Grit Blogs > Nature and Gardening at the Edge

Halloween Bones

Domestic cat skull

Halloween seems like a good time to talk about bones. Have you ever found bones on the ground on your farm or acreage? Almost all bones on the surface are going to be animal bones and not human bones or dinosaur bones. While found bones are usually not a subject for crime investigation or archeology, they can tell a story. Scattered and perhaps broken bones can mean that an animal met a violent death or that at least a scavenger found the carcass and ate on it. However ligaments that hold bones together to make a skeleton usually deteriorate long before the bones themselves so bones may be scattered over time by other forces. Some predators, particularly those that create dens for young, will often take prey to their den to feed their young. Entrances to animal dens may be littered with bones. If you see a den with bones on the outside, think about the time of year and the possibility of meeting the den occupant who may be on the defense of hidden young before investigating such bones.

Identifying found bones can be interesting. Some such as snakes or turtles are readily identifiable by their unique shapes. Turtle shells will in time lose the outer plates, "tortoise shell", and be simply a bony shell. Four-legged creature bone identification may be trickier. Look for feet and the skull for the best clues. Do the feet have hooves or claws? What kind of teeth does the skull have? The picture below shows what is likely a cat skull. Look at the teeth and compare them to tabby’s teeth. Of course ears have their shape due to cartilage, so no ears will be visible. The eye sockets will appear to be much larger than the visible eyes of the living animal. Some skeletons may be from young animals so will appear much smaller than what we expect for the species.

Occasionally horned or antlered animal bones may be found. While these are easy to identify, the manner of death may be the most interesting aspect. Although I have never found deer or elk skulls with the antlers entwined in a struggle to the death, these fights do occur and the remains are occasionally found. Hunters sometimes bone out deer or elk and leave an essentially intact skeleton behind. Bones from hunting occasionally will show marks from cutting.

Bird bones are hollow so bird skeletons are more obvious. Look for the beak and the feet for clues. If the foot bones are present, are they for walking or perching? The overall size is a good clue and of course skeletons may be from younger, smaller birds as well.

Sometimes the location of a skeleton is a good clue. In the case of bird skeletons, the location may be the habitat where the bird nested. Thus a skeleton on a lakeshore may well be from waterfowl.

Although the sight of bones may seem strange, consider the story that they tell and learn more about the wildlife in your area.

Partial snake skeleton