Monday, August 15, 2011


From the desk of Kelly Sendall, 
Manager of Natural History
Royal BC Museum

The practice of preparing specimens for a museum's reference collection is by and large standard the world over. Chances are that a flying squirrel specimen collected for the museum in Paraguay would be prepared in the same way a flying squirrel specimen is prepared here at the Royal BC Museum. Most natural history museums, at least those large enough to have a preparator, will have a living colony of scavengers. I'm talking about beetle colonies maintained to help clean and prepare skeletons of birds and mammals. These are dermestid beetles, sometimes referred to as carpet or larder beetles, and are commonly found in the wild in most parts of the world. Those used most often by museums belong to the species Dermestes maculatus (right)

One of two cabinets at the museum
containing one colony each.
The beetle colonies are kept in a secure and beetle-tight room so that there is little chance any escapees can make their way back into the museum collection. This is important as the "untrained" beetles will indiscriminately munch away on a variety of natural materials not intended for them, therefore,  the door to the room containing the colonies and the cabinets themselves are sealed from the exterior with plastic pipe or ribbon gaskets.
A colony busy munching on a raptor skeleton
for the reference collection.
Ribs and breastbone are visible in the upper right
of the picture.
The beetles are very thorough at cleaning all muscle and connective tissue from carcasses and, for that reason, very important in helping out with museum specimen preparation. Although colonies can be started from wild caught beetles they may be carrying uninvited guests such as mites which compromise their ability to survive. Colonies may also be purchased.  The museum is fortunate to be able to share efforts with the University of Victoria in keeping colonies viable between the two institutions.
Here are 18 bats just dropped off for a
beetle cleaning. After a couple of weeks
these will be 18 beautifully cleaned skeletons.

Some prepared skeletons of
northern flying squirrels (Glaucomys sabrinus)
ready for the collection.

The fine details of the bones are now visible
with virtually no damage to even
the tiniest of bones.

Being able to examine the fine details and accurately measure features or lengths of bones is often very important in identifying smaller species of mammals. The single bone in the small vial (pictured below) is only about 5mm long.

baculum from specimen of Glaucomys sabrinus

Once all the beetle work is done the skeleton
is reunited with the rest of the specimen
in the reference collection

If you would like to read more about these beetles as preparators in natural history museums please see:

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