• Susan Elaine Jones

Do birds have kneecaps?

I've spent a lot of time in the Zoology museum this month, both front of house (helping people find things in the museum, including the only baculum) and behind the scenes. (Yes, they have let me get my hands on the skeletons!) Specifically, the bird skeletons that are off to go for teaching resources needed to be unpacked, photographed and given a thorough condition report.

(If you haven't done museum condition reporting, but have hired a car from a very dodgy company, you'll know that feeling when they walk around inspecting every possible angle and noting tiny dents, dings, scratches and cracks. And then, miraculously when you return the car having only taken it down the road, filled it with petrol, and dusted the bonnet, they fine you £200 for a brand new bumper. Condition reporting is like that. D0oes it have all its toes? Is that a stain on the underside of the wooden plinth? Are the kneecaps missing?

Yes. Last week, I spent quite a lot of time considering whether my penguin skeleton was missing kneecaps. Do birds even have kneecaps? Is it like bacula or hyoid bones, where no one notices or bothers to keep them? Or, do birds just not have kneecaps?

After chatting through all these difficulties, are marvelous wonderful volunteer coordinator handed my a two page print out about kneecaps on birds and other animals, Mammals DO have kneecaps (when you remember their knees are up near the hips, and its their ankles that seem to bend backwards where knees should be).

Most birds and reptiles DON'T have kneecaps. Ostriches DO have kneecaps - two each leg in fact, and designed to make bending the leg harder rather than easier, which is the only reasonable reason to evolve a kneecap. (However, OUR ostrich skeleton on display has NO kneecaps). Meanwhile, it's closest relatives - emus, cassowaries, moa all seem to lack kneecaps. As do all our bird and reptile skeletons, except the penguin! My question was initially about penguins. I think penguins DO sometimes have kneecaps - and I think it might be because they do so much walking. Which means the penguin I was recording was MISSING his/her kneecaps (and species record - as in, we don't know if it was a king or emperor penguin). But it was articulated to look sad and down in the mouth. Maybe about its kneecaps; maybe not.

But all this means that I have a fair number of bird skeleton photos now that I can share with you, for reference, records, amusement and posterity. All courtesy of the wonderful Zoology Museum of Cambridge! See the portfolio - and watch for more being added. Oh, also, I'm leading a couple of photography workshops in the Museum where we can use tripods and blackout cloths. First date on 13th February has already booked up... but we have a second date on 3rd April. Book fast or miss out!

(And note, they all have a scale attached. For Science. That's your fault, Wendy!)

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