Pieces of Themselves

Live animals often leave little bits of themselves behind. (They also leave behind scat, and that is covered on another web page.)

Crow feather

Birds often lose feathers naturally or in fights.

Tufts of fur from a mule deer

Sometimes mammals get their fur caught on bushes and twigs as they pass by them.

deer antler (drawing)

Some hoofed mammals, such as white-tailed deer, shed their antlers every year.

shed snake skin

Like all animals, reptiles shed their skin as they grow. Lizards shed their skin in bits and pieces, and you can sometimes find them with pieces of skin hanging loose. Turtles shed their skin in bits and pieces too, but the pieces usually wash off in water. Their shell is part of their skeleton, so they never shed it! Snakes peel their whole skin off all at once, starting with their nose. They rub against a rough stick or rock until their old skin splits, and then they slowly crawl out of it, leaving behind a complete empty skin turned inside out.

animal bone (mule deer leg bone)

mule deer carcass

You may also find remains of dead animals, such as bones or complete carcasses.

drawing of snail shell

snail shell (drawing)

photo of many unidentified shells

many different snail and clam shells (photo)

Snails, as you know, have slimy bodies and spiral shells. Since shells do not decay nearly as fast as their soft bodies do after they die, it is not uncommon to find an empty shell. Other animals, such as turtles, also have shells that get left behind when they die.


Many insects also shed, but in a very different way. For us, our hard bones are on the inside and our soft skin and muscles are on the outside. For insects, the soft part is on the inside and it is surrounded by a hard exoskeleton. The only way these animals can grow is by shedding their old exoskeleton and making a newer, larger one. It is not uncommon to find the exoskeleton of an insect on a leaf or tree branch or just sitting on the ground. The exoskeleton can look a lot like the actual bug itself, but is no more alive than a shell.

cicada emerging from pupal case

For instance, cicadas emerge from the ground when they are ready to transform into adults. They climb out of the old shell they occupied as a pupa, and emerge as a winged cicada.

dragonfly emerging from pupal case

Near ponds and streams you may also find the shed pupal cases of dragonflies.

The remains of insect chrysalis are similar to shed exoskeletons. When caterpillars change into butterflies or moths they create a case for themselves (a chrysalis) that hangs on a short stem off the bottoms of leaves and stems. While examining plants for chew marks, take a moment to look beneath the leaves - especially garden plants or flowering plants - because you might just find a butterfly or moth chrysalis.

University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
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