First of all, so much can be learned from their close inspection. This includes the likely diet of the organism in-question (at least in a general sense)...prominant muscle attachment areas, which provide information on life history....and important information about sensory function and brain-size (just to name a few).
I'm obviously not alone in this. Just about anyone I know who is interested in vertebrate ecology (and obviously morphology) is also a "skull-o-phile".
Anyhoo....figured the best way to share my love of skulls with you all was to dig into the university's specimen collection and show you some examples.
We can start with one of my favorite groups, the reptiles.....
Look at the teeth of a crocodilian (in this case, a small Black Caiman; Melanosuchus niger).
Very impressive chompers! Incredibly sharp...well-suited for grabbing prey and holding it fast. This is perfect for an ambush predator that lunges out of the water to grab a critter that's come down for a sip.
BUT...as impressive as these teeth are...they are alittle "one-dimensional". In other words, they are mostly the same in shape (large, sharp and conical), because they all serve a similar purpose: grabbing, holding, tearing prey.
This lack of teeth (among other features) differentiates turtles from the rest of the reptiles. In fact, they are in their own Order (Testudines). Note: other well-known reptiles belong to the Orders Squamata (lizards & snakes), and Crocodilia (crocodilians).
Also, check out the large projection of bone coming off the back of the skull (appearing similar to a crest). This bone, called a supraoccipital bone, creates a large area for muscle attachment....these muscles are involved in bringing those jaws closed with the force that snapping turtles are renowned for. The muscles also play an important role in pulling the head into the shell and keeping it there, where it is protected.
Now let's move on to some mammals....
Mammal teeth, unlike reptile teeth, are "differentiated". In other words, they are not all uniform in shape, size and general purpose. Think of your own teeth.....feel around in your mouth with your tongue...it's fun!. As mammals, we have incisors, pre-molars and molars that all differ in their shape and general use.
These teeth are also modified among the different groups of mammals and reflect their various feeding styles/preferences.
First, a herbivore.....the White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus)
Now compare the WTD to a herbivore specialized for chewing: a rodent. In this case, one of my favorite rodents: the North American Beaver (Castor canadensis). Rodents have large incisors, immediately followed by a large gap, or arch with no teeth, called a diastema.
Rodents have the broad, flat and ridged pre-molars/molars, for grinding vegetation, that one would expect of a herbivore....
But, as you can see in the top picture of the Beaver above.....they also have those large incisors shaped like chisels.....which is exactly what they are used for. Rodents can use those large chisels to chew with great effect. In the case of the Beaver...as you all know.....they can even chew through tree trunks! Other groups (such as Lagomorphs like rabbits) also have a large gap between chisel-like incisors and molars...but Rodent incisors are different than those of bunnies. The action of chewing actually helps sharpen rodent incisors, due to the thick layer of enamel on the front relative to the back of these teeth. As they rub together....this actually results in the incisors sharpening, which is not the same for lagomorph teeth.