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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Department ofVertebrate Zoology

The entire lifecycle of a dermestid occurs on the remains of other animals. The OPL's dermestid colony receives a regular supply of animal remains and voraciously consumes the soft tissue, leaving only the bones behind. Credit: Chip Clark

The entire lifecycle of a dermestid occurs on the remains of other animals. The OPL's dermestid colony receives a regular supply of animal remains and voraciously consumes the soft tissue, leaving only the bones behind. Credit: Chip Clark

Those bugs are scavengers called dermestid beetles that are naturally found in hot and humid tropical environments. There, they rely on the tissue of dead animals as both a source of food and a residence.

Adult dermestids lay their eggs on the same degraded tissue that they eat. Those eggs develop through seven voracious larval stages before maturing into adult beetles.  This entire lifecycle, from egg to adult, takes 2-3 months during which the colony consumes all of the soft tissue on the animal skeleton.

The combination of the beetles’ short reproductive cycle and efficient eating habits make dermestids ideal for the majority of the museum’s skeleton-cleaning needs. In fact, dermestids are often referred to as “museum beetles.”

The Smithsonian’s dermestid colony is maintained at the Museum Support Center by OPL staff member John Ososky. John is an expert caretaker for the beetles, ensuring that their lab environment mimics their hot and humid natural habitat. The lab’s dermestid colony also receives a regular supply of food—skeletons that the museum needs cleaned for research and display.

The skeletal remains come to the OPL from several sources. Zoos, including the Smithsonian National Zoo, send exhibit specimens that have recently died of natural causes. Remains are also collected from animals that have perished in their natural habitat. Those remains are sent to the OPL from a global network of museum curators, technicians and affiliates. The constant flow of remains into the OPL for cleaning often exceeds 1,000 specimens per year!

When the OPL staff receives animal remains for the dermestid colony, the staff must first prepare the meal. In this process, the outer layers of skin are removed to expose the soft inner tissue for the beetles. Once that tissue has been exposed, the dermestids crawl all over, and through, the tissue to remove even the smallest bits of material from the bone.

Their efficient cleaning activities also have an added benefit for the museum—the dermestids can remove all of the material from even the smallest bird specimens without disturbing, discoloring or distorting the bones (common problems of chemical cleaning techniques).

However, the voracious dermestids have their limits. While they can clean small skeletons and even medium-sized skeletons like elk in a timely manner, the largest specimens prove too big for the beetle colony.

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