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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!

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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).

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Life is like … buses?

Sometimes we describe things like buses, you wait ages and then three (or more!) come along at once! That is just what happened with me recently – I hadn’t blogged for a couple of weeks as not much wildlife had been seen and I had no activities worth reporting either. Then this week, lots happened and I’m worrying that this blog post may end up being too long!

The week began with one of my favourite activities – moth trapping! I haven’t put my moth trap out much recently because of the weather but the end of last week was relatively mild so I decided to give it a go and hope for the best. I caught some great moths such as Feathered Thorn and Green-brindled Crescent. I also caught four Merveille Du Jour which was pretty awesome because (1) it always seem to cause excitement on Fb/Twitter, (2) the invert (but not moths) county recorder had never seen one but I’d just seen four in two nights, (3) it is a real stunner in terms of its patterning and colouration, and (4) it has a fantastic name!

The middle of the week saw me trekking over to Aberystwyth where I’d been invited to give a guest lecture to third year undergraduates on my personal experience of using Twitter and blogging in science communication. It was really good fun and a great experience, but also very nerve-wracking! I got positive feedback from the lecturer and some students, apparently it was an enjoyable lecture so whoo go me! I also met a fellow moth-er (i.e. someone who traps and identifies moths) so that was nice.

I was also doing some work towards my secret upcoming project (it is getting close to being revealed!), which involved popping into the museum. This was so exciting as I hadn’t actually seen the museum when I was studying there as an undergraduate – it was so thrilling that I even took a selfie which is incredibly rare for me! I also took a photo of Barcode with a platpus skeleton as I was surprised at how small the playpus is! In my imagination it was much large – pine marten size roughly! But actually it’s pretty small!

Thursday had even more excitement as Dr Rhys Jones (from the TV!) was visiting Radnorshire Wildlife Trust to give the Memorial Barnes Lecture. He spoke about his experiences with wildlife, and it was really inspiring to hear how he’d overcome various challenges – both personal and wildlife crime related. If you get the chance to hear him speak, don’t miss on it!

At the weekend, I did the typical thing that a passionate conservationist does on their day off – I did more wildlife / conservation related activity! In this case it was a workshop run by the MISE project / Vincent Wildlife Trust on otter dietary analysis – i.e. taking apart their spraint (aka faeces) to look at what they have been eating. It was really good fun, though quite difficult as deciding which vertebra belongs to which species of fish is rather mind-boggling!

However, it isn’t always just fish bones. There can be amphibian bones, the occasional small mammal or bird bones, and even unexpected objects. One of the spraints I was analysing had some snail shells in it! And a tiny crab claw! For the latter, I don’t think the otter actually ate this tiny crab, but rather it ate a fish who had eaten a crab. As for the snails, it may also be the same reason.

On a separate note, the workshop was being held at a Field Studies Council centre in Pembrokeshire – Orielton. I’ve actually visited the centre before, roughly 7ish years ago, on a school biology field trip. It was nice to visit again, though slightly odd because somehow I staying in exactly the same room as before! How does that even happen?

We took a break from peering down microscopes and headed out to Bosherton Lily Ponds / Stackpole. We found some relatively fresh spraint, though the one in the photo is not the freshest. The beach is also lovely if you do go down there. Plus on the walk back, we met a really relaxed robin who actually fed from my hand! I didn’t manage to get a photo of it doing so, but I did get a cute photo if it nonetheless.

Last but not least, I also saw a cute ladybird (species: Orange Ladybird), who landed on my hand briefly.

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Adventures and Learning

I’m writing yet another blog post whilst tired and in recovery from a fantastic few days. Seems to be the way of life for me at the moment, but I’m not complaining!

The week began with office work, which I might have previously thought to be a bit boring. However, I’m working on some exciting projects so the office work is actually enjoyable, especially as I know that the projects will have good end results (fingers crossed!). Additionally I was still buzzing from the AFON conference the week before (hugely inspirational and amazing and such!).

It wasn’t all office work mind, I was instructed to go explore some of RWT‘s nature reserves aside from Gilfach. So I took myself off to Llanbwchllyn Lake, where I had an enjoyable time admiring the lake and the wildlife. I saw one of my favourite birds, the Great Crested Grebe, which is a species that I’ve not seen in ages so I was rather happy.

I also took the time to really appreciate nature, sitting and closing my eyes, listening to the sounds around me – the rustling leaves, the babbling of a bird, the buzzing of the insects. It was nice to take a step back from my usual stance of taking photos of everything and trying to identify everything, and just appreciate it being there. I did also my eyes again to take photos (but without trying to identify the animals).

The reason I’m so tired is that I’ve just got back from a three day ecology course on Animal Diversity, held at the lovely Denmark Farm Conservation Centre. Wow, what a course! My head is absolutely full of fascinating information and interesting facts – sea urchins have a funky anatomical feature called ‘Aristotle’s Lantern’, over 95% of all animals are invertebrates, and platypus (platypi plural?) are really rather odd!

I’d like to take this opportunity to say just how awesome these ecology courses are – they’re provided by the Lifelong Learning department of Aberystwyth University, and they are such fantastic value (£80 early bird for a 10 credit module)! I have done a number of modules now, and I am working towards getting my Certificate in Field Ecology, which is rather exciting. However, the modules can just be taken separately, and even just for fun! Because I love them so much, I have now become a Student Rep for the Ecology courses, so looking forward to getting even more involved with them!

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Sleeping, watching TV, baking … wait no, ecology things!

I was very fortunate to spend a week in Yorkshire recently. Less fortunately, it was during a week of almost-constant rain. I took this as a splendid opportunity to relax. I did some nature-related bits: catching up on BBC’s Winterwatch and rereading some BBC Wildlife Magazines. However I will admit to sleeping quite a bit, watching some rubbish TV and baking some very yummy scones (I used the Taste*Chesil scone recipe and thoroughly recommend it).

Obviously, I couldn’t spend a week in Yorkshire and not go out for an adventure, even with such weather. On a precipitation-free morning, I headed over to a nearby reserve, the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust owned Leyburn Old Glebe reserve. Having done some prior reading on it, I wasn’t expecting much at this time of year. It is a traditionally managed hay meadow, known for its rich variety of wildflowers – and plants in general, over 80 species have been recorded here recently, with 11 different species of grass! (I must admit, I didn’t even know there were that many British grass species!) Despite the lack of flowering plants, I still had a nice walk around. The views are lovely as the meadow is located on a small hill overlooking the River Ure.

The River Ure (taken from roadside)

The River Ure by Leyburn Old Glebe (taken from roadside)

I was very impressed by the number of mole hills in the field, always a positive in my book. I’ve only ever seen a mole once, and it was unfortunately dead. I now regret not keeping it and trying to get the bones from it, but you learn from your mistakes I suppose.

Talking of dead things, I actually found the remains of two dead animals in the field. First, half of a dead bird, which I think was a pheasant. It was rather grisly and lacking a skull (damn, I do love a good skull), but I still poked at it and took photos of course.

Half a dead bird, with a lovely view behind

Half a dead bird, with a lovely view behind

I then found the remains of something else, bits of fur and bones spread out. No upper skull remaining, but there were two lower jaw bones which looked rather like they were Rodentia in origin.

The remains scattered about

The remains scattered about

Pelvis bone

Pelvis bone

Lower jaw bones - the most caudal section (rostral?) came apart so not sure how far into the jaw it slides.

Lower jaw bones – the most caudal section (rostral?) came apart so not sure how far into the jaw it slides.

Lower jawbone, minus one tooth at the caudal end. Additionally, they all fell out but I think/hope I've put them back in the right order

Lower jawbone, minus one tooth at the caudal end. Additionally, they all fell out but I think/hope I’ve put them back in the right order

Any guesses for animal of origin? I’m going to hazard a guess at rabbit, but I’ve never seen a rabbit skeleton so taking a guess from images on the internet. If you know the correct answer, please let me know!

So although I know little of plants (something I am hoping to address) and there were no flowers out to appreciate, I still had a fab time at this reserve. I know that I’ll definitely be back when I visit Yorkshire in spring and summer, and I’ll take a plant guide with me then!

A somewhat old rosehip, with the reserve's small stream in the background

A somewhat old rosehip, with the reserve’s small stream in the background

Talking of which, I headed back to where I was staying and saw my first snowdrops of the year!




Scientifically Macabre – examining skulls and bones

From 1st July 2013

The start of a new week and I was hiking through the bush, fruitlessly trying to find the dwarf mongoose. To keep my mind occupied, I begun a rough outline for a blog post. It was going to be “The Sorabi Skull”, about the skull that I found last week. Then in a dramatic twist of fate, mid-thought and macabre-minded already, I stumbled across another skull! And not just that, a number of other bones in the immediate area, presumably from the same animal. Oh the excitement.

Now, as mentioned, this is slightly macabre. Getting excited over bits of a dead animal? My non-biological friends look at me weirdly when I show them the skulls I have at home (sheep, small mammals and a bird). However to me, bones – particularly skulls – are fascinating. I love taking apart owl pellets and otter spraints, identifying animals from the bones and comparing the different skulls. In addition, thinking about how an animal’s body neatly fits together with the skeleton, muscles, ligaments and tendons. It puzzles me when someone doesn’t find it even remotely interesting, but each to their own and all that jazz.

So, the Sorabi skull, i.e. my first South Africa skull this year. Oddly enough, this one wasn’t on the ground. In fact, it was hung in a bush. At first, I wondered as to a leopard perhaps eating in a tree and dropping it, but there were no branches above. Maybe someone else had found it, and just chucked it away, and it landed in a bush? The mystery remains. Even more so, to the species. I will admit to poor identification skills on larger mammal skulls – especially in a different country. 

The skull in a bush. Odd.


Back to the new skeleton, and it was a decent number of bones, I shall not lie. Not least that there was a complete upper skull and two lower jawbones. Now, I could identify this one – zebra! Jackpot! Why you ask? My undergraduate dissertation was on zebras, and I like to know as much as possible about a study animal, even if it is from a dead one. I even know what zebra steak tastes like (pretty good by the way).


This was definitely making up for the lack of dwarf mongoose. And the day got even better when I found two African Land Snail shells, followed by a tortoise shell! The tortoise isn’t fully decomposed yet though … desiccated thankfully. With any luck it will decompose completely and I can take a proper look at the shell without touching bits of dead tortoise. Now that is rather macabre.

To finish off, I hope that you either agree with me in finding skulls/bones/shells fascinating, or that you don’t judge me too much. And, it goes without saying, though I will say it anyway, that I don’t ever kill anything in order to gain the bones/shells. I just stumble across them in the bush (sometimes literally). Or in the case of owl pellets and otter spraints, I analyse them for ecological purposes. 


Also found since: an impala skull