Skeleton preparation

The preparation process for new bird skeletons includes initial skinning and dissecting, time spent in the beetle colony, cleaning, databasing and entry into the collections.

Most of our bird skeletons are prepared using dermestid beetles, which remove the flesh from the specimens and leave the bones clean and intact. 

The colonies at Tring are now nearly 40 years old, and have prepared many thousands of bird specimens from ostriches to hummingbirds.

Our current preparation priority is to improve the breadth (species coverage) and depth (number of individuals per species) of the skeleton collection. A particular focus is to ensure comprehensive representation of British bird species.

Preparation process

Bird specimens are usually skinned and partially dissected before being put into a colony. This provides an excellent opportunity to make some initial observations:

  • Check internally what sex the bird is.
  • See if there are any signs of injuries or unusual features that need to be noted.
  • Take some tissue samples, which are frozen for potential DNA research.

Depending on their size, condition and the levels of beetle activity, specimens will normally spend between 1-4 weeks in a colony. 

After the beetles have finished their work, the skeletons are removed and cleaned.  Sometimes, they may need to be soaked to help remove dried tissue that the beetles rejected.  

Finally, the new skeletons are boxed up, labelled and databased, ready to go into the collection.

Dermestid beetles

We use the species Dermestes haemorrhoidalis, which is not widely used in museum preparation.  D. maculatus is more commonly used, including at the Museum in South Kensington.  

Dermestes beetle larva.

Dermestes beetle larva, one of our smallest employees.

Our beetles don’t like dried specimens, so pose little risk to the collections. We still keep our beetles well contained in a dedicated colony room, separate from the main collections building. Here, they are treated to five-star heated accommodation in special tanks and a steady supply of specially prepared delicacies.  

We usually have at least 3 colonies running, which at full capacity (if we can keep up with them) can prepare an average of a specimen per week.

Beetle colonies are usually kept in the dark, with regular checks made to find out how they are getting on with the latest specimen.  

Scarlet macaw time-lapse video.
The secret life of beetles

Watch time-lapse films of our dermestid beetles preparing a range of whole bird specimens.