Secrets Of Bones: The bony adaptations we missed


I'm an evolutionary biologist, specialising in primate adaptation and evolution.

My work now focuses on studying often-small physical differences in the skeletons of monkeys, to see how they change over time in different environments.

When the idea for Secrets Of Bones came about, a six-part series on skeletons and all things bony, the next thing I knew I was having my skull printed off, building a silverback gorilla skeleton and watching a horse on a treadmill... it all happened so quickly.

Discover how the skeletal blueprint uniting all vertebrates has come to dominate life on earth

It’s not the obvious thing that they’re all so very different that’s cool (or weird) about bones, for me it’s that they are often so very similar.

You’d be surprised at how similar a whale and frog skeleton are, for example. Well, apart from the slight difference in size, that is!

It just takes a few tweaks for a hook-like spider monkey hand to be the precision tool that is the human hand, and from there, it’s only a few adjustments until you have the bizarre and quite frankly amazing aye-aye hand.

They’re all primates and they’re all hands but with just a few changes, you have major impacts. With skeletons, a little goes a long way!

One of my favourite scenes was with a young great grey owl up in the wonderful International Centre for Birds of Prey.

The staff there had trained the chick to descend onto one of several buzzers, hidden among the leaves, to demonstrate a bizarre skeletal adaptation which gives them exceptional hearing capabilities.

The Arctic habitat of the owl means they rely on hearing to locate prey hidden underground by snow

The owl was very sweet and seemed to enjoy the day but like any young animal, he was playful and more than a little misbehaved.

While the sequence came out smooth and impressive, we had quite a few laughs throughout the day.

Given just three hours to cover the most amazing skeletal adaptations on earth is like asking an artist to recreate the Sistine Chapel ceiling 'in a couple of hours or so'.

A few special bony adaptations we missed out include when some species of seals dive to the depth of the Eiffel Tower, their rib cages fold down like a concertina to cope with immense pressure changes.

But that’s nothing to the horror frog. As if its name isn’t bad enough, this gruesome amphibian defends itself from predators by raising its front feet and clenching its toes so much that the bones split, forcing the jagged pieces through the skin, ready to swipe at a would-be predator.

And even that’s tame compared to the Spanish ribbed newt.

This potentially-tasty treat doesn’t look as if it can look after itself but any unsuspecting predator is in for a nightmarish morsel if it tries to grab this amphibian for lunch.

It squeezes its body to the point where its ribs puncture through its body.

When the ribs are cutting through the skin, they pass through toxic glands, which coat the broken bones, making them even more effective weapons.

When the predator decides that lunch really needn’t be this much of a potential fatality, the salamander simply walks off and heals, ready to fight another day.

With stories such as this still out there, there is plenty yet to cover in the world of skeletal anatomy.

Most vertebrates have pentadactyl limbs consisting of five digits, but moles have a unique adaption

A lot of people ask me for advice about articulating animal skeletons and while I say it isn’t easy, I do always say that people should give it a go.

Apart from the rather messy stages associated with removing the pink and squishy bits from the bones, it’s a very interesting, clean and rewarding pursuit for any natural historian. 

It teaches us things about anatomy that we would otherwise never learn from lessons, books, or TV alone.

There are obviously several secrets associated with the work and I’m not about to reveal them (obviously, we all have secretive ‘skeletons in our closets’) but if you’re patient, interested in natural history and enjoy a challenge, then give it a go.

All you need is a drill, a skeleton and several plasters – drilled fingers are an occupational hazard, I’m afraid.

Part of the fun when building skeletons is that there are no rules and there isn’t usually a step by step guide. You don’t need a degree and you can be any age.

If you don’t believe me, check out Jake McGowan-Lowe, a young up and coming evolutionary biologist and fully-fledged bone geek, if ever I saw one.

Ben Garrod is an evolutionary biologist and presents Secrets Of Bones.

Secrets Of Bones continues on Tuesday, 25 February at 8.30pm on BBC Four. For further programme times please see the episode guide.

Secrets Of Bones is part of BBC Four's Life Inside Out season: Watch clips examining bodies as never before.

More on Secrets Of Bones
BBC Four: Secrets Of Bones: Download a free interactive ebook
BBC Nature: Nature's bizarre bone quiz

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC. 


More Posts