Wednesday, August 17, 2011

How To Clean an Animal Skeleton

OK, I lied. I'm not posting the exciting conclusion of The Dorsal Forearm today. While I realize Part 2 left you with some massive cliffhangers (Are there really two extensor carpi radialis muscles?) you're just going to have to wait. Because I've once again been sidetracked while cleaning and organizing my home office. My last post on anatomical terminology was inspired by an old illustration; this post, my friends, is inspired by my growing collection of animal bones.

Over the years I've found quite a few partial animal skeletons in my garden, and several friends have been kind enough to give me any ossified treasures found on their property. I have mostly raccoons and possums, plus a few very delicate bird skulls. Having spent so much time learning about, drawing, and teaching classes about the human skeleton, I find it an interesting change of pace to observe these animal structures, in particular those of mammals, to look for features analogous to those of the human skeleton.

Before the bones are added to my collection, though, they need to be cleaned. Over the years I've come up with a pretty good method, and I thought I'd share it here, for any other anatomy lovers out there who want to hang on to a found skull or skeleton.

These are the skeletal remains of a possum I found recently. There is a partial skull, the ilia (which are
part of the pelvis) and two vertebrae. I mislabeled them, though. I think they are probably caudal
vertebrae, which are those in the tail.

So, here is the process I've been using for cleaning animal bones:

1) Have roommates who don't mind finding animal bones soaking in the sink.

2) Let the bones sit out in the sun long enough so any remaining particles of flesh are completely dried out. (It may already be at that stage when you find it!)

3) Gently break off as much of the flesh and fur that you can without damaging the bones.

4) Soak the bones in a bucket of soapy water overnight.

5) Use a soft toothbrush and a little soap to very gently scrub the bones. Then rinse them thoroughly.

6) Soak the bones overnight again, but this time in warm water with about 1/4 cup of bleach added to it.

7) Rinse the bones thoroughly.

8) Lay the bones on a towel and let them dry thoroughly. Letting them sit in the sun will speed up this process.

So there you go. Thanks to Dana for providing the skull above (I think?) Donated bones are welcome to my collection at any time! See you next time for another forearm post.


  1. Awesome Post! I've been wondering about this process since I saw the taxidermy labs at the Field Museum.

  2. Thanks Lucas! I'm told the Field Museum uses colonies of flesh eating beetles to clean their animal skeletons. *shudder* I will probably not experiment with that method.

  3. Yep, we saw that method in the labs, so it goes without saying I hoped there were more household friendly methods of cleaning animal bones, haha.