The Dead Do Tell Tales


The skull of a brown bear (Ursus arctos), photographed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

The next time someone watches my apartment I will have to post a warning about the skulls. A few are in plain sight, like a badger skull on the bookshelf and a comparative set of small animal crania on the desk, but there are a few more hidden away in drawers and closets. The present disorganization of my osteological collection was very unsettling to the young woman who was taking care of the place while my wife and I were out west. She opened a drawer looking for a pen or some such thing and instead found a raccoon skull. Fortunately for her nerves she did not open the outdoor storage closet; I had a deer skull drying in there.

My interest in bones is not always easy to explain to those who do not share my osteological fascination. While some write it off as eccentric others think it a rather macabre hobby, and I have sometimes fretted about having to explain to a traffic cop why there is a box of moose and deer bones in the back of the station wagon. (I really have to curate those things.) Indeed, for many folks bones are grisly reminders of death, but to me they have more to say about life.

Every bone tells a story. This is a simple fact that is easy to overlook. Think of the bones in your own skeleton right now. They have been reshaped constantly since the time you were born and will continue to be reshaped until the day you die. In this way a bone is like a snapshot of a moment (albeit the last moment) of a creature’s life.

[If a bone contains a pathology indicative of an illness or injury that occurred sometime before death, the more interesting it becomes.]


The skeleton of a black caiman (Melanosuchus niger), photographed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Now, in many cases bones are destroyed. The bodies of the dead are consumed by predators, picked apart by scavengers, trampled by herbivores, and broken down by insects, fungi, and microorganisms. The skeleton of an animal as immense as an elephant can be reduced to splinters in a relatively short amount of time. (See Peter Beard’s The End of the Game for stunning photographs of this breakdown in action.) Under more fortunate circumstances, however, bones might become buried and go through the process of fossilization. The original organic material is replaced, yet the cellular structure of the bones is preserved. Just like fresh bone, even the tiniest shard of fossil bone can tell us about the life of the past.

I also find skeletons to be aesthetically pleasing, especially since they make evolution so apparent. (Their beauty is exquisitely captured in Jean Baptise de Panafieu’s Evolution.) Skeletons reveal evolution’s architectural experiments; it is difficult to look at the bones of a lion or an Apatosaurus or a human and not think about what paleontologist W.D. Matthew once called “life’s splendid drama.” Differences between the skeletons of different species can easily be picked out, but it is even more moving to recognize the similarities. It is startling to witness the way in which the vertebrate skeleton has been modified into a wide array of different forms, something I had known for some time but I still found deeply moving when I strolled through the “Hall of Bones” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History last spring.

Contrary to the popular pirate aphorism, the dead do tell tales. This goes far beyond the efforts of forensic specialists to analyze crime scenes; every bone says something about the animal it once belonged to and how that creature lived. It can be easy to take this fact for granted, but I find it so wonderful that I have little doubt that my workspace will continue to become cluttered with fossils and bones for some time to come. I had better get to work on those “Warning” signs.


  1. #1 ~L.K.
    September 8, 2009

    Would the title be a reference to Dead Men Do Tell Tales?

    Finding skeletons was always my favorite part of exploring. As a kid, I’d find fish skeletons a plenty (although fishing was fruitless) on our river. My old high school was in a fairly wooded area, so when we’d be forced to go for a jog when the asphalt was bubbling, we’d take to the woods and hopefully find a rodent or deer skeleton.

  2. #2 Allen Hazen
    September 9, 2009

    Re: “Differences between the skeletons of different species can easily be picked out, but it is even more moving to recognize the similarities.”

    Indeed. One of the experiences in a museum that, for me, makes the evolutionary origin of mammals vivid is standing in front of a Dimetrodon, looking at the temporal fenestra behind the orbit of the eye, and clenching my teeth while holding my fingers to my temple to feel the muscle swelling above my cheekbone: Dimetrodon and I, the experience seems to say, have much in common!

  3. #3 Ron Cauble
    September 9, 2009

    I hope when you are in town, you will visit The Bone Room.

  4. #4 Ron Cauble
    September 9, 2009

    My comment was refused for too many comments. Since this is my first, it is rather strange.

  5. #5 Lyn C
    September 9, 2009

    This is a really fabulous post. I love the insight into your personal collection as well as your lyrical description of the Hall of Bones. Thanks for this, and for all you do.

  6. #6 bioephemera
    September 12, 2009

    Another wonderful post from you, Brian. You capture the “wonder” of science like no one else. When can I buy your book?!?

  7. #7 Nick Gardner
    September 14, 2009

    I agree with bioephemera!

    This is a very good post, it highlights some of your best writing qualities. The opening anecdote and the accompanying photographs (especially the caiman) are probably the best parts. This is the type of writing I expect from newspaper columnists but am so regularly disappointed to find that they don’t meet my expectations at all.

    I wish you’d write more posts like this.


  8. #8 Laelaps
    September 14, 2009

    Jessica; Thank you! :) With any luck I will have some good news to share about the book sometime this week.

    Nick; Thanks, and I do intend to write more posts like this. Yes, discussions of technical papers and such are important, but every now and then I like to write something like this to remind myself why I love science so much.

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