Guest Blog Post – Melanie Gould

Hello, my name is Melanie Gould. I am a 13 year old animal skull and bone collector, and wildlife lover! I have been collecting for just under a year, and have 150 skulls, and quite a few full skeletons. My passion for osteology came from my love of the natural world. In this post I will talk about identifying your finds, and how bone collecting is a sustainable and ethical way to connect with nature when done responsibly.

I have found quite a few of my specimens when in the car with my parents, or when walking in the countryside looking for wildlife. From roads I have collected buzzards and owls, and from woodlands and fields, I have found badgers, foxes, and even piglets! You can learn an awful lot from the skeleton of an animal. You can tell how it hunted, what kind of animal it was, and even what caused it to die in many cases. However, sometimes bones can be confusing. I am now going to give you three simple tricks to tell bones and skulls apart!

A birds pelvis:

Left, Buzzard. Right, Barn owl

I have seen many people become confused when they find one of these, and it’s completely understandable, because they look nothing like what you would expect! This is the pelvis of a bird. A birds pelvis looks nothing like a mammal pelvis, which looks like this: (Insert picture two here). This is the pelvis of an old grey squirrel. A bird has one, solid pelvis, whilst a mammal has a four – part pelvis. When a mammal is born, it’s pelvis is in four parts. As it grows, the pelvis will fuse into two parts, and when the animal is old, like my grey squirrel, it is in one part.

A horn or an antler?

This is a really easy mistake to make. Deer have antlers, and animals like sheep and rhinos have horns. The difference? Antlers get shed once a year, and then they regrow a little bit bigger ready for the next year’s breeding season. Horns grow throughout the animals life. Antlers are made of bone, and horns are made of hard, compressed hair. Horns have a core made of bone, and that then it’s covered in a keratin sheath. The coloured covering on a birds beak is also made of a keratin sheath, and the puffin sheds his brightly coloured break sheath after the breeding season, and grows a plainer one. If you are lucky, you may find the shed antlers of stags when out walking!

Predator or prey?

From left to right: horse, lioness.

When you look at the skull of a predator from the front, you look into where it’s eyes would have been. When you look at the skull of a prey animal, you can’t look straight into it’s eye sockets. This is because predators have evolved to have eyes on the front of their heads, so they can judge distances accurately. Prey animals have evolved eyes on the sides of their heads, so they can see behind them, and spot any predators trying to eat them. Predators don’t need to be able to see behind them, because nothing is going to try and hunt them. This is an easy way to tell predators and prey apart. Another way to tell predators and prey apart is by looking at their teeth. Grazing animals will have broad and flat teeth for grinding up vegetation, whilst predators will have four canines to seize their prey, and sharp, pointed teeth for crunching through bones and flesh.

If we are responsible with how we collect bones and skulls, it is a great way to learn from nature. A skull from an animal or bird can tell you a story, and teach you about the living creature. Nature is an amazing thing, and every animal is unique, so every skull and bone is unique, just like the animal it came from. If you look hard enough, you will notice things all around you. From the feather of a buzzard, to a fox skull. Collecting animal skeletons is another way to appreciate the nature around us.

Thank you to Megan for letting me write this post!

Raindrops on noses. And blackberries.

A busy week, as ever! Trying to recover from Birdfair, to get stuff done both at work and outside. At Lorton, I had a woodland wander as I took some children searching for beetles. Typically, we also found some other cool stuff to be fascinated by: a tiny delicate mushroom in the middle of the path, a few different types of harvestman and LOTs of slugs, snails and worms!

  • ID Tip: Both spiders (Araneae) and harvestmen (Opiliones) are arachnids (Arachnidae). To tell whether you’re looking at a spider or a harvestmen, the trick is to look at the body. A spider has distinct body parts – i.e. you can see easily that is has a thorax and an abdomen. Whereas in a harvestman, the thorax and the abdomen are fused together and it looks like it has just one body part. 

Later in the week, I went on a meadow meander to find a Wasp Spider (Argiope bruennichi). Sadly, the one that I’ve photographed a lot recently was no longer in place. I think maybe the cows wandered through and trashed its web. However, I still managed to find one, and even saw her spinning a grasshopper (I know it is a female as the male Wasp Spider is brown and smaller)! No photos or videos of that sadly as she was too quick for me! But I did get a photo of her beginning to munch on it. The meadow meander turned into a general nature walk (the best kind of walk!), as we examined grasshoppers and crickets, pried open a hatched oak gall (to unexpectedly find an earwig nymph inside!) and I found a new species for me, the Red-legged Shieldbug (Pentatoma rufipes). [PSL: my 12th Hemiptera species]

Also on the walk, I came across this interesting Hymenoptera in a patch of clover. I think I’ve decided it is an ant species (Formicidae), but that is as far as I’ve got!

  • ID Tip: Hymenoptera are the group of insects that include bees, wasps, ants, sawflies and related insects. I knew it was a Hymenoptera because (a) it has two pairs of wings ruling out flies (not easily seen in these photos I’ll admit) and (b) it has long antennae which again ruling out flies which have much shorted antennae. I knew it wasn’t a sawfly (Symphyta)) as they do not have a distinct waist, but the one in the photograph does. After this, I am not sure of the exact ways to tell them apart, but my instinct was saying ant (Formicidae). 

Saturday evening saw a mad dash down to Lodmoor, to scout out the area behind the tip. Why you might ask? Well, a Long-tailed Blue butterfly (Lampides boeticus, apparently also known as the Peablue which is a lovely name!) had been seen there! The weather was atrocious for butterflies, and a not great for me either I might add – I got soaked! However, I still had a hopeful look around. I saw plenty of wildlife (including a couple of butterflies when the weather had a break from pouring water down on Weymouth) – but no Long-tailed Blue! Oh botheration! I consoled myself with blackberries (covered in raindrops as previously mentioned) and taking photos of the other wildlife, including SIX Wasp Spiders, a very obliging Common Blue butterfly (Polyommatus icarus) and a rather wet male Red-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) trying to shelter from the rain.

Back at Lorton for Sunday, a rather grey and damp day, though no downpours. I had a bird-themed weekend running which meant one of my favourite activities – owl pellet analysis! I.e. lets take apart some solidified owl vomit to look at the bones of small mammals. Sounds grim, but it one of the best things to do I think. You end up finding some fantastic things and learning a lot about anatomy at the same time.

  • ID Tip: When dissecting owl pellets, one of the key bones to look out for is the skull (and lower jaws). By looking at the size, and the teeth, it is possible to identify small mammals down to species level.
    • E.g. A skull with no gap between the molars and incisors will belong to an insectivore. If the teeth are all white, it is a European Mole (Talpa europaea). If the teeth have red tips to them (yes, you read that right, red-tipped teeth) it is one of the shrew species (Soricidae). You then look at the end tooth and the number of cusps (bumps) on it, which then tells you which species it is. 
    • Hm, maybe I will write a whole blog post on owl pellet dissection and small mammal bone identification? Interested in reading such a post? Let me know! 

The end of my (working) week had a thrilling conclusion when a visitor asked me about a caterpillar they had seen. My interest was piqued, I do so love Lepidoptera and their caterpillars. I went out, armed with a caterpillars book and my camera. Turns out I didn’t need the former as I knew straight away what species it was. I have seen plenty of photos of this species on Facebook and Twitter, but never seen one as a caterpillar in the wild myself. Until today! The wonderful and beautiful Elephant Hawk-Moth (Deilephila elpenor), pink and green as an adult (PINK and GREEN!!), brown, smooth and seemingly with many eyes as a caterpillar (the eyes are to scare off predators!). Look how awesome it is!!

Heading back to the centre (my mid-afternoon snack was waiting for me after, mm chocolate cake), I yelled out “Caterpillar alert!” as I almost stepped on another caterpillar. Slightly smaller, and with many more hairs, I could tell what this one was straight away as well, the Fox Moth (Macrothylacia rubi) caterpillar!

Fox Moth (Macrothylacia rubi) caterpillar

In other news:

  • I wondered whether to write a post about the badger cull, and its extension into Dorset. But I don’t need to, because the Wildlife Trusts have written a superb news piece which covers everything (and a bit more) that I would’ve said. Please do read it, and speak to your local MP / Westminster / everyone about why the badger cull should not occur.
  • Dorset Wildlife Trust was awarded TWO bronze medals for our float at the Weymouth Carnival! Well done to Vicky who was our co-ordinator!
  • I only have a month and a half left in Dorset! Which is rather scary as there is still so many places I want to visit and things I want to do!
  • I’m recalculating my Pan-species List, as I’ve managed to get myself all confused – the online version and my notebook have different numbers. D’oh!
  • I’m doing rather well on my 2015 Wildlife Resolutions, but have got a fair bit of work ahead of me to ensure that I tick them all off!

The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent Dorset Wildlife Trust’s positions, strategies or opinions (or any other organisation or individuals for that matter).