Monday, March 09, 2009

Another dead snapper tale

First, if you haven't already read Darren's awesome post on turning dead animals into skeletons, do so now. Look out for the amazing line, "Stig and I once microwaved a dead cat and the results were outstanding."

That reminded me that I have told the story of one of my dead snappers, but not the other. As far as I can tell, anyway. So here goes.

I was working at the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History as a grad student, and I had put the word out that I was looking for a big dead snapping turtle. A few weeks later, I got a hit. One of the other grad students had been on a hike at the local lake and seen a dead snapper, so he'd pushed it up into a metal culvert to hide it from scavengers, both human and otherwise. A few days later he told my friend and partner-in-crime, Julian (same Julian as in the other snapper story linked above), a few days after that Julian told me, and a few days after that we finally hopping in Julian's truck and went out to get that thing.

Keep in mind that this was May in Oklahoma, when the temperature and the humidity were both hovering in the high 90s. And that the snapper had been up in that culvert for a week and a half by the time Jules and I went after it, and dead for an unknown additional period.

I waded into the ankle-deep water and dragged the thing out of the culvert by the shell. It was huge, with a carapace 15 inches long and a head three inches wide. Weighed upward of 20 pounds. It was also to the "bratwurst" stage of decomposition, in which the head, tail, and all four limbs were extended and swollen up like unholy sausages (the putative existence of holy sausages is a topic for another post). I didn't want to touch the flesh, which had the texture of gelatin and the rich aroma of rotting horse ass. So I tried to gingerly pick it up by the edge of the shell using only the fingertips of my right hand. Bad idea--as I was turning it over, the entire weight of the animal came down on my right thumbnail, cracked it in half, and bent it back at a 90 degree angle from the quick. I howled, dropped the snapper back in the drink, and ran to shore where I gritted my teeth and snapped the broken nail back down over the bleeding quick where it belonged. Only then did I realize that in my haste I had run smack into a little stand of poison ivy, to which I am seriously allergic.

Somehow we got the dead snapper into a couple of trash bags and into the bed of Julian's truck. Then we went back to my place, put it on the back porch, and took turns showering with Technu to get the poison ivy oil off. I also bandaged my thumb, but ended up losing most of the nail anyway. Not fun.

I wasn't sure what to do with the snapper. Our duplex backed up on a big wild plot at the edge of town, and I was tempted to use ants, but I didn't want to expose the thing to scavengers, which were both diverse (raccoons, opossums, coyotes, dogs, etc.) and abundant. I had used maceration for the mummified snapper but the results were awesomely greasy. I was interested in burying it but had no experience with prepping carcasses that way.

The upshot is that I didn't do anything with it for several days, during which it was sitting on my back porch inside two shopping bags in the 90-degree heat. Jules and I had gotten it on a Saturday.

The following Thursday night Vicki and I were on an evening stroll about the neighborhood, about two blocks from home, and the wind changed just right and we could both smell that snapper rotting. Vicki looked at me and sternly said, "You are going to get up tomorrow morning and bury that thing."

I did. It was simply horrific. I opened the trash bags, grabbed the bottom ends, and pulled up. The snapper slid out on its back. Or rather its remains did. All that was left was a greasy articulated skeleton, a couple of gallons of really evil greenish-black fluid, and about a million grains of white rice. Only they weren't grains of rice, they were maggots. The stench hit me like the proverbial freight train.

I dug a hole about a foot deep in the yard, lined the bottom with a plastic trash bag, slid the snapper in with the shovel, buried it, and covered the spot with a few logs from the woodpile. I say it like I just did all that stuff. In fact it took most of an hour because holding my breath I could only work for about 30 seconds at a time, before I had to go to the upwind corner of the yard and just breathe. The stench was beyond anything I have ever experienced before or since. I didn't know that a scent could be that powerful. I hosed down the porch for a long time, too.

All that summer I watered the logs over the burial plot daily. This kept them moist during the long hot summer, when temperatures got over 110 F for a solid month, and hopefully promoted lots of biological activity in the soil below. I flipped the logs daily to collect rolly-pollies (or pill bugs, if you insist) for my baby box turtles. In August I moved the logs and carefully dug up the turtle. Amazingly, the bones were entirely defleshed and degreased. I cleaned them up with soap and water and they came out shiny white, with no bleach or peroxide. I still have the skull, which is beautiful and impressive, and if I wasn't so lazy I would have included a photo of it with this post. Maybe next time.

Anyway, I've been ardently pro-burial for carcass preparation ever since. Give it a shot, it's a great experience.

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Blogger Neil said...


I once stumbled upon the very ripe carcass of a large Geochelone (sulcata perhaps) in the Angeles National Forest during a stratigraphy field trip. Presumably it was a dumped pet, and it was lying on its back so hopefully it had at least been dumped after it was already dead. I considered trying to stash it in the university van, for about five seconds. Something tells me it probably would have made its presence known at some point on the six hour drive home....

All of which reminds me, I have a two meter water monitor in the freezer that I need to deal with....

3:18 PM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

Yeah, it woulda stunk pretty good. There is an odor that is particular to Dead's not good.

Sucks that you had to leave such an awesome thing behind. I don't suppose you could have surreptitiously tied it to the top of the van, huh?

3:35 PM  
Blogger Mike Taylor said...

What, what? You still have the crappy skull? What did you do with the awesome postcranium?

5:59 AM  
Blogger Monado said...

I had pet turtles for a while - several inches long, a couple of diamond-backed terrapins, a red-eared slider, and a Blandings turtle that had been hit by a car and dragged its back legs.

Once when we left them alone for a few days, one of them died. What a pong! The water was dirty and cloudy, and when we started to clean it out we found a decomposing turtle. Everything had to be scrubbed.

It was the Blandings. They don't live very long. I found out later they're a protected species and you're not supposed to have them but we took it home only because it was lame.

7:24 PM  

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