Getting Down to Bear Bones

by Andrea Foster, Conservation Outreach Coordinator

It’s not often you meet a student like Laken Shell. At seventeen, she has done more in the field of conservation than most adults. She has worked with Little Forks Conservancy on a regular basis doing volunteer projects such as stream sampling and macroinvertebrate identification, and interns at the Gladwin County Conservation District.

As a senior in Mr. Chad Donahue’s Zoology class at Gladwin High School, she has been working on something different for the past year. Laken is stripping animal carcasses to the bone and putting the skeletons back together, piece by piece.

This process is called an articulation, and Laken has been the lead osteologist on two full articulations during her junior and senior years. The one she is currently working on is a little bit different. The skeleton is that of a 150lb black bear. With help from her classmates, Laken has stripped, dismembered, organized and boiled down the entire skeleton. The process includes boiling the meat off of the bones to fully clean them and then bleaching them in a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and water.

According to Laken, the process is straightforward. “First, we skin the bear. Then we part it out. Then we work on de-fleshing it, which is taking all the meat off of the bones. After we take the meat off the bones as much as we can, we boil it. The boiling loosens everything up and then we scrape the remaining meat and cartilage off. After that, we put it in ammonia to degrease the bones, and then put them in peroxide to whiten them. Then we start piecing it back together to re-create the skeleton.”

Depending on the part of the skeleton, some parts like the feet are glued together, some bones are stacked on a piece of rod, like the spine, and the bigger bones are tacked together with wire.

When asked about how she started working on articulations, Laken stated that “At first I wasn’t even interested, but then Mr. Donahue told me about it and showed it to me and I realized that it was like a big puzzle. I loved figuring out what parts go where, and it really helped me gain knowledge of animal anatomy.”

Projects like these engage students in new ways, and are a wonderful example of youth being led by teachers to enjoy new things they never would have tried. Little Forks Conservancy is working hard to actively engage youth, and help lead the next generation of conservationists!

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