Truth lies beneath the skin

Berkeley, California

[Alan's backyard, site of frequent sightings of fast-moving critters]

I wrapped up my studies in Berkeley on Thursday night, by which time Alan and I have dissected three North American otter skulls, a gray fox skull, a red fox skull, two spotted hyena skulls, and an entire racoon.

[temporary hyena lab set up in Alan's garage]

The jaw muscles were of particular interest to me. A general rule in mammals is that carnivores have large temporalis muscles, and herbivores have large masseter muscles. The relative sizes of the jaw muscles relate to how food is processed in the mouth.

[in combination with anatomy, the marks on teeth of function from food scratches reveal the broad dietary preferences of living and extinct animals]

A solid comparative anatomical foundation is necessary to make educated guesses on the dietary habits of fossil mammal species. I took on the train ride back to Los Angeles with me the newly gained knowledge from the week's dissections, a boost to learn more about fossil hyenas!

[Emeryville, California]



Otters in the mist

Berkeley, California

Once again I have returned to the San Francisco Bay Area. To kick off another week of museum study, I dissected a North American river otter skull (Lontra canadensis) yesterday. With the help of my friend Alan Shabel of the Department of Integrative Biology, we separated the powerful jaw muscles and weighed them.

[Alan dissecting an otter skull]

The intense day of dissection was followed by contemplation up at Alan's house, in the Berkeley Hills. I have a great view of Wildcat Canyon from my room, which overlooks one of the park areas with an abundance of local birds and mammals.

[looking into Tilden Park]

From a single vantage point on the back porch I saw California towhees, black-capped chickadees, Anna's hummingbirds, fox squirrels, signs of gophers, golden-crowned sparrows, and a variety of vocalizations I am too rusty to identify.



Explorer's excerpts II: Andrews on desert bandits

Following is a recollection of an encounter with bandits in Mongolia by Roy Chapman Andrews (American Museum of Natural History):

"I was more than a mile in advance of Johnson as we approached the place where the two Russian cars had been robbed a few weeks earlier. As I recognized the spot the thought came to me, 'I wonder if brigands would attempt to hold me up on the same ground.' Almost at the same moment, I saw the flash of a gun barrel on the summit of a hill three hundred yards away. The head and shoulders of a single mounted horseman were just visible against the sky. In Mongolia and China only two kinds of native have modern rifles- brigands and soldiers. As a matter of fact, these terms are virtually synonymous. The horseman on the hilltop was doubtless a sentinel to give warning to others in the valley below. I had no mind to have him in such a position, whoever he might be, and drawing my revolver, I fired twice. The bullets must have come too close for comfort, although I did not attempt to hit him, for he instantly disappeared. "

A moment later, as the car topped the rim of the valley, I saw three mounted bandits as the bottom of the slope. It would have been impossible to turn the car and retreat without exposing myself to close range shots and knowing that a Mongol pony never would stand against the charge of a motor I decided to attack. The cut-out was open and with a smooth stretch in front of me, I roared down the slope at forty miles an hour. The expected happened! While the brigands were endeavoring to unship their rifles, which were on their backs, their horses began a series of leaps and bounds, madly bucking and rearing, so that the men could hardly stay in their saddles. I opened up with one of my six-shooters, firing close to their heads, and in a second the situation had changed! The only thing that the brigands wanted to do was to get away. When last I saw them, they were breaking all speed-records on the other side of the valley..."

~On the trail of ancient man (1926), pp.216-217