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My first roe deer skull


This is still one of my favourite skulls, even though I now have lots of other roe deer skulls. I found this roe deer skeleton while out walking with my dad in the Pheasant Woods near my house, and we discovered it after I saw my first ever roe deer for real.

We'd been exploring in some woods because we thought there might be some deer nearby. We thought that because we found a very unusual bone nearby, and a vet told us that it was part of the ear of a bigger animal, like a deer. When we explored again, we spotted three deer, but at the time we weren't very good at stalking, and they ran off fairly soon afterwards.

On the way back, we went a slightly different route, and came across this roe deer skeleton, lying headfirst down a woody bank next to some fields. It was lying on its side, and the left side of the skull was buried in the mud. At the time, we took the skull and some other bones home, and later came back for the rest. When we got lots of skeletons, we called this one Eddie

Here's what we know from looking at the remains:

  • It's a roe deer. We know this because of the size of the skull - about the size of a dog - the long metatarsals in the lower leg, and because it has lower but no upper incisors.

  • It's a male - called a buck- because of the way the skull has pedicles to which the antlers are connected

  • It must have been there for at least 2½months - because that's how long it's taken for other deer about the same size that we've found to rot down to just the clean bones.

So how old was it when it died ?

The best way to find this out with deer is from the teeth. Nowadays, me and my dad can make a pretty good guess just from looking, but at the time we had to look it up in books and on the internet.

  • When we brought it home, there weren't any lower incisors, which are the teeth right at the front, the ones we use when we bite into an apple. Deer only have these on the bottom jaw, but when the flesh rots away, the teeth become lose and can fall out

  • Roe deer have six teeth on each side of both the upper and lower jaws. The front three teeth - the ones numbered 1-3 above - are called "pre-molar", and the back three (4-6) are 'molars'. This deer had all 24 of these 'cheek' teeth, meaning it wasn't a baby. In young deer, not all the molar teeth have come through. I have the skull of a 8 month old red deer, which has only got the front four of these six teeth through. Because this roe deer has all six teeth through, it must be at least 13 months old.

  • All the cheek teeth are fairly sharp - especially the molar teeth. Deer teeth start off sharp and pointy, and wear down as the deer gets older. It's a bit of a guess, but we thought this deer wasn't much older than two-and-a-half. We might be wrong, but we're pretty sure it's between 13 months (when all the teeth come through) and 4 years (when the cheek teeth stop being sharp)

There are some other ways to try to work out how old it was when it died.

  • All deer skulls start off small, then grow to pretty much the same size. This deer skull was about 19cm from the very tip of the nose bone to the back of the skull, and the closest point between the two eye sockets is about 5.3cm. That makes it about the size of other adult roe deer skulls

  • The underside of the brain-case is properly fused to the rest of the skull. On younger deer skulls, it can come loose because it isn't properly joined on.

  • On the rest of the skeleton, we found dark brown fur still attached to the metatarsals. In summer, roe deer have really bright orange fur - the ones we've been watching over the last month have looked really lovely and bright. Daddy thought maybe the fur had become dirty from mud or blood, but we washed it and it stayed the same colour. That probably means it died during the winter, when it's fur is naturally dark

  • We found the skeleton in March, and if it takes about three months to turn into bones, it means it must have died no later than December the previous year. That sounds about right, since it would have had dark fur then.

  • Could it have died the previous year, and then lay for 15 months ? We're not too sure about this, but we don't think so. But maybe. Would the bit of fur have stayed on the lower leg all that time ? Probably not.

  • This skull didn't have antlers. Roe bucks' antlers fall off in November, then new ones grow back during late December and January. Sometimes gamekeepers or poachers saw off antlers of dead deer, but that didn't seem to have happened with this deer. So maybe it died in November.

  • Roe deer are born in May or June. So if it died in November, it could be 1½, 2½ or 3½ years old. So that's why I think it was 2½ years old, rather than just 2 or 3. Or it might be 3½.

What I don't know, but would like to

  • How did it die ? Most roe deer that die are either very young (like under a year) - or quite old (like over seven years). Was it shot - and if so, why was the body left ? Sometimes gamekeepers leave deer bodies out for other wildlife to feed on, or because the meat has become spoiled, so maybe that's what happened with this one.

I love this one. It's one of my favourites. It was cool bringing it home for the first time and trying to work out all the things about it. We went back later and collected the rest of the bones as well, but I'll talk about that another time and you can now read about that here.

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Sandy Black said...

Very interesting blog site Jake.
I used to work for the council which had responsibility for managing Mugdock Counrty Park near Milngavie. While diong some building work there we found some large bones which were identified as lion bones. It turned out that the land there was used as a private zoo in the early 1900's and the common practice then was for the dead animals to be buried on the site. So you might not have to go as far as you think to find some lion or giraffe bones.

PippinIncarnate said...

Cheers Jake! what an aspiring young naturalist you are. I started collecting bones when I was 12 after I found a mink skull in the woods.

I didn't find my first deer skull till I was 16, a juvenile buck skull that sadly was in bad condition when I found it. even though i have skulls by the boxfull now, there is definately something magic about finding them and I never get tired of it. Anyway, it sounds like you're off to a great start, good luck in the future!

Jake said...

Thank you very much ! That's really nice of you.

TKESMAC Farm said...

Hi Jake,
Love the web page and glad to see young folk interested in the anatomy of skulls. I started collecting over 25 years ago as a young teen when my folks thought my interest was rather ghoulish. But like you I was fascinated by the intricacy of design of all the different species.

Some of my skull collection include deer, bull, bat, bird, snake, monkey (various types), horse, beaver, alligator, coyote, panther, fish (various), buffalo jaw bone, 14' python skin, civit cat fur, fox fur, rabbit fur, stuffed 18" iguana, and a stuffed mounted frog playing a trumpet to name a few.

Most folks old and young will think its weird but pay no mind we are just the curious and deep thinkers.


Tom in Virginia, USA

Jake said...

Hi Tom,

Glad you like my website ! You have a very impressive collection !

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