In my limited down time, I like to prep animal skeletons for display around the house. In the past, I’ve given prepped bones to labmates as presents, with the implicit understanding that nothing says “we’ve formed a deep emotional and intellectual bond” like sharing various and sundry bits of the same dead ungulate. I realized that not everyone shares my enthusiasm when I excitedly offered one of my friends a second deer pelvis and she informed me that much as she loved me, she didn’t actually want another one…However, if you’re like me and you prefer slightly more morbid home decor, I’ve outlined some preliminary steps to prepping faunal remains below.
Where can I find animal bones?
Befriend your local butcher (did this recently and got an entire pig cranium, nailed it!), have friends who hunt (I might land a fully articulated deer this fall) or ask your archaeology faculty about it. Archs are always on the lookout for comparative specimens, and may accumulate animals that they don’t really have time to process that are free for the asking – this has happened to me twice now.
What sort of equipment do I need?
- Gloves: Latex disposable ones are great – if you’re taking Gross bring home the leftovers;
- Sharp Paring Knife or Scalpels: These are good for removing tendons and other similarly recalcitrant soft tissue;
- Respirator or Medical Masks: You can buy respirators online or at hardware stores. Again, if you’ve taken Gross grab some of the masks before your final dissection;*
- Scrubs or old clothes: You’ll need these unless you appreciate the perfume of decomp permeating your clothing; if you ever aspire to have someone reciprocate your romantic interest in them I would not recommend this strategy;
- Elmer’s Glue: You’ll want lots and lots of glue;
- Hydrogen Peroxide: See “Elmer’s Glue”;
- Large Tupperware Containers: Size contingent on the size of the animal you want to process;
- Dish soap: Dawn has always worked well for me, but you can probably use any brand;
- Old toothbrushes: These are good for getting in between nooks and crannies to remove soft tissue, or to remove sediment. Cleaning or kitchen scrub brushes can also be useful;
- Pastry brush: Good for painting on glue-bath;
- Baking rack: Great for drying bones after a glue bath.
* I didn’t realize what a delightful grab-bag my Gross course had been until I arrived home after a weekend away to find all of the sterilized instruments from my dissection kit strewn across my desk and realized that to any outside observer I probably looked like a serial killer. Once again, do as I say and not as I do.
What Do I do Once I’ve Found Some Bones?
1. MACERATION: The easiest way to remove soft tissue from bones is to cover them in room-temperature water and let them soak. Using a crockpot or boiling them will very likely damage the bones – I don’t recommend it. Maceration will be the smelliest part of the process. Do not attempt it in your home or in your lab – make sure you have a garage, museum facility or backyard that you can use, or you will react to your life choices with a predictable amount of despair. You’ll want to change the water every few days or so at the beginning of the process, and you’ll likely find a lot of grease and fat accumulating on the surface of the water that you can skim off. Once most of the flesh has started to dislodge, add a little bit of dish soap to the mix to help speed things along. The amount of time this will take varies from about a week to much longer, depending on how much soft tissue is left on your animal and how big it is.
2. BLEACHING: I do this purely for aesthetic reasons, and it’s totally optional. If you want your bones to have that authentic patina of “something that died in the desert”, however, I would recommend it. You’ll want to submerge the bones in hydrogen peroxide to achieve this effect. Cover the bones completely and soak them in it for a few days, checking every other day to ensure they’re not drying out.
3. GLUE BATH: This is another optional step, but if you create a mixture that’s 50% water and 50% Elmer’s style glue, you can paint it onto the bones (or dip them into it) to give them a protective and slightly glossy coat. I wouldn’t recommend this tactic for bones you’re planning on using as comparative specimens, because the glue bath might obscure diagnostic features or foramina. However, you’d have to be even nerdier than I am to require those same standards for home display.
4. DRYING PREPPED BONES: Post maceration, peroxide bath & glue bath, put your bones on a baking rack to dry. If you have a particularly tolerant roommate, partner or labmate, dry them in your fridge. This will allow the bones to dry gradually and reduces the chance of them cracking. I did this right before leaving for the field one summer and, so left a lengthy note for my landlord on my fridge, on the off chance he decided to swing by [see above footnote about coming off as a serial killer].
I Don’t Trust You. Can You Point Me in the Direction of More Qualified People?
You make an excellent point. I’ve mainly worked with remains that are already pretty dessicated to begin with, so if you’re prepping something that’s a little meatier I would strongly recommend perusing BoneLust, as Jana Miller provides much more detailed step-by-step instructions for a variety of skeletons. I would also recommend having a large backyard and tolerant neighbors. As backyards are thin on the ground in affordable graduate student housing, I’ve relied heavily on the resident colony of dermestids here at my home institution, but that’s not always an option. If you’re looking for some bugs, I would recommend you check your local natural history museum, zoology section. Don’t despair, however, if you can’t find a colony. Personally I have always found maceration to be a useful (if smelly and time-consuming) alternative, especially when the bugs aren’t interested in my latest find. Finally, another great resource that some of my friends have used is the Moose Manual, which also has handy tips for articulation and display. I don’t have any personal experience with the book, but it’s on my wish list in case I ever get a hold of a full deer skeleton.