How to Identify an Animal's Jawbones

Written by mark nichol
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How to Identify an Animal's Jawbones
Even without the horns that identify this skull as that of a goat, the jawbone will provide clues about the animal's identity. (former cow image by iChip from Fotolia.com)

It’s not easy, when examining jawbones from an animal, to identify the particular species, but you can come close with just a few simple observations of the teeth. The easiest determination to make centres on whether the animal is a carnivore (a meat eater), an insectivore (an insect eater), an herbivore (a plant eater) or perhaps an omnivore (an animal, such as a bear, that eats both plants and other animals). To do so, merely study the teeth, if any remain intact.

Skill level:
Moderate

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Things you need

  • Notes, ideally with illustrations, about jawbones of types of animals categorised by dietary type
  • Trowel or other digging implement
  • Magnifying glass
  • Small, soft brush

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Instructions

    Analysing Teeth

  1. 1

    Note the relative size and sharpness of the incisors, or front teeth. If they’re small, and very sharp, the animal was a carnivore. Insectivores, meanwhile, have relatively large, sharp incisors, which help them pick at insects, and herbivores have small, less sharp incisors.

    If there is no lower set of incisors, the animal was a plant tearer, one of two classes of herbivore, and if you notice a large gap between the incisors and the back teeth, the jawbone is likely that of a deer. Two sets of small incisors indicates a plant gnawer, like a squirrel; beavers are unusual in having large, curved upper incisors.

    How to Identify an Animal's Jawbones
    Carnivores such as cougars have sharp teeth for tearing meat. (mountain lion image by cullenphotos from Fotolia.com)
  2. 2

    Next, look at the canines—the outside teeth on the front row. If the canines are prominent, the animal was a carnivore. Insectivores’ canines, by contrast, resemble their premolars and molars—those located in the back of the mouth. If you see no canines, the animal was an herbivore.

    How to Identify an Animal's Jawbones
    Opposums are insectivores, which have many small teeth for crushing insects. (peeking opossum-rb image by Tijara Images from Fotolia.com)
  3. 3

    Finally, note the size and surface of the premolars and molars. If you notice that these teeth are large and jagged, you've found a carnivore's jawbones. You can confirm this fact if you recognise a unique set of teeth called carnassials—large teeth located just past the canines that are adapted for a shearing, or scissor-like, movement. (The upper carnassials overlap the lower ones, just like one scissor blade overlaps the other.)

    If the back teeth are squarish rather than rectangular and sharply pointed, the animal was an insectivore. If they're flat and have sharp edges, the animal was a plant tearer; plant gnawers’ molars, however, have smooth edges.

    How to Identify an Animal's Jawbones
    Deer have molars with sharp ridges to help them tear leaves from plants before chewing on them. (deer image by Henryk Olszewski from Fotolia.com)
  4. 4

    Examine the jawbones overall. Carnivores' carnassials prevent a sideways movement of the mouth—the motion most herbivores use to chew. And if you notice that the teeth seem especially white and clean, rather than stained, you've recognised a characteristic of a carnivore's teeth, because they are not discoloured by plant matter.

    Note that if the jawbones have large, sharp incisors and canines but also feature broad, flat molars, the animal was likely an omnivore, a type of animal that eats both plants and animals (and perhaps insects too). For example, if you find a jaw that looks like it belonged to a dog or a wolf but has larger molars than you’d expect, it might have belonged to a coyote, which, unlike its canine cousins, is an omnivore and has slightly different teeth.

    How to Identify an Animal's Jawbones
    Black bears, which are omnivores, have both sharp frontal teeth for eating meat, as well as flat molars for chewing plants. (bear image by Mat Hayward from Fotolia.com)

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