Editor’s Note: This article discusses the process of preserving animal remains.
Finding Scott Hexum’s office in the Veterinary Science and Biology Building is an adventure. Not only is Room 210 nowhere near Room 209, but visitors need to enter what looks like a storage room before descending down a small number of stairs to get there. And upon arrival, you are greeted not by a usual university office, but bones. Most are skulls, but femurs, teeth, and other parts can also be found, and they come from dogs, cows, sheep, turtles, a great-horned owl, chameleons, a caiman, a capybara and more. There is even a hammerhead shark skull.
This lair of bones is the sort of space that might terrify some children while delighting others. However, Hexum himself is all delight, no terror.
“My life has been kind of a series of mostly happy accidents,” said Hexum as he explained how he became an anatomy technician at Utah State University. “I don’t always plan things far in advance.”
Hexum did not set out to work at a university. However, after working on and off again as a veterinary technician in Eugene, Oregon, he found himself enjoying lab work and training other technicians on the job. That interest led to a job as an anatomy preparator at the University of Illinois, where he created and maintained specimens for use by veterinary students. Eventually, he became an instructor as well.
“As a kid, I didn't intend to be a teacher or anything like that,” Hexum said. “But once I did it, I liked it. And it was really rewarding.”
While some of the bones in Hexum’s office were donated, other specimens were created by Hexum himself in Illinois. At first, he used a large boiler to prepare them, but there were significant downsides to that approach.
“The flesh comes off really well,” Hexum said, “but sometimes, that damages the bone.”
Teeth, nasal bones, and other delicate parts were often destroyed in the process.
Hexum wanted to find a better way to make specimens, and that was when he had an idea: flesh-eating dermestid beetles.
“Ever since I was a kid, I always loved insects,” he said. “I realized I had a cool opportunity to indulge in a bit of entomology and get a beetle colony for cleaning specimens.”
Museums have used flesh-eating dermestid beetles for preserving skeletons since the late 19th century, so Hexum knew his plan would work. After consulting with the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, he bought his first beetles from a company in Montana and created a temperature-controlled habitat complete with Styrofoam for the insects to lay their eggs in.
Unlike the boiler, beetles require no steam or electricity, no corrosive chemicals and little human effort to do their job.
“I usually take off as much flesh as possible, and then the beetles clean it up nicely,” said Hexum. “I can take the bones and build a skeletal limb or entire skeletons. The only limit is size. I couldn’t put whale bones in that container, but the beetles would do the same process no matter what the specimen is.”
After Hexum was hired as an anatomy technician in USU’s School of Veterinary Medicine nearly two years ago, he eventually started up a beetle colony here as well. Before that, the university used maceration — leaving the remains in water — whenever a specimen needed to be prepared.
“The downside of that is it takes up more space and smells really, really, really bad,” Hexum said. “You can imagine.” Because the water needed to be heated, it also came with a tangle of unsafe extension cords right next to the tank.
When it comes to dermestid beetles, however, imagination is likely to exceed reality. They are small, black and largely unremarkable. Technically, the beetles are not even what do most of the work of cleaning the bones, but rather their larvae, and while an active colony can consume a quarter pound of dead or rotting flesh a day, they have no interest in the living.
Like Hexum’s collection of specimens, dermestid beetles provide a learning opportunity once you get past their first impression. When Hexum opened the lid to his colony, the sight inside was almost peaceful. Instead of a mass of seething insects, the beetles were still and mostly solitary. The larvae, ravenous as they were, seemed no more disgusting than garden centipedes as they slowly explored their environment. And at the center of the box was the skull of a sandhill crane, smoothed down over three days to red feathers, black beak, and white skull, waiting to educate and enlighten.
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