Devouring Dermestids

In a dark room flesh-eating beetles consume dead animals. That sounds like a scene straight out of a horror movie, but this is a room on campus at the Humboldt State University Vertebrate Museum.

Melissa Hawkins. is the current curator at HSU’s Vertebrate Museum. She has always been interested in animals, and told her parents she wanted to be a veterinarian at the age of six.

“I did my masters in reptiles and have done bird research as well,” Hawkins said. “I just love vertebrates.”

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Melissa Hawkins poses next to a whale bone outside the beetle room at the HSU Vertebrate museum. Photo by Walter Hackett

Hawkins got her bachelor’s and master’s degree at Western Illinois University and her PhD. at George Mason. She applied for the museum curator position at HSU toward the end of 2016, and said she was excited to come to Humboldt.

“The first thing I said to myself was, ‘Wait a second, is that a redwood tree?’” Hawkins said.

Aside from her curator duties, Hawkins teaches mammalogy and evolution. Much of her research focuses on next-generation sequencing methods. She loves the discovery aspect of her research.

“For a moment in time you’re the only person that knows a fact in the the scientific world,” Hawkins said.

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Stuffed and preserved chipmunks catalogued in a collection room at the HSU Vertebrate Museum. Photo by Walter Hackett

We left her office and move down the hall to one of the collection rooms. Hawkins pulled out a drawer containing rows of small chipmunks, each one splayed out neatly and accompanied by a catalog tag.

“Feel how soft they are,” Hawkins said.

At this point the small rodents in the drawer have all been stuffed with cotton and preserved, a lengthy process that is carried out at the museum itself. Some of the specimens in the drawer date back to the early 80s.

“I call it creepy arts and crafts,” Hawkins said.

From there went to see the flesh-eating beetles. The beetles remove all the flesh from the bones for any specimens the museum wants to preserve. They do the work that human hands cannot.

Dr. Nicholas Kerhoulas is the HSU Vertebrate Museum collections manager and is responsible for looking after the Dermestid beetle colony.

“Don’t stay in there too long,” Kerhoulas said. “It’ll stay on your clothes.”

We went outside and entered a small dark room. The powerful smell hits your nostrils instantly.

“Here’s the local talent,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins walked over to a box against the wall and opened the lid. A soiled rag resembling a burlap sack is inside. She removed a cover to reveal a snake carcass covered with beetles.

“They like to feel snuggly and warm,” Hawkins said.

Kerhoulas said the snake has taken the beetles some time to get through.

“I think a combination of cooler weather and perhaps that snake not being their favorite is making it take a while longer than I would have expected,” Kerhoulas said.

We headed upstairs to the museum prep room, where the team worked to prep a dolphin specimen for the beetles. Removing as much flesh as they can before giving the bones to the beetles will speed up the process. The team has to be careful though, because if they leave the bones with the beetles too long they’ll start to eat into the bones.

“Once the colony gets going they are hungry little buggers,” Hawkins said.

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Dr. Nicholas Kerhoulas removes flesh from a striped dolphin carcass in the HSU Vertebrate Museum in preparation for the beetle colony. Photo by Walter Hackett

The prep room smelled like fish. This particular specimen is a striped dolphin that washed up in Crescent City and died shortly after washing ashore. Hawkins explained that these dolphins are typically found in the deep sea and the team is curious to find a cause for the beaching.

Kerhoulas and with Stella Yuan, a graduate student that works with Hawkins in the museum, are equipped with gloves and knives and removed as much flesh and blubber from the bones as they can.

“I hope you don’t have a weak stomach,” Hawkins said.

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