Nearly a year ago, we marveled at the way in which ancient physicians used ant jaws as sutures. Blame our childhood Flintstones habit, but we have a soft spot for techniques that require the assistance of live animals. And so imagine our glee upon discovering the role that dermestid beetles play in the twin disciplines of taxidermy and fossil cleaning.
We should probably take a step back for a moment and recount how we stumbled upon this wondrous scrap of knowledge. It came up during our perusal of an indispensable (and slightly gross) guide to distinguishing between real and fake tiger penises. Due to the heavy illegal trade in tiger genitalia, some unfortunate employees of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must regularly analyze seized products that purport to be feline penises. As it turns out, the vast majority of these products are fakes—the members of horses or deer gussied up to appear as if they were taken from tigers. The guide’s advice to rookies assigned to this discernment task essentially boils down to this:
The penis from a real tiger has a small triangular baculum, but it is seldom visible even in an x-ray, being obscured by folds in dense, dried tissues. The genitalia of other mammals are used in the wildlife trade, and can usually be identified by the size and shape of the internal penis bone or baculum. Sometimes the dried genitals must be macerated or cleaned by dermestid beetles to extract the baculum. X-rays are the best screening tool for initial examination of the dried penis. An expert should be consulted to interpret the radiographs.
How could we resist the image of humble beetles being called in to do a job that mankind’s most advanced chemicals cannot? In fact, the work of the beetles must be vastly superior to whatever super-bleaches can accomplish; otherwise, it’s hard to imagine any taxidermist going through the trouble of maintaining a beetle colony.
Dermestid beetles are also frequently used in forensic entomology, in order to date human remains. And they’ve apparently been at their bone-cleaning work for many millennia, given that their bites have been discovered on dinosaurs. If you have the stomach for it, click here to see the critters at work. Readers of a more sensitive constitution, please go here instead.
(Image via Gander’s Taxidermy)