Scavenger Effects

Fossils only rarely intact (i.e. complete and articulated) and can be a collection of all kinds of odd bones that you would not necessarily expect to find together. Many pieces will be retained in close association (e.g. the vertebral column) but others will drift or be destroyed in quite unpredictable ways. I’ll be writing more on this subject later, just wanted to put up this nice picture that demonstrates the point really quite well.


I took this in Mexico and it shows the remains of a donkey that has been thoroughly picked over by coyotes and feral dogs as well as huge numbers of vultures (and possibly but unlikely the odd wolf or bear which are in the area thought his was way too close to a town for them to be likely and tracks would probably have been visible).  Despite the work that has clearly gone into picking the animal clean of meat (it’s literally just skin and bone) the majority of the skeleton is basically there and intact and aside from being a bit folded up, is also still articulated.

Even so the pelvis appears to have gone as well as at least one leg, even though the rest is fine. There was no sign of them, so any palaeontologist coming in a few million years from now will find what we sometimes do with our own discoveries – an otherwise intact skeleton with a few bits mysteriously missing from the middle.

p1000336The place where I found this was the back of a dump and was clearly a place where animal corpses were left for the local wildlife to pick over but it made of a fascinating (if often stinking) lesson in taphonomy and how things decay. Here are a couple more photos showing different aspects of scavenging and skeletal break up. First off there is a whole swathe of bones that have been separated out and scattered over a small area. Apart form the odd pair of bones still together, pretty much everything here is mixed up from several animals, and it’s hard to work out how many there likely were originally. While of course they animals were dead when they were brought here, one can easily imagine a small herd of animals dying at a waterhole and this being the result of the local predators and scavengers picking over them, before a flash flood or sand storm buries them and leaves a bone bed in the making.

p1000339Last we have this one, a partial skeleton where the ribs and vertebral column is almost completely intact. The head and legs and tail has gone, but the rest is there and undisturbed. Ribs are normally one of the first things to go, and of course vertebrae often separate, so this is an interesting example.

That’s it for now. There is (as often promised on these pages) more to come on this subject, but this should keep the ghoulishly interested in rotting donkeys going for a while.

7 Responses to “Scavenger Effects”

  1. 1 Oliver 05/12/2008 at 7:13 pm

    I hope you’re keeping track of all these “more to come” posts… I’d like to find out more about most every post that has that phrase in 🙂

    Oliver (a non-paleo person)

  2. 2 Jens 05/12/2008 at 11:02 pm

    From this perspective it is puzzling, why so many late permian skeletons in the Karoo strata are intact. Is this an indication of only few large scavengers around during this time? (e.g. Erwin, Douglas H. 2006, Extinction: how life on earth nearly ended 250 million years ago, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.)

  3. 3 David Hone 06/12/2008 at 9:08 am

    Oliver: it’s very simple – I only announce ‘to come’ posts that I have already written. It might take a while for them to coem through, but they are written, pictures found and edited and so on. The only major delays are the fact that I have about 20 done right now and only post 3-4 a week, plus the fact that many are interlinked so I can’t publish some until the early ones in the series are done. You acn expect everyhting to come up sooner or later though.

    Jens: Sorry but I really can’t tell you since I don’t know much about the Karoo at all. It could well be a number of factors – few predators / scavengers, rapid burial prevented scavenging, desert environment resulted in deaths from starvation/ dehydration and thus bodies were not scavenged, chance, somehting else I have not thought of. Hopefully Adam Yates of Dravoventor will spot this and chip in as he has worked extensively in the Karoo.

  1. 1 More on bone degradation and disintegration « Dave Hone’s Archosaur Musings Trackback on 10/12/2008 at 8:46 am
  2. 2 Blog Carnival, Edition #3 -- Dinosaur sketches, skeleton problems, lost boots | Dinosaur Tracking Trackback on 30/12/2008 at 1:59 am
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