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.

Bones That Look Like Other Bones: Rodent Bones VS Bird Bones

Today’s comparative mini-post comes from a question I received from Trisha J. (thanks Trisha!),  who asked for a bit of a comparison between rodent and bird bones. Now, while I have written about both rodents and birds before, I’ve never actually compared the two in one of these posts – which is a bit of a surprise, as I totally get the confusion between them! They can look pretty similar,

IMG_E5452
Herring gull skull (left) and brown rat skull (right)

Before we start, let me first preface this by saying we’ll be looking specifically at small bird bones – obviously, as you can see in the photo below, birds come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes! So we will be working under the impression that it’s easier to confusion small bird bones with rodent bones…unless you’re working with Rodents of Unusual Size, I guess?

IMG_E5445
Herring gull humerus (left) and corvid humerus (right)

Unfortunately there isn’t an easy tip for differentiating between bird and rodent bones quickly – although bird bones are known for being particularly light in weight to allow for flight, rodent bones have a similar weight due to size. Thankfully, bone shapes are pretty distinct between the two. See some of the example photos below to see how each differ!

IMG_E5446
Corvid humerus (left) and brown rat humerus (right)
IMG_E5450
Corvid femur (left) and brown rat femur (right)
IMG_E5451
Corvid ulna (left) and brown rat ulna (right)

If you’re dealing with bone fragments that are similar in size to either a small bird or rodent, I would highly suggest using some form of reference (photo or physical) to base your identification off of. They can certainly be quite tricky! You can also use small variations, such as the presence of “nubs” on bird ulnae, to help differentiation. Also remember that birds have bones that are not present in rodents (tibio-tarsus, furncula, etc.), so memorising their general shape will be helpful.

With skulls, if you have complete specimens, it’ll be pretty easy – the bird will usually have a beak attached!

IMG_E5447
Corvid skull (left) and brown rat skull (right)

Of course, life isn’t fair and you will often have a skull fragment on your hands. In that case, remember that bird skulls, in particular the cranial vaults, have very rounded and bulbous skulls (see below).

IMG_E5448
Jackdaw (bird) skull fragment

And if you’re unlucky enough to have vertebrae and ribs on your hands…well, good luck! Well, maybe at least with the ribs…vertebrae can be very tricky, especially when they’re very small. However, bird vertebrae tend to have a “body” (the thickest part of the vertebra) that curves inward and are a bit more narrow in shape.

IMG_E5449
Corvid vertebra (left) and brown rat vertebra (right)

Have a question about zooarchaeology? Or an idea for a future blog post? Remember you can contact me through the blog by heading to my Contact page.

References

Cohen, A. and Serjeantson, D. (1996) A Manual for the Identification of  Bird Bones from Archaeological Sites. Archetype Publications Ltd.

Prehn, N. et al. (2018) Beginner’s Guide to Identifying British Mammal Bones. Natural History Museum. http://www.nhm.ac.uk/content/dam/nhmwww/take-part/identify-nature/british-mammal-bones-ID-guide.pdf


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.

The Sadness Of Skin: Emotional Reactions to Remains

Content Warning: This post will be talking a lot about death and the emotional resonance of dead bodies, both human and non-human. No images of human remains will be shown, but there will be images of non-skeletal (mummified) dead animals, so if this may be upsetting, please skip this post.

I was on Twitter the other day when I came across a Tweet about the recent archaeological discovery of the well-preserved body of a dog that had recently been recovered from permafrost in Siberia (Siberian Times Reporter 2018). Looking at photos of the dog’s paws, which still have some fur, I thought, “Oh, how sad.” And yet, I work with animal remains all the time! So what is so different about these remains?

inside_paw
One of the preserved paws of the Siberian dog (Photo Credit: Sergey Fyodorov, NEFU)

This dog is one of a couple of recent, well-preserved finds in Siberia – in August, a preserved body of a foal (young horse) was recovered (Associated Press 2018), and just weeks after the dog recovery, the well-preserved remains of a 50,000 year old lion cub was also found (Gertcyk 2018). Note the language and imagery used in these articles – Gertcyk refers to the lion cub as “cute” with significant emphasis of how young the lion was at death, the Siberian Times article on the dog makes certain to stress how some of the fur is still present, and an additional article on the foal by Michelle Starr (2018) utilises up-close photos of the hooves, face, and nose of the foal which were especially well-preserved.

Focusing on the young age of the animals – and how this increases the “cuteness” factor, so to speak – is arguably a tactic to incite sympathy and emotion, as well as relatability. This is also seen in human advertisements, especially regarding charity and other social activism for the sake of the living – this phenomenon has been widely studied, with many philosophical and psychological explanations given for why this is both so widespread and effective (Seu 2015). With regards to the dead, emphasis of youth also invokes an emotional reaction akin to something like grief – a life not fully lived, innocence struck down too early.

siberian-foal-perfectly-preserved-pleistocene_1024
The head and front limbs of the preserved foal (Photo Credit: Michil Yakoklev, NEFU)

What is more interesting, and perhaps more effective in evoking an emotional reaction is the constant emphasis of preservation. The ability for viewers to see the recognisable, the things we associate with the living, is what helps in empathising with the body.  A very evocative example is the bog body (which you can read more about here, CW: for a photo of actual human remains). The high level of preservation caused by bogs results in such a recognisable appearance that it creates a sensation that Wright (2017) refers to as the “sublime” – an interplay between empathy for the recognised humanity and also a sort of horror at the personification of death. It can be argued that it is this unique ability of bog bodies to invoke such an emotional reactional that led to the numerous art and prose inspired by  them – take, for instance, Seamus Heaney’s work.

The power of such reactions may also be evident from the response to a lack of recognisable features. Mummies, for instance, are technically well-preserved bodies. Yet the concealed nature of most mummies creates a need for additional elements to invoke more empathy and relatability; this is further explored by Day (2013), who questions the necessity of facial reconstructions of Egyptian mummified bodies in order for Western audiences to “relate” better to them.

Of course, this is not to say that just “fleshy bits” – skin, hair, fur, etc. – necessarily equate to instant empathy. There is an element of “intactness” that also must be present. The preserved animals that have been previously discussed in this blog post have all been more or less completely intact, again a testament to their preservation. Separating an element, like a limb, from the body would most likely invoke a reaction closer to horror, as we often associate such separation with mutilation and other acts of violence, even if the separation is caused naturally by more taphonomic means.

siberian-foal-hooves
Close-up photo of the preserved hooves of the foal (Photo Credit: Michil Yakoklev, NEFU)

So, if we accept the argument that having these “preserved” elements causes empathy and emotional reactions, then perhaps we must also accept that there may be some truth to the reverse of this – that skeletal remains, both animal and human, are more difficult to empathise with. To an extent, this is certainly true for animal remains – skeletal animals are often see without issue at museums, in decoration and jewellery, and in the past sometimes utilised for tools and materials. The caveat to this, of course, is the last few decades during which animal rights activism has become more prevalent and acceptable in the public eye.

As for human remains, there is a long and lengthy history regarding the ethicality of display that is also intertwined with colonialist and racist scientific practices. It has only been recently that the repatriation of human remains – specifically those of Indigenous peoples – have become generally accepted as the “right thing to do” by the general public, although of course there remains some within anthropology, archaeology, and museums who fight against the act of repatriation in the name of “scientific process”, despite the horrific racial and colonial implications of said process. Even more recently, this debate has turned towards exhibitions that utilise real human remains to educate others about the body – touring exhibitions such as BodyWorlds have been as extremely controversial as they have also been extremely popular (Redman 2016).

Perhaps another blog post is necessary to further explore the ethicality regarding human remains, both in display and in analytical practice.As technology and preservation practices continue to advance, what new obstacles will we face with regards to our ability to preserve and display the dead? Redman (2016) perhaps offers the best glimpse at what troubles might be ahead, mentioning that BodyWorlds often runs into the issue of displaying the human body like an art piece, rather than an actual person. May there be a time when our conception of the body becomes so far removed that we no longer empathise with the dead, even as well preserved as they are? What does this mean for the future of ethics?

References

Associated Press. (2018) Ancient Horse Found Perfectly Preserved in Siberian Permafrost. CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/foal-permafrost-1.4797543?cmp=rss

Day, J. (2013) Facing the Mummy: Physiognomy, Facial Reconstruction, and the ‘Delirious Biographies’ of Egyptian Mummies. 8th International Congress on Mummy Studies.

Gertcyk, O. (2018) Cute First Pictures of 50,000 Year Old Cave Lion Cub Found Perfectly Preserved in Permafrost. The Siberian Times. http://siberiantimes.com/science/casestudy/news/cute-first-pictures-of-new-50000-year-old-cave-lion-cub-found-perfectly-preserved-in-permafrost-of-yakutia/

Redman, S. (2016) Reconsidering BodyWorlds: Why Do We Still Flock to Exhibits of Dead Human Beings? The Conversation. http://theconversation.com/reconsidering-body-worlds-why-do-we-still-flock-to-exhibits-of-dead-human-beings-57024

Seu, I.B. (2015) Appealing Children: UK Audiences’ Responses to the Use of Children in Humanitarian Communications. The International Communication Gazette. 77(7). pp. 654-667.

Siberian Times Reporter. (2018) ‘Sibling’ of Oldest Mummified Puppy in the World Found Preserved in Permafrost. The Siberian Times. http://siberiantimes.com/science/casestudy/news/n0386-sibling-of-oldest-mummified-puppy-in-the-world-found-preserved-in-permafrost/

Starr, M. (2018) Incredibly Preserved 40,000 Year Old Extinct Baby Horse Has Been Unearthed in Siberia. Science Alert. https://www.sciencealert.com/extinct-equus-lenensis-lena-horse-pleistocene-foal-found-preserved-near-perfect-permafrost

Wright, P. (2017) Empathising with Bog Bodies: Seamus Heaney and the Feminine Sublime. Brief Encounters. 1(1).


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.