When it comes to wildlife tracking, Mark Elbroch – wildlife biologist, tracker, and proliferate author of such field guides as Behavior of North American Mammals (reviewed here), Field Guide to Animal Tracks and Scats of California, Bird Tracks and Sign, Mammal Tracks and Sign, and Practical Tracking – has clearly carved a well-deserved niche for himself. But to call Mark Elbroch’s masterwork Animal Skulls: A Guide to North American Species a field guide is a bit misleading; think of it instead as the dictionary of North American skulls. Carefully researched through visits to the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (UC Berkeley), the Museum of Comparative Zoology (Harvard University), the L.A. County Museum, and private collections, Elbroch has painstakingly assembled within these pages an exhaustive skull collection representative of the bulk of North American species (mostly mammals).
Elbroch’s introductory chapters read like Skulls 101: a primer on the different skull bones; insight on how to “read” skulls to understand and interpret their progenitors’ natural history (Was it an omnivore? Was it a predator?); determining the cause of death; and the requisite “How to” guide to collecting and preparing skulls. The rest of the book is head-to-head skulls.
Following a quick visual reference to life-size skulls, the remainder of the guide is devoted to “species accounts” for each representative skull. Although it’s weighed heavily toward mammals, Elbroch includes representative birds, amphibians, and reptiles to round things out. Every account begins with a diagrammatic illustration that includes detailed dorsal and lateral views of the cranium (the “skull”) and mandible (the “jaw”). The full accounts touch on the wonkier greatest skull lengths, the source or origin of the skull “types,” and dentition formulas before plunging head first into an elaborate description of the diagnostic characteristics of every condyle, arch, and crest, each of which is carefully labeled and explained.
For those looking for a quick identification, be forewarned that Animal Skulls comes with a learning curve. Instead of following a traditional dichotomous key, Elbroch has instead organized the species accounts section of the guide phylogenetically, following the order in which species evolved, to encourage browsing. This arrangement requires some applied science, which will call on your skills as a naturalist (and a little help from Chapter 2 – Understanding and Interpreting Form: The Natural History of Animal Skulls) to make the proper identification through comparative observation, logic, and reason.
Given the girth, breadth, and organization of this indispensable reference, Elbroch is clearly not dealing in easy answers, but in enlightenment. In knowing down to the bone not only that the partial skull you’ve uncovered in the woods is that of a mature bobcat, but that you have the skill set and confidence necessary to make that ID again in the future.