A Natural History of Everyday Things —Wapiti

This is a new aspect of my blog called Found: The Natural History of Everyday Things. It’s a weekly installment dedicated to taking the time to investigate the life of things found outside that I, and maybe some of you too, hate to say but take for granted. A chance to become better acquainted with the quiet, yet defining, characters of the skis, climbs, hikes, rides and paddles that are so much a part of my life. Maybe yours too..

Darby Canyon; 43 40’ 35.82” N 111 02’ 31.49”W Elevation 1,989 meters

Elk  Cervus canadensis

Ever think about how to spell the word “curl-e-que”?

Until yesterday, neither had I.

My dog Kali, a proud member of the Wydaho Negris muttacious, thebreed so prevalent in this region, is one of my favorite trail partners.

It isn’t just the joy I get watching her tear up hillsides, plunge through creeks and roll ecstatic in the dirt with an intensity that can only be broken by the taunting chirp of a squirrel. It isn’t just the endearing habit she has of racing back to check in with me, tail wagging so hard it’s a wonder her feet are still on the ground.

It’s the other face of the forest she shares with me. The things I can’t smell; hear; sense or see.

Yesterday we headed up Darby Canyon—one of my favorite valley haunts. It wasn’t long before Kali was trotting back triumphant, her head cock-eyed from the weight of the large skull she was carrying.

It was an elk’s. Fairly young considering its healthy line of teeth still coated in enamel, not yet dulled by years of chewing on willow and elderberry. (Or if it were a cow, from stripping bark off young saplings to create a territorial marker. Bulls do it with their antlers.) Apparently, in the 19th century, elk were killed en masse for their two upper teeth, a coveted adornment for watches.

I’ve seen lots of femurs, scapulas and hoofs, which are one of Kali’s favorite, but she’s never brought me an entire a skull. While Kali sat patiently, her eyes expanding into doleful saucers, a line of drool dripping from her jowl, I traced the circle of the eye socket with my finger, marveling at the head’s weight in my hand.

Planar cuts incongruous with the skull’s smooth lines ran in a rough line across the top—the spot where the bull’s rack had been sawed off his head. A decapitation of sorts acceptable and encouraged by interior designers the world over. However, what most decorators don’t think about is that shed antlers provide an important source of calcium for all sorts of resident rodents and even porcupines. Next time you find an antler, check it out for little nibbled edges. A subtle reminder of a kind of interdependence we so often overlook.

But what fascinated me most what the nose. In either side of the nasal cavity, a delicate spiral was suspended in air. A curlicue of cartilage. (Curlicue can also be spelled curlyque, although that iteration is less common)

Does it hang in every species’ nasal cavity? Is it unique to ungulates? What is this beautiful structure’s function? I typed every combination of “Elk Nasal Cavity Curlique Structure” could think of into the Google search bar. No luck. Emailed naturalist friends and hunters. Finally, Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Jim Dau provided the answer—they’re nasal turbinates. The spiraled structure helps increase the surface area which not only provides more room for smell receptors, but also warms the air before it enters the lungs and captures water to help moisten the nasal passages before the air is exhaled. In bears the turbinate are a delicate lattice.

The fontanelles played in ragged lines and two small holes marked the area just below the empty eyes like tribal tattoos. A small tuft of fur still clung to the cheek suggesting the kill had probably occurred last year. A healthy bull can run up to 35 miles an hour, but apparently this one wasn’t quite fast enough.

Right about now, about 20 miles east as the crow flies, hundreds of elk have picked their way down through the hill, directed by an internal GPS to the Jackson valley and the nearly 25,000-acre National Elk Refuge where they wait out winter as part of the world’s largest concentrated, congregation of elk. (The feeding strategies that keep them there is another very contentious story.)

Eventually, I return Kali her treasure. Lucky dog. She’s never been one for store bought toys. Bones and sticks are the only things that hold her interest. She prances away, only stopping to sniff and chew once she figures she far enough from my reach; far enough that she can pretend not to hear when I call her.

The sun sinks behind the Big Hole mountains, bringing a chill. Back at the car, I negotiate the skull out of Kali’s grip, then toss it into the bushes where it will wait to again be hunted—now for its bones, not just its meat. I wonder when, if ever, the elk will rest.