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Bones shed light on animals' eating habits

Some time ago, Sam Alaimo invited me to join a group of bright Kenmore Middle School students at the Buffalo State College camp in Franklinville where, for three days, they were immersed in environmental and ecological activities. I recall the experience not only as interesting but also as exhausting. Activities ran from sun-up until late evening and there were no problems getting even those hyped-up preteens to sleep soundly.

What I judge to have been the best of the many outstanding activities in that crowded program was a presentation by Grace Lawrence about animal bones. She held the 50 or so kids (and me) captivated for more than an hour displaying her extensive collection of bones and explaining how their function differed for different animals.

At the time, I thought it was a great subject for a column. It took me 10 years to follow up. I finally met Lawrence a few days ago to talk about her orthopedic collection.

A few words about her are in order here. A Kenmore native, Lawrence returned to teach Latin at her alma mater, Kenmore East High School. Unfortunately, we elders know of the sad demise of Latin instruction. So she turned to teaching European and ancient history. But those courses, too, were washed out by the movement to social studies. Lawrence transferred to Kenmore's Franklin Middle School to work with talented students and that is how she became involved with Alaimo's environmental program.

I have told that story because it shows not only how our school program has been degraded, but also how a fine teacher was able to recast herself to continue to deliver quality instruction despite our institutional slide toward mediocrity.

But back to "dem bones," as the song would have it. Lawrence talked of many things, but of most interest to me was her discussion of skulls. I photographed four of them that display different features, and I will focus here on their teeth.

Think of these animals in comparison with our own teeth. On our upper jaw, we have four chisel-like teeth called incisors in the front, then a pointed canine tooth on each side and finally, outside them, those large, flat-topped molars. These are essentially matched by teeth in our lower jaw. The six front teeth serve to chop food, the molars to grind it.

Now focus on those animal skulls in the photo. On the left is a deer. It has no front teeth at all and not even many teeth for grinding. This is a very inefficient processing mouth, and the deer's food is severely limited by this to grasses it can browse with its lips.

Next to the deer is a canine skull, that of a wolf, coyote or dog. What a difference. There are those six chopping teeth in the front. This is definitely a carnivore, ready to grasp and dig into prey. Less evident in the photo are this animal's molars. Unlike ours, they are pointed and more designed for tearing food than simply grinding it.

Next comes the bear, a true omnivore. That is, its teeth are designed like ours for both roles, the front well-developed like the wolf's for digging into meat, the rear molars for grinding plant foods.

But the most interesting skull is the one on the right. Those huge front teeth should help you identify it. It is the skull of a beaver and, although those naturally stained front teeth are extra large, its skull design is similar to that of all rodents. The canines are absent and the molars are grinders like ours. But for rodents, those front teeth have a different role from those of the carnivores. They are designed for gnawing. In fact, they grind down and are self-sharpening. Notice the large empty space behind those front teeth. Rodents' cheeks get pulled together behind them, giving the beaver the buck-toothed appearance you often see portrayed in cartoons.