Left to Right: Red Fox, White-tailed Deer & jaw bone, Emu, Box Turtle

It’s spooky season! It may be spooky to find a skull or animal bones in the woods while hiking, however this decomposition process is an important part of the circle of life.

Trigger Warning – the next section of the post addresses death. Other autumnal/Halloween posts can be found below if you need to move on.

Circle of Life & Nutrient Cycling

Death is an important part of the natural world. As a plant or animal dies, it goes through the decomposition process. Carrion eaters, such as vultures, consume the flesh of recently dead animals. The remaining bones are then further broken down by fungi, small insects, and bacteria over time. The nutrients from the entire body are cycled back into the ecosystem. The vulture will eventually excrete its waste, and the fungi or beetles that eat the bones will die and feed the soil. 

The soil, now rich in nutrients in the organic layer, gets mixed and stirred by critters like moles, worms, and other microbes. This mixing allows plants to take up nutrients easily. Once the plants have the nutrients they need, they can produce seeds that germinate and provide food resources for more animals! The nutrients travel through the food web, and as the animals expire, those nutrients get cycled once again. It’s a very efficient system!

The process of breaking down bones, though, takes a while. Chances are, if you come across remnants of animals in the woods, you’ll be left with bones, and the muscle and flesh will have been picked clean. Once you’ve found that set of bones on your adventures, did you know that you can find out a lot about that animal just by examining the skull?

How to ID Wildlife Skulls

First, examine the eye orbitals. Where are they located? If they’re on the front of the skull, you’ve found a predator. If they are on the sides of the skull, you’ve found a prey species. 

Next, examine the top of the skull. Is there a large line, or ridge down the center of the skull? If so, then you’ve found an animal who really loves to chew and bite! This ridge is called the Sagittal Crest and is where the jaw muscles attach. The larger the crest, the more the animal needs strong attachment points. So we know that the animal was a voracious hunter. 

If not, move on to the teeth (really helpful for identifying mammals). Is the jaw still intact, or are teeth left in the top jaw? Prominent incisors with small canines show that the animal was most likely a herbivore that wouldn’t need large canines to hunt. Herbivores will also have large, plate-like premolars and molars for grinding down plant matter. Large canine teeth (looks like “fangs”) mean that the animal needed to bite and catch onto prey. Those hunters will have premolars on the top and bottom jaws that match up like a pair of scissors. These are called Carnassial Pairs. Those teeth allow the animal to shear through meat.

Now, if you find an animal whose incisors are extremely large compared to the rest of the teeth, then you most likely have a member of the rodent family. These ever-growing incisors are made to gnaw, which makes chewing through hard nuts and seeds easy! 

spooky season skull diagram

More ID Methods & Tips

There are so many other things to examine to ID the animal further, like the presence/position of the auditory bulla, rostrum size and shape, length of skull, etc… Below are some fun facts that might help you immediately identify the skull:

*NOT a skunk skull, but a raccoon! The skunk is winder and the rostrum (or nose part) is blunter than the raccoon. It will have similar incisors though.
  1. Rabbit skulls have sides that look like lace, rather than solid bone.
  2. Turtles have beaks! Their jaws will come together at a point and have no teeth.
  3. Bird skulls are very lightweight. Owls have extremely large eye orbitals compared to the size of the skull, which allows for great nocturnal vision, but limited eye movement since there isn’t room in the skull for muscles!
  4. Here in Pennsylvania, if you find a skull with antlers, you’ve either found a White-tailed Deer or Elk skull. The primary difference between those two is the size. Elks are much larger than deer!
  5. White-tailed deer do not have incisors on their top jaw, only the bottom!

Celebrate spooky season with my Skull Sticker Set! A portion of the proceeds benefits wildlife conservation efforts.

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