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Spooky Skulls and What They Tell Us

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Posted: Thursday 26th October 2017 by WildBlog

By Matt Collis, My Wild City Project Manager

Forget tacky glow-in-the-dark skeletons, witches’ fingers and blood-drenched plastic fangs …. for real Halloween spookiness look into the world of wildlife. In particular, get up close and personal with animal skulls and bones for clues about their past!

Finding the remains of any once-living creature is an eerie and gruesome sight. It’s an experience I think most people would rather avoid or glance away from. As a symbol of the finality of death, people find the idea of skulls and bones incredibly uncomfortable. It’s for this reason I love taking my own collection to community nature events and challenging people to learn about them.

Although people are often a little nervous at first, there is something truly fascinating about what’s left of an animal when everything else has faded away and I often get asked, ‘What possible interest could anyone have in the rotted remains of a deceased creature?’ My answer; plenty!

While identifying something when it is alive has its own challenges, you should try it when it’s dead! Faced with nothing except its bare bones; no hair, no skin, no colours, you might think your chances of correctly identifying the owner are long gone, but you’d be wrong.

Animal bones, especially their skulls, have evolved over millions of years and therefore are specially adapted to each species or group. Designed to protect an animal’s vital organs, like the brain and sensory organs, the shape, size and patterning of a skull can reveal clues to both the species and many of the animal’s dietary and social behaviours.

The most common type of skull you’re likely to come across is that of a mammal like a fox, badger, hedgehog or smaller animals like voles. You’ll know you’ve got a mammal skull because it will most likely contain teeth. Teeth are a vital tool for processing food and therefore can tell you what your animal likes to eat. Generally, herbivores have flat(ish) topped teeth to chew and grind plants. Carnivores, who eat meat, generally have dagger-like teeth or sharp-topped ones. Omnivores, which eat almost everything have a mix of both, like us!

Depending on where the eye sockets sit, you can often tell predators from prey. Animals with sockets facing forward are able to focus in on specific targets, a trait found mostly in predators. Animals with sockets placed on the side, tend to be the ones worried about being hunted (prey).

A skull with a large nose suggests an animal that either hunts using scent (predator), or actively probes the ground in search of food. Animals like foxes and deer are two good examples of this. A cat, however, relies more on sight and therefore has a much shorter nose.

Although you might start off thinking of skulls and bones as ghoulish and eerie, you might like me – realise that as well as teaching us about their life, habits and choice of diet, animal skulls can often be rather beautiful and sculptural objects in their own right.

So, as you can see, there is much you can learn about an animal once it’s beyond the grave, if only you’re brave enough to take a look!

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