3 Simple Ways to Identify a Skull
Have you ever been walking around out in the woods and found one of these?
Any idea what this is? One skill that I often see lacking in many Trackers is Skull Identification and Interpretation. As a piece of sign, the skull may be one the most important items to correctly identify and draw conclusions from. When I first began working at Tracker School, I often heard Tom Brown talk about the skull collection he maintained as a teenager in the Pine Barrens. When finding a skull he often mentions that he and his best friend Rick would frequently fight or argue about who would be allowed to keep it. Sometimes, they even worked out elaborate bargains where the skull would be traded back and forth on a rigorous schedule so that each could enjoy having it in their collections.
I have to admit, when I first heard Tom talk about skulls in this way, I was a little freaked out. At the time, I thought anyone interested in finding and keeping skulls in a collection in their room probably ought to have their head examined(skull? head? get it? ha! ha!). At the very least, it sounded unhygenic. At the worst, it sounded morbid. However, I’ve learned through the years just how important skulls are as a piece of sign.
According to Tom, skulls are “the last Track an animal leaves on Earth.” This sounds mysterious and a little poetic, but what does it really mean? The skull of an animal, if examined, will tell you much not only about the life of the animal that left it, but also about the overall ecosystem it lived in.
When trapped, Wolverines, for example, are known go so far as to break their own teeth off in attempts to free themselves. Puncture marks through the top of the cranium of a Rabbit might tell of where a Bobcat sank its canine teeth into it to deliver a killing blow. Even the tell tale chewing marks on a piece of a skull will tell you of where mice have been chewing on it in order to ingest much needed and very hard to find calcium-letting you know about the health and vitality of the rodent population in an area.
Recently, while wandering around the Pine Barrens, I came across the skull featured in the above photo. Actually, a student brought it to me with a big grin on his face, sure what he held in his hand was a Coyote skull(despite the antler protrusions he missed). As you may or may not know, the Coyote was held in high regard by the Southern Lipan Apache(Grandfather’s people), and when this student found this particular skull on the way to his Sit Area, he was excited as he believed it to be a “sign,” or “good omen.” Whether it was a “good omen” or not, I cannot say, as that determination is up to him to decide.
What I can comment on, however, is the importance of having a solid physical grounding in your Tracking skills before assigning meaning to these types of things. Surely, the Earth speaks to us all individually through tracks, signs, events, etc, but, you’ll never really know what she’s saying without understanding her language first! To that end, as well as many others, its s good idea to understand a little about skulls and skull identification so you don’t have a miscommunication!
(Incidentally, if you want to find out more about Coyotes, check out my new online Coyote class by clicking here, and scrolling down to the online course catalogue!)
The first step when finding a skull, or piece of one, out in the woods is to do your best to try and identify what animal it was. This can sometimes be a bit challenging, but with a little knowledge of what animals might be in your ecosystem and a little dirt time, you’ll find you can narrow things down quite a bit. Here’s a few things to think about.
Four of the five senses most animals have are located in the skull: sight, smell, hearing, and taste. Its therefore a good idea to start your analyzation here. Remember, an animal’s survival strategy is determined by these five senses, and its bone structure must support that. For example, the bite strength of the Wolverine I mentioned earlier in this post is amazing. In order to support the bite strength it needs, the Wolverine’s jaw bone and teeth are formed in a particular way in order to maximize efficiency and effectiveness. Compare a Wolverine jaw bone to a Cottontail jaw bone and you’ll see quite a difference!
So, let’s take a look at this skull, and see what we come up with, sticking to just sight, smell, and taste, as those are the easiest to examine:
1. Sight: We can see by looking at the eye sockets, or orbital bones, that the eyes of the animal in question are spread out wide across the skull(compared, to, say, a Bobcat), so that they have the capability of using both eyes to view directly ahead of them while still maintaining the ability to see out to the sides. White-Tailed Deer are, indeed, famous for their sense of sight, and have a field of view up to 300 degrees around themselves! Many a hunter(and tracker!) have been “busted” by them for even the slightest of movements! Compare the orbitals of this skull with, say, the orientation of the orbitals of a Coyote, and you will see a marked difference.
2. Smell: The nose bone, or “rostrum”, of this animal is broken off-a common occurrence with skulls which have been left out to weather for long periods of time. However, I think you can imagine by the shape of the opening created here by the missing rostrum just how big a role the sense of smell plays in a White-Tailed Deer’s life. By just taking a moment to examine how developed the rostrum is compared to the rest of the skull, you can see that this is an animal that lives and dies by its sense of smell. Compare this rostrum with that of a Long-Tailed Weasel, and you will see just how prominent a role a Deer’s sense of smell plays in its life. Certainly, the Long-Tail has a great sense of smell, but it’s just not as important to its survival as it is to Deer.
3. Taste: The first thing you will notice when looking at the teeth, or “dentition” in this skull, is that these are the teeth of an animal that is mainly an herbivore. All of the teeth present are used mainly for grinding down vegetation, quite unlike the sharp, triangular shaped pre-molars, or carnassial teeth, of a predator. As well, we can see that this skull is lacking in a pronounced sagittal crest, a ridge of bone running lengthwise along the top of the cranium. The presence of a well-developed sagittal crest indicates an animal that has exceptionally strong muscles in the jaw and neck used for killing other animals and tearing chunks of flesh. If you’d like to see a nicely developed sagittal crest, check out the skull of a Fisher sometime! Being absolutely voracious predators, Fishers have very strong neck and cheek bones to kill their prey, and chew up darned near whatever comes across their path!
Certainly, there are quite a few other factors to look at when identifying skulls and interpreting them. For example, if you look closely at where the antlers of this Deer Skull protrude out of the cranium, you can see the tell tale chewings of mice. Examining the wear marks on the dentition will tell you what kind of diet this animal had, as well as give you a clue into its relative age. The fusion of the sutures on the skull also speak of how old it was when it died, how healthy it was, and many other characteristics.
I urge you to begin your own skull collection, or at least begin the process of finding skulls and bones on your wanderings into wilderness, and start analyzing. You can find out quite a bit on line, by simply “googling” different questions you have. Another resource I use frequently in my own studies is Mark Elbroch’s “Animal Skulls: A Guide to North American Species.” As a field guide, you just can’t beat it!
Good luck with your collection and be sure to enjoy it! Skulls are an amazing way to get in touch with the animals in your ecosystem!