‘Skele­ton Keys’ un­locks the his­tory and mys­ter­ies of bones

Sun.Star Pampanga - - SCIENCENEWS! -

A self-de­scribed ‘fos­sil fa­natic’sur­veys sci­ence and cul­ture. At this very mo­ment, vo­ra­cious cells are eat­ing away at your bones. Not to worry, though — that’s just a nor­mal part of bone main­te­nance in healthy adults. The for­ma­tion of new bone cells bal­ances out the re­moval of old bone cells. Although bone-mak­ing cells rev up when a bone breaks or dis­ease sets in, even­tu­ally bone-eat­ing cells kick in to make sure a bone doesn’t grow out of con­trol. Bones as ac­tive tis­sues, not fixed struc­tures, is just one of the fas­ci­nat­ing top­ics that w r i t er Br i an Sw i t ek ex­plores in Skele­ton Keys.

The mi­cro­scopic struc­ture of our bones isn’t the only thing that changes through­out our lives; the num­ber of bones changes too. Hu­mans are born with about 270 bones that over the course of our youth and ado­les­cence grow and fuse into 206 bones, give or take a few. And while some of those bones can pro­vide clear ev­i­dence of whether a per­son was male or fe­male, there are, con­trary to what we see in many crime dra­mas, no anatom­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics that con­clu­sively in­di­cate a per­son’s race or coun­try of ori­gin.

Be­yond ba­sic bi­ol­ogy and mod­ern foren­sics, Skele­ton Keys chron­i­cles bone through the ages, from the ori­gins of the pre­cur­sor of bone in fish more than 450 mil­lion years ago to the role of bone in mod­ern pa­le­on­tol­ogy and an­thro­pol­ogy. Here, Switek, a self-de­scribed “fos­sil fa­natic” who has writ­ten three books about fos­sils (SN: 9/5/15, p. 28; 5/4/13, p. 34; 1/1/ 11, p. 34), puts his ex­per­tise to work. As he ex­plains, the phys­i­cal size and shape of bones help sci­en­tists iden­tify what type of crea­ture once hosted those tis­sues, what the an­i­mal looked like and pos­si­bly how it moved. Bones are also bi­o­log­i­cal time cap­sules, of­ten rife with chem­i­cal clues that can re­veal what an an­i­mal ate and where it may have lived as it was grow­ing up.

The author packs a bevy of such facts into il­lus­tra­tive tales of famed skele­tons. The bones of Lucy, a ho­minid that strolled across the Ethiopian land­scape more than 3.3 mil­lion years ago, in­di­cate that she was well-equipped for walk­ing up­right. The skele­ton of Eng­land’s King Richard III — mirac­u­lously found and then un­earthed from be­neath a city park­ing lot in 2012 — be­trays the abuse the king suf­fered during and af­ter his death on a battlefield in 1485 (SN: 3/9/13, p. 14). Chem­i­cal analy­ses of his bones also chron­i­cle the re­gion where he grew up and the rich diet he con­sumed during his tu­mul­tuous two-year reign (SN: 9/ 20/ 14, p. 17).

A num­ber of lesser­known skele­tons, in­clud­ing that of an­thro­pol­o­gist Grover Krantz, who do­nated his and his dog’s skele­tons to the Smith­so­nian Institution, where they were dis­played, pep­per this won­der­fully en­gag­ing read.

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