Our Darling Dermestids - A Visit to the ROM's Bug Room

Posted: July 29, 2015 - 22:22 , by ROM
A photo of the sign posted outside the door of the ROM's dermestid beetle colony quotes Dante's Inferno, "Abandon all hope ye who enter here"

Guest blog written by 2015 Environmental Visual Communication student Robert Elliot

How does the Royal Ontario Museum get their Skeletons so clean without compromising their integrity? A well-kept colony of hide beetles cleans every crevice of the various cadavers in the ROM’s bug room with incredible efficiency. A steel walled, dark humid room filled with corpses; a veritable beetle heaven is home to these hard working bugs. I had the pleasure of entering their domain to get a unique perspective on the ROM.

A monitor lizard skeleton that’s been cleaned head to toe by the ROM's dermestid beetle colony. Photo by Robert Elliot

A painted sign on the door reads “Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here” a reference to the last gate of Hell in “Dante’s Inferno.” Quite the opposite for these hard working beetles. Nothing goes to waste, every inch of the bones is cleaned and once they are through they collectively move on to the next specimen and get to work. Although not the pickiest eaters they do have preferences, as Brad Millen of ROM Natural History explained; birds are their favourite fare, and the quickest to be cleaned. Amphibians don’t get the same attention, but the bugs get around to them once they’ve finished their favourites.

An animal's front limbs being slowly cleaned by the dermestid beetles. Photo by Robert Elliot

Locked doors and steel walls are important to keep the colony contained, the havoc they could wreak on a museum of scientific specimens, munching through hides, furs, feathers and scales. They are masters of finding new food sources; it’s a feat in itself keeping these bugs in line. The labour they save the ROM is well worth it though, cleaning to such high standards in just days. The colony is a reminder that behind the scenes, the museum is very much alive.

A Trumpeter swan skeleton cleaned in the bug room, its ID band still attached to an ankle. Photo by Robert Elliot

A company of soldier fish specimens in the process of being cleaned from the inside out. Photo by Robert Elliot

These insects are a testament to the power of nature - the ultimate recycling team that humans cannot emulate. Next time you visit the museum remind yourself of the work put in by our six legged friends to provide beautiful displays and study skeletons. It’s really quite incredible what goes on behind this last gate of hell. For the latest information and photos from the ROM’s bug room, follow Brad Millen on Twitter @B_Millen, and also by watching for the hashtag #ROMBugs

A tiny bird skeleton demonstrates the delicate areas the beetles can clean that would be challenging to achieve by hand. Photo by Robert Elliot