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A gruesome find and a new mystery

Warning: Most of the posts I write are suitable for young children, but this one is slightly more gruesome and sad, so parents of younger children might want to read this first, since it raises other issues they might not have discussed with them yet.

The wood where this week's story took place is a wood that I would not usually look for bones. Unlike the huge dark pine forests with earth floors where I normally look for bones, this one  is a thin strip of deciduous trees (the leaves fall off, unlike pine trees) where grass grows. Open woods like this are more difficult to find bones, partly because they don't offer much protection to animals like deer, and also because if an animal dies there, the grass and leaves quickly cover up their skeletons

 But the reason that I was in this wood was because I had left my trail cam there for the past week to see what animals passed through there. Dad and I walked up there an hour before sunset to see what had been recorded, but I ended up finding something completely unexpected.

This was the wood, a few miles from my house on the other size of the Pheasant Woods. It is widely spaced silver birth trees, and the strip is less than 50m wide between two fields.

On the way out of the wood, I came across these bones. These are the humerus, radius, ulna and metacarpal of a roe deer. I could tell it was an adult (by the size, and because the ends of the bones were fused) but that it wasn't elderly (because the tip of the ulna wasn't fused to the radius). I've seen this a lot - usually a fox or other animal has pulled away the leg from the body, but foxes can carry a section like this a long way away. But there must be a body somewhere !

I began looking, and soon I found half of the pelvis. Just from looking at it, I could tell it was old but it was not really old (because the two halves hadn't fused) and that it was probably a female (from the angle of the notch at the top of it how I am holding it here) 

Just next to it was the rest of the skeleton,  almost covered up under the grass. It was about 3pm and the sun was setting, so I had to work fast if I wanted to see the skeleton. 

There were a few bones on the surface, like the other half of the pelvis and a femur.

So I started to take a look. Female roe deer are less interesting than males, because they don't have antlers, but it's always worth looking to see if there is any interesting pathology on the bones. I once walked past the carcass of a red deer, and didn't realise until years later that it was actually three legged because of a birth defect.

The skeleton was lying pretty much as it died, with the rib heads still touching the vertebrae, and the whole spine there, although the skull was missing.

I found something interesting - but it wasn't what I was expecting. I was working at the back of the spine of the roe It was two very small jaw bones.  I knew instantly what I had found because I had found something similar before three years ago.

The lower jaws were from a roe deer - but were so small that they could have only have come from an unborn baby that was still inside its mother when the mother died.

There was also some small ribs and quite a few other really small bones.

I used a lid of a tin from my backpack to lay out the small bones. I carefully worked through the soil with a tool, and felt each bit of soil with my fingers.

It was amazing to see how small these bones were. This is one of its hooves. Think how small it would have been !

This just shows how small the bones where compared to the mum. These bones are both tibias ( I broke my tibia last year !) I had to use my fingers to dig through the soil to find the small bones.

 I took a break from finding the baby's bones, and looked around for the skull. About ten metres away from the main body I found it.

I must have seen hundreds of deer skulls, but I have never seen one as badly damaged as this one. The back of the skull was broken, and the upper palate (roof of the mouth) was also broken.This was very unusual.

I went back to the main skeleton of the mother. At the end of the spine were the other parts of the smashed skull. This meant the skull was broken when it was still attached to the spine. 

The injury was so bad it wouldn't have been survivable, so it may have been cause of death, or it may have happened after death. But that's a mystery for another time.

With a small skeleton you are never quite sure whether you have everything until you go home. I took all of the fawns bones home and a few of the mother bones (to compare size). I simmered them in biological washing powder solution, but only for a few hours, changing the water several times. I washed them less than I would do with adult bones because I wasn't sure how fragile they may be. The ruler is a 20cm ruler. I had all the major bones, except the whole pelvis.

The skull was in 32 pieces but I did my best to lay them out. It was so many pieces not because of a trauma which smashed the skull, but because the skull was still growing, and did not have much time to fuse together. Even though I did not get all of the bones, I was still pleased.

I always have mixed feelings at times like this. Finding an unborn fawn's skeleton is amazing, but it's terribly sad to think it died without ever seeing a sunset, and that its mother died as well. At the same time, there are lots of mysteries about it. How old was it when it died ? What caused the injuries to the mother ? I'll write about those in a later post.

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Ric said...

Well that is an amazing find. Well done for spotting the smaller bones and persevering with collecting them all.

Quo Vadis Quo Vadis said...

Very interesting article. I love the way you write about it.

Jake said...

Thanks !

Jake said...

I've seen deer skeletons be moved hundreds of yards by foxes when they are in this condition.

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