What is it about vertebrae? There is something about them I find absolutely fascinating. Their complex shape, the way it changes along the spine, the way they articulate with each other – I am not quite sure what it is, but vertebrae have been on my ‘must draw’ list for quite some time.
To learn about the mammalian spine, a whale is probably not the optimum choice, since the bones are modified to reflect the animal’s aquatic lifestyle. But I wanted to do a companion piece to my orca skull, and while these vertebrae may lack some features you would find in a terrestrial mammal, they are fascinating in their own right.
I am never quite sure what label to use in describing myself these days, but something I would never claim to be is a zoologist. Still, I did take some of those courses, and one of my aims when I first went to draw in the museum was to re-acquaint myself with skulls. Drawing is a great way of observing, and looking around the collection, I quickly fell in love with the bear specimens. Even among one species, however, (in this case Ursus americanus, the black bear) the variety is astounding, so the question became, which one?
In the end, I decided to make that variety part of the project, so I drew three: a cub and two larger animals, all of them males.
I was looking for something interesting that would work in a relatively small format. Then I remembered the bighorn skulls I had come across at the museum. I had not been sure about drawing one, but looking at them again, I decided to give it a try. Visually, those horns are extremely interesting, and biologically, they are an impressive adaptation. Have you ever tried walking around with ten percent or so of your body weight strapped to your head? I can’t say I have, but I am fairly sure my neck would object – and that’s before I tried to head-butt other people
[Children, do not try this at home. This skull is built for head butting. Yours is not.]
Here is another drawing that resulted from my recent forays to the museum: the skull of a male black bear. The texture of the bone is amazing, and judging by the teeth, this animal had seen a few things.
When I started out studying biology, I thought I was going to be a Zoologist, and one of my favourite courses was Chordate Evolution. This was, in essence, a vertebrate survey course that covered everything (fossil or extant) from tunicates to modern mammals. It meant hours of looking at specimens and diagrams, memorizing Latin names, and trying to understand concepts like changes in skull structure between major vertebrate groups.
Given the opportunity, I still love to re-visit the material, and I recently had a chance to spend some time in the Royal BC Museum, looking at bones. On a behind-the-scenes tour, one the first things that jumped out at me (figuratively speaking) were the whale specimens.