PRIME TIME: Children's Time on Sunday morning
Pastor Rob Kopp had to be away on church business all day Friday and Saturday, Feb. 24-25, so asked me to preach that Sunday. It's OK; if memory serves, I've been a UMC lay speaker since ’87 (as had my wife Elaine). The sermon itself was more challenging than some, dealing with integrating faith with the findings of science from ancient times to today's cosmological insights, and with the probable existence of a transcendent realm "outside" of our physical universe.
But something new has come to many congregations in the last few decades: "Children's Time." Often, preachers tie their conversation with kids closely to the scriptural readings for the day, or into the sermon topic. Also, they often bring physical objects as attention getters. I know of no easy or even desirable way to get kids thinking about the Transcendent, but, as an emeritus BSU biology prof, I know of and have access to good physical objects: bones from the biology department's vertebrate collection.
They helped us do a little science.
First, we looked at BSCVC 920, a buck white-tail skull someone found in the fall in this area, but without specific locality data. (We like to have those data with as many specimens as possible.)
How do we know it was found in the fall? Mature antlers still attached. Then, we discussed deer antlers versus the horns of other hoofed mammals.
The bones of 920's muzzle and its premolars were missing, and all of the hide, flesh, and lower jaw were gone. Nice, fairly symmetrical, typical white-tail rack, nine-pointer. Judging from its molars' wear, a fairly young but mature buck. I asked how long they thought it might have been lying there in the woods.
More like three weeks to a few months. Why? There's not a tooth mark on it. Antlers and other bones are major sources of calcium for rodents, foxes, skunks and whatnot, including other deer.
There'd probably have been little left in three years.
Next, noting that mule deer sometimes wander into Minnesota's western counties from North Dakota, we wondered how would a mule deer buck's antlers be different. No adult mule deer rack available, so check a field guide: white-tails typically have a main beam that sweeps up and forward, with one to several tines branching up from it. Mule deer antlers are bifurcate; they fork, and then each fork forks.
Next BSCVC 1300, a white-tail doe, no older than the buck, its milk premolars well worn, and adult premolars just beginning to push them out. No locality or other data. Actually, BSCVC reserves the number 1300 for many specimens of mammals and birds that lack useful data, but are still fine for teaching purposes. As is normal, this doe has no antlers.
Well, what if a mammalogist from BSU, MSU Moorhead, St. John's University, NDSU, UND, UM-Crookston, or one of our students home for a holiday finds a doe skull in a Red River Valley county. Is it a white-tail or a mule deer?
From about 1975-80, I examined specimens at many Minnesota and North Dakota colleges and universities for a book, published in 1982, “The mammals of Minnesota.” Such books typically have taxonomic keys to help readers identify specimens. The keys are usually dichotomous: i.e., they comprise "either or" couplets. For instance, the couplet after 22 might be: "23a. tail more than 30% of total length—cougar; 23b. tail less than 20% of total length—24." Then couplet 24 will separate bobcat from lynx. I did two keys, one for study skins or whole specimens, one for skulls.
So, how do we separate doe white-tail skulls from doe mule deer skulls? There may be many average ratios of skull measurements that would help, but there may also be lots of individual variation, making that approach difficult. Is there a simple consistent difference? I had a mule deer doe skull someone had given me. No memory who, or where it's from. It was probably at least three or four years old when it died.
Several state and regional books have dichotomous keys separating mule deer and white-tail skulls, but none mention a difference that I found. Various deer have a lacrimal gland that sits in a pit in front of the eye socket. We looked at that pit in the two doe skulls. It's much deeper in the mule deer doe, and I've found that consistently so at all the collections I've visited. That's a discovery made independently, one nobody else, to my knowledge, had published. I've not yet heard from the Nobel committee.
Other mammalogists, however, were aware of it. Someone, in 1980, before the book came out, brought BSU a skull. It was about white-tail or mule deer size, but somehow different. Took it to the Bell Museum. Elmer Birney, who later died much too young, was mammal curator there. Elmer immediately looked at those lacrimal pits. Probably an exotic deer that had escaped from captivity, I left the skull for the Bell.
My prayer for the kids was that they be alert to God's natural world. You learn interesting stuff, and life is richer that way.