Live dermestid cam now available online
"What's that smell?" A question that never has a pleasant answer. Within the most far-flung reaches of the Virginia Museum of Natural History, it's a question that has been asked many times. The answer is not for the faint of heart. A colony of flesh-eating beetles resides at the museum, constantly feasting on the remains of animals - all in the name of science.
The colony is so effective at removing the soft tissue from deceased animals that, within just a few days (or weeks for very large animals), there will be nothing but a skeleton remaining. Now, every minute of the gruesome process can be viewed on the museum's website via a continuously live video feed provided to the museum by Martinsville Electronics, LLC.
Enter Liberty Hightower, museum research technician and overlord of the museum's dermestid colony since 2014. Hightower and her colony of beetles are responsible for providing pristine skeletal remains of animals for the museum's research collections through the grisly process of devouring flesh. Of course, Hightower, herself, does not eat the flesh.
"After I record important data from the animal, such as sex, body length, tail length, and other characteristics, the animal is skinned and gutted," said Hightower. "Tissue samples are sometimes taken of the muscle, heart, kidney, and liver and stored in vials frozen for later DNA analysis. In large specimens that would start to decay and mold before the process is complete, I take off large portions of muscle, leaving only a small amount on the carcass. This meat is saved for times when the colony is hungry and there are no specimens in need of cleaning. When that happens, I make jerky strips out of the meat and give them to beetles until there is a carcass in need of cleaning. The specimen is dried to a jerky-like firmness to inhibit mold growth in the warm, humid beetle tanks. The carcass is kept on screen mesh or in a tray so that not even the smallest bones are lost."
For many people, such job responsibilities aren't high on their wish list, but for Hightower, it's business as usual.
"Truly, this job is amazing," said Hightower. "While it's stinky and really warm in the dermestid room, I'm constantly amazed at how well the beetles do their job. The tiniest crevice or hole in a bone is completely cleaned by them. When the colony is really active, they can be given a mouse whole - without skinning or gutting the specimen - and finish it in a single day. One would imagine it might become a boring or routine part of my job, but it never ceases to astonish me how they can transform a carcass into a pile of white bones!"
Hightower notes that the cleaned skeletal remains are not only used in the museum's mammalogy (study of mammals) and ornithology (study of birds) collections, but they are also often used in the museum's comparative reference collection for archaeology.
"Archaeologists use these skeletons to identify unknown bones found at archaeological sites," said Hightower. "By comparing an unknown to a known, archaeologists can readily identify the animal it came from. This allows for inferences to be made regarding the behavior of people from that time, such as what they were eating and hunting."
So, what happens if Hightower accidentally falls into the colony? Fortunately, the beetles are only interested in dead things, but that's not to say the job doesn't come with occupational hazards.
"The colony does pose a potential health hazard in that the hairs of the larva, as well as the frass (science-speak for "bug poop"), can irritate the respiratory system," said Hightower. "Many people develop an allergy to them after working with them for a few years. This is why, if I am doing more than just throwing them some jerky straps, I wear a respirator or face mask and gloves when I go into the dermestid room. This is especially important when I am pulling skeletons, as that process requires me to disturb the frass layer."
Hightower also notes that she, nor anyone else, hunts prey for her colony. All animals fed to the beetles are salvaged.
"The museum holds a salvage permit from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to salvage any animal remains found dead," said Hightower. "Usually, the animals we acquire have been hit by cars or killed by cats."
The continuous live video feed of the dermestid colony can be found on the museum's website at www.vmnh.net/dermestid-cam.
All equipment and set-up of the live video system was provided by Martinsville Electronics, LLC.