aluminum foil, looking suspiciously like a burrito. I was initially going to bring it to our local colony of dermestids at the Ruthven museum, but because the bear paw did not have an exact find location associated with it (“Provenience: Unknown location, foothills of Blue Ridge Mountains; Collector(s):Hound dogs, Ruby & Tucker), I was forced to make other plans two days before leaving for the field.
Fortunately, John Speth, one of our emeritus faculty, came to the rescue. I approached him and asked whether it would be possible to bury part of an animal appendage in his yard for about a year. This was not a random request, as I remembered tales of him skeletonizing bison in his yard several decades ago. He and his wife Lisa Young graciously acquiesced to my request to bury the paw in a corner of their backyard. I used a scalpel to remove most of the fur, and then at John’s recommendation wrapped the whole thing in chickenwire so that smaller bones would not get lost during the process of excavation and recovery.
I buried the foot on May 12, 2014, planning to dig it up the next spring. However, apparently my bear paw retrieval schedule is a lot like my publication schedule, since I was a full year off my original itinerary. Realizing that I will likely be leaving Ann Arbor soon, and that the bones might still require some maceration in order to skeletonize fully, I got my act together and asked John and Lisa if I could swing by some afternoon this week. I remembered exactly where I’d buried it, and within a few minutes of shovelling I could feel the tell-tale scraping noise that denoted a wire mesh.
At that point I slowed down and excavated the boundaries of the package with my trowel, and two minutes later, successfully recovered the whole kit and caboodle.
The chickenwire bundle was covered in a thick layer of damp dirt. At this point, I still wasn’t sure that the foot had skeletonized, and I observed a few white spots of grease adhering to the mesh squares, giving me a sinking feeling. The only way to be sure was to hose down the entire package.
All was not lost! The hose immediately began to expose smooth, caramel-colored surfaces of bone, visible through the chickenwire. Unwrapping the package revealed a magical wonderland of skeletonized bone.
The deep brown color means that these bones are still pretty greasy, so after rinsing the bones clean I transferred them to their tupperware container to macerate it in water for a week or two. My friend Bree has offered up her garden shed as a calm, cool place for them to ferment, so I wrapped the tupperware carefully in a plastic bag, and drove them to their next port of call.
Full video of the discovery available here. Caveat: The video contains both an egregious osteological misidentification (what are clearly tarsals are referred to erroneously as carpals, which we will chalk up to the osteologist’s considerable excitement), and there is one instance of profanity when an unfused distal tibia is discovered.
Acknowledgments: Many, many thanks are due to Lisa Young and John Speth for allowing me to bury a decomposing bear paw in their backyard for two years. Thanks also to Alice Wright for bringing me the bear paw, and Anna Antoniou for photographic and video documentation of this stage of the inspiring saga.