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Creepy Crawlies Help Scientists At The Burke Museum Do Research

Gabriel Spitzer
Dermestid Beetles, nibbling away at road kill at the Burke Museum in Seattle. The beetles eat away all of the flesh. The remaining bones are then used for research.


This story originally aired on September 30, 2017.

Museums rely on many volunteers to carry out their mission. This is quite true for the Burke Museum on the campus of the University Of Washington, in Seattle.


In fact, the Burke has dozens of volunteers that live in a small windowless room, not much larger than a walk in closet. These dedicated workers have been here for years. They are dermestid beetles in their larval state: hungry baby beetles.


The beetles dine on dead animals picked up off the side of the road, the carcasses of seals that wash up on shore and the delicate bodies of birds that fall to the ground after trying to fly through invisible panes of glass.


After the beetles have munched away all of the flesh, they only things left are the bones. It’s these leftovers that biologists and researchers want. The bones are filed away into boxes, which are then tucked away in scrupulously organized drawers.


“Every time we put a specimen into a case, it is a snapshot from that time. So that is a member of that species, from that location, from that date. And scientists who want to study what were the mammals like here in 2017, can go back to a museum and pull out drawers full of specimens that were  actually from that time period,” says Jeff Bradley, who manages the Burke’s mammal collection.


The beetles clean these fleshy specimens much better than any human would. But if the beetles were to escape, it could spell disaster for the The Burke’s entire collection.


“They are known as museum pests. They will eat anything that use to be alive,” says Bradley. This includes feathers, wool and hides.


When the Burke moves into its new home, which is being built next door, the dermestid beetles will be housed in a room with walls that are separate from the rest of the building.


Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.

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