Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography


with 15 comments

Vertebra on Ground 8125

Click for greater clarity and size.

On November 5, 2013, near the intersection of Old Spicewood Springs Rd. and Spicewood Springs Rd., I found scattered pieces of the skeleton of an animal, possibly a deer. I don’t remember noticing the pink tint at the time, but I see it now and am intrigued by it even if I don’t know what caused that color.

It’s not unusual for someone wandering in nature to find parts of dead animals on the ground, but that fact led me to wonder if there are any animals that, like people, bury their dead. I did an Internet search, and although I didn’t find examples of animal burials in the ground, I found an article that mentioned covering a dead animal with leaves and branches, and another article about three kinds of animals that appear to mourn or carry out what looks to us like a memorial service.

A few days after writing the last paragraph, when I was reading the final essay in Stephen Jay Gould’s collection Bully for Brontosaurus, I came across an account from New Zealand of many dead kiwi birds that “were found partly covered or completely buried under leaf litter and soil.” It turned out that a female German shepherd had killed all the birds, though not to eat them. It’s not clear why the dog acted as it did, nor why it buried the kiwis the way it did.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 9, 2014 at 6:05 AM

15 Responses

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  1. Do our pets also show OCD behaviors?

    Jim in IA

    January 9, 2014 at 7:16 AM

    • I’ve never had a pet—I don’t think I can count my cameras—so I can’t answer your question from experience, but I’ve heard of parrots and similar birds that develop psychological problems and pull out their own feathers. That seems to qualify as an animal example of OCD.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 9, 2014 at 7:30 AM

  2. looks like a pelvis.


    January 9, 2014 at 8:56 AM

    • Can’t say I know much about anatomy. I thought the opening by the pink area was where a spinal cord passed through, but I could well be wrong.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 9, 2014 at 9:40 AM

  3. Ha! This non-plant post is nice, for a change (two-in-a-row now, along with the ice!). Beautiful image taken from an interesting and unusual perspective. As far as nonhuman animals burying their dead, I would venture that there are only two reasons for this to happen; first, to store or cache food items for future consumption (just as squirrels bury nuts) and second, to prevent the smell of rotting items from attracting predators. When we had goats on the farm we noticed that the does would often attempt to consume the afterbirth at kidding. We also notice that our Anatolians will consume afterbirth at lambing (if given the chance … we always try to recover these for what we view as more proper disposal … if we can catch it in time). In both of these cases I would guess the latter explanation holds … these tissues are consumed (rather than buried) to prevent the rotting material from attracting predators to the new born. The organized, planned, ceremonial, and purposeful burial behavior, as well as mourning of the dead, can only occur in highly developed organisms with complex social behavior … read, PRIMATES. D PS: Gould is my all-time favorite … I was lucky to have him as a professor one semester … but, perhaps I’ve already told you that?

    Pairodox Farm

    January 9, 2014 at 1:11 PM

    • I knew Gould is a favorite of yours, but I don’t remember if I knew you’d had him as a teacher one semester. As I’ve read through a few of his books there have been times when I’ve felt like sending off an e-mail to him in response to something he’d written, but it’s unfortunately too late.

      Along with all the botanical pictures—the ostensible subject of this blog—I do try for occasional balance with photos of animals (mostly small ones like insects and spiders) and inanimate things (like ice).

      I think you’re the only person I know who runs a farm, so you have lots of insights into nature that would never normally come my way. It’s good of you to include some of them in your comment.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 9, 2014 at 2:52 PM

  4. Very interesting info Steve! I never knew that about animals but it makes sense. As far as the question about pets and OCD, I would venture to say that they do exhibit that type of behavior. I have a dog that has a routine of things he has to do on a daily basis and at certain times. To me it seems odd but maybe it’s a normal thing for animals.

    Michael Glover

    January 9, 2014 at 6:23 PM

    • Thanks for your corroborating evidence about animal OCD, Michael. There are periods when I feel obsessive about taking so many nature photographs at a time, but I don’t think that kind of productive engagement qualifies as OCD—unless the letters stand for Ongoing Creative Development.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 9, 2014 at 6:39 PM

  5. I don’t know about burying, but I’m convinced that animals grieve.

    For pets, I suppose it would be easy enough to attribute agitation or unusual behavior at the loss of a companion as nothing more than a break in the usual routines.

    Still… About five years ago, during a terribly windy day prior to a storm, a young boat-tailed grackle fell from its nest in a very tall palm. I watched it fall, hit the ground, and immediately die. I’d gone over to check on it, and within a few seconds both parents were on me, driving me away. They walked around the young one, then each, in turn, stood over it, flapping their wings wildly as if to encouraging it to fly. Then, when the young one didn’t stir, both began to make the most unearthly sound – nothing like their usuals chirrups and rattles. It was heart-breaking.

    After a few minutes I took the youngster and gave it a proper burial, and the parents flew back to their nest. I presume there was another baby there to care for.


    January 9, 2014 at 6:54 PM

    • That’s an excellent story, again from personal experience, and therefore with details that make the incident vivid and likely to convince people that your belief in animal grieving is correct.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 9, 2014 at 6:59 PM

      • I’ve been trying to do something with this story since commenting here. It’s finally become a poem (though not an etheree) and I’ll be posting it in the near future. I could have hatched a grackle sooner than I hatched the poem, that’s for sure — although sitting at a desk beats sitting in a tree.


        April 19, 2016 at 6:24 PM

        • We’ll look forward to your post.

          As for sitting at a desk rather than in a tree, I think grackles much prefer the latter even as we prefer the former.

          Steve Schwartzman

          April 19, 2016 at 6:55 PM

  6. I agree with Linda, about animals and grieving. Not all, but definitely the most intelligent ones . By the way, birds have been recently found to be quite intelligent. 😉


    I had also read that elephants also grieve for their dead. The description in this article from Nature is very similar to what I saw my goose Polly do when she found that one of her goslings had died. She began pushing and prodding it with her bill to try and make it get up. When she failed to revive it, she then began making the most incredibly low and sad sounds. It was heartbreaking.



    January 10, 2014 at 7:44 AM

    • Thanks for your links to those two detailed articles, which I read from beginning to end, and for telling about the incident with your goose Polly. Even after thousands of years, it’s clear that people are still learning new things about animals.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 10, 2014 at 9:52 AM

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