A Horse Skull of a Different Color Aids Anatomy Students

Feb 8, 2016 / General News

bones of the skull

Students benefit from painted skulls

In a classic “lemons into lemonade” story, an instructor in the anatomy laboratory at the College of Veterinary Medicine has turned the defacement of a skull into a teaching tool that enhances learning.

“The skull anatomy section is intense,” admits Ashley Lynch, one of the instructional laboratory specialists who assist 130 first-year veterinary students in the anatomy course. “They have about 80 pages on skull anatomy to memorize in four weeks. Identifying the parts on actual skulls solely by reviewing the two-dimensional images is very difficult.”

Having numerous skull specimens for students to study is crucial, so when “I hate anatomy” appeared across the zygomatic arch of a canine skull used for teaching, the instructors were not happy. Nothing seemed able to remove the graffiti.

Ashley Lynch holds a horse skull that she painted‘Then I Got an Idea…’

“The only solution we could come up with was to cover over the writing with white paint,” recalls Lynch. “Then I got an idea. I used leftover model paint to make the individual bones of the skull different colors.”

When the painted skull was made available in class, students clamored to use it because it was so helpful for distinguishing the bones.

Seeing the painted skull’s success, Lynch decided to paint cow and horse skulls for the students.

“The textbook pictures do a good job representing the anatomy of the cat and dog skulls,” says Lynch. “Aspects of the cow and especially the horse skull are harder to translate between the illustrations and the real skull. When I put the painted horse and cow skulls out, it was World War III! I kept hearing students saying things like ‘It’s my turn!’ and ‘I finally understand!’”

To improve the usefulness of the skulls, Lynch devised a system in which each bone has a unique color used consistently across species.

“For example, the zygomatic bone on any animal skull will be lime green,” she explains.

Lynch also made another change to her initial approach: she now paints only the left or right half of the skull to identify the bones. The other half she leaves mostly bare, with uniquely colored rings around each kind of opening on the skull. These openings can be the hardest part of skull anatomy, and it was very important to Lynch to make them more discernible.

“Knowing the openings is especially important because they relate to the nerves and blood vessels. How blood vessels get to the eyes, ears, and nose and how nerves travel from the nose to the brain—all this information has very important applications in veterinary practice, for example, in accurately assessing a facial injury on an animal,” says Lynch.

Empowering Learners

Dog skull with key to identifying bones by color.

To improve the usefulness of the skulls, Lynch devised a system in which each bone has a unique color used consistently across species.


Amy Manhart and Marissa Reber, Class of 2018, are among the many students who have benefited from the painted skulls.

“The skulls were very helpful,” says Manhart. “They allowed us to find all of the bones that we needed to focus on. They also helped us to compare those bones with skulls of different sizes, as well as, different species.”

Reber agrees. “Within the hard palate and deeper into the skull there is a section of bones that are very small and are quite difficult to differentiate,” she says. “I can’t imagine myself understanding the difference between the presphenoid, the vomer, and the pterygoid bone without [having them painted]. We are all very appreciative of Ashley’s work.”

It takes Lynch up to 16 hours to paint one skull, making sure all the bones and holes are clearly and accurately identified. She has painted 13 skulls in two years, and she intends to keep painting and innovating.

One recent innovation is cutting away the top of the skull so the internal structures can be studied. She has also started experimenting with painting limb bones to help demonstrate anatomy and joint relationships.

The driving force behind all this hard work is the students.

“We know that students don’t all learn things the same way,” says Lynch. “I hope this is a small step toward empowering all kinds of learners.”

And if any other colleges are interested in empowering their students in this way, Lynch will gladly share her methods.

“I’m very happy to share the process with any other departments at Illinois that might want to apply this approach. The skulls just can’t leave my custody. They are too precious.”

By Irenka Carney