SKELETONS ARE NOT JUST FOR HALLOWEEN

by Whit Gibbons

October 29, 2017

Want a coffee table book suitable for display at Halloween? "The Skeleton Revealed: An Illustrated Tour of the Vertebrates" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017) by Steve Huskey is the perfect choice.

A superb blend of science and art, this remarkable book is educational and mesmerizing. Over the course of many years, Huskey prepared all of the skeletons himself from vertebrates found around the world.

They are displayed in numerous museums, including the Harvard Museum of Natural History, the California Academy of Sciences and the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science in Miami. His book lets readers marvel at the skeletal world all in one place.

This extraordinary book provides a seldom-emphasized, comparative perspective on the inner structure of vertebrates – fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. More than 300 full-page photographs of some of the most intricate skeletons imaginable are presented on a black background.

A variety of vertebrate groups are represented, permitting anatomical comparisons of bone structure and development. A well-written text accompanies illustrations with explanations of how different bones, including teeth, function in the species.

The writing is informative, not only about animal names and geographic distributions but also about notable biological aspects of each species presented. An open-mouthed skeletal head of a king mackerel, “one of the fastest fish in the sea,” reveals the rows of evenly spaced, razor-edged teeth. The text notes that these marine predators can travel at almost 50 mph and cut another fish in half, “which makes for easier swallowing.”

One illustration shows how a king mackerel’s skeleton is designed for speed. Its dorsal fin lies in a groove in the middle of the back, a feature that helps minimize resistance as the fish propels itself through the water. A skeleton of the world’s slowest mammal, a two-toed sloth from tropical America, hangs upside down from a pole by its “long, strong, hook-like claws.”

The book illustrates the elegant architecture of skeletons, each designed for its own purpose in life. A monocled cobra, front part of its body held high in a threat display with its hood spread wide, reveals how ribs in the region behind the head “are much straighter than others and can be spread widely to expand the neck.”

This complete array of ribs from head to tail might lead one to ask, "Does a snake really have that many bones?" Yes. Mostly ribs of different sizes.

Sharks, skates and rays have skeletons made of cartilage instead of bone. The cartilaginous network comprising pectoral fins of a cownose ray is shown in a majestic fanlike display. Because rays have no swim bladder, cartilage, which is lighter than bone, serves an important function. A lighter body load allows rays to stay afloat as they swim through the sea.

Perhaps not surprising in a book full of skeletons, some illustrations may strike readers as a bit creepy, such as a Cooper’s hawk skeleton perched on a limb with the skeleton of a flying squirrel dangling from its beak. This predator-prey arrangement would be suitable as a front porch ornament for a home owner who doesn’t want visitors on Halloween, or perhaps ever.

Nonetheless, the elaborate, complex articulation of bones and the large hollow eye socket necessary to house the hawk’s optical system explain how the hawk can operate as a successful predator. Further revealed are the captured flying squirrel’s delicate leg bones, which attach to membranes, allowing these nocturnal rodents to glide through the air.

Other predator-prey combinations include an African rock python skeleton constricting and eating a Saharan spiny-tailed lizard and, even more impressive, a green anaconda swallowing a caiman.

An exquisite book on skeletons may seem most appropriate around Halloween, but “The Skeleton Revealed” is suitable for every season. This book will captivate everyone who picks it up and begins to flip through the pages, proving, once again, any subject can be interesting, even compelling with the right presentation.

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