By Amanda Christie Leiss
The sun was hot on my shoulders as I sat dangling my feet in the cool blue pool water. I was at a barbeque celebrating the advent of summer with some friends. Even then I had a reputation for my interest in comparative skeletal anatomy. Our hostess Sarah came outside and I pulled myself from the pool’s edge to meet her. Her sister had found something weird in her basement after Hurricane Sandy, and she thought I might be able to identify it. In her hands she held a plastic bag containing a single slender bone.
“They found this wrapped in a cloth. It seemed to have fallen from the rafters during the storm. They just bought the house, and my sister was really freaked out about it,” She said. I took the bag from her and looked at it. It was lighter than I expected it to be. I unzipped the plastic bag and inspected it further. It was about 4 inches long and nutty brown in color.
“I can’t tell you much about it right now,” I said. “I can certainly find out more. Do you mind if I take it with me? Any chance you have the cloth?” I asked.
“Of course! You should take it. I can ask her about the cloth, but I think she might have tossed it,” Sarah replied.
The next day I took the bone out of the bag and examined it more closely. The fact that it was lightweight now made sense, but also proved an interesting challenge for me. It was a bird bone -the left tibiotarsis of a rather large bird, to be exact. Bird bones are generally lighter than other animal bones due to their composition. This aids them in flight. They also have a unique limb structure where the tibia and part of the tarsus, our heel bone, are fused. I was not very familiar with bird bones, so I couldn’t say much more than that. Why would a bird bone be wrapped in a cloth in someone’s basement? I mused. What a mystery.
I was delighted at the prospect of discovery. The challenge of figuring out what bone I held in my hands was exactly what I needed. Post graduation, the opportunities for this kind of experience were slim. I planned to go on to graduate school, but was at a loss for exactly what direction I wanted to take. In the meantime, I greedily latched on to any opportunity to get my hands dirty.
Earlier in the year I had assisted in excavating human remains uncovered during an expansion of the Yale ER entryway. Those turned out to be burials from an old graveyard. The headstones were moved, the bodies left in place. Then the hospital was built on top of it. Archived newspapers described skeletons being tossed out with the fill from its original construction. It’s surprising how common that actually is. I’d also, almost, assisted in the analysis of skeletal remains of a local historical legend, the Leatherman. Unfortunately, and despite the historian’s certainty of the plot, the archaeological team dug up a good portion of a cemetery without finding a single bone. We were all quite disappointed. Now this bone had fallen in to my lap.
I began searching the Internet for clues as to the taxonomy of the bone in question. At first I thought it could be a turkey bone, left over from someone’s long ago dinner. Though this seemed reasonable, the bone didn’t seem robust enough. I kept looking and found something else that seemed promising. As I was searching, a thought occurred to me. I could use this as a reason to drop in on that Yale professor I’d met the other day. He was a very interesting man.
I’d recently begun attending a series of lectures, called Brown Beer, at the Anthropology department. If a topic interested me, I’d spend my Thursday evening drinking a beer, or two, and listening to scholars talk about their research. I loved it. Anyway, that’s where I’d first met Andrew. It was after the lecture. I was standing around, a bit nervous to interact with anyone, when he sidled up next to me.
“I hear you’ve been to Gona in Ethiopia. How did you find that?” He asked with his charming British accent and velvety cadence. Who was this man and how does he know that about me? I wondered. Before graduating I’d gone on an amazing internship and expedition where I’d worked in a museum, camped in the desert with hyenas, and hiked over miles of badlands collecting fossils and excavating sites that were millions of years old. My heart was racing and my palms were sweaty; but he seemed so calm and reassuring, like he honestly didn’t have a care in the world. So I took a deep breath and I relaxed.
“Honestly, I really loved the wild adventure of it all,” I said. Talk about research. Be impressive. “I really enjoyed working with the fossils as well- Finding them and analyzing them. I did a faunal analysis of an Acheulian site for my honors thesis,” I stated. With that, he raised his brow and nodded.
“You should come talk to me sometime,” he said, excused himself and was off.
I met his graduate student that night when a group of us went to a nearby pub for dinner. Jessamy was tall, confident, and very pretty. She had long wavy brown hair and hazel eyes. She also had a British accent. She told me that she was currently working on a ~6 million year old Miocene fossil forest in Kenya, and that Andrew had accidently discovered the famous track of footprints left behind by Lucy while in the midst of an elephant dung fight. (A story I’ve now heard countless times.) I was definitely intrigued. This mystery bone seemed like a perfect reason to get better acquainted with him. So I sent him an email and we set up a meeting for later that week.
When it came time to meet with him I was extremely nervous but also excited. I knocked on his office door and he ushered me in. In his office I seated myself on the blue couch. Contrary to my expectations, he sat across from me in the matching blue chair rather than behind his desk. He was a tall lanky man, with unruly silver hair, and an easy charm. “So,” he said, as he linked his hands behind his neck and put his salmon colored converse on the coffee table between us, “tell me.”
I pulled out the bone and handed it to him. I sat a little bit straighter on the couch for courage and said, “My friend gave me this bone. She found it in her basement after Sandy. It was wrapped in an old cloth. She thinks it fell out of the rafters and it really freaked her out. I admit I’m not very familiar with bird bones, but I know this is a left tibiotarsis. I’m just not sure of what. At first I thought it was perhaps remains from a long ago turkey dinner,” I rambled.
“I see,” He said. “That’s logical.”
“Yes…but then I thought it seemed too small for that, so I kept looking and I think it might be a duck,” I said, encouraged by his tone.
His hands flew in the air. His feet hit the floor. He looked at me incredulously and boomed, “Why on god’s earth would it be a duck?”
What do I do now? I thought, panicked, my heart racing wildly. Clearly, I am wrong. What do I say? During my Internet search I’d found some indicators that this might be true, so I took a deep breath, bolstered my courage, and explained myself.
“Well…you know…not a small duck, one of those, those, big white ones, the uhhh-American Pekin duck,” I began, struggling at first to find my voice. “I found a grainy photograph online, and it seemed to be a good match morphologically. The house is on a lake and I read that these ducks will sometimes go into basement window wells to die,” I said. As I was speaking I’d realized that the cloth made little sense in my scenario. Not wanting to appear like the idiot I felt myself to be, I forced bravado by sitting up a little taller and meeting his eyes.
He stared at me for what seemed like an hour, but was probably only a few minutes. During this time his face slowly changed expressions; the faintest hint of amusement in his eyes and the corners of his mouth were almost lost in the transition from indignant to serious.
“Well, alright then,” he said, “It’s not a duck. Let’s see…”
He unfolded himself from his seat and walked into the lab, attached to his office, where we were met with an enormous wall of books. There must have been hundreds of them. Some were very old, with the leather faded and cracking. First editions of famous works on human evolution and geology prominently stood with tiny rubber figurines. Rupert bear, his scarf stuck blowing in the wind, was nestled between the musings of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Andrew was scanning the bookshelf for something and mumbling to himself about the whereabouts of his Connecticut Birds book. He pulled one out and flipped through it. Then he looked at me. I was standing behind him holding the bone in front of me like a wand, as if I could ward off any further blunders on my part. A light went on behind his eyes and he abandoned the book he’d selected by placing it atop the rest, rather than putting it back where it belonged.
“On second thought,” he said, “I suppose we could take it down the hall to ornithology. Let’s take a walk, shall we?”
“Yes let’s,” I responded in kind.
Off we walked, down the hall at a rather crisp pace. Him forging straight ahead, me following behind still clutching the bone in my fist, arm slightly outstretched and awkwardly stiff. In what seemed like a single motion he swiped a key card, turned a corner, swung open a big glass door and stepped through it. I followed behind him into a large series of rooms partitioned from the hallway by glass walls and closed blinds. I saw the side of a lab coat swish through to a room in the opposite direction to the course we were apparently taking. There were tall white metal filing cabinets along the walls and tables littered with scientific equipment. I barely got the chance to look around, eyes wide, as Andrew swept on. Presently, we stopped at a desk.
“Kristoff, this is Amanda,” Andrew announced. The gentleman stationed at the desk looked up at us. He wore a slightly confused look on his face as he shook my hand. He looked eastern European. He had a neatly trimmed beard and sandy colored hair, which was flattened on top of his head.
“She’s brought us a bone and we’ve come to take a look at the collections,” Andrew explained.
“Okay,” he said, his accent confirming my suspicions. He stood up and led us to a wall of clinical white drawers, like those you’d see in a morgue. “Here are the Connecticut birds,” he said indicating a particular section of the wall.
Andrew took the bone from me and began opening drawers. Inside of them were birds displayed in anatomical position. The first drawer held birds that were too small. The second drawer had much larger birds, including birds of prey. Andrew held my bone up alongside the homologous bone from each of the birds in the drawers, naming them as he went. I was no longer nervous. It was too interesting to be nervous, plus I was too busy trying to keep up.
“Here is a Turkey Vulture. This seems to be a good match for size and shape, what do you think?” He asked me.
“They do look pretty similar,” I agreed.
“Ahh…but here is a Black Raptor. What do you think about this one?” He asked. We discussed the differences between them and a few others. He seemed very excited about the idea of it being a Black Raptor, though something seemed a tad bit off to me.
“Yes, very well then,” Andrew said, as we walked back to his office. “Yes, I think that’ll do quite nicely. I think we can be satisfied to call it a Black Raptor. Perhaps you could write a small article for the Yale Daily entitled ‘An incidence of voodoo in early colonial Connecticut’, or something to that effect,” he stated with a flourish of his hands.
“Okay, great, I can do that!” I said, intrigued by the idea.
When we got back to his office, Jessamy was there typing at her desk. It was on the opposite wall of the library at the center of a chaotic sea of more books, boxes, and papers. She greeted us and Andrew told her of our little adventure and showed her the bone.
“I think I’d better go. My parking meter has probably expired. Thank you so much for your time,” I said.
“Right.” Andrew said. “Well, come see me again sometime.”
I turned to Jessamy. “Goodbye,” I said, “It was nice to see you again.”
“Goodbye,” she said, “and thanks for bringing in your turkey bone!”
At her words I looked at Andrew. He had a very sheepish expression and I was too confused to say anything, so I just left.
My meter had expired but thankfully I hadn’t gotten a ticket. I sat in my car feeling very turned around. I wasn’t sure what to make of it all. I felt like I’d been given some sort of test but there wasn’t necessarily a right answer. Was it a turkey bone or a Black Raptor? Did it even matter? We hadn’t actually looked at a turkey. When I got home, I searched online for an image of a turkey bone to compare it to. It was a better match in thickness; perhaps that is what had seemed off to me about the raptor. How had I not seen this in my original search? I chastised myself. What was I supposed to do now? Maybe I was just using it as an excuse to meet with him. I felt I had two options. I could write an article about this mysterious bone, claim it to be a Black Raptor, perhaps include some research on voodoo, and try to get the cloth and more information about the house. Or, I could acknowledge that it was really a turkey bone, the remains of someone’s long ago thanksgiving dinner. (Admittedly a less exciting story.) I thought about it for quite some time and then followed up with an email.
Thank you for meeting with me today and for showing me the ornithology laboratory. It was quite impressive and very interesting to see. I appreciate you taking the time to show me around and help with identifying my turkey bone. I will be sure to let my friend know to tell her sister we discovered it to be a Black Raptor and she should have her house smudged.
I felt satisfied with my response. I suppose he was as well. There was a lesson there that had little to do with the identity of the bone. Andrew taught me not to take myself too seriously, to think logically and creatively, and to ask the right questions. I didn’t know at the time that two years later I’d become his last graduate student; nor that he had cancer. He passed away this fall. He was the kind of intellect who would cheerfully entertain an extensive conversation about whether or not dinosaurs could possibly have been pink; if only to ‘prove’ that it couldn’t be so. His loss is felt deeply by all who knew him. I think he’d be glad to know that I’d finally written this story, even if it didn’t include extensive research on voodoo.
Amanda Christie Leiss is entering her third year as a graduate student at Yale University. She studies paleoecology, which means she gets to work with fossil bones all the time. She is grateful for the opportunity to write creatively, as that is thoroughly frowned upon by academic journals.