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Flesh-eating beetles clean bones in USU veterinary program

Utah State University veterinary anatomy technician Scott Hexum examines a specimen. It might sound like a grim Halloween display, but flesh-eating beetles are being used to clean up bones at Utah State University. (Mike Anderson, KSL-TV)


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Estimated read time: 2-3 minutes

LOGAN — It might sound like a grim Halloween display, but flesh-eating beetles are being used to clean up bones at Utah State University.

It's actually part of the school's veterinary program. Museums all over the country use this method which sounds crazier than it really is.

Scott Hexum has tried boiling water and special solvents to clean up specimens, but the beetles seemed to make the most sense.

What you find out here could end up in Scott Hexum's office. Granted, not all of these bones are road-kill.

"This is one a lot of people will have heard of, it's a deer," Hexum said about one skull.

"This was in a box here and I haven't even figured out what it is yet, but it's very misshapen," he said while holding another skull.

Many of the bones help teach future veterinarians and assistants while others are just for the collection.

"I guess I have a tendency to keep whatever may come my way in case it does prove interesting or useful," he said.

Hexum has a favorite method when it comes to cleaning the bones. "I just have to keep them at a certain temperature and they do most of the work."

A flesh-eating beetle on a bone at Utah State University.
A flesh-eating beetle on a bone at Utah State University. (Photo: Mike Anderson, KSL-TV)

What's known as dermestid beetles eat the flesh from the bones and clean up a small skull, like a crane's, in just a few days.

"We had to make sure that the smell was minimized, Hexum said. "Because there's other offices and research labs nearby."

That's why the beetle-bin has an HVAC system to minimize any odors. Hexum said the beetles aren't able to climb up the plastic surface inside of what he's coined the petting zoo. "It's just my sense of humor," he explained.

The flesh-eating beetles don't get a ton of visitors, but they do serve a purpose.

"Bones tend to be interesting because they're the, really the only thing we can keep for any length of time," he said.

Skulls cleaned by beetles at Utah State University.
Skulls cleaned by beetles at Utah State University. (Photo: Mike Anderson, KSL-TV)

It gives students a chance to study many kinds of animals that they may have to treat in the future as the collection grows.

"It will always evolve. It will always be in progress," Hexum said.

He hasn't counted, but Hexum said he has got close to 100 skulls in there.

In Illinois, where he taught before, he had four colonies of the beetles. Right now, he has roughly 1,000.

Photos

Mike Anderson

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