Look, I Found This Skull In The Woods! What is it?
North American Animal Skull Identification Resources to Help You Identify Found Skulls
As a naturalist, I always thought it would be a fun idea to have a nature based version of Antiques Road Show. For the most part, it's what happens almost every day with visitors that come to nature centers and outdoor education places. If you're a parent you've probably had more than one "What is this?" or "I found this, what is it?" questions when walking in nature. One of the most common questions that arises comes from students finding bones and skulls in the woods and wanting to know what they've found and how to clean them up. I'll cover cleaning and preserving skulls in another post, but for this one I want to provide you with some identification guides and tools to use to identify the bones and skulls you find.
NOTE: I just added a post on animal skull ID using teeth and dentition. Click here to check out the blog post.
First, when you find a skull or bone and you want to know if it's OK to keep you need to be aware of the Federal and state regulations regarding animals. A good resource that covers these regulations, and a state-by-state breakdown of laws, can be found at the Green Wolf website. You can also find information at the Animal Legal and Historical Center from the Michigan State University College of Law. In general, it's OK to keep non-endangered mammal skulls from animals that died by natural means. NOTE: this does not mean road kill. Most game species and their skulls are legal to possess as well, but check your state regulations, especially regarding moose, bighorn sheep, etc. Bird skulls are illegal to collect for the most part, unless they are non-migratory native game birds or poultry. See my previous post for more information on the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
First, though, some terminology: osteology is the study of bones (and skulls) so when you find a bone you are embarking on an osteological study. There are many great guides out there to help you identify the skulls and bones, so it really depends on your ability level (novice to expert), interest, and the type information that you want about the skull(s) that will dictate which you choose. (Just an added thought: Don't look at "kids" books as beneath you somehow. Often they have the best explanations and illustrations without getting mixed up with overly technical jargon.) Here are some of my favorites:
For Beginners and Kids:
- Animal Skulls & Bones: A Waterproof Pocket Guide to The Bones of Common North American Mammals (Duraguide), J.M. Kavanaugh ($6). This is a pamphlet style guide, about 10 pages, with information and pictures of common skulls of birds, mammals, fish, and reptiles. It's waterproof and easy to carry into the field. It's also something fun to give kids on the trail. It is not comprehensive and is pretty basic, how much can you really cram into 10 pages? However, it's a great place to start and a small enough size to be portable.
- Animal Skulls: A Guide to North American Species, Mark Elbroch ($31): I would typically recommend this book for intermediate to advanced readers but it could also be used by beginners as well. It is the most comprehensive book out there and has great photos. It is a wonderful introduction to skull topography, comparative anatomy of skulls, and diagrams for birds, mammals, and reptiles. The photos are super sharp and the illustrations are very helpful. I also like their full page picture spreads of jaws so you can compare different species from across all of North America. It's a heavy book because of all the photos, but worth having at home and using. (The Missouri guide and this one are my best recommendations)
- The Wild Mammals of Missouri: Second Edition, Charles and Elizabeth Schwartz ($39). If you live in the Mid-West to Eastern US this book is one of my all-time favorites. It doesn't focus on skulls alone, but it has magnificent hand drawn illustrations of animals, their skulls, tracks, and behaviors. I like that they also teach you how to read a skull's dental formula and provides detailed descriptions of each animal.
- For Kids: Skull Alphabet Book, Jerry Pallotta and Ralph Masiello ($7). This children's book is wonderfully illustrated alphabet book and has animal skulls from around the world. How else do you get "Z" without a zebra? It's great for all ages and fun to study the drawings and illustrations.
For More Advanced Studies:
- Skulls and Bones: A Guide Skeletal Structures and Behaviors of North American Mammals, Glenn Searfoss ($13 Used). I like the comprehensive nature of this book and the side-by-side drawings of different skeletal body parts, such as feet or jaws. Over all, this book is very verbose and a heavy read, but it's a good resource for those that want a lot of textual description of comparisons to go along with the drawings. I do like that this book uses skeletons to infer animal behavior and movement.
- Comparative Osteology: A Laboratory and Field Guide of Common North American Mammals, Bradley Adams and Pam Crabtree ($55). I don't actually own this book, but I've seen it on shelves. It's geared more toward those studying veterinary medicine or osteology. This book compares all the major bones of the bodies of pigs, chickens, goats, raccoon, opossums, human, cat, deer, bear, and cows, so it's not really suited as a "user friendly" guide to help you find out what skull you've stumbled upon in the woods. However, if you're interested in learning comparative anatomy this would be a good lab manual and text to look into.
- A Key-Guide to Mammal Skulls and Lower Jaws, Aryan Roest ($7). If you are not comfortable with skull topography terms, and you don't know the difference between a zygomatic arch and the supraorbital process, then you should consider this as a key only for experts. The pictures are OK for a quick reference, but they're black and white and can be grainy and the drawings are minimalist.
Teaching Materials for Animal Skulls and Bones
Animal Skulls: A Guide For Teachers, Naturalists, and Interpreters, Richard White. You'll find some great lesson plans and ideas for teaching about animal skulls with these units (around the middle school level). You will need some skulls in the classroom to work with, but this guide can help you plan out your activities. See the links below for places to purchase skulls.
Places to Purchase Animal Skulls
Skulls Unlimited Catalog of skulls and skeletons to purchase online.
You can also find skulls for purchase, decorated and not on E-Bay and Etsy.com. Use common sense when purchasing, and ask questions about the skulls, such as how they were obtained, hunted, or collected. Be sure that what you purchase from one state isn't illegal to own in your state!
Other Animal Skeleton and Skull Resources
Project Noah Mission: Identifying Animals Through Osteology. If you'd like to join a worldwide hunt for skulls and bones you can visit the photo based citizen science program called Project Noah. Here you can join different missions to collect photos and information about different animals and plants around the world. The Osteology Project focuses on bones and skulls. If you find something you don't recognize then the Project's participants can help you.
Museum of Osteology in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.