Lesson #3 from an arthropod – cleanliness

PROLOGUE:  For previous arthropodic lessons and why in hell I know scads of outwardly-useless-yet-inwardly-enthralling shit about insects, read Lesson #1 and Lesson #2.

TRUTH:  Believe it or not, beetles are the most Darwinistically correct animal on the planet.

Not humans.

Not Asians.

Not Republicans.


How could I come to such a ridiculous conclusion, you naïvely inquire? Because one of every five living species is a beetle (plants included), and one fourth of all animals are beetles. They have survived and adapted to human infestation better than humans have. They are the dominant form of life on Earth. This is indisputable. So question me not.

That being said, for today’s exhilarating lesson on tidiness, we’re only concerned with one animal of the order Coleoptera:  the hide beetle (yes, insects are indeed animals—deal with it and move on).

(Dermestes maculatus, our beloved flesh-eater)

In the layman’s world, hide beetles are seen as pests and nothing more. As mature larvae, they bore into and weaken soft wooden building material, such as posts, studs and rafters. Not to piss off humans, mind you, but rather because the hide beetle’s express purpose in life is to break down dead matter (well that, and to procreate more hide beetles, which they’re also very good at). We just happen to be in the way.

See, insects are the primary degrading agents on Earth. Without them, our world would be a putrid clutter (just ask Australian cattle farmers, who before 1969 were up to their knees in nonnative cow shit until they began importing dung beetles to break it down). Hide beetles in particular are essential to the degradation of roadkill and other animals after the larger scavengers, like vultures, are finished with them. SIDE NOTE:  The video below looks kinda like my Dad eating corn, except he doesn’t need a time-lapse camera. Plus, hide beetles are more thorough than my Dad, who always somehow ends up with stray pieces of half-eaten corn on his forehead and scalp.

You may not appreciate this skill, but others sure do. If you’re, say, a museum scientist, a taxidermist or you work in a forensic lab, hide beetles are cherished creatures.

Their proclivity for dead animal matter is a wondrous benefit to natural history museums, which exhibit animal skeletons. Why? Because better than any technological invention or chemical cleaning method, the hide beetle strips dead tissue off the skeletons until the bones are sparkling clean, while preserving the integrity of the bone and collagen so they can be studied.

(my, what a tidy-looking horse skeleton. Thanks, Dermestids)

Plus, hide beetles are the only beetle with the enzymes necessary for breaking down keratin, a protein component of hair (so if you’re balding and worried about it, it’s probably best not to stick your head into a pile of hungry hide beetles). Across the world, natural history museums rear hide beetles for these express purposes, keeping them in climate-controlled rooms called dermestariums.

However, because the beetles will eat virtually anything in their path (much like some people I know), they have to be kept under tight security, well away from the museum’s collections of stuffed animals and skins.

Of course, there are others who exploit the hide beetles’ clean plate syndrome for their profit as well. Take Skulls Unlimited International, one of the world’s leading suppliers of osteological specimens including skulls and skeletons. A whole division of their business is devoted to bone cleaning with hide beetles. Like this very creepy photo:

(the better to eat you with, my dear)

So next time you find yourself gently caressing a slick, well-groomed skeleton, be sure to thank your flesh-eating beetle brethren for doing what they were put on this earth to do. They’re pretty darn useful, which is more than most of us can say.


~ by zactopia on September 27, 2010.

One Response to “Lesson #3 from an arthropod – cleanliness”

  1. […] been nearly 2-1/2 years since last I improved your grey matter with a staggering insect factoid. So let’s make up for lost time and cut to the chase, […]

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