Tag Archives: developing an osteological reference collection

The Buffalo (Dermestid) Resurgence

Due to a large variety of personal and professional changes for both C. Funk and myself (A. Taivalkoski), we had planned to shut down the dermestid laboratory at the end of the 2015-2016 school year. We had been operating at a low capacity for the Spring semester, just trying to work through the backlog in our freezer. The week the shutdown was supposed to occur we got a call from the Buffalo Zoo. UBZAG was offered an axis deer whose jaw had been broken as a juvenile and had healed to live to a ripe old adult age. Naturally, given my interest in pathologies, I couldn’t turn this deer down.

At the zoo we were also offered a rabbit.  And on the way back to the lab we came upon a recently hit rabbit on the road. Naturally, we picked that up too. At this point we had three new specimens for the dermestids and were still unsure of the direction we would take with the lab. Since it was now the summer we decided to process the new specimens and then make the decision about whether to shut down the lab.

The majority of the new specimens since May
The majority of the new specimens collected since May

It was around this time that C.Funk found out that a grant that she was listed as the bird analyst on was accepted. This again led to much debate about not only accepting the grant but also about keeping the dermestid lab running. Eventually it was decided that C.Funk would accept the grant (with me as her research assistant) and we would continue to run the lab at low capacity until the 2017-2018 school year when our part on the grant would begin.

A view of the specimens currently in the tank
A view of the specimens currently in the tank

After the Buffalo Zoo heard about our interest in birds and the upcoming large-scale bird analyses we would be doing, they began to set aside birds that were found on the zoo premises (window strikes, etc.). As a result, our collection ballooned in the past few months. At the writing of this article we have 78 specimens, an increase of 27 since we had been planning on shutting the lab down.



Goldi-beetles and the Three Tanks

Our colony started in a small, 20-gallon fish tank we bought at a $1 per gallon sale at the petshop. We removed the silicon caulk from the corners so the little beetles would not creep their way to freedom. It worked great for months. Our dermestid population slowly grew and we learned to manage specimens.

But then a deceased American Bison came our way and the tank was Too Small.

We upgraded the colony home to a 48”x24”x24” feed trough. Stainless-steel and massive, this tank required only that we seal the welded seam with epoxy – again so the little beetles didn’t climb the weld caulking and escape into the greater world. The beetles liked the bison and their feed trough home a lot and the colony grew. Exploded even. Temperatures rose in the greasy warm frass layer and one day 10 or so of the dermestids felt the urge to flutter. And in glorious freedom they flew to the screening at the top of the feed tank. Which proved to be a poor decision as flying dermestids could become Free Dermestids (not good) and all but a lucky, wingless, few went into the deep freeze. Population bottleneck.

Evidently, the feed trough tank was Too Big.

A few weeks ago Ariel T. found a medium sized, 40-gallon aquarium on the side of the road, only slightly broken. A little epoxy on the cracked glass, a little caulk trimming in the corners, and the dermestid colony has a new home. Big enough for deer parts, small enough to control frass heat, and medium enough to move without carts, banged shins, and angry words.

The dermestids are happy in their new home. It is Just Right.

(Until the campus exterminators discover them, at which point we’ll be running with the tank into the hallways to find a new lab…)

Roadkill Collection Trip

Written by A.T.

Recently, we began to run low on specimens for our dermestids to process. In order to remedy this situation, ZAG decided to go on a roadkill collection trip. We knew that large numbers of roadkill were present on the roads just outside of Buffalo, so C.F., J.H., and I (A.T.) drove out towards Letchworth State Park via back country lanes. We spent about three hours on the road looking for roadkill.

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Our third collected specimen: a raccoon

Whenever we saw an animal that looked to be whole, and relatively fresh we pulled over and collected them. We placed collected specimens in a large crate attached to the outside of the car so that we did not have to deal with unpleasant odors for our trip. As usual, we collected our specimens using latex gloves and garbage bags. We also brought along reflective vests for our own safety. We brought along our catalog so that we could easily number specimens in the field. In total, we collected four specimens: a possum, two raccoons, and a pigeon.

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The collection of a racoon

We could have collected far more specimens if we had been less choosy about the state of decay or intactness of the animal. However, for our own comfort during processing we wanted animals who were not decaying. Since our collection primarily serves zooarchaeologists, skeletons which are intact and have a low number of broken bones are preferred to ensure the easiest possible identification of archaeological bones.

Our unsung hero: the Blowfly

Author: Eric Wülfgang Schultz | August 6, 2015

Dermestid beetles do a wonderful job of skeletal preparation, but their sensitive nature limits their abilities. In the wild, Dermestid beetles are among the last of the insects to visit a body, arriving long after the blowflies have left. Road killed specimens found on a hot July day are unlike to be the pure, maggot free, fare that our dermestids require. The science must move forward however, and specimens must be collected. In this effort, we must rely on our unsung hero the blowfly.

EWS1Our most recent North American Raccoon (Procyon lotor) was found on the afternoon of July 4th 2015. He was a male weighing approximately 20 Lbs. His skeletal condition was good but he was in an advanced decomposition stage and was unable to be processed through our dermestid lab.

EWS2Fortunately, Blowflies are eager to go to work typically visiting the body within hours of death. Our Raccoon was visited by a species of blowfly known as Cynomyopsis cadaverine, the Shiny Bluebottle Fly. We took our raccoon’s measurements on the roadside and performed a minimum of specimen preparation work, removing his fur and internal organs. We placed him in our newly developed fly box.

EWS3After only one week, the flies reduced our specimen to a black liquid and bone. Research is ongoing as to why the fly box encourages the flies to completely breakdown the soft tissues. The current theory is that it retains enough moisture or fats to keep the maggots feeding.


After a quick rinse in a strainer, our racoon, who otherwise would have been left on the roadside, was ready to add to our comparative collection.