Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Picked Clean

Sometimes I am driving along, places to get to and things on my mind, when I just have to stop the car and grab the camera.  This for instance, was not something I was expecting to encounter:

So very many questions.  I don't know where to start.

The crudely lettered sign encouraging you to drive up into the hills for instance.

But what the heck are Beetle Cleaned Skulls? Other than I presume. another of those horrid bands much beloved by one of my London pals who is quite into the club scene....

Actually there is a lot of info on this matter, very little of it dealing with missing person reports.

As it happens there are specialized beetles called Dermestidae that are much prized by taxidermists and natural history museums for their amazing ability to clean up skeletons.  They quite literally pick the bones clean and I have to assume that little Dermastidae larvae never have to listen to lectures on finishing everything on their plate because some hypothetical larvae in Africa would for sure like to eat that last bit.

You could - if perhaps you are not already on enough government watch lists - purchase your own little colony of skeleton cleaning Dermestidae on ebay.  Some of the various and frankly fascinating taxidermy sites I visited advise caution, intimating that these low grade beetles are often infested with mites and that you are not likely to get too many hard working generations from the run of the mill beetle vendor.

One link I encountered was for lack of a better word, magnificent.  The University of Michigan Museum of Zoology has a long treatise on the use of Dermestidae.  It is informative, well written, and I think even contains a few elements of subtle humor.  I always say it isn't a good day unless you learn something new.  HERE, this will take care of a couple of weeks worth of new information....

Now some of my gentle readers might be a bit squeamish for this sort of thing.  I totally understand. So for brevity I will just pass along a few high lights.

The container in which skeletons are cleaned is a Dermestarium.

The best food to get a colony up and running is pellets of Purina Trout Chow, although various dog and puppy chow options would probably be fine and easier to get hold of.  You need to keep the chow nice and dry so as to reduce the occurrence of "Museum Mites" which I now know are the bane of all natural history museum curators.  I take comfort in times of crisis that there are a few disasters that I will never have to deal with....

Dermestids hate mummies.  All that movie stuff about beetles pouring out of dried up Egyptian dudes turns out to be a bunch of Hollywood nonsense.

And I did like the discussion of alternate methods of bone cleaning.  "Enzyme Detergent Soup" seems like something that you would have to stock very carefully and nowhere near the museum's staff break room.  And as to "Manure Pile Maceration", I can tell you that really works.  Here is a skull that came up at our dig in Vindolanda.  It is amazing how clean bones look after 1800 years in anaerobic layers of horse manure.

The world of the ancient Romans seems far away in time but familiar in other ways.  The world of museum curators actually seems more alien to me.  I will close with an enigmatic quote from the University of Michigan site:

"There is a wide variety of opinion on degreasing specimens. In the UMMZ, for example, the fish people don’t care to have their specimens degreased. They say that is part of the fishy ambiance that they like in their work. On the other hand the bird division has an almost fetish desire to degrease their specimens."

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