The Science Scoop: Dr. Skeleton

Most people wouldn’t admit that they have a skeleton in their closet, but Steve Huskey has more than one.

A biology professor at WKU, Huskey has made a name for himself in the field of skeleton reconstruction. He works weekly in his bone lab in Snell Hall putting specimens back together.

After years of experience and dozens of unique projects, Huskey realized he had enough material to publish a book. This idea became a reality, and his book of 192 specimens titled “The Skeleton Revealed: An Illustrated Tour of Vertebrates” was published Feb. 26.

Over the last two decades, Huskey estimates he has arranged and photographed over two thousand specimens, ranging from some of the smallest lizards to the largest fish.

Huskey’s reputation as a master skeletal reconstructionist is due in part to his experience with fish skeletons. Fish skulls, specifically their jaws, are built to expand in different directions to create a large gap for suction underwater, so their jaws are much more complicated than other terrestrial jaws.

“A fish skull has hundreds of moving parts and bones and muscles and things that make it work,” Huskey said. “Well, when that’s reduced to only the bony elements, if it falls apart, it’s a nightmare to put back together, and there is very few of us with the knowledge to do that.”

Huskey’s doctorate degree from Florida Tech University is in functional morphology with a focus on fish feeding systems. This makes him one of the very few people capable of reconstructing a wide catalog of fish species.

In fact, the first skeleton he ever built was a smallmouth bass. He said that’s when he knew he wanted to build skeletons for the rest of his life.

“That was it the first time,” Huskey said. “No joke. It was one of those things where I was like, this is freakin’ cool. How can I make this better? Because the first one looks pretty sad.”

Skelton reconstruction may seem like an odd hobby, especially considering the extensive and bizarre process that must take place before one is able to even begin putting the bones back together.

First, Huskey typically receives a specimen in the mail, either one he has requested or one that someone has asked him to work on. Sometimes these even come from museums.

Then, the specimen must be skinned and dried. After being dried, the specimen is left in a box full of flesh-eating beetles. They pick over the body and leave behind the bones and, if removed from the box early enough, the ligaments.

Once the beetles have picked the bones clean, the remaining beetles must be removed from all the skeleton’s nooks and crannies. When the specimen is clean, Huskey can then start putting the bones not attached by ligaments back in place. Eventually, he will whiten the skeleton to finish with a museum quality model.

Most people would be turned off by dismembered dead organisms covered in tiny beetles, but to Huskey, the end result is worth it. In fact, he actually finds the process relaxing.

“Imagine model building on steroids,” Huskey said. “So if you’re the type of person that enjoys model building, this is part of that process. Surely putting a skeleton back together is more of the model building than is the dissection part, but I can’t get to ‘B’ without ‘A,’ so it’s part of my process, and it is absolutely therapeutic for me.”

Every Thursday, Huskey is in his bone-filled lab working away at his next real-life model.

Around three years ago, he realized people might be interested in what he was doing, and he started talking to book publishers about “The Skeleton Revealed.”

“I wanted it to be an educated man’s coffee table book, rather than being another book about the evolution of the skeleton written in such jargon that the average person would be lost after a couple of pages, and probably lose interest,” Huskey said.

The book walks readers through the 192 featured specimens and every evolutionarily significant adaptation each organism possesses. “The Skeleton Revealed” attempts to deliver the history of modern organisms’ evolution in a way that doesn’t isolate readers who don’t understand the complicated jargon found in a biology textbook.

“Three hundred and sixty pages about the evolution of skeleton is going to lose a lot of people, but if every page is something new with something fascinating about that animal, then you don’t get two pages in and get lost, because the next page is something new,” Huskey said. “You’re learning something in the process, you’re fascinated by what you’re seeing in the image and hopefully it’s kind of killing two birds with one stone.”

Huskey said he couldn’t pick a favorite specimen.

“I could easily go off on a tangent about just about every page in the book [and say] ‘this is fascinating right here,” Huskey said. “Every one of these animals has something like that in them that fascinates me.”

Huskey’s “The Skeleton Revealed: An Illustrated Tour of the Vertebrates” is available on Amazon.