Lovely Bones

Veterinary students learn anatomy by reconstructing a Bengal tiger’s skeleton
tiger skeleton
“While not a museum-quality specimen, it ended up being great for everyone to learn on,” says Jack Hawkes. “It was like a giant 3-D puzzle.” Photo: Andrew Cunningham
December 3, 2013

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The lyrics to the well-known spiritual go like this: “The toe bone's connected to the foot bone. The foot bone's connected to the ankle bone. The ankle bone's connected to the leg bone… ”

But what do you do when they are all handed to you in a jumble? And can you really put a skeleton back together again if many of the pieces are missing?

That was the challenge the veterinary students in Jack Hawkes’ natural history class recently met: re-assembling the bones of a Bengal tiger—minus a random 50 or so. After about three years of steady work, the results are on display in the Cummings School’s anatomy lab, looking ready to roar.

“Normally I don’t like to do overly dramatic poses—animals with paws up, claws out, mouths roaring,” says Hawkes, V07. “But with a tiger, you kind of have to.”

Southwick Zoo veterinarian Peter Brewer, V98, donated the bones of the 20-year-old, 365-pound female tiger, which lived out its old age at the Massachusetts zoo. The carcass was originally buried several years to let the soil’s bacteria deflesh the bones, and some bones went missing.

“While not a museum-quality specimen, it ended up being great for everyone to learn on,” says Hawkes, who manages the school’s lab responsible for preserving animal parts for anatomy lessons. “It was like a giant 3-D puzzle.”

However, this particular jigsaw puzzle didn’t come with a picture on a box to show how the pieces are supposed to go together. So the students began by studying photographs of live tigers to try to “see through the skin,” says Hawkes. They also referred to a tiger-skeleton illustration from a 19th-century British textbook and, closer to home, a tiger skeleton at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.

Students used their DIY skills to reconstruct the missing pieces. They manufactured rib parts by heating, bending and grinding plastic rods, and the bones comprising the end of a dog’s tail sit in for the tiger’s missing one.

Alyssa Wheat, V15, helped shape tiny joints missing from the tiger’s feet out of modeling clay and cast resin claws from an enlarged-scale mold of snow leopard digits.

“It was so helpful to learn anatomy in three dimensions,” versus studying from an anatomy text, she says. Creating a model skeleton also has some benefits over working with cadavers, which include muscles and tissues that can make it difficult to visualize how the body works. “With a skeleton, you can pinpoint exactly where the muscle would attach, which helps you better understand how the bones will move when that muscle contracts,” says Wheat. 

Hawkes estimates that the dozen students involved each invested 40 to 80 hours in the project, developing skills that will benefit them in their practices: “They became great at working together and strengthened their problem-solving abilities,” he says.

Genevieve Rajewski can be reached at genevieve.rajewski@tufts.edu.