An Easy Way to Make Skeletons (or, Impress Your Friends!)

This method commonly used by ichthyologists, forensic scientists and taxidermists uses a scavenger, the dermestid beetle, to remove flesh that would be impossible for the preparator to excise by hand.  There are other methods that would accomplish this goal, such as boiling the carcass or permitting it to rot for a while in water, but  those processes result in disarticulation of the skeleton.   Plus the rotting, or maceration, method is quite putrid.

Dermestid beetles (Family Dermestidae) make great pets! 


Okay, not really, but they are easy to take care of.  The beetle colony needs minimal attention if they are in the proper surroundings.  At most you’ll need to check on them a couple times per week to ensure they have enough food, spritz a little water in the container, and make certain they are not attacked by spiders.  Spiders can devastate a dermestid colony, if you find a spider web in the room kill the spider and its eggs immediately.

A proper habitat for dermestid beetles is dry, shut off from the outside, and has some air flow.  Thus the room we use is ideal with an entrance door that only opens to the outside, thus ensuring that if the beetles did somehow escape their container they cannot enter the rest of the building.  Heat and air flow are provided from a heat lamp and a space heater, they do best in temperatures within a 65-85F range so keep a thermometer nearby.  Escape prevention is easy, simply house them in an aquarium or other container with smooth sides as they are not proficient climbers.  Do make certain the joints of the container are likewise smooth and nothing reaches to the top from inside.


Also make a cover with a screen top that fits tightly to the container, because the adults will fly if it gets warms enough.

When skeletal materials are not at hand the beetles thrive on any sort of meat (chicken livers are cheap and readily available,



but this red hawk made for great fodder.)  A bedding of old newspaper provides a place for hiding and an alternate food source (dermestids also do a number on any cellulose material so don’t set them loose in your home).

Excess flesh is removed from the specimen using a sharp knife.  Care must be exercised to avoid cutting through bones.  The skin and scales, and the gill basket are removed and set aside to dry, thus avoiding destruction by the dermestid beetles.  Once you’ve removed as much flesh as you are able to place the carcass under a heat lamp to dry.  When the carcass has taken on the consistency of jerky, it is ready to feed to the beetles.  Do check on the skeleton at least once per week to note when they have removed almost all of the flesh or they will eat connective cartilage and tendons between the bones.  Manually pick the bugs from the skeleton over their container allowing them to drop back in.  You won’t be able to remove all the dermestids so put the skeleton in a deep freezer to kill the individuals that hide in the crevices.  One more reason the beetles don’t make good pets.  After a couple days your skeleton is ready for exhibit although you may want to clean it up a bit more.



Skin, gill basket (upper right) and skeleton from a recent acquisition.