Three Ways To Tell Animal Bones From Human Bones

It was a hot, windy February in 2009. Bushfires tore through the Australian state of Victoria destroying everything in their path. Numerous people, livestock, pets, and wild animals were killed — their remains left fragmented and unrecognizable. It was under these challenging circumstances that the forensic team attempted to identify the victims of the fires. One of the initial steps in the identification process was determining whether remains were human or animal in origin. In cases such as this, forensic anthropologists draw on their knowledge of skeletal anatomy to make the correct species determination. Here are three things to consider when establishing whether a bone is animal or human.

 

One of these things does not belong: distinct skeletal features.

Many animals have adapted to living environments that are very different to the environments we live in; therefore, they often possess distinct skeletal elements that humans do not have. The bones of birds are well suited to flying because they are very light. Additionally, birds have unique bones that are not found in the human skeleton, including the furculum (wishbone) and the synsacrum (an extended sacrum).  The presence of these bones in a skeletal assemblage is a tip off that the bones are not human.

Some bony elements, though distinctive can be confused with human bones when fragmented.  Pieces of sun-bleached turtle shell can mimic bits of the human skull. The key to distinguishing turtle shell from human remains is to examine the cross sections of the pieces. Human skull bones have an interior composed of spongy looking cancellous bone, but turtle shells do not.

 

A primer on shapes: the role of morphology.

Although animals and humans share many of the same skeletal elements, these elements often look very different from one another.  For example, humans and chimpanzees both have pelvises, but because the human pelvis is designed for walking upright it has a distinctively different shape from that of a chimpanzee. The human pelvis is bowl shaped, whereas the chimpanzee has a long thin pelvis allowing it to walk easily on all fours.

There are a select few animal bones that closely resemble human bones. It may seem surprising, but the bones of a bear’s paw are similar to the bones of the human hand. Careful examination of each bone shows that the bear paw bones are more robust than the human hand bones. Fragments of a pig tibia (the large bone in the shin) can look like a human tibia. Through thorough analysis and comparison to known pig and human skeletons the correct species can be determined.

 

Larger and older: a closer look at maturity.

Some small animals have bones that look like tiny adult human bones. An untrained person might think these small bones belong to a human child, but they would be wrong. A forensic anthropologist familiar with the development of the human skeleton knows that the bones of children do not look like small replicas of adult bones.

Until humans reach adulthood, their bones are still growing in size and changing in shape.  Many of the bones of a human child do not look identical to adult bones because they are split into pieces that fuse as the child grows. For example, the femur (the large bone in the thigh) of an adult and a child are very different. The adult femur is one large bone, but the femur of a child is split into five parts. The largest part is the shaft and although it bears a resemblance to an adult femur, it is missing many of the features of the mature bone.  It is only when all the parts fuse that the femur is fully developed and this does not occur until a human is at least 18 years old.  Therefore, if someone finds a tiny mature-looking femur they will know that it does not belong to a human child, but likely originated from a small animal.

 

Your Turn: Ever take a walk in the woods and come across a suspicious-looking bone? We’d love to hear your story. Have a question about femurs or (bone) fusion? Let us know in the comments.

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Join the discussion 32 Comments

  • Anny says:

    I work for a road crew in a remote area of NT found a bone in a creek bed would like it identified there are wild donkeys and brumbys in the area as well as.

  • Kevin Keough says:

    My dog came out of the woods with this bone in his mouth tonight. I’ve been searching the Internet for hours because I’m really worried that it’s the lower portion on a human femur. Please convince me otherwise. It’s about 4″ long. Very clean cut. The joint or ball is about 2″ wide. The shaft is about 1″ wide. The “wall” is maybe a little thicker than 1/4″. Where can I sent pictures?

    • The Forensic Outreach Team says:

      Hi Kevin,

      Thanks for getting in touch. Unfortunately, we probably won’t be able to give you any kind of definitive answer from a photograph. We would recommend that you take the bone to your local law enforcement for analysis and processing, if necessary.

    • Heather says:

      Did you find out what animal the bone came from?

  • Deb Howard says:

    My dog found a bone in the park today. Was trying to identify what type of bone it is. Can I send a picture?

    • No, but thanks, Deb. We don’t run a lab, we report and educate about forensic work. Try taking it to a local University or Medical School if you are really curious.

  • Michelle says:

    My dog has found a bone and looks very much like a human leg. Can I send pictures.

  • Nick says:

    I found a human looking bone at my camp I would like identified

  • Marc says:

    We live in MTL and just dug out our basement on our 1870 row house. While doing so we found a pile of bones and would love to know what they are from. Can I send you some pictures?

    Thanks,

    Marc

  • Edith says:

    I was cleaning the backyard of the house I rent a few months ago and found a bone that looked like a small child femur. I think I’ve probably been watching too much ID TV. I think it’s an animal bone. Now, I was cleaning again and I think I might need to bag the bone and the left over of a baby’s dress and take it to the police to have them check it out. I don’t remember seeing the baby dress last time I cleaned only the bone. Which is now making me wonder if maybe it’s a human bone.

    • The Forensic Outreach Team says:

      Hi Edith,

      We would advise that you approach local law enforcement if you believe you may have happened upon human remains. Thanks!

  • talia says:

    I found some bones can you tell me if they’re human or animals.

    • The Forensic Outreach Team says:

      Hi Talia,

      We would advise that you approach local law enforcement if you believe you may have happened upon human remains. Thanks!

  • Nicole says:

    My shower drain was getting clogged. I opened it to try to clean it out. I have only lived in this house for a year. I pulled out a bunch of bones. They are in pieces so I don’t know if it is from an animal or something else. I am freaking out. What can this be? !

    • The Forensic Outreach Team says:

      Hi Nicole,

      We would advise that you approach local law enforcement if you believe you may have happened upon human remains. Thanks!

  • Rachel says:

    Just found one LARGE bone…don’t know if it’s human or animal… can you help or should I call the police?

    • The Forensic Outreach Team says:

      Hi Rachel,

      We would advise that you approach local law enforcement if you believe you may have happened upon human remains. Thanks!

  • Jennifer says:

    I found a rib bone beside the creek across from our house after Christmas flooding and after looking at lots of pics online I’m almost positive it came from a dog or coyote. What I want to know is how old it could be, is there any way to tell without testing?

  • jason says:

    in the fall i was exploring the woods nearby, and discovered a long bone (12inch aprx) next to an old tattered child size sweater, i’m assuming a little girls because it’s pink and purple, it could be from anything but the part that’s worth noting is ,about a 15 min walk /2 min drive in the opposite direction the body of a young murdered woman was found in 2010, when the snow clears i will go back and take pictures i hope it’s just from an animal .

  • Barbara says:

    Hi all,
    I am an anthropologist who assists the RCMP with forensic identifications when they need to know if bones and teeth are human or animal. If you’ve found what you think may be a human bone, please contact your local university’s Anthropology department. Most police offices are very busy and do not have the time and resources to respond to these kinds of inquiries in a timely manner. A physical anthropologist can tell you if it is human or not, and if it is you then need to call your local police force to report it. They will respond much more rapidly when you tell them it has been identified as human remains by an expert.
    Happy exploring!

  • puddlebug74 says:

    I found a few bones under suspicious circumstances (WWII) and can not ‘take’ them to the police dept. They are quite stuck where they are for now.
    I don’t want to report it only to find out it was a horse, etc. I was hoping you could help me make a judgement call??

  • Gloria Scott says:

    My husband and I tearing down an old mobile home. My husband came across a bunch of bones under the trailer. Looks like femurs, vertebrae, some ribs and a shoulder blade. Have not seen a skull with it and we have no idea what they came from. I have no idea what to do with them. People have suggested calling the police and have them look.

    • The Forensic Outreach Team says:

      Hi Gloria — yes, do contact your local law enforcement. They’ll be able to help you with this. Thanks.

  • teresa says:

    My son has bright up what looks to be a pelvic bone and possibly a thing bone, the pelvic looks somewhat like a mask, now my question, hiw di I approach this with law enfircement, I m having trouble walking in saying I need to give you what I think to be human remains and pulling put of my purse, not sure how to also tell them he carried them up from the creek instead of leaving them, there are others down there do I put these back and tell them we touched them or help, no I have no idea how or where they would have come from, and hoping they are a bear, but also if a bear what is out there to kill a bear? Thank you

    • daniellaafeltra says:

      Hi Teresa,

      Thanks for taking the time to leave us a comment.

      In all cases where you believe you may have found human remains we recommend that you go straight to local law enforcement. In all likelihood, what you have found are animal bones but it is always better to check. I would carefully package the bones in a zip lock bag or something similar and bring them in that way. The people at the station should have no problem with how you found them, especially if you are able to provide them with all the necessary details.

      All the best!

      • teresa says:

        Thank you, we did report. They gave us another number where an investigator was supposed to get back with us, but no one has contacted us, the bobe which I think is the thigh bone is 13 inches long and the smallest part in he middle is 8 inches round, and the what I think to be the pelvic bone or tailbone has what looks to be eyes they are even holes 6 of them three on each side where o think the spinal cord attaches, surely someone will contact us cause if this my my daughter I’d want closure, they r nit of a child though, full bone growth plate closed hopefully they don’t write me off as being crazy and someone checks it out, plus I can’t keep them, they won’t fit in baggies, but did use gloves and put them in trashbag, and we’ll see if anyone comes to get them, if not I guess I’ll walk into the station and leave them, I would if thought they would of come git them by niw. Thank you

  • Lisa rogers says:

    Hi just wanted to know if you could help me I was in the garden digging with my son Andy he came across some teeth and want to know if anyone could help me and let me know what it could be many thanks x Lisa

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