Animal skeletons

  • What does my skeleton look like?
  • Why do I have bones in my body?
  • Do all skeletons look like mine?
  • Can you tell if a skeleton belongs to an animal or a human?

Skeletons of vertebrates

Introducing this topic:

If possible, stick old x-rays on the windows before the class commences - when they walk in it would make quite an impact as to the nature of the lesson. Perhaps visit a local veterinary hospital and ask if they don't have old x-rays that you could use. If you have enough x-rays covering the windows the light in the class should be dimmed which will lend an element of eerie fascination to the lesson.

  • Start by asking learners about skeletons and if they have ever seen a skeleton. Many at this age are quite "into" skeletons and things that go bump in the night.
  • Explain that you are going to learn about the skeletons of vertebrates. Because humans are vertebrates, you will start by learning about their own skeletons and what the different bones are for in the body (their function). Then you will learn about the skeletons of other vertebrates and because you will know about the human skeleton, you will be able to compare its function to that of the human skeleton.
  • Collect cereal boxes for their skeleton puzzles.

You now know that all vertebrates have bones inside their bodies, while invertebrates do not.

Every time a vertebrate animal moves, it uses its bones, joints and muscles. In this section we are going to study the bones, joints and muscles that help vertebrates to move.


Bones are hard and form a very strong frame structure to support and protect a vertebrate animal's body.

Vertebrates all have similar kinds of bones - some are much bigger than others, but the basic structure of the bones are very similar.

Different kinds of bones.

Identifying bones in your body


  • Photocopied bones puzzle picture of the human skeleton
  • Photocopied labels that go with the picture of the human skeleton
  • Scissors
  • Glue
  • Recycled thin cardboard such as a cereal box
  • Pencils and ruler
  • Colouring pencils if you want to decorate your skeleton


  1. How many functions of the bones in the skeleton can you remember?

    • It gives the body shape
    • Protects internal organs
    • Supports organs and flesh
    • Allows for movement by attaching to muscles
  2. Your teacher will hand out a jumbled puzzle of the human skeleton. Carefully cut out each piece along the dotted line.

Teachers must emphasise that learners cut only on the dotted lines. This is a good activity to assess learner's fine motor, spatial and hand-eye coordination skills as this impacts many other areas where learners might battle in their schoolwork and might give teachers some idea as to the types of problems they experience and how they can address these. We suggest that teachers walk through the class and carefully observe learners during this activity and assist those who need their help.

  1. Build your human skeleton on the back of your recycled cardboard - do not stick it on yet as you might need to move it slightly if it does not fit properly onto the cardboard.
  2. When you have it in place correctly, use glue to stick it to the cardboard.
  3. Cut out the labels from the table.
  4. Carefully pack the labels in the correct places - do not stick these down until you have done all of them as you might need to reposition them to fit it all in.

Here are the words of a song that teaches you about bones. The chorus lines has been left out each time.

  1. Work in groups of 5 - 7.
  2. Compose a rap rhythm and beat, compose your own tune or use an existing song to accompany these lyrics. Feel free to make or use instruments to accompany your singing.
  3. Present your song to the class.

The Bone Song

Your head bone's connected from your neck bone, Your neck bone's connected from your shoulder bone, Your shoulder bone's connected from your back bone,


Your back bone's connected from your hip bone, Your hip bone's connected from your thigh bone, Your thigh bone's connected from your knee bone,


Your knee bone's connected from your leg bone, Your leg bone's connected from your ankle bone, Your ankle bone's connected from your foot bone, Your foot bone's connected from your toe bone!


Photocopy the bones puzzle sheet (make enough copies for each learner).

The labels below are for the bone puzzle and also need to be photocopied for the learners to cut out and add to their completed bones puzzles.


foot bones

lower jaw bone

thigh bone

ankle bones

inner forearm

calf bone

toe bones

shin bone



wrist bones


hip bone

finger bones

tail bone

collar bone

hand bones

breast bone

arm bone

outer forearm

Teachers who feel industrious can enlarge this puzzle and make a "life-size" version to hang or stick on the classroom door. Add labels and stick a small box to the door for suggestions for a name for the skeleton.

Now that you know where all the bones in the body are, you are probably wondering what exactly each bone's job is. Let's find out.

The bones in the human skeleton


  1. Examine your skeleton puzzle. This illustration of the human skeleton might also help. Pay special attention to the shapes of different kinds of bones.
  2. Can you identify examples of the four different kinds of bones? Write the examples of each kind of bone that you can find in this table.

The human skeleton.

Type of Bone

Where in the vertebrate body can you find it?

Long bones

arms, legs, finger bones and feet bones

Short bones

wrist and feet

Flat bones

hip bones, skull, sternum (chest bone) and shoulder blade; ribs are also considered flat bones

Irregular bones

vertebrae / backbone; jawbone

  1. Now see if you can identify these bones in some other vertebrate skeletons! Use this key to show on the picture of the skeleton where the different bones are :
    • L= Long bone
    • S = Short bone
    • F = Flat bone
    • I = Irregular bone

Cat skeleton

Fish skeleton

Frog skeleton


Which of the animals is a mammal?


Which is an amphibian?


Now that you know how to identify the different kinds of bones in vertebrates, let's take a closer look at the functions of some of these bones.

Remind learners that we study the human skeleton as an example of a vertebrate but that most vertebrates share the same structure of the bones and that these bones' functions are similar.

Functions of the bones in a vertebrate skeleton:

1. The skull

The vertebrate skull is made up of different bones that grow together to form a protective "box" or "shell" structure.

  • The skull protects the eyes and ears, nose and mouth.
  • It protects the brain.
  • The teeth and the lower jaw is also attached to the skull.

Can you identify the animals that each of these skulls belong to? Write the name in the space below each skull.

Answer: Crocodile skull, horse skull, rhinoceros skull, human skull.

2. The backbone

  • The backbone is made up of vertebrae.
  • A hole runs through the middle of each vertebrae. When the vertebrae are connected, the holes all line up to form a tube. This is where you find the spinal cord. The spinal cord is a bundle of nerves that is connected to the brain. It is surrounded by blood vessels.
  • The backbone has two functions (jobs):
    • It protects the spinal cord that runs inside it.
    • It supports the upper body.
The human backbone and vertebrae.

Compare the bones in the backbone of the giraffe below with that of the human above. What do you notice about the shape of the vertebrae in the neck and in the back of the giraffe and those of the human's neck and bones?

Giraffe skeleton.

3. The ribs

Vertebrates have long curved bones around their chest. We call these bones ribs. These ribs are joined to the backbone and often to the front to form the rib cage.

  • In most vertebrates, the ribcage is around the chest area of the animal to protect the lungs, heart and other important organs.
  • In animals like snakes, the ribcage can protect and support the the whole body.
  • The breast bone in birds is much longer. The flight muscles attach to this.
This is a human rib cage.

Many mammals have a similar shape rib cage. Compare the rib cages of these animals to your own.

An elephant skeleton - do you see the rib cage and backbone?
A snake's rib cage protects and supports almost the whole body.
A dolphin - do you see the front limbs look just like the other mammals' limbs?

4. Shoulder blades, arms, legs and hip bones

Vertebrates use their fore and hind limbs for movement.

The human arm. Can you see the flat shoulder bone, and the long bones making up the arm?

Many animals' limbs are attached to their bodies at the shoulder or hip joints. However not all animals have hip or shoulder girdles (think of fish and snakes).

  • Muscles attach to the shoulder blades and they control the movement of the forelimb or arm.
  • The lower or hind limbs (legs) attach to the body at the hips.

The bones in different vertebrate limbs look very similar. Look at the picture which, shows the limbs of different animals.

Different forelimbs of vertebrate animals.

Movement in Vertebrates

Now that you know a little more about a bones, let's see how animals use their bones, joints and muscles to help them move.

Do you remember what a skeleton's function is? List as many of the functions of the skeleton as you can think of below.

  • The skeleton gives support and shape to their bodies.
  • It protects soft organs and tissues.
  • Muscles are attached to the bones.
  • Muscles allow vertebrates to move around.

Vertebrate animals can move because of two really important things:

  1. They have joints between their bones that can let their bones move.
  2. Their muscles are attached to their skeletons.

If you want to know how an animal moves you need to know how their joints and their muscles work.

Introducing this topic

There are many ways to introduce this topic and depending on the class' discipline and behaviour one might be inclined to choose one rather than the other.

  • Prepare a large variety of music genres: hip hop, classical, nursery rhyme, rock, gospel, orchestral, opera, metal, etc... If at all possible try to "copy" them into one playlist so each song plays at the most typical part for about 30 - 45 seconds. It's difficult to get into the sway of things when you have to wait for the intro of each song to finish and then for the teacher to take out and load another CD!
  • Distribute scrap paper to half the class and ask them to take a pencil and hard book to press on and sit in a circle around an open space in the class or hall. The other half of the class will dance or move to the music. They will need to write down or quickly sketch as many different types of movements that the "dancing group" does to the different kinds of music.
  • Swap over and let the "dancing group" observe this time.
  • Discuss the different kinds of movement that they identified and try to make a chart or class mind-map - use words like: sway hips and arms; jump up and down with legs and feet; swing arms around wildly; jiggle whole body; nod head up and down; shake head; slide arms and legs across the floor; etc. Write this mind-map on a large sheet of paper to display in class. You will refer to this later.
  • If possible combine this lesson with a lesson on the different kinds of verbs in Home Language teaching.
  • Discuss what they think made them move : the muscles, bones and joints.


Joints are the places where bones come together. They come together in a special way to allow the animal or human to move - like at your elbow or wrist. There are different kinds of joints.

This is a knee joint. Can you see that it is where the bones of the leg come together?

List four other joints in your skeleton.

Elbow joint, shoulder joint, hip joint, joints between fingers, joints between toes, ankle joint, etc

How do the bones and the joints move?

Look at the example of the moving arm. Look at the picture. There are two muscles which enable your arm to move - your tricep and bicep. They work as a pair. When the one muscle contracts, the opposite muscle relaxes.

To bend your arm, the bicep muscle "contracts" and pulls on the radius bone. The tricep muscle relaxes, allowing your arm to bend at the elbow joint.

To straighten your arm, the tricep muscle contracts and pulls on the ulna bone while your bicep muscle relaxes and your arm straightens.

The arm moves using muscles, joints and bones.

Describing movement in vertebrates


Now that you know that bones and joints are controlled by muscles, let's look at the ways that muscles and bones make you (and other vertebrates) move!

  1. Divide your class into two or four teams and play CHARADES.
    • Your teachers will put the names of different animals in a hat.
    • A person from one team pulls an animal's name from the hat.
    • They may not make ANY NOISE or make any signals that will give the animal away!
    • They need to mime the movement of this animal to their group.
    • Three people in their group may have a turn to guess which animal they are miming. If all three get it wrong then the other team can guess what the animal is. If they cannot get it right then the "mime-artist" must reveal their animal.
    • Points will be awarded as follows:
      • 5points for the first guess that is correct... If this guess was wrong...
      • 4 points for the next guess that gets it correct .... If this guess is wrong ....
      • 3 points for the next guess that gets it correct .... If this guess is wrong ask the other team but the mime is not allowed to demonstrate their action again

This is a time-saving clause as this game can drag on and on if they are given multiple opportunities to mime. Everyone should be watching the first time.

  • 2points for the other team if someone gets it correct the first try. If they get it wrong then...
  • 1 point for the least try - if they get it wrong then no points are awarded.

Suggestion: depending on the class atmosphere and discipline teachers can choose to let the mime choose who should answer but it might be easier if teachers called the names of those who should venture a guess.

  1. Choose three (3) of the animal movements that your friends mimed and which you really liked. Write down for each of these:
    • The bones that were used to create that movement in the animal.
    • The joints that were part of the movement.
    • The muscles that controlled the movement.

  • Avertebrate skeleton (inside the body) has bones and joints.
  • Bones are strong and form a strong frame structure.
  • A skeleton protects part of the body.
  • A skeleton supports the body.
  • Vertebrate animals can move because they have muscles attached to the skeleton.

What type of skeleton do you have?


What do all vertebrate animals have that makes them vertebrates?

Vertebrates have a backbone and skeleton inside their bodies.

What is a major difference between the skeletons of a mouse, a crab and an earthworm?

  • Amouse has a skeleton and backbone inside their bodies. This is called an endoskeleton.
  • A crab has no bones inside its body but a hard shell outside its body to protect it. This is called an endoskeleton.
  • An earthworm has no bones inside its body nor does it have a casing on the outside like the crab. It has a hydroskeleton which is fluid support.
Below is a diagram of the human skeleton. Label the following on the diagram of the skeleton:
  • skull
  • backbone
  • ribs
  • rib cage
  • shoulder blade
  • hip bone
  • upper limb
  • lower limb
  • Think of at least two other bones in the skeleton that we did not include in this list. Label them on the skeleton.
Joints help us to move. Look at the diagram of the human body. Add in labels to show where you can find an example of the following:
  • elbow joint
  • knee joint
  • shoulder joint

Name the three things that all vertebrates need to be able to move.

bones, joints and muscles; if they say tendons and ligaments that is technically correct too so give them a point for each one (this should earn them 2 bonus points)

What is the difference between the way a human move, the way a dolphin moves and the way a dog moves? Describe the movement of each animal, the limbs that are used and the position of the body.

A human walks upright on the hind limbs whereas a dog walks on all four limbs. A dolphin uses its front limbs and its tail to move through the water. A human and a dog move on the ground whereas a dolphin moves in the water. Humans and dogs have four limbs, but a dolphin only has two limbs and a tail for movement.