Is this a deer skull? Foal skull?
November 28, 2010 2:52 PM   Subscribe

How can I tell if this skull is from a deer or from a foal?

Today I was walking in a field where several horses are pastured. My lovely terrier found a skull, mandible, and several vertebrae. Because I'm that kind of person, I wrestled it away from the pup and hauled it home. C'mon! It still has enough connective tissue so that the mandible is still attached allowing you to make it "talk". (Actually, everything is still connected...letting you see how the skull fits onto the first vertebra and other cool stuff.)

My first instinct is that it is the remains of a deer. But then I realized that, with horses present, it could be the remains of a foal.

I've looked at Google images, and it's still pretty hard to say. What definitive features should I look for to ID it? I'm guessing the teeth, right? I can post photos if necessary. Thanks!
posted by Pleased_As_Punch to Science & Nature (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Top front teeth are the obvious one - horses have them, or signs of them coming / having been there; deer & most other ruminants don't. Beyond that, if the shape itself isn't a giveaway when ID-ing, you start getting into teeth type / number / location, shape & location of various holes in the skull, etc.
posted by Pinback at 3:11 PM on November 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Agreeing with Pinback that the top front teeth are the easiest to tell a ruminant from a horse. Having said that it's extremely unlikely it's a foal. Responsible horse owners don't a) have many foals die out at pasture and b) leave their bodies lying around. It's illegal for one thing and gross for another.
posted by fshgrl at 3:17 PM on November 28, 2010

Post pics. I can probably (informally) verify.
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 3:24 PM on November 28, 2010

Oh. I guess I should specify that I teach equine and ruminant anatomy.
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 3:27 PM on November 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

The three pairs of a foal's mandibular incisors, btw, erupt at approximately 6days, 6 weeks and 6 months. A newborn's first pair will usually be just beneath the gumline, so if you have eniugh skull to...have a skull, honestly, because the skull bones aren't totally ossified at birth, you'll see evidence of teeth, barring congenital deformities.
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 3:34 PM on November 28, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks Pinback and Uniformi! But I forgot to mention that the front-most part of the skull is missing, so I can't tell if it has top front teeth. I will go out and take a look at mandibular incisors.

fshgrl: I was walking where 30+ horses are pasture boarded. A handful of the owners are diligent, but others only see their horses a couple times a year. As much as I hate to think it, I could see that someone bought a mare at auction, didn't know it was pregnant, and turned it out. Sizewise, the skeleton could be from a relatively newborn or still birth. Bleck! Less likely but there also is a gelding there that was turned out in the herd as soon as it was gelded. It could have still be fertile. Again, bleck.

Too dark now for photos, that will have to be tomorrow's project.
posted by Pleased_As_Punch at 4:09 PM on November 28, 2010

Well, the mandibular incisors are the top front teeth, so if that part of the skull is missing you won't find them…

Photos of the overall skull, plus detail photos of the rows of teeth (with crowns visible), roof of the mouth, eye socket to nose area, & the back of the skull where the vertebrae attach would be useful. I'll bow to Uniformitarianism Now!'s expertise on the ID, since I'm just a student who did an undergrad vertebrate anatomy / ID course a few semesters ago.

(Around my parts it's easy: horse skulls generally have a bullet hole in the top; deer skulls have the bullet hole in the side ;-)
posted by Pinback at 5:04 PM on November 28, 2010

I wasn't clear before, sorry: maxillary incisors are the top front (the maxillary ones erupt around the same time as the mandibulars, and the maxillary Is are the ones that ruminants lack. the last of the Thanksgiving wine + smartphone meant I left that sentence out. we just don't use maxillary incisors 'officially' in the nebulous 'art' of equine aging--which means I tend to make it an afterthought).

Anyway, it'd be great to get the detail Pinback specifies, but if things are wonky and you can't get whole skull shots, etc, as long as you can even only get close-ups of the mandibular incisors from the front and including the socket and on the biting surface, I can probably tell you if it's an equid. Cheek teeth would be fine, too, because I can usually make the call just from those. I can't age domestic or wild animals from cranial sutures beyond 'really young or something's wrong' or 'really old or pathological.'

Given how intact things are, I'm inclining towards deer, because young animals to pull apart. The bones and the skull get piecemeal fast because they growth plates aren't fused.
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 6:26 PM on November 28, 2010

Response by poster: You guys are awesome. Here is a link to my flickr photostream. I think it's got to be deer. It's got bottom front incisors...a foal of this size wouldn't have those because it would still be nursing.
posted by Pleased_As_Punch at 10:26 AM on November 29, 2010

Best answer: Deer! Definitely. Those are ruminant incisors and premolars/molars.

(Actually, nursing foals do have lower incisors. I am not sure how that works out for the mare. I give mares props.)
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 1:23 PM on November 29, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you! Glad to know it isn't a cutie pie baby horsey.
posted by Pleased_As_Punch at 2:49 PM on November 29, 2010

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