Beachcombing for Bones in Antarctica

Antarctica. The first image that comes to most people’s mind is probably not one of bones, and looking for them is not why I went. For years I had dreamed of seeing the glaciated terrestrial landscape and the iceberg-laden waters described over 100 years ago during the “Age of Heroic Exploration.” I also wanted to experience a bit, just a bit, of the weather that made the early explorations heroic.

As whalers and sealers of the 19th and early 20th centuries discovered, the waters surrounding Antarctica were and are surprisingly rich with wildlife. Near the bottom of this food pyramid are trillions of krill, which are inch-long shrimp-like critters that whales, seals, and penguins find delectable and life-sustaining. Whales and seals take huge gulps of krill-dense sea water, close their mouths part way, and expel the water while retaining the krill against their baleen filters (whales) or interdigitated teeth (seals). Penguins swallow some krill for themselves and once back on land regurgitate the rest for their demanding, ever-hungry chicks. Once the chicks are fledged, the penguins spend the rest of the year at sea.

burned out hull of whaling factory ship

So logically there are lots of bones scattered on the surrounding ocean floor, likely well preserved due to low temperatures. They are tantalizingly close, yet invisible and inaccessible to casual observers. In several bays the whale bones must be stacked deep, since factory ships would anchor in protected areas during the hunting season, process blubber, and discard the rest.

Before whalers drove their prey to near extinction, they realized that the bones as well as the blubber had value. They began boiling the skeletons to extract fat and then grinding the bones for fertilizer. (At about the same time, bison bones, bleaching on the prairies of the Great Plains, were found to have commercial value for the same reason. See blog post When Bone Piles Became Cash Cows.)

Local penguins number in the millions, and not all die at sea. I came across several of their bones on rocky areas, which ignited my interest, and I began to search for more Antarctic bones. Scavenging birds (skuas, sheathbills) can quickly strip a fresh carcass clean. Because of the low temperature (30-35oF in coastal areas during the summer) and low intensity sunlight (or no sunlight during the winter), the bones erode slowly, especially the larger, harder ones. Also, on Antarctica there are no calcium-seeking rodents, which on temperate terrain gnaw and recycle fallen bones and antlers.

Gentoo penguin skull, thigh bone, spine, breast bone

Here are some pictures of penguin bones I found. I did not bring any of my discoveries home, because it is against international agreements for tourists to remove anything from Antarctica much less eat, drink, or go to the bathroom there. And consider this: Antarctica is the first non-smoking continent!

Once I had my bone-seeking adrenaline racing, I came across some scattered seal and whale bones and was directed to an intriguing, semi-reconstructed whale skeleton. Apparently some enterprising bone lover roughly assembled vertebrae and ribs in line with a massive and likely unmovable skull.

On the way home, I stayed overnight in Punta Arenas, Chile, at the tip of South America. My beachcombing continued. Two long strolls along the shore turned up a fascinating assortment of bones. A handful were two-inch long segments of bovine skeletons, apparently sawn to this dimension for ships’ soup pots.

My best finds were the fierce-looking jawbone of a sizable creature (dog?) and a finger or toe bone of a behemoth (sea lion?). I will let you know when a zoologist has positively identified these for me. In the meantime, keep your eyes open for bones. You may be surprised where they turn up. I was, and happy about it.

Did whale bones cause an identity crisis in Antwerp?

Antwerp, Belgium’s second largest city, started as a river port during Roman times and grew to become the world’s diamond center.

Local legend tells of a giant who would extract tolls from boatmen navigating the river. He cut off the hands of those resisting his tax. A Roman legionnaire ended this nonsense by slaying the ogre and flinging his huge hand into the river. Hantwerpen was the spelling of the city for centuries and means throwing the hand.

Some huge bones, unearthed years later, substantiated the legend. The local museum displayed these remains as belonging to the giant until somebody realized that the bones were a fossilized rib and shoulder blade from a two-million-year-old right whale. Scholarly research ensued and turned up aanwerpsoil deposited in a river delta—as the more likely source of the city’s name. Did this create a municipal identity crisis? Momentarily, perhaps.This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 19-03-Antwerp-sculpture-throw-hand.jpg

Undaunted by the bare-bone facts, the locals have commemorated the brave legionnaire’s fictional heroism with a bronze sculpture, which is the main plaza’s centerpiece. (A stream of water courses from the amputated hand.) Also, hands remain on the city’s coat of arms, sweet shops sell hand-shaped cookies and chocolates, and the hallmark for locally produced gold and silverware is, naturally, a hand.

The notorious whale bones, now accurately labeled, are still on display at the local Museum aan de Stroon. 

“Let us have the tongs and the bones.”

It may have started with primitive man clacking a couple of charred mastodon rib bones together. He smiled. Clack-clack. Fellow cave dwellers looked up. Then with a flip of the wrist, clackity-clackity-clack. Music was born.

In several forms, “playing the bones” has continued to the present time. Various museums display pairs of ancient Egyptian bone clappers in the shape of forearms and hands. I have never seen two pairs of these displayed together, so I am uncertain whether the clappers were played with a set in each hand, like castanets and finger cymbals, or if a complete set was a single pair and held in just one hand, like spoons.

Shakespeare knew of the art. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bottom commands, “I have a reasonable good ear in music; let us have the tongs and the bones.”

William Sidney Mount, well-known for his depictions of everyday life, painted The Bone Player in 1856. A New York art agent commissioned the painting along with The Banjo Player in order to make lithographs from them to sell in Europe.

Illustrator Henry Holiday penned a number of cartoons to illustrate Lewis Carrol’s The Hunting of the Snark, published in 1876. This drawing accompanies the verse that follows and are from Fit the Seventh, The Banker’s Fate:

Down he sank in a chair—ran his hands through his hair— and chanted in mimsiest tones. Words whose utter inanity proved his insanity, while he rattled a couple of bones.

Interest continues today. Here is an example of a virtuoso on YouTube playing the bones; and at Amazon you can purchase your own set made of beechwood, ebony, rosewood, or maple. If you want the osseous originals, however, just ask for a doggie bag after you have feasted on barbecued spare ribs. Then clack away as your ancestors did 40,000 years ago.

Is it orthopedic or orthopaedic?

The word orthopedic was coined in 1741 by Nicolas Andry, a French physician who wrote the first book on the topic. The book’s title was Orthopédie. Ortho- is Greek for straight or correct, as in orthodoxy (correct belief) and orthodontics (straight teeth).

The pédie is also Greek and stems from child. In his book, Andry described how families and physicians could prevent and correct skeletal deformities in children. Of course, the means were entirely non-surgical because it would be another 100 years before general anesthesia and the concept of elective surgery came about. The graphic that Andry chose for the frontspiece of his book to illustrate his concept of straightening a child remains iconic.

In his 1828 monumental treatise, An American Dictionary of the English Language, Noah Webster simplified the spelling of Old World entries including colour, programme, cheque, and encyclopaedia. He probably would have also objected to aeroplane, had it been around then. Despite the lexicographer’s best efforts, we still have two spellings for bone surgery:  orthopedic and orthopaedic.

Some stuffed shirts are reluctant to give up that “a” in orthopaedic because they say that pedo also means foot. These purists insist that orthopaedic means straight children, which was Andry’s intent, whereas orthopedic might mean just straight feet.  Somehow, American paediatricians long ago became pediatricians without apparent loss of professional standing.

To my mind, Wikipedia brings the debate to an end.  It says that pedo- relates to 1) children, 2) feet, 3) soil, and 4) flatulence. Or should it be flaetulence?


Other posts at of particular interest to orthopedic surgeons:

Giant public works project spawns new surgical specialty.

The spine surgery will help your child breathe.

The human hand. Not really that good for anything.

Bone Broth: My Quest for the Best

To flavor soups and sauces, many cooks traditionally use broth derived from simmered bones of fish, fowl, or four-footed critters. In recent years, bone-broth bars have appeared and offer patrons a non-caffeinated, nutritious alternative to coffee or tea. In the more health-conscious of these establishments, the proprietors tout these elixirs for their filling, cleansing, and de-toxing capabilities.

I wanted to decide whether a daily cup of bone broth should be part of my annual January resolution for a healthy life. On the internet, I found four broth-serving establishments within a bike-friendly five-mile radius of home. Within the same range there were three Vietnamese cafes that serve pho, a traditional soup of spiced bone broth, rice noodles, and meat. Off I went.

I started at a broth “bar” that was an eight-foot square kiosk in a country mart’s passageway. The cheerful teenage attendant offered me a sample, which she poured straight from a refrigerated bottle. I was her only customer, so we chatted while I sipped. With my game face on, I thought, “Definitely don’t drink this stuff cold.” She touted broth’s virtues, which on the business’s website include increased energy, sharpened focus, optimization of vital functions, and body fat reduction.  She also explained how the owner obtained the bones and prepared the broth. Having picked her brain, I felt it only decent to buy a pint bottle of beef broth. She heated several ounces on a hotplate but had to go to a coffee shop down the way to get a paper cup. I took the rest home for my wife to taste. We shared our doubts about the long-term viability of this particular bone broth business.

A week later I decided to have pho for lunch preceded by visits to two bone broth bars and followed by a stop at another. The first was a store large enough to walk into. It had both chicken and beef bone broths that were already hot. There were also frozen packets for take-home. Again, I was the only customer, and the clerk was helpful although mistaken in her belief that broth contains collagen. In fact, bone is collagen-rich, but heating it degrades the collagen into gelatin. Then when swallowed, digestive enzymes break gelatin into its constituent amino acids before they are absorbed. It is beyond belief that our bodies would then reassemble these molecules into gelatin, much less collagen. (Consider this analogy: bald men eating hair.) This store’s website, in addition to repeating the kiosk’s claims, indicates that “collagen and gelatin found in bone broth build and help repair the GI tract” and are also good for immune support and joint pain relief. The vegetable soups I sampled tasted better than the broths, which I considered bland and certainly not a substitute for coffee. Maybe their bone broth blendies (hot) and collagen smoothies (cold) would be better, but I had miles to go.

The next stop was a burger café, which also had frozen whole chickens, quarts of refrigerated broth, and two urns of hot broth: traditional (beef/pork) and poultry (duck/chicken/turkey). The latter was as bland and unappealing as my previous tastings. The traditional blend was delicious. It was if I was gnawing the last crispy bits of steak off a T-bone. The cook explained that he roasted the bones for about an hour before simmering them for 48 more. Condiments enhanced the pleasure. My favorite was a stirred-in spoonful of parsley-garlic pesto. 

Lunch time! I found a counter seat at a bustling hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese café. The meatball pho came in a huge bowl with cilantro, onion, and bean sprouts garnishing the rice noodles and broth. Good, and certainly filling, but since all the ingredients complicated my quest for tasting bone broth, I decided to pass on the other nearby Vietnamese eateries that day.  

I next cycled to a health food café. In addition to “Classic Chicken or Beef Broth” I could order either one with added ingredients such as turmeric, ghee, schizandra berry, cabbage, and jalapeno to produce “Anti-Inflammatory Broth,” “Butter Broth,” “Immunity Broth,” “Gut Broth,” or “Skinny Broth.” They all cost $10-$12 for 12 ounces, and for $2 more, I could “add collagen with 10 grams of protein.”

While sipping my Classic Beef, I browsed the foyer bookshelf and flipped through Dr. Kellyann’s Bone Broth Diet, which claimed I could lose up to 15 pounds,  4 inches (didn’t say from where), and my  wrinkles in 21 days. Despite those remarkable claims on the cover, inside Dr. Kellyann did note that boiling bone converts collagen to gelatin. She went on, however, to extol the purported health benefits of gelatin. Like many other advocates, she cherry-picked research results that supported her claims while ignoring the abundance of literature that has found no significant benefits of bone broth over eating a generally healthy diet. Also, I am typically wary of products claiming to cleanse and detox. How did these health trendistas let themselves get soiled and toxed in the first place?

Now at the end of my bone broth adventure, I had an uneasy feeling, perhaps caused by sudden weight loss or immunity gain. I knew for sure, however, that a whole class of taste buds had gone unstimulated all day. Before hopping back on my bike and heading to the office, I stopped at Burger King for a soothing Oreo milkshake.

“The spine surgery will help your child breathe.”

scoliosis drawingIn the 1950s, about the same time that John Charnley was perfecting total hip replacement surgery in England (see previous blog posts), American Paul Harrington addressed a vexing spine problem. To understand the problem, consider that a snake slithers along by curving its spine repeatedly from side to side. By comparison, a human’s spine is not as flexible. It can bend a little from left to right but is normally straight when its owner stands tall. If a human spine develops a curve to the side that does not go away when standing at attention, the bend is unbalanced and tends to progress. Untreated, the spine can collapse to the side and cause shortened stature, an unsightly humpback, and in some conditions even compression of the heart and lungs inside a twisted ribcage. A compromised life ensues. Read more

Holiday Gift Guide for Frugal Bone Lovers

For those hard-to-please people on your holiday shopping list, surprise them with a bone-related gift. The options are vast, but for inclusion here, my 14 recommendations had to meet these criteria:

  1. no real bone
  2. no skull motifs
  3. nothing blatantly Halloween or goth
  4. nothing risque (Yes, there are glow-in-the-dark undergarments.)
  5. nothing over $9.99 (The final and best one is free.)

Happy gifting. Also, forward this post to those who will be shopping for you with a “hint, hint.”

By the way, I have no financial interest in any of the items.

Slide8This paper punch comes in two sizes, 5/8″ for $5.95 and 1″ for $7.95.

Great for personalizing documents, checks, envelopes, restaurant menus.

The cut-outs will appeal to scrapbookers.

Continue shopping ……

Read more

It Takes a Turkey to Call a Turkey

18-11-13 turkey caller+It is currently mid-season for turkey hunting in California. The smart toms by this time have become jaded to the previously persuasive squawks and clucks generated by commercially available box,  diaphragm, and rattle callers. Enterprising hunters therefore may turn to a homemade device that Native Americans began using at least 6500 years ago–the wing bone turkey caller. Read more

Skulls in Fine Art

Slide2Halloween is the time of year that unrepentant boneheads such as myself can revel in ubiquitous displays and celebrations involving


Admittedly, some presentations are schlocky beyond our wildest nightmares, and yet few are frightful. Skeletons, skulls, mummies, gravestones, cobwebs, and ghouls are more or less amusing. This was not originally the case, particularly for skulls. Read more

Dry Bones: How They Got That Way

museum natural history parisNaturally curious, you may have asked yourself how bones get from their living condition–muscle-covered, cartilage-capped, and fat-filled–to the inert, dry, aesthetically pleasing material so widely exhibited and valued. If you are not curious about how this transition takes place, you may wish to skip this post. Read more