The Spookiest Part are the Ears: Alex Versus the Plastic Halloween Skeletons (Again)

A collection of plastic Halloween decorations meant to look like skeletons of various animals, including: a spider, dogs, mice, a bat, birds, a dragon, an alligator, and a human.
This is Hell.

It’s that time of year again, folks – the spookiest time of the year, where the most frightful and terrifying creatures are out and about to scare us mortal beings…

I am, of course, talking about Halloween and, more specifically, the terrifying haunted beings which are the inaccurate animal skeletons that are sold at every Spirit Halloween in the United States (and elsewhere, if you’re…well, elsewhere).

And yes, this is something I’m apparently fixated on, but frankly if you spent most of your adult life becoming an expert at animal osteology, you too would be spooked by the amount of wildly inaccurate skeletons being sold to the general public – and let’s be honest, it’s getting worse because you’re telling me they’re now selling “skeleton” bugs too?! What’s next? Skeletons of invertebrates?!

Oh wait, they do that already…

A plastic "skeleton" octopus
Octopuses are invertebrates…and yet.

Anyway, instead of ranting just about how much these harmless plastic figures infuriate me, I figured this could make for a good teaching moment about ears and why on earth these abominations have them.

Three plastic Halloween skeletons that are also inaccurate: from left to right, a skeleton dog, a skeleton mouse, and a skeleton cat.
Just a small selection of these horrible plastic creatures with their horrible plastic ears…

So, let’s start off with the obvious: skeletons do not have ears. At least, not in the way we think of them. What we normally identify as ears are, for the most part, just cartilage with skin over them – that’s why they’re so bendy and flexible! That’s not to say that we don’t have any specific bones associated with ears, however – what is known as the “middle ear” in mammals is actually made of three small bones, or ossicles: the malleus, incus, and stapes (Standring 2015, p. 607). It also isn’t just mammals with these as well – bony fishes have otoliths to help with both hearing and movement (Schulz-Mirbach et al. 2019, p. 457), birds have an ossicle called the columella auris, and reptiles just have the stapes ossicle (Anthwal et al. 2013, p. 147).

Okay, we have now established with science that these skeletons are inaccurate – so then, what’s the explanation for why they’re designed like this? Obviously the skeletons aren’t 1:1 replicas, but in some instances they’re close enough to the real thing that it is clearly feasible for designers to just…make them accurate. Why the need for the ridiculousness? Why the ears?!

It’s most likely due to the human brain and its ability to recognise and identify things. You see, the human brain has a knack for using patterns to understand and gather information about something that is being viewed. In identifying other humans or animals, this often requires specific sensory cues such as a face: eyes, nose, mouth, etc. It’s this mechanism that also allows humans to identify face-like features in inanimate objects (Palmer and Clifford 2020, p. 1001). In addition, research has shown that the human brain also tends to visualise a “skeleton” of objects and animals in order to further recognise them – this seems to help humans judge the similarity between things and comprehend more unusual shapes (Ayzenberg and Lourenco 2019). With regards to animals, the human brain also breaks down a creature into specific properties to help with recognition – for example, the brain may use “fluffy” as an identifying property of a dog to identify that it is, indeed, a dog (Hebart et al. 2020).

So yes, in retrospect it makes sense why these decorations are designed like this. For nerds like me, years of training has allowed me to identify bones down to itty bitty fragments (on a good day, perhaps), so I am utterly repelled by these skeletons. But for the general public, things such as non-existent bone ears help them recognise the animal that is supposed to be represented with these plastic decorations. And this conclusion could probably be extended to human bones as well, specifically the most famous one of all: the femur bone.

That all said…I still hate them. Happy Halloween, folks.

References

Anthwal, N., Joshi, L., Tucker, A.S. (2013) Evolution of the mammalian middle ear and jaw: adaptations and novel structures. Journal of Anatomy 222, pp. 147-160.

Ayzenberg, V. and Lourenco, S.F. (2019) Skeletal descriptions of shape provide unique perceptual information for object recognition. Scientific Reports 9.

Hebart, M.N., Zheng, C.Y., Pereira, F., and Baker, C.I. (2020) Revealing the multidimensional mental representations of natural objects underlying human similarity judgements. Nature Human Behaviour 4, pp. 1173-1185.

Palmer, C.J. and Clifford, C.W.G. (2020) Face Pareidolia Recruits Mechanisms for Detecting Human Social Attention. Psychological Science 31(8), pp. 1001-1012.

Schulz-Mirbach, T., Ladich, F., Plath, M., and Heß, M. (2019) Enigmatic ear stones: what we know about the functional role and evolution of fish otoliths. Biological Reviews 94, pp. 457-482.

Standring, S. (2015). Gray’s Anatomy E-Book: The Anatomical Basis of Clinical Practice. Elsevier Health Sciences.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

One Bone to Represent Them All: The Enduring Legacy of the Femur Bone

Note: This blog post includes some images of human remains.

Long time readers of this blog will know that Halloween is my favourite time to complain about skeletons – I mean, as much as I love to get spooky around this time of year, it’s hard to supress the professional urge to point out that spiders are not made out of bones like that, what the actual heck.

I hate you, skeleton spider. (Image Credit: Party City)

Instead of doing another post like that (although frankly, they seem to just make more and more of these horribly inaccurate animal skeleton decorations every year), however, I’ve decided to instead praise the bone that – besides the skull – seems to carry the burden of representing all bones, regardless of species, whenever a bone is required for decorative or fictional reasons.

Let us discuss the humble, yet everlasting, femur bone, folks.

A 3D model of a human femur bone (Image Credit: Tornado Studios)
The humble stock cartoon bone (Image Credit: Pin Clip Art)

Okay, so let’s first start off with the fact that the typical cartoon depiction of a bone isn’t a one-to-one recreation of a human femur bone. As you can see in the images above, the standard cartoon bone has a long shaft akin to the actual femur bone, but the epiphysis on both ends are exactly the same. These identical ends are arguably based on the rounded distal end (aka the bottom part) of the femur; in real life, the proximal end (aka the top part) of the femur is mostly represented by the greater trochanter, neck, and head (see image below). That said, the stock cartoon bone is definitely based on the femur, regardless of how (in)accurate it is – I mean, even TV Tropes agrees with me!

The proximal end of a femur bone (Image Credit: Teach Me Anatomy)
This is a set of “mini bones” from Party City – notice anything about all of them? (Image Credit: Party City)

But why is the femur bone – or, well, some fictional bone that is mostly a femur bone – our go-to image for all things bone-related? This isn’t just limited to cartoons, either – as you can see in the image above, if you’re buying bone-related Halloween decorations, you’ll probably end up with a load of femur bones for some reason! Oddly enough, TV Tropes actually provides a pretty solid explanation: as the femur is one of the strongest and straightest bones in the body, it is often the most preserved and therefore the most recognisable. And this is backed by osteological research as well: for bipedal human bodies, the femur needs to be the strongest bone as it carries all of the weight during most physical actions. The strength of this bone, as well as the density, ultimately leads to it often having a better chance of survival in the archaeological record (White et al. 2011 p. 241). In addition, this strength and associated durability lends itself to the usefulness of the femur as material for creating tools and other artefacts (Christidou and Legrand-Pineau 2005, p. 394) – in some ways this is echoed in other popular culture depictions of the stock bone as a weapon or a spooky staff, etc.

Comparison of various femur bones from different species (from left to right): mouse, rat, rabbit, dog, goat, sheep, pig, South African monkey, rhesus, baboon, and human. (Image Credit: Joseph C. Wenke)

I would also argue, of all the different sort of bones, the femur is more or less recognisable across most species. Although there is obviously variation in size and in some shape (see the comparative image above), the main components are pretty recognisable: the long shaft, the bulbous head and raised greater trochanter…you get the picture.

So, this Halloween, remember to salute the femur bone for all of the hard work it does, not just as a long bone in the body, but also as an ambassador, serving as a role model for all bones, everywhere.

Maybe one day you’ll get your proper due, astragalus bone…

The astragalus bone is my favourite bone of all time and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise.

References

Anonymous. Stock Femur Bone. TV Tropes. Retrieved from https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/StockFemurBone

Christidou, R. and Legrand-Pineau, A. (2005) Hide Working and Bone Tools: Experimentation Design and Applications. In H. Luik, A. Choyke, C. Batey, L. Lougas (eds) From Hooves to Horns, from Mollusc to Mammoth: Manufacture and Use of Bone Artefacts from Prehistoric Times to the Present, Proceedings of the 4th Meeting of the ICAZ Worked Bone Research Group at Tallinn, 26-31 of August 2003. pp. 385 – 396.

Muschler, G., Raut, V., Patterson, T., Wenke, J., and Hollinger, J. (2009) The Design and Use of Animal Models for Translational Research in Bone Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine. Tissue Engineering Part B, Reviews 16(1). pp. 123-45.

White, T. D., Black, M.T., and Folkens, P.A. (2011) Human Osteology. Academic Press.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.