Monday, April 2, 2012

Animal skulls to offer an evening of skullduggery at Saginaw's Green Point

by Janet I. Martineau

A parade of skulls will populate the Green Point Environmental Learning Center, 2010 Maple in Saginaw, on  Wednesday, April 4  -- nearly 30 of them, in fact.
A rabbit skull
That is when Janea Little, a senior naturalist at the Chippewa Nature Center in Midland, presents a 7 p.m. Nurturing Nature program entitled “Animal Skulls.” Admission is free to members of the Friends of the Shiawassee National Wildlife refuge; $2 at the door for others.
Little says her collection that night will range from a black bear skull measuring 10 inches long to a brown bat skull a mere half-inch long. 
Which creature skull fascinates her the most?
“It depends on my mood.  I think the lacy network of bone along the muzzle of the rabbit (designed as an air conditioner for cooling down during a burst of speed) is very cool and unique.”

Ask her that if it is true the bigger the skull the smarter the critter, and she says it’s complicated. 
“It’s the size of the head RELATIVE to the body (T. Rex had a really big head, after all), and also how much of the head is the BRAIN cavity.  For instance, possums and raccoons have the same size heads; in fact, the opossums is larger compared to body size.  But the BRAIN cavity of the possum is the size of a peanut (still in the shell), while the raccoon brain cavity is triple that size.”
In her career, Little says she has never found or been asked to identify anything really old. “Probably the oldest was a cow from (Midland’s) Jefferson avenue. The people who brought it in said it was in their yard, which had not been a cow pasture for several decades.  As a child, I did have a very fine collection of dinosaur bones.  Looking back, they bore a strange resemblance to cow bones of all sorts.”
There are all sorts of clues she uses in trying to identify skulls found or brought in to the nature center -- ones she will share during her “Nurturing Nature” program.
“Teeth are a biggie in ID – carnivores have fangs, herbivores do not.  Rodents have really large, yellowed incisors, other herbivores do not.  Deer don’t even have upper incisors, only lowers.  Each species has a unique set of teeth (even fox and gray squirrels have slightly different tooth count), so if the skull is complete, you can ID it.”
All LAND mammals have teeth ... but birds do not.
And yes, sometimes she is stumped.
“I  often fail to ID a skull if it is incomplete or heavily damaged (sorry, I’m not CSI).  I have also struggled with pigs and cows, as my brain is always trying to figure out what WILD animal it is.”

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