Left – Rhinoceros: molars shaped like π, Right – Rabbit: double set of incisors

Suzanne E. Hiller

As much as natural specimens can be part of lessons in a range of subject areas, animal skulls are an especially versatile resource for instruction. These natural specimens are relevant to language arts for descriptive and/or creative writing and as models for art instruction. Students can learn about the concept of variables in mathematics by assigning a letter to represent each type of tooth (e.g., incisors, canines, and molars) and then follow up with writing basic expressions for a series of skulls and comparing their work to each other. Teachers have even used skulls as part of world language instruction and for keyboarding activities.

Of course, skulls are particularly useful in teaching science. For example, analyzing the types of teeth will help students determine whether the organism is a(an) herbivore, omnivore, or carnivore. This activity works particularly well when skulls are set up as part of lab stations.

Another interesting use for skulls is for animal identification. Using a lab station approach, students analyze the dentition of each skull to identify an organism. A classic example would be deer that have incisors (e.g., to tear tree bark), and molars; the deer moves the bark to the molars with their tongue. For herbivores, such as deer, there is no need for canines. In contrast, alligators have canines since they are carnivores.

Certain animals have dentition that is quite specific. A great example would be that of rabbit skulls as these organisms have a unique feature of a double set of incisors (front teeth). Another example would be that of a rhinoceros where the molars are shaped like the pi (π) symbol. Sometimes teachers will need to guide students to look at these features closely. Having students analyze skulls not only relates to science content but develops scientific observations, a critical skill in the work of scientists.

A school may have purchased skulls from a catalog (both natural and manmade) or have donations from teachers or community members. More recently, 3D printers have the capability to create a wide variety of skulls. Not all types of skulls are readily available, such as a rhinoceros skull; however, teachers can print photos or have students conduct their own research.

If a teacher is fortunate enough to have access to natural or manmade skulls, students should be trained on how to handle the specimens. First, the specimens should be placed in a box or foam. It is recommended that students use pencils as they may point to parts of the skull and inadvertently mark the skull with a pen or marker. Next, students would not want to insert objects or their hands into the eye sockets or nasal cavities, which can be damaged easily.

Integrating natural specimens, such as skulls, can create a lot of excitement for students, enhance learners’ conceptual understanding, and offer novel approaches to teaching a variety of subject areas. Maintaining and labeling the skulls ensures that the specimens will be available for instruction from year to year. In fact, some schools create naturalist collections, so that teachers in all subject areas have access to these valuable natural specimens.