No matter how much of a country person you are, it’s always a bit of a surprise when you come across a skull. And sometimes more so when you find out what it’s from.
In the rural Surrey Hills where I walk the dog there are plenty of opportunities for stumbling across animal bones, particularly within a few metres of the A22 and A25 where unfortunate creatures hit by cars stumble off to die. Generally, these are rabbits or foxes, and occasionally deer or badgers. But just occasionally, a skeleton comes to light that doesn’t fit the profile of a native British species.
Horror among the bluebells
This photo of a skull with a metre-long spine attached appeared on a local Facebook page with a plea for ID recently:
Is it a kangaroo?
Suggestions, some more helpful than others, flooded in – deer, badger, fox, kangaroo, dinosaur, large snake… I didn’t feel a fit even with the more sensible ones. The animal just looked too chunky. I already have a badger skull from the local woods:
The nose is stubbier, it has a longer sagittal crest, and distinctive crushing back molars. Sagittal crests are markers of animals with very strong jaws, so at least the two skulls had this in common. But the overall shape and size was nothing like it. One gentleman posted a picture of a fox skull , showing a much more delicate upper jaw and daintier teeth than both the badger and the mystery animal:
With a metre-long spine, our creature would have to be some mutant megafox. This being unlikely, I came to the sad conclusion that it was probably a dog. A series of helpful tweets with bone experts Ben Garrod and Paolo Viscardi confirmed my suspicions. Poor old Fido. I offered to recover the skeleton and bring it home if I could have its exact location on a very long, heavily-wooded road.
I quite liked the idea of having a big dog skull to replace my little terrier skull dug up in my parents’ back garden in 1972. I used that little skull to teach people about carnivores, before a cannibalistic visiting Labrador crunched on it and it now sits in a box waiting for me to glue it back together. And the more sentimental part of me wanted to give this poor mutt some sort of final resting place where it would be appreciated.
There were enthusiastic Facebook suggestions of recovery forays and getting a microchip reader to scan the surrounding ground for a displaced chip. Perhaps an owner could be traced and given closure on the fate of a lost pet. As is the way of Facebook, though, things took a while to happen. About a week later, after everyone had scrolled on to the next thing, the lady who found the remains got in touch with me and we met up in the woods to recover it. And what a big dog it was. Just the spine from head to pelvis, without the tail is 1 metre long.
I can only wonder about the circumstances of how the remains of this poor dog ended up among the bluebells. It looked unlikely that any attempt had been made to bury it, so it was either dumped dead, or wandered off into the woods to die. Often stray dumped ex-racing greyhounds meet a fate like this, although for me, this skull hints at a more substantial hound. I think there’s Labrador in the mix, possibly with something bigger to give it that thick lower jaw.
Ben Garrod says that plaque on the teeth points to an older dog. It might have been an abused stray or a beloved family pet. Although I’ve always been a strong advocate of microchipping your dog, (anyway, now it’s the law), I’m not convinced it would have helped in this case, even if the dog was chipped – the remains could have been dragged a distance by carrion feeders and the tiny chip lost, or swallowed.
But at least Fido, as he’s affectionately, although not entirely originally named, has a home again, and thanks to him, I can now tell the difference between a badger, fox and dog skull.