Flesh-eating beetles, 10-millimetres long, are the newest members of staff at the Natural History Museum. The Dermestes maculatus beetles will be working behind the scenes where their grisly task will be to strip whole animal carcases to skeletons.
The Museum has more than a million whole and part skeletons in its osteology (bone and teeth) collections, which are studied by scientists around the world. As well as being used for research into skeletal structure, the collections can help identify new species or even to understand the way an animal lived. However, many of the specimens waiting in the Museum’s freezers are still whole and the beetles’ job is to strip away any flesh to reveal the bones underneath. Their first meals will include 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, Natural History Museum curator and the Dermestes new manager. ‘The larvae will eat the most and when the group is established they will get through about two to four kilos of flesh a week.’
From an initial colony of just 100 beetles and larvae, the population supplied by Central Science Laboratory is expected to grow to almost 1,000. In their ‘dermestarium’ the beetles will be kept at a comfortable 250C but with high humidity to prevent them eating their own eggs.
The advantage of preparing a skeleton using these natural ‘cleaners’ is that every aspect of the bone is preserved. In the past, hydrogen peroxide and carbon tetrachloride have been used, however the strong chemicals penetrated the bones, making them fragile and destroying the molecular information they held. By letting the beetles do the work, the bones and collagen are not changed in any way and valuable samples can even tell us about an animal’s age, distribution and feeding patterns.
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. Skeletons removed from the dermestarium will be frozen and cleaned before moving to other parts of the Museum to ensure the beetles are not accidentally transferred to the collections.
Despite their macabre feeding habits, the beetles have a sensitive side and hate being exposed to light. They will work behind the scenes in the Darwin Centre, but anyone wanting to find out more can come along to a free Darwin Centre Live talk by Patrick Campbell at 14.30 on Friday 5 November.
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Issued: 24 August 2004