Skeleton Cleaning - Oxidation Method
Preparation of Ligamentary Animal Skeletons
This is the preparation of ligamentary animal skeletons via the "Oxidation Method" using hydrogen peroxide. This is something I stumbled across while working with students who didn't follow the directions. It is essentially using an ammonia solution followed by concentrated hydrogen peroxide soaks to dissolve the soft tissue from around a skeleton leaving a whitened ligamentary skeleton behind. A major advantage is a small skeleton can be prepared without any objectionable odors or toxic chemicals. Someone was quick to point out that it is unlikely that this is really a new technique, as people have been working with skeleton cleaning for a couple hundred years. However, I have never seen anything in print on this technique and one of the main ingredients (concentrated hydrogen peroxide) wasn't produced much before WWII even though it had been first discovered in the 1880s.
Multiple experiments done by one fellow bone enthusiast on mice failed to produce a satisfactory ligamentary skeleton. My attempts on shrews and voles also failed. The joints came apart or the bone dissolved before the flesh was all gone. But, on small birds (saw whet owls) I have had very good results. The last owl I did (a window-killed saw whet owl) was done as follows: I skinned and gutted the owl, cut off the wing and tail feathers, soaked the carcass in 50% household ammonia for two weeks, then rinsed it. The carcass was then soaked in 17% hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) for ten days--it could probably have gone for two weeks. The flesh ballooned up and got soft and white. The flesh could mostly be snipped off with small dissecting scissors. It was then put back in a fresh 17% hydrogen peroxide solution. The bones were then checked daily. The skull was removed first as soon as it looked like the eye rings were separating. The rest of the pieces came out at the end of the ten days. The remaining flesh was gone or clear, except on the feet and around the neck vertebrae. These sections were put back in the solution for another seven days and the rest of the pieces were posed and dried. The result: A fully articulated small bird skeleton done with a minimal amount of hands-on time (about eight hours) and no stinky! The finished skeleton is clean, white, degreased, and articulated. (See photos below.)
I am still experimenting with this method and probably will be until I get it all figured out. If you try it, I would greatly appreciate hearing from you. Please send a report to me of exactly what you tried and how it came out to email@example.com. There is a brief write-up about this method in the Small Mammals Manual, and a more complete write-up in the Bone Builder's Notebook.
Hollis Dahn's Oxidation Method Experiment
This Cuban tree frog (Osteopilus septentrionalis) was done by Hollis Dahn, from Georgia (formally of Florida). The frog was skeletonized by the oxidization method, using only 3% hydrogen peroxide (no ammonia), over a two month period. The hydrogen peroxide was changed daily for the first week and frequently thereafter until done. No stinky - no degreasing - no extra whitening needed. Hollis is now trying the same technique on an iguana.
Rachael Rooney's Oxidation Method Experiment
Below is a skeleton Rachael Rooney, a proud college student in Homer, Alaska, did as an independent project. It was done on her kitchen countertop at home using hydrogen peroxide and ammonia to oxidize the skeleton. The bird (killed from hitting a window) was a specimen turned into the Pratt Museum, Homer, Alaska. The rib cage was in rough condition, the rest of the skeleton was great. Rachel's scientific write up about her project appears below the photos. This is the first skeleton Rachael had ever processed and articulated. I gave her a hand gluing the rib cage together on one side. Otherwise, she did it all at home. It is now flying somewhere in the collections of the Pratt Museum.
Belted Kingfisher Articulation - Oxidation Method
Handling time: 24 hours
Soaking time: 34 days
1. Carefully cut as much of the feathers, flesh, and muscle off without cutting into bone. Cuticle scissors work great because their small, curved, and sharp enough to cut through muscle and easy to maneuver around bone. Bird was placed in a 24 oz. container with 50/50 pure ammonia and water for 14 days.
2. Bird was gently rinsed under cold tap water by splashing it with a hand not under full pressure, and not with hot or warm water. Bird was put back into the container with 17 % hydrogen peroxide for 10 days. The solution bubbles so if you'd like a top, poke some holes in the lid to let the oxygen escape. I kept a top on to keep the buoyant bird from sticking out of the solution. Make sure the container the bird is in is stable, preferably in another container or tub with paper towels at the bottom, to soak up bubble over and from the container from slipping around. Put in a spot it won't get knocked over.
3. 10 days later, took bird out of the solution to remove the head, legs, wings, eye rings, and tongue bones. Spent time de-fleshing and laid all the bones out on paper plates with wax coating. Bones may stick some so lift the bones up to loosen, especially the ones with extra flesh. To keep the neck bones in place and for re-positioning later I inserted 0.58-millimeter steel wire, cut to about 15 centimeters in length, into the vertebra. The wire reached down into the sternum firmly, but not with too much pressure. The wire will be glued into place later. A small excess of wire hanging out helps attach the head later on too. The body and feet (attached to legs) still needed more time in solution and were put back into a fresh batch of hydrogen peroxide for 10 more days.
4. The bird's body should be puffy. The kingfisher had clear spots so I took it out and de-fleshed with cuticle scissors and dissection probes. The entire body was too delicate to place back into solution and didn't have very much flesh. Everything was placed on paper plates to dry (again lifting every so often to not stick, wax paper actually may have worked better). The wings and legs were placed on a small piece of cardboard, pinned along the sides using dissection pins (sewing pins or even toothpicks could work) to dry in their final positions. Remember, the idea is to keep the tissue near the joints attached so there's not too much gluing later. Don't over clean or over soak your bird.
Amanda Martinez's Oxidation Method Experiment
Amanda Martinez from Albuquerque, New Mexico, did a dove skeleton and a house sparrow using the Oxidization Method. Both came out great. She soaked them in 50% household ammonia for 2 weeks. Then in 3% hydrogen peroxide, removing it every 3 or 4 days to trim off the bloated white flesh. A mouse and a small lizard failed.
Yvonne Armbruster's Oxidation Method Experiment
Jeremiah was a bullfrog!!!. . .Yvonne Armbruster from British Columbia, Canada, tried the Oxidization Method on a mouse and a bullfrog. She didn't use any ammonia. She soaked them in 3% hydrogen peroxide, changing the solution about 6 times over about 8 months. (I'm not sure why the peroxide didn't revert to maceration.) The mouse had a lot of clear tissue that remained dried between the bones, but the bullfrog turned out really well.
Jacob Mishler's Oxidation Method Experiment
Jacob Mishler used the Oxidation Method on this three-toed sloth. This is what he had to say: First, I beetle-cleaned the skull. I cut as much flesh off the body as I could. I soaked [it] in about 50 percent ammonia. I left [it] in there for about 2 weeks. Then I put 1.5 liters of vol 40 solan peroxide and 2 gallons of water in a 5 gal bucket. 2 weeks later I removed and cut off as much of the white foamy flesh as I could. I wasn't happy with the results, so I put [it] back in the bucket with the old peroxide and water. I left it there for another 3 weeks. By then the peroxide was just water and started to macerate the body. Just enough to remove the extra flesh, but not enough to separate the joints. I put [it] in fresh water with some peroxide overnight to clean and disinfect.