How to identify mammal skulls

Spring is a good time to look for mammal skulls. The end of winter is a peak period of mortality for many species, and skulls can be found virtually anywhere, but skull identification can be difficult.

Badger skull on fallen tree. © Jodi Bayliss/EyeEm/Getty

Spring is a good time to look for mammal skulls. The end of winter is a peak period of mortality for many species and also when most foxes and badgers die on the road.

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Skulls can be found in roadside ditches, on open hills, on spoil heaps outside badger setts – in fact, virtually anywhere.

To keep a collection in good condition you should lightly boil them with a dash of sodium perborate, which will act as a bleach.

MAMMAL SKULLS TO LOOK OUT FOR:

1

Hedgehog skulls

  • Hedgehog skulls are easily recognised by a row of sharp teeth that are all rather similar.
  • Remains of spines are often found with the hedgehog skull.
Rat skeleton
Rat skeleton. © kot63/Getty
2

Rodent skulls

  • Rodents have one pair of incisors in the upper and lower jaw, and then a gap before the flat, grinding cheek teeth.
  • Squirrel skulls are easily told from rat skulls by the broader snout.
Illustration of squirrel skull and skeleton
Illustration of a squirrel skeleton. © Ruskpp/Getty
3

Small carnivore skulls

Weasel skull
Weasel skull. © hugocorzo/Getty
  • The small mustelids have similar, long flat skulls.
  • They increase in size from a weasel skull (the skull can pass through a wedding ring), to stoat, mink, polecat, pine marten and otter skulls (the last of these is about 10cm long).
  • Males are larger than females; there is considerable overlap in size between species.
Otter skull
Otter skull. © ruxi_coroiu/Getty
4

Hare and rabbit skulls

  • Rabbit skulls and hare skulls are easily distinguished from rodents by a second pair of small upper incisors behind a larger pair.
  • Hare skull slightly larger than rabbit skull with much wider nasal passages.
Rabbit Skull on Black Background
Rabbit skull. © Shelly Still/Getty
5

Large carnivore skulls

Fox skull
Fox skull. © Satirus/Getty
  • Carnivores have large, obvious canines, and the rear teeth have a number of small, sharp points or cusps.
  • Adult badgers have relatively short canines, a crest along the top of the skull and the lower jaw cannot be detached; badger skulls less than a year old have no crest and the lower jaw is not attached to the skull.
  • Fox skulls can be identified by their slender, sharp canines and long, narrow snout.
  • Cats have a very short snout and typically only three or four teeth behind the canines.
Eurasian Badger, meles meles specimen, side view of a badger's skull. The crested skull showing the canine teeth and molars set in powerful jaws with a wrap around hinge.
Eurasian badger skull showing prominent ridge and powerful jaw. © Dorling Kindersley/Getty
6

Deer skulls

  • Deer skulls have no upper incisors; the cheek teeth are all very similar and designed for grinding.
  • Male deer skulls are easily recognised by antlers; if antlers are not present, the short, upwardly directed pedicel is cut flat and points backward. With sheep, the horn boss, or boney growth, is pointed and tapered and curves backward and downward.
Red deer skull from a stag with antlers in a river in Scotland
It doesn’t get much easier to identify than a red deer skull, like this one attached to a whole skeleton caught in a river. © Alasdair James/Getty
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  • Male Chinese water deer have large canine tusks but no antlers; the muntjac is the only species where males have both tusks and antlers.
  • Red deer and sika deer have small rounded canines in the upper jaw.
  • Female Chinese water deer and muntjac skulls are told by their small size; red and sika deer skulls by their large dimensions. Female fallow and large roe deer skulls can be confused with female sheep skulls.
Muntjac Skull
Muntjac skull. © ian35mm/Getty