CSI Black Hills?

When you hike with a geologist, you get used to picking up rocks. Or, at least, to watching the geologist pick up rocks. A wise hiking companion learns early on to enforce a fundamental rule: “If you want to haul it home, you carry it yourself.”

Last weekend I had a chance to apply this excellent rule to a different branch of science. A group of us went for a hike in the Black Hills. It’s recently been hunting season in the national forest for both deer and pronghorn antelope, and along the way we found the remains of several semi-fresh carcasses.

One member of our group is a biologist who teaches at a small college with a small budget. She wanted the pronghorn skull we found to add to her collection of specimens for her comparative anatomy class. Her initial plan was to leave the carcass by the trail and come back later, armed with the proper tools, to remove the skull.

But another of the hikers always carries a small pack that, like Mary Poppins’s carpetbag, has room for any number of amazing and useful things. She just happened to have a large plastic bag and a sizable Swiss Army knife with a saw blade. She volunteered to help with the decapitation.

The biologist’s paleontologist husband was willing to assist, as well, even though the corpses he usually works with tend to be less fresh than this one by several million years. The dog would have been happy to help, too. Her volunteer efforts were politely declined.

The details of the skull removal, like the way the outer sheaths of the horns separated from the underlying bases, were actually quite interesting. Still, several of us decided not to watch the whole process but to walk on a little farther down the trail. Like anonymous donors to a dubious political cause, we supported the operation in principle but felt a need to distance ourselves from the smell.

There’s nothing like a little hands-on biology to increase one’s appreciation of a good, odor-neutral rock.

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