Who Owns These Bones?

Before formal scientific methods came about, a finding of unfamiliar bones was often enough to prove the existence of a mythic being. Have students try their hand at interpreting unfamiliar animal bones and skeletons with little scientific context. What creatures would they assign to them?

 Students will:

  • examine animal bones and fossils
  • interpret this evidence to infer the mammal’s appearance

Time Frame
 About one class period


Prior Knowledge

  1. Download and print a few copies of a familiar animal and its bones (PDF, 600kb). Pass them around class. Discuss what one can tell about a creature from its bones (e.g., type of animal, size, shape, weight).


  1. Download and print images of five unfamiliar bones (PDF, 350kb). Make the appropriate number of copies and distribute one bone image to each student.
  2. Ask students to imagine that they are early explorers who discovered these bones. Have them examine the bones and write down their observations. Questions to ask:
    • How big is the bone?
    • What are its features?
    • What do its features tell you about the shape of the animal’s body?
  3. Have students imagine what creature the bone belonged to. They should draw the creature and label its body parts and features, indicating how they relate to the underlying bone.


  1. Group students that examined the same bone and have them compare their results.
  2. Share the real-life owners of each bone, listed below.


They Owned These Bones!

  • Page 1: Dwarf Elephant Skull, Italy, 781,000–126,000 years old
    Ancient Greeks may have encountered fossilized dwarf elephant skulls like this one on the Mediterranean island of Sicily. They might have mistaken the large central hole where the trunk attached as the single eye socket of the legendary cyclops, a one-eyed giant.
  • Page 2: Haast’s Eagle Talon, New Zealand, 500 years old
    The Maori people told of a giant bird that once lived in New Zealand. Evidence like this talon proved that a giant bird, now called the Haast’s eagle, really existed there. It had a wingspan of nearly 3 meters (10 feet) and preyed on ostrichlike moas. The Haast’s eagle lived until about five hundred years ago—recent enough to for the Maori’s ancestors to pass along the story.
  • Page 3: Mammoth Femur, Alaska, 500,000–10,000 years old
    Ancient Greeks told stories of giants, describing them as flesh and blood creatures who lived and died—and whose bones could be found coming out of the ground where they were buried long ago. Even today, large and surprisingly humanlike bones like this extinct TKSpecies can be found in Greece.
  • Page 4: Protoceratops Skull, Mongolia, 145.5–65.5 million years old
    More than 2,000 years ago, gold miners working in the Gobi Desert easily could have chanced upon Protoceratops fossils. This dinosaur’s beaked skull may have inspired their descriptions of the mythic griffin, a fierce half-eagle, half-lion hybrid that guards treasures of gold.
  • Page 5: Woolly Rhinoceros Skull, Northern Europe, 20,000 years old
    A woolly rhinoceros skull like this one was once kept in the town hall of Kalgenfurt, Austria. It was said to be the remains of a dragon slain before the city was founded around AD 1250.