Learning the Language of Skulls

Did you know that you can learn a whole lot about an animal just by looking at their skull? If […]

Did you know that you can learn a whole lot about an animal just by looking at their skull? If you know what features to look for, you can tell their diet, role in the ecosystem, strength, and much more!


What do skulls do? 

The brain is a very important and fragile organ that is necessary for any animal to function and survive, so, in order to keep it safe, any animal will have protective bones encasing it. The skull, also known as the cranium, is vital for protecting the brain as well as helping to protect the eyes. The skull also provides areas for muscles and tissues to attach and houses an animal’s sensory organs. There are specific features we can look at on the skull of an animal to learn about it. Keep reading to understand the language of skulls.



If we look at the nasal cavity and its structure on a skull, we can learn if that animal had a strong sense of smell or a weak sense of smell. The larger the cavity and the longer the nasal structure, the better sense of smell the animal has. A shorter, smaller nasal structure would indicate the animal had a weaker sense of smell. Look at the difference between the nasal structure of a cougar skull versus a black bear skull. Which animal do you think has a better sense of smell?

Black bear replica skull (left) and cougar replica skull (right)



The area of the skull that contains the eyes is called the orbit, also known as the eye socket. We can look at the placement and size of the orbit to learn more about the animal’s role in the food chain, as well as their vision. Larger orbits mean the animal has larger eyes. This indicates that the animal has better eyesight than those with smaller orbits. Carnivores tend to have better eyesight than herbivores. Animals with front facing orbits are typically predators. They use both eyes to see the same thing when hunting. Animals with side facing orbits tend to be prey species. Their eyes take in 2 different views so they can always be on the lookout for predators that might be hunting them. See how a tiger skull has front facing orbits but a deer has side facing orbits? This is because a tiger is a predator and a deer is prey.

Tiger replica skull (left) and deer replica skull (right)


Sagittal Crest

A sagittal crest is the ridge at the top of an animal’s skull. The larger the sagittal crest, the more space the skull has for muscle attachments. Animals with a larger sagittal crest have a stronger jaw and stronger bite force. An animal at Turpentine Creek with an incredibly strong bite force is a hyena. You can see how large the sagittal crest of a hyena is in the picture below. Since herbivores don’t tend to need a very strong bite force, they do not have an enlarged sagittal crest, whereas carnivores do. Fun Fact: the sagittal crest tends to be more prominent in male animals than in females.

Hyena replica skull



Animals use their teeth for chewing and eating. Looking at the teeth of an animal can help you learn what their diet would look like. There are 4 types of teeth: incisors for cutting, canines for holding and tearing, premolars for chewing and crushing, and molars for crushing and grinding. Carnivores will have teeth more equipped for cutting, tearing, and shedding. This means canines would be the most important to them and they would have few, if any, molars.

Herbivores will have teeth more equipped for grinding. Most herbivores are missing canines since they don’t need them and molars are most helpful to them. They also can have a sideways moving jaw to help with the grinding of plant matter. You can see the difference between the teeth of a carnivore lion and the teeth of an herbivore deer in the picture below. Omnivores tend to have a nice mix of teeth shapes, so they can eat and chew their whole diet of both plants and animals.

Deer replica skull (top) and lion replica skull (bottom)

Teeth can also give you a clue about how old an animal is. If an animal has sharper, whiter teeth, they are likely younger. But, if an animal has dull, chipped, and yellow teeth, they are probably older. Teeth get worn down as an animal gets older and they yellow with time (wild animals don’t brush their teeth).


Auditory Bullae

An auditory bullae is a bulbous and hollow bony structure at the base of a skull. It encloses the middle and inner ear. Looking at the size of these bullae can help us determine animals’ hearing abilities. Animals with larger auditory bullae generally have better hearing than those animals with smaller auditory bullae, relative to their skull sizes, of course. So, while the cats here at Turpentine Creek might not have the best sense of smell compared to some other animals, they have a keen sense of hearing. 

Auditory bullae of a replica lion skull


Now that we’ve spent some time learning the language of skulls, see if you can use your new skills next time you visit us and check out our replica skulls in the gift shop!


*All skulls pictured are replicas.


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