Assembling an Elephant

Do you ever wonder how skeletons in museums stay together? When an animal is alive, its bones are held together by ligaments - little pieces of strong tissue that connect from bone to bone. When an animal moves, it uses tendons - little pieces of strong tissue that connect bones to muscles. But when an animal is just a skeleton, it doesn’t have ligaments, tendons, or muscles to hold it together - so why aren’t museum exhibits just piles of bones? Teams of scientists and artists are able to bring skeletons back to life through articulation - piecing a skeleton back together from a jumble of bones. Any skeleton can be articulated - from a tiny mouse to a huge dinosaur!

To articulate a skeleton, the team first decides on a pose - will the skeleton be standing up or lying down? Some poses can be very lifelike, showing animals fighting or searching for food. Once they decide the pose, it’s time to put the skeleton together!

Skeletons are usually held together with metal and glue. Small wires can be used for small animals and huge metal rods and plates for big ones. How these pieces fit together depends on the animal and pose, but metal usually acts like a free-standing second skeleton, to which the bones are attached.

Every bone in the skeleton fits together like pieces of a puzzle - but that doesn’t make it easy! Some dinosaur skeletons in museums are still missing pieces, because scientists either haven’t found them or don’t know yet how they fit together.

Articulate Your Own Elephant "Skeleton"

You can articulate your own elephant skeleton at home, using the materials below! You will need:Paper elephant skeleton connected with brass paper brads

Step 1: Print out the “Assembling an Elephant” activity sheet. For extra strength, print this on card stock or use regular printer paper and glue to a thicker paper, like construction paper or a file folder.

Step 2: Cut out your elephant along the dotted lines.

Step 3: Punch a small hole over each “X” on the activity sheet using a hole punch. A pencil point can also be used to do this. (Kids, ask an adult to help with this.)

Step 4: Assemble your elephant! Match each colored “X” of the legs and head with the “X’s” on the elephant’s body, and push a brad fastener through them. The yellow and purple legs and red head will go on top of the elephant, and the blue and green legs will go under the elephant. Flatten the prongs of the fastener on the back of the elephant.

Look Closer

  • Without the colors, would you know where each bone was supposed to go? How do you think scientists know where each bone goes? Does learning about articulated skeletons change the way you look at specimens in museums?
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