Spooky Skeletons and the Flesh-eating Beetles

In honor of Halloween approaching, it’s time to look into how the Bruce Museum acquires, processes, and prepares some of the spookiest items in the collections: Skeletons.

Come see our ostrich skeleton on display in the Madagascar Exhibit!

Come see our ostrich skeleton on display in the Madagascar Exhibit!

Skeletons are a very important part of museum collections, both for visitors and for scientists. Using a skeleton, we can learn what species an animal was, how it lived, moved, and ate. Skeletons are also very useful for determining evolutionary relationships among animals. To better serve scientists and visitors, the Bruce Museum is expanding its skeleton collection. Skeletons can be bought, but here we like to take a more hands-on approach to acquiring new specimens.

Scientists at the Bruce Museum use dermestid beetles to help with skeletonization. Dermestids are sometimes called “flesh-eating beetles,” but you don’t need to worry about these beetles biting. They are scavengers and only eat dead flesh. You might see them by the side of the roadway colonizing roadkill.

Image by Aiwok. Dermestid beetle larvae are even more voracious than adults.

Image by Aiwok.

Dermestid beetle larvae are even more voracious than adults.

These beetles are so precise and delicate that they can skeletonize an animal while leaving even the most fragile bone structure intact. This is very useful when working with very small animals, such as birds and rodents. They are also used in forensic crime labs to skeletonize human victims so scientists can look for clues in their bones.

Before we can skeletonize something, we first need the animal specimen. The Bruce Museum acquires specimens from a variety of sources. Some animals come from wildlife rehabilitators (sadly, not every animal can be rehabilitated). Other specimens come from nearby zoos. Bruce Museum staff members will even salvage specimens themselves.

Image by JimJones1971. In this picture, dermestid beetles are cleaning many skulls at once.

Image by JimJones1971.

In this picture, dermestid beetles are cleaning many skulls at once.

Though the beetles eat very precisely, they are not always very fast. Because of this, scientists remove as much of the skin, flesh, and organs of an animal as possible before giving it to the beetles. Looking at the internal structure of an animal can be very educational so this part is often quite interesting.

Next, the skeleton and remaining flesh are dried. Dermestid beetles will eat both dried jerky-like meat and fresher juicy meat, but meat with more fluid remaining can rot and cause sanitary issues and the bones don’t stay connected together as easily.  The skeleton is then left in the dermestid beetle colony for the beetles to do their work.

Unlike the human-devouring insects seen in the movies, dermestids can’t skeletonize an animal in seconds. It can take weeks or even months for the beetles to remove all of the flesh off a skeleton. This is not a process that should be undertaken by anyone in a rush.

The skeletons we clean will end up like this mousbird, carefully labeled and stored in the Bruce Museum collections.

The skeletons we clean will end up like this mousbird, carefully labeled and stored in the Bruce Museum collections.

After the beetles have eaten everything they can, the skeletons are cleaned to remove any lingering beetles and their waste. The resulting skeletons can then be used for research or for display!

- Kate Dzikiewicz, Paul Griswold Howes Fellow