When I was in college, one of my favorite final exams was in my ichthyology lab course (the study of fish). We had to take the head of a mysterious fish and identify it, boil it in a pot of water at home, collect all of the bones and cartilage that settled at the bottom after the flesh was removed, bleach them, dry them, then tiny-bone-by-tiny-bone and cartilage-by-cartilage glue the pieces back together using a guide from a book.
Oh, but it wasn’t. It was amazing.
I learned more about the fish’s head than I would have just by looking through pictures in a textbook.
This is the epitome of learning to me – hands-on, visual, and sometimes pretty gross!
One example is an owl pellet…
An owl pellet dissection kit is a great way to teach the child about a whole list of things (in no particular order):
1. raptors/ owls
2. the food web
7. dichotomous keys
10. total focus
11. respect and awareness for animals
So, what is an owl pellet… or do I want to know?
Basically, after an owl eats his meals he regurgitates what looks like a massive hairball. This hairball-looking thing is called an owl pellet, and it contains all of the non-digestible body parts of his prey, such as the bones, the teeth, and the hair or feathers. This is one way scientists are able to study birds-of-prey and the population of prey in their environment.
Try not to be disgusted by it. After you find your first bone, you’ll more than likely be hooked!
Objective: to learn about owls and the skeletal structure of their prey.
Deeper Objective: to have a deeper understanding of and respect for the life of an owl – it’s geography, health, diet, and environmental impacts – while also learning about the skeletal structure of small animals and how to use a dichotomous key.
1. owl pellet dissection kit (owl pellet, probe, tweezers, guide)
2. napkins or paper plates
6. gloves (optional)
7. super glue (optional)
8. dark colored cardstock (optional)
Remove all of the items from the owl pellet dissection kit and read the first section of the guide.
Unwrap the owl pellet from the aluminium foil. Set the foil aside as you may want to use it for collections.
Pick your owl pellet up with your tweezers (or your fingers if you’re not grossed out!) and follow the instructions to measure the owl pellet.
Use your scale to measure it by ounce.
Record your answers on the lines provided.
Inspect your owl pellet for hay, grass blades, etc., which will give you an idea of the owl’s environment (a forest, a barn, etc.). Circle your best answers.
Write down your hypothesis on the type an amount of bones you may find in your owl pellet. Don’t say I don’t know! Just take a good guess! Use your skeleton guide if needed.
Break open the owl pellet and you will most likely immediately find various bones still intact.
Take these pieces out very carefully with the tweezers and lay them on your paper plate or napkin.
Use your probe to help you carefully wrestle and lift a bone away from the firm owl pellet.
Keep digging, because you’re going to find some pretty cool stuff! This is the first of four or five skulls that we found.
Very gently pull the fur and other debris away from the skull/bones until it is more visible. The fur and debris go in one pile, while the bones go into another. We will sort those out later.
Upon finding a skull, you will also find the mandibles (jaw) very close to it. Keep them altogether.
Continue to find and sort.
Once your owl pellet has been completely dissected and you are left with a pile of fur and debris, you can make a copy of the categories page, then cut out each body part category. Line them up on your tray, and leave spaces for your collections of bones. If you do not have a copier, then just use it as a guide to sort the bones into different piles. You can always make labels.
I normally start with the most obvious first: the skull and mandibles.
Gently lift the individual bones up from the pile and place them in their correct categories.
Pay particular attention to the small shapes of the bones, by using the guide to differentiate. At first glance, the pelvic bone and the tibia looked so much alike until we looked more closely.
Continue sorting until your heart’s content. Younger elementary kids may need a break or two, and perhaps some friendly help from an older friend or adult. It may get pretty tedious and monotonous after awhile.
Next, use the dichotomous key to identify what kind of prey you have dissected from the owl pellet. The first question asks you to observe the skull and the placement of the teeth.
After careful observation, and a little bit of unintentional breath-holding, we found that because of the layout of the teeth, our owl pellet was filled with mice. Other owl pellets I have observed had a small bird beak, and other types of rodents besides mice.
Hmmm, you’ve got all these bones… now what? One option is to glue all of your labels onto a small posterboard, then glue all of your bones underneath the correct labels. the child can then hang it up and feel awesome! Another idea is to give oneself a big pat on the back, take a couple of pictures, then give the bones and fur back to the earth… perhaps a proper burial or sprinkle it all over a garden?
Well, here’s what I like to do… if the child is interested (and most of the time they are). Remember when I mentioned having to piece together the whole fish skull? You can do that with a mouse skeleton too.