As part of my Maine Master Naturalist class homework, I had to dissect an owl pellet last weekend. I thought that this would be the one thing the boys would get into, but other than a little help from E right at the beginning, they had no interest. (Due, in no small part, I'm sure, because E and Z had a friend over and were watching a movie. And because M is a teenager: "I'm not really into owl pellets. They're kind of grody").
Yes, indeed they are kind of grody. When I've dissected pellets in the past (ones we've found in our woods and, once, one that an owl ejected onto the roof of C's car where it stayed, frozen to the metal, while he drove around for one whole day before we realized it was there), I've dissected them dry, but the directions I had said to pour boiling water over the pellet and let it sit for twenty minutes.
I was hoping this would make it easier--that the fur would float to the top and the bones sink to the bottom, but it did not quite work out that way. Instead it made it quite a bit more grody than it otherwise might have been, and I spent a good three hours picking apart teensy bones from globs of wet fir (mildly scented like moldy carpet).
I came out in the end two sets of bones (plus one extra jawbone...where had that come from?) from two voles (meadow or creeping, based on the key that came with the pellet--a barn owl's from the Pacific Northwest).
The final step in the process was to assemble the skeleton of one of the unfortunate owl snacks. I don't think I'll be hired by a museum to put together their stegosaurus skeletons anytime soon--I had run out of energy on the project and placed the toe bones and vertebrae rather willy-nilly.
But it was fascinating to see the details of the shapes and how they work--the ball and socket of the hip, the thin, wing-like shoulder-blade, the needle-thin rib bones. And pretty amazing to think how these minuscule bones correspond to the bones in our own bodies and in an elephant's and a whale's. At class this week we learned to identify the skulls of many different Maine mammals, and the similarities and differences among them left me in awe of evolution and nature. As my college biology professor used to say, "Life is so cool!"