A skeleton left behind

Leaf Tail Gecko

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Ann Charlton, Senior Museum Technician and Archivist at the Museum of Zoology, writes of the preparation of this tiny skeleton:

Skeletonisation depends on the condition of specimens. A method for small specimens such as birds and mammals: ‘Unzipped Pyjama Pelts’. First glove up. Gently lay your specimen on its back face up. Stroke a scalpel blade gently from under the chin of the specimen to just below the stomach. This separates the specimen pelt so a thin pink inner skin is found underneath. Scalpel down. Feel under the pink skin by pushing your gloved fingers between the skin and the flesh underneath. Work your way around the specimen so you begin to feel its whole body form along up and under its back. With practice you are able to turn the skin pelt inside out as the body comes away from the pelt. Cut the pelt at the ends of hands, feet and nose if you can manage pull the pelt over the head. That’s unzipped pyjamas, pink specimen in its birthday suit! The art and skill is to do this in one piece!

So I introduce you to Leaf Tail Gecko (Uroplatus aff.ebenaui), an exquisite, perfectly formed juvenile that died in captivity. Measuring 29.8mm in length, the Leaf Tail Gecko was a tiny juvenile with huge staring eyes and soft bones. The outstretched blobby fingers made all four feet look too big for boots and body! Appearance: skin almost transparent, dry, brown in colour with no imperfections, a challenging specimen if ever I saw one. There was one major problem: this tiny specimen could not be ‘unzipped from pyjamas’ to reveal its bones.

Solution: Microsurgery. Microscope, tweezers, pins,foam, dish and spray bottle were the instruments used. Assorted paint brushes, cotton wool buds and warm water finished the job. I pinned the Leaf Tail Gecko onto foam, using microscope to see. Ensured pins did not damage bones as gecko was fastened down. Filled dish to top with warm water to immerse gecko. Immersion ensured gecko floated upside down under the water. Left for 2 days. The water rehydrated the skin. Took the gecko from the water and placed onto a tray under the microscope. Skin was loose, bloated and the opaque bones were showing through. Carefully tweezered skin away from flesh working along from the head down to top of pelvis. Left skin on tail and blobby feet and toes. Lifted muscle bundles away from skeleton with tweezers. When small bones began to show, changed to a small, stiff paint brush. Flesh was glided carefully off the bones. Cotton wool bud cleaned moisture and remaining flesh from skeleton. Cut end off cotton wool buds, which were tubular and carefully cleaned out brain cavity and eye sockets. Skeletal specimen sprayed with warm water, left to air dry for two days. Skin shrunk and split around tail, feet and blobby toes. Lifted dried skin off feet with soft paint brush. Re-wet skin with soft paintbrush to remove remainder until skeleton appeared. Skeletal gecko left on foam with minimal pins and places into clear box. A beautiful skeleton left behind to add to the collection.

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