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Museum welcomes smallest employees

25 August 2004

Flesh-eating beetles, 10 millimetres long, are the newest members of staff at the Natural History Museum.

Flesh-eating beetle Dermestes maculatus

The Dermestes maculatus beetles will be working behind the scenes where their grisly task will be to strip whole animal carcases to skeletons. The skeletons can then be used for research by scientists worldwide.

  • The beetles are natural 'cleansers' that preserve a skeleton by leaving the bones and collagen intact and unchanged, producing valuable specimens for research.
  • Chemical methods used in the past (eg hydrogen peroxide and carbon tetrachloride) penetrate the bones, making them fragile, and also destroys molecular information.

Some of the first meals planned for the Dermestes maculatus beetles will be an orange roughy fish (Hoplostethus atlanticus), a long-tailed fruit bat (Notopteris macdonaldi) from the remote South Pacific islands of Vanuatu, and a very rare Norwegian lundehund (Norwegian puffin hound).

‘They aren't the most conventional colleagues but they do work very hard’ said Patrick Campbell, the Museum's curator and the Dermestes' new manager. ‘The larvae will eat the most and when the group is established they will get through about four kilos of flesh a week.’

Scientists around the world already study skeletons from the Museum's osteology (bone and teeth) collections. There are more than a million whole and part skeletons and many whole specimens currently stored in freezers.

The study of bones can reveal a great deal of information such as:

  • an animal's age and distribution
  • new species identification
  • the way an animal lived and its feeding patterns.

Despite their macabre feeding habits, the Dermestes maculatus beetles have a sensitive side and hate being exposed to light. As the beetles will eat any organic material, they will be kept in tight security well away from the Museum's collections of stuffed animals and skins. The beetles will work behind the scenes in the Darwin Centre.

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