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Flesh-Eating Beetles Explained

Flesh-eating beetles, called dermestids, are nature’s forensic scientists.

The word “dermestid” derives from the Greek word meaning “skin,” and the insect is aptly named. These creepy crawlies will eat the flesh off carcasses in a process called skeletonization. (Also see “Flesh-Eating Caterpillars Discovered in Hawaii.”)

Dermestid beetles at work. Photograph courtesy Ken Hansen

Wildlife law enforcement agents use the beetles to expose skeletons when harsh chemicals might damage evidence, such as marks on bones. Museum curators and taxidermists also use the bugs to clean skeletons for research and displays. Hundreds of dermestid beetles are often used to pick a cadaver clean.

It’s a low-tech solution to an ordinarily high-tech problem, said Ken Hansen, a retired federal game warden with the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, who has been selling dermestid beetles for six years.

“I can recall one instance where they actually had a skull, and they were trying to clean the skull for a potential murder investigation, and the beetles were used to clean the skull,” he added. “There certainly is a use for these forensically.” (See “Museum Secrets Unmasked by ‘Museomics’ Technologies.”)

Dermestid beetles pick a skull clean. Photograph courtesy Ken Hansen

For those who can stomach the stench, it’s an incredibly engaging process—emphasis on the “gag.” Check out this viral video of parrot versus flesh-eating beetle—we’ll let you guess who wins. 

Beetles Be Eatin’

In the wild, the 12-millimeter-long scavengers decompose animals long since expired. But if you live in North America, they can also lurk in your walls or under floorboards.

Once indoors, the grubbers expand their palates. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory, dermestids will eat their way through materials like old books, carpets, or woolens.

This appetite for anything organic sometimes makes them a nuisance for museum personnel and taxidermists. Though it’s rare, adult dermestids have been known to fly, and escapees that find their way into exhibits can do considerable damage.

Flesh-eating beetles on the loose sounds like an Alfred Hitchcock movie, but people need to worry more about their linens than their limbs. 

There’s an urban legend about the beetles getting out in large numbers and destroying things, Hansen said, but they don’t eat living flesh.

Or, at least, not that we know.

Get more bug news:

Vomiting Caterpillars Explained

Bugs’ Battle of the Sexes

Dung Beetles’ Favorite Poop Revealed

 

Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato is a freelance science journalist who loves em dashes, ’80s music, and water policy. She has a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism with concentrations in science journalism, photography, and radio reporting. Contact her at news@mbloudoff.com, and follow her on Twitter at @mbloudoff.

Comments

  1. John Smith
    Malta
    July 2, 4:09 pm

    very interesting article, but there is no mention as to how long it takes to strip a carcass down to its bones. For instance, how long would it take the beetles to strip a dead cat or dog completely? And as for the smell, cannot one just let the beetles work in an enclosed space or would they quickly suffocate? And are they faster at their work than say woodlice or ants or maggots? Does anyone have such information please? Thanks. John

  2. JoyceFrank
    Toronto
    January 24, 2013, 5:48 am

    These bugs do get under living skin and eat live flesh.Frank.

  3. CIJ
    January 23, 2013, 7:14 am

    publicity for carrion-eating beetles, yay! shoutout to the silphids and histerids

  4. Courtney
    Edmonton, Alberta
    January 22, 2013, 3:25 pm

    I conducted an experiment with these beetles looking at their consumption rate of the flesh of a cougar skull under light and dark conditions. It was pretty cool!! But the smell really is unbearable.

  5. kithinji
    Nairobi,Kenya
    January 22, 2013, 2:24 pm

    interesting…

  6. hammi
    January 22, 2013, 2:00 pm

    gross

  7. Ava Nicole Almacen
    Philippines
    January 20, 2013, 7:34 am

    ….. :)

  8. shirley
    January 19, 2013, 8:53 am

    oh my god .it is make me feel sick

  9. Stephanie
    January 18, 2013, 3:30 pm

    Oh my goodness, Laura, you don’t have to be such a bitch. Have you never made a mistake before?

  10. Philip Lovelace
    United States
    January 17, 2013, 10:28 pm

    Thank SO much for that last line… I didn’t want to sleep tonight anyway.

  11. laura
    Montreal
    January 17, 2013, 7:47 pm

    its not albert, its alfred hitchcock, you idiot

    • Christine Dell'Amore
      January 18, 2013, 9:58 am

      Hi Laura,

      Thanks for your comment, although its delivery is unfortunate. Please keep in mind that blogs are often written quickly, so errors (just like with anything in life) sometimes creep in.

      Cheers
      Christine Dell’Amore