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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Department ofVertebrate Zoology

Much like household composting, the OPL's compost heap is in the backyard. Microbes in the organic material in the heap break down the soft tissues of large specimens during the cleaning process. Credit: John Ososky

Much like household composting, the OPL's compost heap is in the backyard. Microbes in the organic material in the heap break down the soft tissues of large specimens during the cleaning process. Credit: John Ososky

These large specimens are cleaned using a common household recycling approach: composting. In composting, an outdoor heap of organic material is degraded by a combination of heat absorbed from the sun and by organisms like bacteria, fungi and yeast that live inside the pile.  The compost heap at the OPL is similar to a household compost heap. However, rather than breaking down kitchen waste like banana peals and eggshells, the OPL's compost heap breaks down large animal tissue until only the bones are left. After several weeks in the compost heap, the large bones are dug up and washed before they join the museum's collection.

Some large animal remains, like elephants, infrequently come to the lab. Marine mammals come to the lab on a regular basis. In fact, the eastern U.S. Marine Mammal Stranding Network is one of the largest contributors, in both size and volume, to the OPL. When a beached marine mammal like a whale or dolphin cannot be saved, its remains are often sent to the museum for their display and research collections.

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