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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 August, 2004, 12:56 GMT 13:56 UK
Museum welcomes flesh-eating bugs
Carrion beetle (NHM)
The beetles will be kept under tight security
London's Natural History Museum has taken custody of 100 flesh-eating beetles which will be used to strip animal carcasses down to bare bones.

Scientists come from around the world to study the museum's collections of animal skeletons.

The beetles are to work on specimens sitting in museum freezers that are earmarked for de-fleshing.

The 10mm-long carrion beetles are better at preserving bone and collagen than chemical cleaning methods.

They can be kept at 25C, but with high humidity to stop them from eating their own eggs.

Although the museum has been supplied with an initial colony of 100 beetles and beetle larvae, this number is expected to grow to 1,000.

"They aren't the most conventional colleagues but they do work very hard," said Patrick Campbell, curator at the museum.

When the group is established they will get through about two to four kg of flesh a week
Patrick Campbell, Natural History Museum
"The larvae will eat the most and when the group is established they will get through about two to four kg of flesh a week."

Colonies live and work in a climate-controlled "bug room" called a dermestarium.

The beetles, which belong to the species Dermestes maculatus, have been used for decades by museums to strip away the flesh from carcasses so the skeletons can be studied.

Out to lunch

Using beetles to clean carcasses of their flesh and hide allows every aspect of the bone to be preserved.

In the past, chemical agents such as hydrogen peroxide and carbon tetrachloride were used for the same purpose.

But these strong chemicals penetrate bones, making them fragile and destroy the molecular information they hold.

Carrion beetle (NHM)
The bugs are commonly found in roadkill
They also strip bare, hard-to-reach parts of the skeleton that were previously impossible for preparators to clean.

By letting the beetles do the work, the bones and collagen are not changed in any way, allowing scientists to gather information about an animal's age, distribution and feeding patterns.

Researching the skeletal structure of animals can also help identify new species.

However, because the insects will eat virtually anything in their path, they will have to be kept under tight security, well away from the museum's collections of stuffed animals and skins.

Skeletons removed from the dermestarium will be frozen and cleaned before moving to other parts of the museum, to ensure the beetles are not accidentally transferred to the collections.

However, the bugs generally leave dried blood, feathers and fur well alone.

The beetles will initially be set to work on an orange roughy fish (Hoplostethus atlanticus), a long-tailed fruit bat (Notopteris macdonaldi) from the South Pacific islands of Vanuatu and a rare Norwegian puffin hound (Canis familiaris).

The beetles were supplied to the museum by the Central Science Laboratory.

The BBC's Louise Williams
speaks to the NHM's Patrick Campbell about the new beetles

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