Secrets a deer jaw can tell


James Doss

There are secrets hiding around Radford University (RU). I seem to find one or two of them every semester. Be it the Greenhouse, the Museum of Earth Science, or the Planetarium; Radford has its hidden gems. Despite being a student at RU now for three years, there was one mystery that I wanted to find the answer to yet was unable, until now. On the second floor of Curie hall near the elevator, there are some tall cabinets. There are four of them and they are just about as tall as the ceiling and wider than the surrounding doors when stacked. They are locked shut and I have always wondered, “What in the world is in those things?” I finally have my answer.

It’s widely known among biology majors and minors, maybe not so much by the general public, that the Biology Department here at RU has quite a large museum collection of more than 10,000 specimens. In these cabinets is just a small fraction of what they have to offer. When I finally got the chance to see what was in those cabinets, I was impressed and a little surprised.

What lies behind one of those locked doors is scores of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) bones. Yes, the same white-tailed deer that eats the heads off your flowers in the summer and totals your car on a late night ride has a place in the Radford University Biology Department museum collection. Being an avid outdoorsmen and hunter I was curious.

There were many pieces in the collection such as vertebra, skulls, pelts, and even a whole skeleton but the most numerous specimens were white-tailed deer jaw bones (Figure 1). 

This extensive collection mostly came to be by donations from hunters and other public contributions over the years. Dr. Karen Francl has added quite a few specimens including deer pelts, bones (including jaw bones), and even a taxidermy fawn (all collected legally with state permits). Most pieces don’t have any information as to when they were added to the collection so it’s hard to date it but some of the pieces in this collection have been housed in the department for a decade or more.

I asked myself why RU needed a bunch of white-tailed deer bones. It turns out there are many good reasons and uses for such a collection. Every student knows that you can only get so much from a textbook and it takes real-world experience and examination to fully understand a subject. That’s where the deer bones come in. Dr. Francl informed me that she uses these deer bone collections in her vertebrate zoology courses. She also said this collection could be useful in anatomy and physiology classes by giving students an opportunity for hands on experience. According to a study done by scientists examining the physiological differences and similarities of humans and deer in the United Kingdom, “The deer and human spine are comparable in the lower thoracic and upper lumbar regions” (Kumar et al., 2000). With the similarities humans and deer have in certain skeletal regions it’s easy to see the practical use of this collection.

Why there were such a large number of jaw bones was still eluding me until I figured out what they were used for. The relative age of a deer can be determined by the number of teeth in younger deer and the amount of dentine exposed (tooth wear) in older deer (see Figure 2). Age determination is an extremely important aspect to conserving and managing deep populations. The West Virginia Department of Natural Resources website states, “When the harvested deer are aged by tooth replacement and wear, valuable information about the deer herd can be obtained. Age ratios are an indication of survival” (Evans et al., 2003).

The secrets in the cabinets have been revealed and what a story they tell. There is no doubt every specimen in this deer-based collection has a storied past and future and present function. Whether it is teaching rising students of anatomy or showing conservationists how to age a population, there is a greater purpose to this collection than meets the eye. I can’t wait to find the next Radford University mystery.

Works Cited

Evans, James E.; William N. Grafton, and Thomas R. McConnell. “Fundamentals of Deer Management.” DNR Wildlife Resources. 2003. West Virginia Department of Natural Resources. 21 Feb. 2013. <>

Kumar, Naresh; Sandeep Kukreti, Mushtaque Ishaque, and Robert Mulholland. “Anatomy of deer spine and its comparison to the human spine.” The Anatomical Record. Volume 260. Issue 2 (1 October 2000): pages 189–203.