You “knee-d” to know this! Answer to Freak of the Week #36

Elk, with joints labelled
Elk, with joints labelled

Bison, with joints labelled
Bison, with joints labelled

Great Blue Heron - note that the femur is concealed under the wing and feathers but I marked its location in white.
Great Blue Heron – note that the femur is concealed under the wing and feathers but I marked its location in white.

I couldn’t trick our astute readers with this question! You are all correct, those are indeed ankles and the knees do actually bend forward. Sometimes people get confused because the upper limb bone of the hind and forelimb, the femur and humerus respectively, sometimes gets “lost” in the mass of the body. That, combined with the fact that many animals have extended the length of their feet and now walk on either their toes or on the ends of their hoofs, makes it appear that the ankle is actually the knee!

Both the elk and bison are considered “unguligrade” meaning that they walk on their hooves. The keratin hooves encase the last toe bone, so basically they are walking on their tip-toes! This means that most of the foot is actually off the ground and the heel bone (calcaneus) projects to the back of the animal, and can look like a “backward knee”! Sometimes this is easier to see on the skeleton:
Feet of mammals

Why did some animals evolve such a system? For speed! The elongated leg and fused bones of the foot provides for greater speed in a forward direction. Notice how many of the prey species are unguligrade, such as deer, elk, moose, pronghorn, bison, etc. while many of the carnivores (canids, felids, etc.) are digitigrade – meaning that they run on their toes and not just on the last digit.

“Why do deer knees bend backwards!?” Freak of the Week #36


Here is a little bit different Freak of the Week for you! It’s a question that I’ve been asked several times, so I thought I’d put it out there for you to ponder: “Why do deer knees bend backwards?” It’s not just deer, but the question can be asked of elk (which is really just a large species of deer), bison, cattle, horse, or any other large ungulate. In fact, this apples to most birds too! See the photo below of the Great Blue Heron. How would you answer this question!?

Great Blue Heron - © Frank Schulenburg / CC-BY-SA-3.0
Great Blue Heron – © Frank Schulenburg / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Return of the Snakes

Have you been to Serpent Mound yet? If you needed an excuse to visit this iconic OHC site, I’m here to give you one: The Return of the Snakes, a family-friendly event run by our site parter, the Arc of Appalachia Preserve System on June 27 from 10-4.

The largest collection of Ohio’s native reptiles and amphibians ever gathered in our state will be displayed at Serpent Mound, while teaching about their natural history, ecology, and conservation challenges.

Special Events

  • Ohio’s native reptiles and amphibians on live display (don’t worry – both you and the animals will be completely safe).
  • For Adults: Presentations every hour by Ohio’s finest researchers & field naturalists – Ohio’s endangered reptile and amphibian species, identification, and natural history.
  • For Kids: Toad feeding, turtle pool, games, stories, and crafts. Touch a real live snake! Jr. Herpetologist hike for budding naturalists (please pre-register on the website).

Event Schedule:

Directions to Serpent Mound:


We hope to see you there!



Leave Wildlife in the Wild!

Deer fawn - photo by ForestWander Nature Photography.
Deer fawn – photo by ForestWander Nature Photography.
It’s springtime, which means it’s also time for the annual reminder from our friends at the Division of Wildlife – Ohio Dept. of Natural Resources: enjoy wildlife from a distance and leave young animals in the wild! At this time of year, we might see baby squirrels on the ground or a deer fawn hiding alone in the underbrush. It’s tempting to intervene but wildlife officials remind us that:
“Many adult wild animals will leave their young offspring alone while they forage for   food, or to divert the attention of potential predators away from the more vulnerable young. When young animals are discovered with no adults in sight, the adult is often nearby waiting for people to leave the area before they retrieve their young.”

Baby_birds_in_a_nest_in_a_tree_in_NJThey also dispel the myth that if humans handle a young animal then the parents will no longer take care of it. If humans disturb a nest, the young and the nest material should be replaced as close as possible to the original location. But generally “only licensed wildlife rehabilitators, working under special permits issued by the ODNR Division of Wildlife, may possess and care for native wild animals”.

You can read the full article here.

Bones of a cool Ice Age animal! Answer to FoW #35.

Cervical (neck) vertebrae of an Ice Age muskox.
Cervical (neck) vertebrae of an Ice Age muskox.

We had some good guesses from our readers as to what animal these bones are from, and we had to consider such species in identifying these vertebrae. You can see in the photo below that the cervical (neck) vertebrae of the larger, more common species from Ohio do not match the unknown bones! Bison, which are not pictured, are very similar in the post-cranial skeleton to cattle and can also be eliminated from the list of suspects. The most noticeable difference is how wide the body (centrum) of the vertebrae are, much wider than any of the species below.

So we’re left with a large ungulate, with a relatively short, wide neck. Hmmmm!? The only animal that could fit this bill is a muskox! Could it be!? There have been only a handful of records of muskoxen from Ohio, and this would be a nice find. So I sent the photos to the well-known Pleistocene vertebrate paleontologist Dr. Greg McDonald of the National Park Service; he fired back an email: “They are indeed muskox!”.

Cervical vertebrae  of horse, cattle, and prehistoric elk.
Cervical vertebrae of horse, cattle, and prehistoric elk.

Now the question is, what species are they from? There were two types of muskox in Ohio during the Pleistocene, the modern Muskox (Ovibos moschatus) which now lives in the Arctic, and the Woodland Muskox (Bootherium bombifrons) which became extinct at the end of the Ice Age. The Woodland Muskox was taller and thinner than the modern Muskox, and was the most common muskox in the midwest during the Pleistocene. To properly identify these vertebrae, we’ll need to see the bones in person and maybe take them to another museum to compare to known specimens of muskox. We are hoping that the bones will be donated soon to the Ohio History Connection. Then we can not only determine what species they are, but also have the specimens available for research, teaching, and exhibit. Which species do you think they will be from!? We’ll give the answer as soon as we know!

Modern Muskox
Modern Muskox
Skull of the extinct muskox Bootherium.
Skull of the extinct muskox Bootherium.

Unusual vertebrae are found in Ohio! Freak of the Week #35

Unusual vertebrae - FoW #35.
Unusual vertebrae – FoW #35.

It’s always fun to see what people discover around the state and send in to us! A few years ago these two vertebrae were uncovered when dredging the bottom of a lake in northeastern Ohio. Then this photo was sent to us recently asking for our help in identifying the bones. Often when bones in this size range are found they turn out to be cattle or horse. So I compared the photo to the cow and horse vertebrae in our collection. They looked somewhat similar to these species, but I couldn’t get an exact match. Of course there are size differences between breeds of domestic animals, and even between individuals of the same breed or species. However, as hard as I tried I just could not get a match. I just had a gnawing feeling that this wasn’t something I’d seen before.

So what are these from!? Your job, should you choose to accept it, is to identify these by next week! Put your answer in the “Comment” box below. Note they are not from a mastodon or mammoth; they are too small to be from these species. Have fun!

“Going, Going, … ” – only 10 more days left!

Extinction timeline, in "Going, Going, Gone?" exhibit.
Extinction timeline, in “Going, Going, Gone?” exhibit.

Now that the tax deadline has passed, there is one more important deadline on the horizon! The exhibit “Going, Going, Gone? Endangered and Extinct Species” is closing in only 10 days! Sun. April 26 is the last day of the exhibit, so come on down to the Ohio History Center and check it out!

Specimens of Threatened and Endangered species.
Specimens of Threatened and Endangered species.
Where else can you see one of the world’s last wild Passenger Pigeons? An articulated skeleton of the Giant Beaver that lived in Ohio during the Ice Age? The skin of a polar bear? Taxidermy mounts of the extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker and Carolina Parakeet? An eye-to-eye look at an endangered Timber Rattlesnake!?

The Museum is open Wednesday–Saturday 10 AM – 5 PM and Sunday Noon–5 PM. Click here for more information and admission prices.

Passenger Pigeon gallery.
Passenger Pigeon gallery.

A square horn coral!? Answer to Freak of the Week #34

Goniophyllum pyramidale, a square horn coral!
Goniophyllum pyramidale, a square horn coral!
So did I give you enough time to ponder this unusual specimen from the Orton Geological Museum!? Maybe I should change this series to Freak of the Month! It’s been a busy time here but hopefully we’ll be able to post on a more regular basis soon. But congrats to Dorene who came the closest, she guessed that it might be a coral. It is indeed a square horn coral, Goniophyllum pyramidale. In life this animal had four triangular flaps, known as opercular valves, which would have covered the opening. This specimen is from the Silurian Period, approximately 430 million years old, and was collected in Gotland, Sweden.

Zaphrentis - photo by James St. John
Zaphrentis – photo by James St. John
In Ohio we’re used to seeing the common horn corals, which were found throughout most of the Paleozoic Era. The photo is a of solitary rugose coral (“horn coral”), Zaphrentis, from Indiana but is also found in Ohio. You’ll notice that the ridges inside the coral, known as septa, are similar between the European square coral and our commom horn coral; a clue that the unusually shaped specimen is probably a coral!

Thanks to Dale Gnidovec, Curator of the Orton Geological Museum, for the idea and for providing the information about the specimen.

An oddity from the Orton Museum! Freak of the Week #34

Freak of the Week #34
Freak of the Week #34

Well, here’s a weird one for you! This comes to us from Dale Gnidovec at the Orton Geological Museum at OSU. When he told me about this specimen, I thought “No, that can’t be real” but here it is! It’s not from Ohio, but is just too freaky not to use in this series! More than likely you have never seen one of these, but what does it look most like to you that is from Ohio!? The object is fairly small, only about an inch across. Thanks to Kellie Locke-Rogers for the photos.

Oblique view of object
Oblique view of object
Exterior view
Exterior view

Upcoming event: “Stopping the Next Amphibian Apocalypse”

Photo by Michael Graziano
Photo by Michael Graziano

Here’s an upcoming not-to-be-missed event! The Environmental Professionals Network, part of the School of Environment and Natural Resources at Ohio State, presents: “Stopping the Next Amphibian Apocalypse – Saving America’s Salamanders”. This program will be part of their monthly breakfast series, billed as “An EPN Buffet Breakfast, Networking and Presentation Event”.

It will be held Thursday, April 9, 2015 – 7:15am – 9:20am at the Agricultural Administration Auditorium 2120 Fyffe Rd. Columbus, OH 43210.
7:15 – Doors open; coffee, tea, juice; networking
7:40 – Warm buffet breakfast
8:10 – Presentation and Q & A discussion
9:20 – Adjourn and networking

Joseph Mendelson, PhD, Director of Research, Zoo Atlanta
Joe Greathouse, Director of Conservation Science, the Wilds

Barbara Wolfe, PhD, DVM, Chief Science Officer, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium and the Wilds; Clinical Associate Professor, OSU Veterinary Preventive Medicine and SENR

A warm breakfast, an important topic, and nationally-known speakers…and all for only $10! For more information and to register, click here. Note that the deadline to register is Tues. April 7 at noon.