Beetle mania: exploring the dark recesses of the ROM's live bug room.
For years it was the subject of rumour and conjecture--even becoming the topic of Toronto Life magazine's "Urban Decoder" column: Does the ROM really have a live bug room? The answer, as I've seen for myself, is yes. Strange as it may sound, hundreds of flesh-eating dermestid beetles toil 24/7 at the ROM, expertly dispatching carcasses of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and fish, picking the skeletons clean as a licked dinner plate. It's a vital task in preparing specimens for research or display and one that the beetles perform to perfection.
Other means do exist for de-fleshing skeletons--boiling, macerating (letting the carcass rot in water), chemicals, maggots. But they're not as efficient, more damaging to the bone, and even less appealing than a roomful of beetles, which usually leave no mark on even quite delicate bones. It's a feature that's important to ROM biologists since the Museum's skeleton collection is like a huge reference library, an invaluable tool for systematics--the science of identifying and classifying species and determining how they are related.
The beetles' office space? A dark room in the ROM's basement, metal-lined to keep the critters inside and munching what's on their pre-planned menu. After all, skin beetles, as these members of the order Coleoptera are sometimes known, will devour just about anything--wood, drywall, carpet, paper, some plastics. Organic material is their specialty. If they escaped, they could cause serious damage to the Museum's natural history collections and artifacts with organic components.
Admittedly, harbouring scavengers for de-fleshing skeletons is kind of gross. But since contestants on certain reality TV shows began gagging down live maggots, cow bile, and bird embryos and lying in pitfuls of roaches or worms, grossology seems to have gone mainstream. No wonder then that the ROM has stepped up to share its previously dark secret. Last spring, the Museum installed a webcam in its bug room. Visitors to the ROM's website can now watch the beetle action live in real time--a microcosm of nature's cycle of birth and death. Because the room must remain dark to mimic the bugs' natural habitat, the webcam is on infrared, producing black-and-white images. In the first four months, the site received more than 15,000 hits. Suspicions are that it's not just the 9- and 10-year-olds who are watching.
Many museums with sizeable natural history collections--as well as wildlife-services labs, taxidermists, and some zoos and schools--have bug rooms. In researching this story I even came across numerous do-it-yourself internet sites on how to set up your own bug room and discovered that you can order a bug room starter kit on ebay! ROM ornithology technician Brad Millen tells me that the ROM's has been going since the 1930s, and started with about 200 beetles. When the colony is on a high--that is, when a large number of beetles are ready to feast--as it is at the moment, they consume specimens quickly. A golden eagle, gone in a week and a half. A small snake, just a single day.
When I ask Millen how many bugs would be there now, he's circumspect: "I wouldn't want to even hazard a guess. I put a trumpeter swan in there on a Thursday morning and on Monday when the bugs scattered, it was like someone pulling off a blanket there were so many live bugs on it." When he was first hired in 1973, Millen recalls his initiation into the new job, part of which was working with the bug room: he was locked in for a couple of hours with the lights out. It didn't seem to faze him. "When I combed my hair there were a couple of adults still in there," he calmly recalls. But there's no danger to a live specimen like Millen. The beetles are interested only in carrion.
Usually, the locked room is open only to curators, but for this story, ROM executive editor Victoria Littler and I are going in. Kevin Seymour, ROM assistant curator of paleontology, preps us for the tour. "Some bugs might fly onto you," he warns. Not a pleasant thought. "We'll step up and then once inside it's a step down"--protection against beetle escapees. A fibreglass-coated anteroom with door sweeps on each door, bug zappers, and negative pressure creating a vacuum on the main metal entrance provide further backup. We open and close a series of doors as if we're headed to Control Headquarters with Agent 86. All we need is a shoe phone and campy theme music. Would you believe that builders of the 1980-vintage room had to return four times to resolder because the beetles could eat their way through tiny holes in the metal where it was screwed to the drywall? You should--it's true.
Although I've long been curious about the bug room, I can't shake a slight feeling of dread as we approach. A hand-lettered sign posted by some wiseacre doesn't help: "Abandon hope all ye who enter here." But inside, when Seymour flicks on the lights, I'm relieved that the seething horror-film mass of bugs of my imagination doesn't materialize. Yes, there are lots of the long, dark-coloured beetles about the size of the pill bugs you see in your garden, but they scuttle here and there on the floor among the cardboard boxes of carcasses searching out their next meal--today an assortment of turtles and snakes. Most of them are probably hiding from us--and from the light. So the visual is okay. It's the stink of the place that has us instantly breathing through our mouths, and making it abundantly apparent why Millen has no trouble getting a seat on the bus on days he's worked in here.
It's the colony's dung that's so pungent. Millen describes it as the smell of a butcher shop, a kind of musty odour. "But it's like anything else," he says. "You get used to it." That's hard to imagine.
Seymour spritzes some of the dry carcasses with water. "See how the bugs'll come up for a drink," he points out. The beetles thrive in a warm, moist, and dark environment. For the colony to continue, it has to be fed regularly. These are beetles that have eaten through specimens ranging in size from a hummingbird to a horse. Mind you, the curators de-skin and eviscerate any carcass and remove most of the muscle mass before the beetles get at the specimen.
Today no bugs are flying. The temperature is pleasantly tropical in the climate-controlled room, though I later learn that this is cooler than usual. It may not have been up to the 30[degrees]C the beetles need for takeoff. It's the adults who sometimes fly when searching for food. Once they've found it, they mate and lay up to 90 eggs in crevices near or in a carcass. The larvae, once they hatch, do most of the work. They continue to munch as they go through up to five moults, or instars, before pupating and completing metamorphosis as adults. In the outside world, these beetles, the last wave of scavengers to arrive on a human corpse, are one of the species that CSI workers use to estimate how long a body has been dead.
Keeping an eye on the bugs' progress is also important for curators. How fast the bugs skeletonize a carcass depends on how high the colony is. The one drawback with the beetles is that they'll chew through immature bones, which are not yet calcified. One curator, studying a species of bird of the "confusing Empidonax Flycatcher complex" had collected two species told apart only by their calls and was looking forward to finally doing morphological measurements on them, or identifying them by their skulls. "We put them in the bug room on a Friday afternoon," says Millen. "They normally take about a week. But the colony was so high that when we came in Monday morning there wasn't a scrap of skull bone left. It was a bit sad."
Curators also have to ensure that the moisture balance in the room is right. The meat can't be too wet or it'll rot or go mouldy. Too dry and the bugs won't eat it. Seymour points out a snake gall bladder, a rare uneaten organ left in one of the boxes. "They don't usually seem to mind poisonous snakes," he says. But there are a few other things they don't like. Amphibian skin and skunk scent glands are also no-goes. Millen says birds are their favourite food.
The individual ribs and vertebrae of a skeleton are sometimes left attached together by the bugs. But left long enough, they'll eat through the tiny bit of cartilage that holds the bones together. "We use some skeletons with the bones still articulated, or attached together, usually for display or education," says Seymour. "But even for research specimens I like it if they leave them articulated. That way I can use fishing line to string the vertebrae in the correct order, before I soak the bones apart." In the case of snakes, this produces a kind of snake necklace, perfect for studying all aspects of the bone. For Millen, there's a bit more digging. Bird toes can be pretty tiny and hard to find among the dead bugs and cast-off larvae casings. "You have to know your comparative anatomy," he says.
So where do the corpses come from? Some are brought in by ROM scientists doing fieldwork. But others come from wherever curators can get them--Ontario's Department of Natural Resources, zoos, road kill, medical facilities, even the pet trade.
Some of Millen's grossest stories are of the carcasses that didn't make it to the bug room at all. One ornithologist had collected a series of mynah birds in India that were meant to be shipped back by plane, but were accidently sent by slow boat instead. Originally wrapped in white linen, when the package arrived, the cloth was brown and dripping. The flesh of these birds slipped right off the bone. For Millen, who picked them up at the post office, it wasn't pretty. "I had to get my hair cut, practically shave off my beard, and my clothes still stank after being washed three or four times," he says. "It was horrible." Even after being bleached, the specimens still retain some of their aroma today.
In spite of such unpleasantness, for curators, the bug room is a bonanza. Seymour began a comparative anatomy collection in the 1980s--which together with the ROM's fossil collection now numbers more than 70,000 specimens and counting and the ROM's ornithology, mammalogy, and ichthyology collections hold another 60,000 or more skeletons processed in the bug room. When the beetles are done with them, the bones are soaked in water and any non-bone material is scraped off with a scalpel. The bones are then dipped in bleach and each is meticulously numbered. It must require enormous organization. "Yeah," admits Seymour." But that's what we do. Bones R Us," he jokes. Each specimen is stored in its own vial, box, or drawer.
Without the skeleton collection, the ROM's systematics studies would fall short. Examining the characteristics of bones is the bedrock of systematics, although DNA work is equally important. "All organisms vary," says Seymour. "What's the same, what's different. That's the basis of all classification." Scientists from across Canada, the US, and even farther afield come to study the ROM's skeleton collections. They may be trying to identify single bones or researching a series of skeletons to discern how a lineage of species is related.
Some departments are using the bug room less frequently as they begin to rely more heavily on tissue samples. All they need is a chunk of muscle, liver, and heart--the best sources for extracting DNA. But in vertebrate paleontology, bones remain the keys to knowledge. ROM dinosaur curator David Evans has his students working on different groups of living reptiles and comparing them to fossils, so those species are being sourced and skeletonized in the bug room. "Virtually every visiting dinosaur researcher also dips into our recent reptile collection while they're here," says Seymour.
While knowledge about how species are related can have a variety of applications, none of them is likely to be a life-saving medical breakthrough. Instead, biologists interested in nature and evolution use the research to test various theories: of species originations, of continental drift, of rates of evolution. But fundamentally, systematics is a pure science that seeks knowledge for knowledge's sake. As Lawrence M. Small put it so beautifully during his tenure as 11th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, its purpose is gathering "data that can be stored like seeds against some future day when they will yield a harvest of understanding."
To that end, in their dark basement office, the ROM's bugs continue to dine at their vertebrate banquet. Their task may be lowly, but it's in the service of ROM scientists on a grand quest--recreating the ultimate tree of life.
(?) Anatomy of the Bug Room
The buffalo beetle, the hairy larva of the carpet beetle, is the main bug in the ROM's bug room. Originally this species was discovered by buffalo hunters. "They would take the hide off the buffalo first and when they returned to take the tongue and hump, supposedly the tastiest parts, they noticed these bugs," says ROM ornithology technician Brad Millen. "That's how they got their name." There are also drugstore beetles, so named because they were pests of apothecary powders in centuries past. They remain common kitchen pests around the world today.
The colony has been living in the ROM's bug room for more than 70 years, and is something like a small ecosystem of its own. "We started out with just the one type of beetle and the other ones got carried in there on specimens," says ROM assistant curator of paleontology kevin Seymour. "There have been species introduced and have died off over the years." He's seen mealworms at times. and there is now a predator--the red-legged ham beetle--that preys on the other two dermestids. The largest of the three still in the colony, these shiny green or blue beetles prey on the other two beetles' larvae and in desperate times would even eat one another.
But most fascinating is how evolution could be taking place under our noses. "There is some talk," says Millen, "that the beetles may have slowly changed, gotten larger than wild ones because they've been isolated for so long."
Bug Room Meal Time
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|Date:||Dec 22, 2009|
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