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Every skull tells a story, revealing how vertebrate animals live, die, and ultimately, evolve. In this awe-inspiring new exhibit, walk along a wallscape of sea lion skulls, watch a live colony of dermestid beetles demonstrate their “bone cleaner” skills, and learn how scientists use the Academy’s vast collection of skulls to uncover clues about life on Earth.

Discover the Clues Skulls Hold About Vertebrates’ Past, Present, and Future

Before your eyes, thousands of tiny, flesh-eating beetle larvae strip a skull clean. Just steps away, an ancient skull allows you to gaze 3.3 million years into humanity’s past. Behind you, two deer skulls are locked together, their entwined antlers attesting to one final, deadly battle. Before you, on a wall stretching 90 feet wide, video projections of swimming sea lions add life to more than 400 skulls.

Some may find those scenarios macabre, but beginning May 16, over one million wide-eyed visitors will start to see skulls in a whole new light. From an enormous African bull elephant to a tiny elephant shrew, the stories skulls tell us about the lives, deaths, and evolution of vertebrates will fill 4,000 square feet at the California Academy of Sciences, offering more than 640 skulls for people to touch, examine, and interpret.

Sea of Skulls

Sea of skulls

The 400 California sea lion skulls that gaze down from an enormous, undulating wall represent only about a sixth of the Academy’s scientific collection of sea lions. The size of these holdings—the largest in the world—makes them enormously valuable to science, allowing researchers to study the health of California’s sea lion population and the impacts of pollution, disease, and other threats. But while large collections are vital to science, even individual skulls have important things to say—and sometimes a skull isn’t quite what it seems. Keep an eye out for imposters in the Sea of Skulls … keen vision (and good ears) will help you find the warthog, wolf, walrus, and others hidden among the Zalophus californianus.

Flesh-eating beetles

Flesh-eating beetles

Ever wonder how a dead animal becomes a museum-quality skull in the first place? Carcasses can be buried in the ground or soaked in water, but those are long, slow processes that take weeks or even months. At the Academy, scientists also use dermestid beetle larvae—the smallest stars of Skulls. Peer into one of several windows to watch them munch the dried flesh off animal bones, diligently and delicately transforming skulls into specimens. When these carnivorous larvae are most active—in a dark, warm environment with plenty to eat—they can scour the flesh from a small skull in just three days.


Hands-on interactives

Though the beetles are behind glass, Skulls is a highly interactive experience, inviting you to touch, draw, and even imagine yourself inside various skulls. At the drawing station, use a camera lucida to sketch an American alligator skull. Over at the Predator and Prey vision station, look through a viewer to see like a lion, then flip a lever to experience the same scene as an antelope. Explore a number of characteristics that separate carnivores from herbivores by becoming a “skull detective,” examining eye sockets, teeth, and other identifying features—and then get your hands on the skulls themselves, touching human, horse, and even dolphin casts.

Human origins

Human origins

Skulls tell a tale of evolutionary change for all vertebrates, and humans are no exception. In Skulls the exhibit, three sets of skulls tell the story of our species, from our closest living relative, the chimpanzee, to Australopithecus afarensis—our distant, upright-walking ancestor. Compare those skulls to that of a modern Homo sapiens—to reveal differences and similarities in how each species walked, ate, and learned—and you may just find yourself pondering what our skulls might look like in another million years.

Skulls Can Tell Stories as Big as Evolution or as Small as a Shrew’s Identity

Although skulls are common to all vertebrates, they vary from species to species, and even among individuals of the same taxonomic group. Knowing what to look for—both the similarities and the differences—can provide a fascinating perspective on how animals are related, what they eat, how they avoid being eaten, how they're responding to ecological change, and where our own species fits into the evolutionary picture.

shrew skull

Tree of life

Scientists have come to understand a great deal about the evolution of skulls by studying the fossil record. They know that prior to about 500 million years ago, no creature possessed a skull. Over time, skulls changed from a primitive collection of bony plates to the highly reinforced, structural marvels most vertebrates carry around today. Just as important as a skull’s age are its physical characteristics, which provide important clues about how the creature it came from is related to other animals.

For example, analysis of the teeth of a tiny, long-nosed mammal from northern Namibia, known as the round-eared elephant shrew (Macroscelides sp.), helped Academy scientists recognize it as a new species, distinct from a similar creature living nearby. Skull characteristics have also played a key role in illustrating the complex map of human evolution, most recently by confirming that we are more closely related to an extinct human-like species, Australopithecus afarensis, than to our closest living relatives, chimpanzees and other great apes.


Predator vs. prey

In addition to what a skull might say about an animal’s place on the family tree, it can also tell us about that creature’s role in an ecosystem—including how it views the world. The location of eye sockets in the skull is one of the best indicators of whether an animal plays the role of pursuer or pursued. Prey animals, such as antelope and doves, tend to have eyes on opposite sides of their heads. This provides a nearly 360-degree field of view at all times, a tremendous advantage when surveying the landscape for movement and possible threats.

In contrast, predators, such as lions and owls, tend to have forward-facing eyes. While this limits their field of view, it allows the view that each eye sees to overlap with the other. What might sound like redundancy actually heightens the animal’s ability to pick up on fine visual details. More importantly, each eye’s similar, but slightly different, view allows the brain to more accurately perceive depth and distances, a huge advantage when pursuing prey at break-neck speed.


Diet and health

Teeth, jaws, and other skull features can provide important clues about what an animal ate, how it captured and consumed its meals, as well as its state of health when it died. Carnivorous mammals, for example, are well known for their long, dagger-like canines that enable them to catch, hold, and puncture the flesh of their prey. They also have highly adapted premolars—the top and bottom sets are shaped to mesh together like scissors to shear through muscle, tendon, and bone. In contrast, carnivorous reptiles like alligators have only rows of canine-like teeth of varying sizes. This enables them to catch and hold prey, but not to easily disassemble it, so they tend gulp their meals whole or in large chunks.

Life in the wild can take a heavy toll on teeth and jaws. By analyzing wear patterns, scientists can find interesting clues about an animal’s food habits and health. For example, killer whales, or orcas (Orcinus orca), of the type featured in “A Specimen’s Path” are thought to feed largely on sharks, but there have been only a handful of observations of them doing so. Extensive wear on the teeth of Orca 0319 and other “offshore” orcas has helped to fill in this picture by providing important indirect evidence of their regular diet of these rough-skinned fish. Scientists have also analyzed wear patterns in and damage to the teeth and jaws of southern sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis). By analyzing the skulls of more than 1,200 specimens in the Academy’s collection, researchers found that not only are tooth and jaw joint problems common in sea otters, they're also significant enough to shorten the lives of the animals afflicted by them.


Response to ecological conditions

Skulls can also reveal signs of both physical and behavioral adaptation to changes in competition, temperature, and other ecological conditions. In California, for example, scientists have observed coastal populations of coyotes dining on a surprising meal type: seal meat. Suspecting that this was not always the case, the researchers analyzed much older coyote skulls. Based on the chemical composition of the bone in these skulls, they could tell that seal meat is a relatively new item on the coyote’s menu. To understand what might have caused this change, they also analyzed the skulls of grizzly bears and found clear signs of seal-meat consumption. Only after the grizzlies had been hunted to extinction in the state did the coyotes move in to take advantage of this rich food source.

Bird skulls, too, show signs of ecological adaptation. Scientists have found a good example of this in California song sparrows. Although bird beaks are most commonly associated with feeding, a group of researchers has discovered another possible function: temperature regulation. They noticed that song sparrow beak size varied from one part of the species’ range to another. To test whether beak size might correlate with temperature, they measured hundreds of museum specimens, including many from the Academy’s collection. Those measurements revealed that across California, bill size matched the scientists’ hypothesis. Sparrows closer to the cooler coast have smaller bills, while those living in warmer, inland areas sport larger ones. What this might mean for beak size in the future should global temperatures continue to rise is difficult to predict. It’s clear, however, that skulls will continue to provide clues to these and other evolutionary transformations.

Follow the Journey of Orca 0319 from Pacific Ocean to Academy Collections

When viewing the hundreds of “dead heads” on display in Skulls—or visiting a handful of our 45.6 million specimens on a behind-the-scenes tour—it’s hard not to wonder: How did all these creatures get here? Some were donated (by individuals or by other museums), but most were collected by Academy researchers. Collections are often gathered during carefully planned fieldwork and expeditions, but sometimes—as in the case of Orca 0319—they start with a phone call.

Call and Response

Call and response

On the day after Thanksgiving 2011, Academy Ornithology and Mammalogy Collections Manager Moe Flannery’s phone rang: A dead orca had been reported washed up on a beach at Point Reyes National Seashore. As a member of the Marine Mammal National Stranding Network, it wasn’t unusual for the Academy to get a phone call like this, and Flannery quickly gathered a team to travel to the site and take the photographs, measurements, plus skin, muscle, and blubber samples required for every stranding. Unbeknownst to Flannery, it wouldn’t be a quick process; the collection of Orca 0319 would take nearly two years to complete.



In the course of taking measurements and samples and performing a necropsy, Flannery photographed the orca’s “saddle patch” (a white marking behind the dorsal fin) and the fin itself, carefully documenting nicks and scratches. She emailed the photos to various orca researchers and got a response just hours later from Graeme Ellis, a research technician at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Ellis identified the animal as Orca 0319, a 15-year-old juvenile “offshore” orca—the rarest of three distinct types that pass through our area. The rarity made 0319 an important specimen to make available to researchers, so Flannery decided that instead of collecting just the skull, as she’d planned, the team would bring back the whole skeleton.



It proved easier said than done. Reaching the orca involved a quarter-mile hike on a nice, flat trail—followed by another hike along a grassy slope, down a steep dirt trail, and over an inter-tidal area that was at times inaccessible. It took Academy staff and volunteers five visits over the course of four days to lug each and every section of 0319 from the beach to the lab. “The skull was the most difficult part,” Flannery recalls, “because it was all one piece and weighed close to 200 pounds.” To get the skull off the beach, up the trail, and into a truck, the team had to get creative, strapping the head of the orca onto a stretcher.



Once back at the lab, the team cut as much of the tissue off the bones as possible before placing them in a large tank used specifically for “macerating” oversized skeletons. Maceration is the process of soaking bones in water until naturally occurring bacteria rots the flesh away. “ Sounds disgusting,” says curatorial assistant Laura Wilson, “and it absolutely is! But it also does the trick.” Once bones are cleaned, there’s still the matter of oil, which can leech to the surface of bones—especially marine mammal bones—over time. (The orca’s right flipper, which had been cleaned by a dermestid beetle colony, was particularly slick.) To finish the job, the team employed a number of methods, soaking the bones in diluted sodium perborate (a powder that releases hydrogen peroxide); leaving the skull on the Academy’s roof to bleach in the sun; and putting the greasy flipper through another soak in lacquer thinner.



To put Orca 0319 back together, Academy staff enlisted the help of 40 volunteers led by Lee Post, aka “the Bone Man”—a veteran of whale skeleton reassembly. Paring ribs and putting lumbar vertebrae together was no easy feat, but the flippers—packed with small bones like those in a human hand and arm—proved even more time-consuming. The team assembled them using CTs scans (taken when the flipper was still intact) as reference. Back in the Project Lab, polyurethane casts were made of 0319’s teeth, which were particularly interesting to researchers given the primary prey of offshore orcas: sharks. The 47 cast teeth were painted to match the originals and fitted into the skeleton’s jaw, while the originals went into Collections to be available for study.



For most specimens, “installation” is as simple as being catalogued in a database and placed on a shelf in a temperature-controlled Collections room, but after a month of assembly in the Academy’s central Piazza—where visitors could examine it closely and ask questions about the process—Orca 0319 was headed for a special place in the rafters. After removing the skull, flippers, and tail, the crew hoisted the skeleton to its permanent display rigging before reassembling it one last time.

Today, Orca 0319 can be seen just feet from the third-floor walkway, between the Naturalist Center and the Forum Theater. “Now that the skeleton is available for researchers,” Flannery says, “scientists from around the world can come and use it for any study they’re interested in. There was so much information gained just from this one individual.” And with frozen tissue and other samples archived in Academy Collections as well, researchers have the ability to continue to learn from 0319 in the future.

Compare skull characteristics using these high-resolution 3D images

See what you can learn about the animals connected to the 3D skull scans in this gallery. By comparing a variety of characteristics—from tusks to eye sockets—you’ll learn more about how they protect themselves, what they eat, how they see the world, and even how humans have sometimes influenced the processes of natural selection.

How were these 3D images created?

Academy scientists and technicians partnered with Google to create interactive images of specimens from our research collections using an advanced, automated 3D imaging technique.

Note: The 3D images in this gallery were created using state-of-the-art technology, and consequently are not viewable on all web browsers. The 3D viewer is currently supported on the following browsers: Chrome 18 (or later) and Firefox 28 (or later). The viewer is not currently supported on tablet or mobile browsers.

Select Date

Skulls Programs & Events
Monday, October 20th

  • Naturalist Center

    Naturalist Center

    12:00 am

    Follow your curiosity to the Naturalist Center! Explore an animal skull or pelt up-close, solve a puzzle, do a scavenger hunt, play a game, watch a nature video, sketch a skeleton, ask questions, and more. Located on Level 3, across from the Planetarium exit. Hours: Sat & Sun 10AM - 5PM, M-F 11AM - 5PM 

  • Mystery Skull Theater

    Mystery Skull Theater

    11:30 am

    Become a skull science sleuth during this exciting, interactive theater program. Follow a colorful character and use clues to investigate the fascinating mystery of a skull. Take a closer look at teeth and jaws to learn how these animals once lived, what they ate, and more.

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Thank You


Skulls is generously supported by Lakeside Foundation

“Bone Cleaners”


See our dermestid beetle colony in action, as larvae strip the flesh from a sea otter skull over the course of just four days.

Bandar’s Bones:
Skulls of a Lifetime



For more than 60 years, Academy Field Associate Raymond Bandar has been collecting thousands of skulls. In a ten-case display curated by “Bones” Bandar himself, visitors to the Naturalist Center can explore a variety of skulls featuring curious traits and abnormalities.

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Scaffolding Under the Skin


Skull collection

See what went into the creation of Skulls in this behind-the-scenes video.

Skulls in the News


Skulls continually reshape our understanding of the world, whether they’re being discovered, pieced together, imaged by CT or MRI scans, or re-interpreted in light of other new technologies. This collection of Science Today stories covers just a few of the ways skulls have shaken up our thinking recently.

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Chrome skull

Fill your cranium with gift ideas from our exclusive Skulls store.

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Exhibit Guide


Skulls Exhibit Guide

Looking for even more Skulls content? Check out our exhibit guide for additional articles, an exhibit map, and a game that challenges you to match skulls to their living counterparts.

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