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Dermestid Beetles Cleaning a Skull
Photo by Sklmsta/Wikimedia Commons

The following is a short account — in list form — of my experiences working at a natural history museum.

1. You receive a position at the local natural history museum and volunteer to work in the zooarchaeology lab, where animal remains are transformed into osteological specimens. An archaeologist may ask the lab: “I found these bone fragments at my archaeological site. What animal did they belong to? Were people eating these animals or using them for something else?” The lab answers these questions by comparing fragments with thousands of reference bones of hundreds of species.

2. To be honest, you know little about how these comparative skeletons come to be.

3. Your boss asks if you want to be in charge of the “Bug Room.” With slight confusion, you oblige, thinking you’ll be pinning and cataloging insects.

4. The first day on the job you’re handed a paper outlining how to desiccate animal bones with dermestid beetles.

5. You still want to believe that you’ll be pinning dusty insects to felted cardboard.

6. You accept the reality that you’ll be doing no such thing the first time you enter the Bug Room. Your first task is to clean up the remains of the previous beetle colony. The small, six-by-fifteen foot room (or so) holds its horrors and treasures nicely. In several dry aquaria, you notice the forgotten skulls of more than 100 rodents entombed in the bottom of egg cartons nestled on a cotton bed sprinkled with dead beetles. The skulls, with their long incisors, are no accident. Most have ID tags woven through their teeth and empty orbits like floss. Every once in a while, you’ll pick up one that still holds the remnants of a shriveled, dusty brain — parts that someone was unable to remove. Most are tangled in strands and puffs of cotton, a dermestid beetle’s ideal resort. You soon learn that the specimens belong to a mammalogist. Indeed, skulls and skins are the stuff of mammalogists.

7. On the second day of cleaning, you learn that listening to NPR while disentangling skulls from their cottony graves is OK. Actually, it makes you feel less lonely. Your spirit is broken when you hear Terry Gross come on the radio to chat about death and dying with her next guest. After picking the remaining flesh off of the skulls and listening to a pompous author sell death, you think you need some real “fresh air.” You look around, thinking about your own demise. Note to self: Don’t let anyone desiccate me after I go.

8. “Bug room” is short for the dermestid beetle bone cleaning room. Dermestid beetles eat flesh. Surprisingly, you find that they’re extremely picky. You sigh in relief that your gloved hands aren’t on the menu.

9. You learn that after dead animals are defleshed and picked clean by the beetles and their ravenous larvae, you’ll need to soak their bones in water and a small amount of detergent to draw out the oil and fat. Grease from bone and marrow causes specimens to decay — the last thing you want for your immortal bone collection.

10. You ask the mammalogist to pick up her rodent skulls. She never comes.

11. You realize that bone desiccation can be a drawn-out process. The walls and shelves lining the room contain hundreds of specimens, still waiting to be added to the lab’s collection. You look at the jars, lined up neatly across the wall, situated by progress. The specimens to the far right near the window are almost done — their water is almost crystal clear compared to the dark brown water of recently added bones. Some jars are labeled with dusty Post-It notes, detailing the specimens’ last breath of fresh air.

12. Animals whose bones are too big to fit in recycled glass jars are steeped in giant bins or trash cans. You learn that all specimens must be “poured off,” meaning that the water has to be changed. It quickly becomes apparent that ducks and fish have quite the oily bones.

13. You come upon a large barrel and read: “Donkey (Equus a. a.), ♂, 1984.” You’re unsure of when the specimen was last poured off. You should check inside — after all it’s your job, right? After cracking open the lid, you almost vomit at the stench and sight. You try to forget the smell and step outside in the winter cold for fresh air. You learn to take breaks like this a lot.

14. The several gallon trash can is too heavy for you to pour into the drain on the floor on your own. This one will have to wait.

15. You can’t forget the smell. Lunch, dinner and perhaps tomorrow’s breakfast are on hold, if not canceled.

16. You ask the previous Bug Room keeper to help. He agrees to give a hand next week. “Make sure to wear old clothes,” he warns.

17. Happy to have a veteran by your side, you crack open the donkey’s watery grave again a week later. It’s heavy enough that it takes both of you to pour it off. At least two inches of light brown and pink mold line the surface of the stagnant water — sort of like butter congealing. No matter how hard you try, the fleshy mess spills on you. Your somewhat old shoes you were saving for when you begin gardening turn into the shoes you’ll never wear outside of the lab again.

18. You pour fresh water over the bones with a hose, providing clean liquid to make dirty again. This process will repeat itself until the water appears mostly clear, which indicates that the majority of the oil has been extracted from the bone.

19. You realize your sense of smell will never be the same.

20. And neither will you.

21. You’re thankful to be able to contribute to a frightening and useful form of science — the type that gives life to unfortunate accidents. These donated animals — some the mild victims of road kill and others donated by the state — will live on gracing the shelves of the museum forever, you think to yourself.

21. Your time there comes to an end and you move on. Two years later, your mind is filled with the same grotesque images, the same proud feeling. You can’t help but wonder who’s watching over the donkey. Who will resurrect him next?

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Bone desiccation videos

Here’s a video you can only watch on Youtube (it won’t embed).

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About Me

Marianne is a science communicator working in Madison, Wis.

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