By Matt Seek | photos by Dave Besenger | October 1, 2014
From Xplor: October/November 2014

Make no bones about it, you can learn a skeleton about an animal by examining its skull. The size, shape, and parts of a skull offer clues to an animal’s identity and how it lives. Let’s play detective and see what we can learn from these skulls. Ready, Sherlock Bones?


This tiny skull belongs to one of Missouri’s smallest — but deadliest — mammals. Shrews use their front teeth, which stick straight out from their skulls, like tweezers, plucking up insects with ninja-like speed. The teeth look red because they contain iron, a rust-colored element. Iron makes the teeth stronger so the shrew can chomp through crunchy insect shells.

Great Blue HERON

A heron’s eye sockets occupy the sides of its skull. This helps the heron see in many directions at once, making it nearly impossible for a pesky predator to sneak up on it. The eye sockets also point slightly downward, which makes it easy for a heron to spot yummy fish as the bird wades through the marsh.

Black BEAR

The large size of this skull is a huge tip-off. Black bears are one of Missouri’s most massive mammals. They eat both plants and meat, so their mouths are like Swiss Army knives — equipped with a variety of tools to tackle any eating job. Pointy canines hold prey, sharp incisors snip plants or flesh, and flat molars grind up nuts and stems.


The long beak on this skull may make you think it belongs to a bird. It doesn’t. The tip-off is the teeth. Birds don’t have teeth — teeth are too heavy. This skull belongs to a longnose gar, a kind of fish. Gar gobble their meals whole, so their dagger-like teeth are made to hold onto prey, not rip it apart.


Turtles don’t have teeth, but they do have sharp, bony beaks. And no turtle has a bigger beak than an alligator snapping turtle. Missouri’s most massive reptile wields a wedge-shaped snapper that’s capable of chopping through bones like a meat cleaver.


A beaver’s skull is thick and burly, made to support huge cheek muscles beavers need to gnaw through trees. You may be thinking, “Somebody get this critter a toothbrush!” But the orange on its teeth isn’t plaque. It’s a super-hard substance called enamel (ee-nam-uhl). The white substance behind it is called dentine (den-teen). When the beaver chews, the dentine wears away faster, keeping the beaver’s chompers razor sharp.

Barred Owl

Owls work nature’s night shift, so they need large eye sockets to hold their huge, light-gathering eyes. The eye sockets face forward, giving owls excellent depth perception — a big bonus when swooping after prey at breakneck speeds. If you were to hold an owl’s skull, it would feel light. Bird bones are thin-walled and filled with

We're All a Bunch of Boneheads

A skull is like a built-in helmet that protects an animal’s delicate, squishy brain. But that’s not the only thing skulls are good for. Skulls hold in place an animal’s eyes, ears, and the organs that help it smell and taste. Skulls — and the teeth attached to them — help critters capture and tear apart food. Skulls provide an anchor point for muscles to connect to. Without a skull, animals wouldn’t be able to open their pie holes, sing a song, or smile. So, if anyone ever calls you a big bonehead, just say, “Thanks.”

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This Issue's Staff

Brett Dufur
Les Fortenberry
Karen Hudson
Regina Knauer
Noppadol Paothong
Marci Porter
Mark Raithel
Laura Scheuler
Matt Seek
Tim Smith
David Stonner
Nichole LeClair Terrill
Stephanie Thurber
Cliff White