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.


Mandrill Bone Pathologies

Author: A. Taivalkoski

One of the specimens in ZAG’s collection (UBZAG 10) was an older mandrill (Mandrill sphinx) who had to be put down due to old age. This specimen had numerous pathologies present on its skeleton. A number of the joints had severe arthritis resulting in bone loss and eburnation in the long bone epiphyses.  Additionally, large portions of the vertebrae were fused together.

Eburnation on articular surface of ulna, pitting, and osteophytes (bone spurs)
Eburnation on articular surface, pitting, and osteophytes (bone spurs)

Arthritis destroys cartilage in the joints and in the later stages of this disease, the cartilage may be completely worn away. This can cause the bones that make up the joint to rub directly against each other. This causes the articular surfaces to have a polished, shiny look as in the photo of this mandrill’s ulna above.

image 2
Pitting and osteophytes characteristic of arthritis present on calcaneus
Pitting and osteophytes on humeral head

Arthritis causes pitting of the bone surface. In response to this bone deterioration, the bone begins to form new bone that presents as bony spurs often along the margins of the bone joint (osteophytes).

Arthritis does necessarily affect the joints on both sides of the body evenly. This can be seen in the picture of the left and right femurs below. The left femur does not exhibit evidence of the advanced stage of arthritis, unlike the right femur which has severe pitting and osteophyte formation.

Comparison of non-arthritic femur (Left) and arthrits affected femur (Right)
Comparison of non-arthritic femur (Left) and arthrits affected femur (Right)

In addition to severe arthritis, this animal also had fusion of the vertebrae all along its spine.

Bridging and fusion along posterior surfaces of cervical vertebrae

Bony bridges have formed between all of the cervical vertebrae, causing partial to complete fusion. This pathology is present all along the animals spine, from the cervical down to the lumbar vertebrae. This would have caused the animal to have a very limited range of movement along its spine.

Bridging and fusion of lateral surfaces of cervical vertebrae


Collecting new specimens

This is Part I in a series on dermestid processing

Author: A. Taivalkoski

The majority of the specimens in our collection have been collected as road kill. This means that all of our ZAG members keep their cars equipped with everything they’ll need to pick up road kill- garbage bags, latex gloves, hand sanitizer, and our permits from US Fish and Wildlife Service and NY Department Environmental Conservation.

The first specimen for our collection- a Branta canadensis.
The first specimen for our collection- a Branta canadensis.

We do not pick up every animal we see. First we check to make sure that the animal has not begun to decay. This is mainly to ensure that we do not infect our dermestid colony with maggots. We also do not want animals whose bones have been crushed. The most useful reference skeletons to scholars doing zooarchaeological analysis are those that  are either complete or have the majority of their bones intact.

Collecting a new specimen
Collecting a new specimen

When we have collected a new specimen, we immediately take them back to the lab at UB. There they are given a unique id number that is written on a metal tag and is attached to the animal (usually it’s leg), where it will remain throughout the animal’s processing. We also record all known information about the animal. This includes location, species, sex (if known), collector, date, and the condition of the animal on collection.  For location, GPS coordinates are preferred but a general location, such as “Millersport Highway near Duff’s” will be sufficient. For condition of the animal, we make note of any broken bones that are noticeable.

After all information has been recorded and the animal has been given its unique id tag, we place the specimen in our lab freezer until we are able to do further processing to keep it fresh.

Project Chicken Update

Author: C. Funk | May 29, 2015

The Zooarch Group performed Project Chicken Experiment 3 on April 26, 2015 . The chicken bones went immediately into the dermestid tank and they are cleaned and ready for analysis. We are noting butchery cut mark patterns, burning, and chewing of bones, but the study is focused on the packets of bones produced by individuals selecting, eating, and discarding portions of the cooked chickens.

Chicken 6: butchered.
Chicken 6: butchered.
Project Chicken prep
Chicken 5 minimally butchered.
Experiement 3 called for cooking over open coals and flame.
Experiement 3 called for cooking over open coals and flame.
Washing the Project Chicken bones after processing in the dermestid colony.
Washing the Project Chicken bones after processing in the dermestid colony.
Analyzing the Project Chicken bone packages.
Analyzing the Project Chicken bone packages.







Bison Skinning

ZAG works together to skin the bison

Author: A. Taivalkoski

This week, April 27, 2015, our dermestid colony is processing the final portion of our American bison (UBZAG-014). Our bison specimen came to us from the Buffalo Zoo last October, when they were obliged to euthanize an elderly animal. I was the only member of the Zooarch Group able to help out at the zoo and here I describe the experience of preparing an entire bison for our osteological collection.

* Warning: images and descriptions depict blood and animal tissue. *

On the day the zoo called about the bison, I walked into what looked like a crime scene. There was blood all over the floor and bloody footprints trailing down the hallway. The veterinarians were performing their necropsy. They gave me a Tyvek suit, some rubber boots, and one of the bison legs (disarticulated from the body) – and told me to start skinning. This bison weighed about 1,400 pounds and my goal was to remove heavy muscle tissue so we wouldn’t have to transport it to the lab at the university.

C. Funk and A. Taivalkoski deflesh a bison leg in the lab
C. Funk and A. Taivalkoski deflesh a bison leg in the lab

Prior to this, the largest animal I’d skinned was a swan – I quickly discovered that skinning large animals can be far more challenging. I had to crouch on the floor to skin and deflesh the leg, and moving around a bison leg that weighed more than 100 pounds was tiring. It took about 6 hours to deflesh two of the legs. While I worked on them, zoo staff disarticulated the rest of the bison and removed much of the muscle tissue so we could more easily move it to the lab.

At the end of the day I took my two defleshed bison legs to the lab freezer at UB. I carefully wrapped them in layers of plastic bags and fit them into my Prius. A few days later, the Zooarch Group used a rented van to transport the rest of the bison.

C.Funk and A. Taivalkoski defleshing bison skull
C.Funk and A. Taivalkoski defleshing bison skull

In early November, the Zooarch Group had a skinning day, where we all got together to skin and remove remaining muscle tissue from the bison. Over three hours, we skinned two more legs, the axial/body portion, and the skull. C.Funk and I skinned and defleshed the skull, although because it was still slightly frozen we were unable to remove the brain and eyes. As we worked on the right front leg, I realized that it was far easier to do in the lab where I could stand at a dissection station. Some of the Zooarch people preferred to use larger skinning knives to deflesh the bison, I found that it was still more comfortable for me to use the scalpel.

J. Howard and D. Poltorak skinning a bison leg
J. Howard and D. Poltorak skinning a bison leg

The first bison elements went into the newly enlarged dermestid tank in December and while we’ve supplemented their diet with other smaller specimens (a fish, Project Chicken bones, a small snake) they’ve mainly been fed bison for the past four months. Next week we’ll learn if they like goose as we process two of our Canada Goose specimens.


Researching human | animal interactions in prehistory.