How to Identify a Skull

When using skulls in education, the first question usually asked is "What kind of skull is that?" Skull identification can be determined by several methods. If you are unsure of a skull's identification, you can compare it with other known specimens. This, however, can be less than accurate and most people will not have access to a large collection of known species. The most effective means of identifying a skull and determining the correct species is with the use of a dichotomous key. A dichotomous key allows a person, through a series of questions, to identify an organism via the process of elimination. Plants, fish and even skulls can be identified using this method. Below is an example of a dichotomous key for mammal skulls.

[PIC1]Excerpt taken from "A Key-Guide To Mammal Skulls And Lower Jaws" by Aryan I Roest.


a. Large skull, over 150mm (6") long: go to step ---------- 2

b. Medium skull, 75-150mm (3-6") long: go to step ------ 19

c. Small skull, 25-75mm (1-3") long: go to step ---------- 32

d. Tiny skull, less than 25mm (1") long: go to step ------ 47


a. Orbit (eye socket) closed at back by a bony bar formed of fused postorbital process; no canines, OR canines about same size, or smaller than cheek teeth: ------------ 3

b. Orbit open at back; canines large, prominent: --------- 10

3. a. Skull over 300mm (1 foot) long: -------------------------- 4

b. Skull less than 300mm long: ------------------------------ 7

Etc., Etc., Etc.

A skull key can be a valuable teaching aid in the classroom. Skeletons: Animals Unveiled features an Outreach Program which teaches your students how to use a dichotomous key in its Identification class. Skulls Unlimited, our parent company, also carries several levels of key guides from simple to advanced. Keys come with convenient skull diagrams and a glossary explaining the anatomical terms used. 

* Visit our Education Programs page to see what your students can learn about Skull Identification during a field trip to the museum, and how we can bring the concept into your classroom during an outreach visit.