Whenever a show features or references a desert, savannah or other barren land, odds are good that a bovine cranium will be involved to set the mood. As is often the case, the rest of the skeleton goes unseen.
Often accompanied by cacti.
Compare Ribcage Ridge, a sister trope.
- Doraemon: Nobita's Dorabian Nights have Doraemon and friends stranded in the Arabian Desert and trying to find their way out. When Suneo, Gian and Nobita complains it's pointless to go on, Doraemon tells them they can choose to keep walking or end up like "that" - "that" being a bovine skeleton nearby Doraemon is pointing at. Cue Nobita and gang quickly running.
- The opening scene of GUN×SWORD has Van looking down at an animal skull in the desert and questioning why the creature isn't still alive for him to eat.
- Shows up in many Georgia O'Keefe paintings.
- Arthur Rothstein's photo series documenting the dust bowl in South Dakota included several of these. It was a scandal at the time because it was pretty obviously the same skull every time (the series was part of a government program documenting the drought). According to the photographer he was just moving a skull he found around the same small area to capture the shadows differently.
- Wonder Woman (1987): The desert beyond the edges of the Sangtee Empire slave mining operation on "Hope's End" is littered with skulls and skeletons making attempts to escape out into the desert a less appealing option that it otherwise might be. There are also a few within the mining camp, but not many since the deceased are fed to the scavenger worms.
- Tintin: In "The Crab With the Golden Claws", Tintin and Haddock realize they're lost in the middle of the Sahara Desert when Snowy finds a bone... that came from the skeleton of a camel, just to drive home how dire their situation is.
- The owl mariachi band from Rango stood on one of these while singing about Rango's journey.
- On An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, Tiger runs into a buffalo skeleton that seems to come to life when he's not looking. Turns out it's being manipulated by native mice, who then capture Tiger.
- The Lion King: As Simba returns to the Pridelands, he finds it riddled with skeletons (wildebeest, elephant, topi, gazelle, you name it) to show how Scar's rule has ruined the land. At the end, as Simba returns to power, there's a brief shot of a skull being washed away by the rain, to symbolize the end of the old regime.
- Cars featured a variation of this: since all animals in their world are also vehicles, in the desert surrounding Radiator Springs, there appear to be rusted-up car parts lying among the rocks and cacti.
- Fantasia - the 'Rite of Spring' segment shows the last of the dinosaurs shuffling into the desert dust - after which the camera pans to and closes in on the skull of the mighty T-Rex.
- The New Land: Robert and Arvid get a vivid illustration of just how deep they're in trouble in the Thirsty Desert when they come across the bones of a would-be miner.
- The Plow That Broke the Plains, a documentary short about how the Great Plains became the Dust Bowl, includes a shot of a bleached, broken cow skull lying on cracked and dried-out land.
- The Winning of Barbara Worth: In fact it's an entire dessicated cow skeleton that Worth sees, underlining the aridity of this part of the desert.
- In Star Wars, on Tatooine C-3PO passes by a skull of Krayt Dragon.
- 1946 documentary short Facing Your Danger shows the river rafters on the Colorado finding what appears to be a human skeleton.
- Wagon Train: A desert skull appears in the illustrated opening and closing credits shown seasons one through five.
- One of the oldest pop-cultural examples comes from A Study in Scarlet. Yes, that A Study In Scarlet, which lends almost half its pagespace to a Cowboy Episode:
"Looking down from the Sierra Blanco, one sees a pathway traced out across the desert, which winds away and is lost in the extreme distance... Here and there there are scattered white objects which glisten in the sun, and stand out against the dull deposit of alkali. Approach, and examine them! They are bones: some large and coarse, others smaller and more delicate. The former have belonged to oxen, and the latter to men. For fifteen hundred miles one may trace this ghastly caravan route by these scattered remains of those who had fallen by the wayside."
- Voltaire referenced this in "Fear and Anguish"
Scattered on the ground, fifty heads of steer.
But what's real queer;
We searched all around
No other part was found!
- Three Garfield strips had Jon bring home one of these, which Garfield then put on Odie, while Jon was talking to his mother on the phone about it.
- In the comic strip Beyond The Black Stump, two recurring characters are a pair of skulls out in the desert somewhere who pass the time having odd conversations.
- The Far Side: One uncaptioned cartoon shows a pair of oxen pulling a covered wagon across the desert, turning their heads as they pass a bovine skull.
- Dungeons & Dragons has the gambado, a monster originally from the Fiend Folio, that disguises itself as this trope. When revealed, they appear as one-legged humanoids with sharp claws and either an animal or human skull for a head.
- The Matchbox/Revell kit of the WW2 German Panzer III tank comes with a display base to mount the completed tank kit; it depicts a North African desert sand-dune, with the tank posed as breasting the crest of the sand. Just to emphasise the point this is an Afrika Korps panzer, there is a bleached animal skull to set artistically into the modelled sand.
- In Animal Crossing, this shows up as a furniture item in the "American West/frontier" set. Sometimes animals who are cows have them in their homes...
- In EarthBound (1994), you can actually have a conversation with a cattle skeleton in the Dusty Dunes Desert. It, of course, claims otherwise.
- Appears multiple times throughout the Fallout series, natch. It's not always a cow skull, though...
- StarCraft I had all sorts of bones and skulls in the randomly generated desert terrain tiles.
- Cave Story's Sand Zone is full of bones... including animated ones.
- The standard Clonk desert scenarios contain, along with cacti, animal skulls as decoration.
- Eets uses this as decoration for desert-themed levels.
- These can be found in the desert levels of the Game Boy Advance Fire Emblem games. Rare items can be dug up in the nearby sands.
- There's a giant wraid skull on Tatooine in Star Wars: The Old Republic. Click it at your own risk - it summons a World Boss.
- There's plenty of skeletal remains for you to explore in the Western Desert from Avalon Code. In a particular area, you find what appears to be the skeleton of a dragon, as well as the skeleton of the knight who failed to slay said dragon and the skeleton of the princess devoured by said dragon.
- In Mass Effect, you can find a skull of an unknown creature on a desert planet Maji.
- If you should find the massive skull of a Monoblos or Diablos in the deserts of Monster Hunter, beware! A Daimyo Hermitaur may be using it for a shell.
- The Legend of Zelda Oracle of Seasons: You can find a human skull (a former pirate) in the desert who you need to carry around over your head until he spots the particular quicksand pit you need to progress. He does so by suddenly chattering his teeth.
- A few also turn up in the Gerudo desert in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
- Exaggerated in Mario Kart 8 with Bone-Dry Dunes, which contain a Ribcage Ridge, a gigantic Dry Bowser skull, skeletal Piranha Plants, and Dry Bones.
- In Nuclear Throne, cattle skulls spawn around the Desert. Being set after the apocalypse, they're mutant cattle - four eyes sockets instead of two.
- Oriental Legend have the stage in the desert outside the Mount of Flames, with gigantic skulls which you can smash for objects and points.
- The Dusty Valley in Iggle Pop! is an arid desert which is littered with skulls.
- Bugs Bunny:
- At the top of the Arthur episode "Feeling Flush," there's an Imagine Spot where the kids are walking through the desert. The very first shot we see is of a skull (pictured above).
- There's one of these (with overly ornate horns) atop the sign for the Gold City Guest Ranch in the Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! episode "Mine Your Own Business".
- Adventure Time has these, except some of them seem to be skulls of aquatic animals.
- In the Phineas and Ferb episode "Road to Danville", Dr. Doofenshmirtz asks this right out: "Why do we always see cow skulls in the desert? And why do you only see the skull? Did the body die somewhere else? It makes no sense."
- In the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic episode "Over a Barrel" a generic bovine skull can be seen during a brief shot of a desert around Appleloosa, even though not only are the bovines established to be sentient in this series, but the very episode in question revolves around a native tribe of buffaloes who inhabit these lands.
- SpongeBob SquarePants's ancestor SpongeBuck envisions two cow skulls talking to him in the episode "Pest of the West" when he's banished to the desert.
- Mr. Bogus comes across one of these while lost in the desert in the first act of the episode "Good Sport Bogus".
- In the We Bare Bears episode "The Road", a young Ice Bear is seen wearing one of these as a hat after he and his brothers get lost in the desert.
- On Rocko's Modern Life, after becoming frustrated with his anthropomorphic food processor (and failing to get rid of it), the food processor attacks Spunky. Rocko decides that this is the last straw, and drives the food processor out into the desert and abandons it there. The food processor walks past a cow skull. It also leaves some bones behind after it eats a vulture.
- Silly Symphonies: Flowers and Trees has a rare non-desert example. The evil tree lives in a dead patch of the forest which has the skull of a cow (or some similar animal) on the ground.
- Check out any zoo's exhibits of desert reptiles or arachnids. Odds are very good that at least one hollow ceramic Desert Skull will be on display, as the den for a lizard, snake, scorpion, or tarantula.