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Updated 10:00 AM March 14, 2005
 

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Spotlight: The skeleton man: All skin and bones

The smell of dried bones and dusty fur peppers the air as you enter Steve Hinshaw's office. Tucked away between rows of file cabinets filled with thousands of skulls and skeletons, he sits at his desk organizing genera or updating databases.
Steve Hinshaw displays the bones of three animals cleaned by beetles in the Museum of Natural History. He is holding the skull of wolf in his right hand and a rabbit in his left. (Photo by Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services)

A stuffed leopard perched on a shelf overhead growls silently at Hinshaw's computer monitor and cup of coffee.

Soon, Hinshaw will head up to the beetle room on the fourth floor of the Museum of Natural History, where 50,000 of the little insects work constantly to break down fresh carcasses into researchable skeletons.

"I've got one of those jobs that's fun—I can't believe they pay me to do it," says Hinshaw, coordinator of museums collections, mammal division.

Hinshaw's responsibilities are manifold, ranging from the benign to the bizarre. In addition to maintaining databases filled with species information and coordinating the intake of researchers' finds, he also must prepare and organize fresh carcasses and new and old skeletons that get catalogued and eventually studied by researchers. For this, Hinshaw relies on a lot of help from some very little associates.

Hinshaw uses the practice of cleaning carcasses via dermestid beetles, whereby remains are placed in a tank filled with the insects and left there until the bones are clean. The process can take anywhere from several hours to a few weeks. Dermestids are more efficient and sanitary than the traditional process of soaking or boiling meat away, and have been used by many museums, such as the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and the U-M Museum of Natural History, since as early as the 1940s.

But why dermestid beetles over other critters?

"It's a matter of convenience," Hinshaw says. "They're native to the area, so we can collect them right around here. Since they're not hideous and juicy like maggots—they're very dry—it's possible for it not to smell all that horrible and not be all that messy."

Dermestid larvae are tiny enough to clean the vertebrae of a hummingbird, and colonies of fully-grown adults can devour whole rhinos within a matter of weeks. They are native to North America and can be found on carcasses in Michigan. The shiny, black beetles grow to only about an inch long, and since they cannot fly in room temperatures, they're easy to keep caged. Hinshaw says using dermestids makes this part of his job a breeze.

"It's like thousands of little elves working in your closet—they work all day and night, even when you're asleep," he says with a smile.

Hinshaw says museums collections get a bad rap for acquiring specimens, but insists that animals are collected lawfully and often die of natural causes.

"If specimens are coming here, it's usually brought by a graduate student or professor for a research project. I don't just walk out and gather these things up," he says. "We are the biggest champions of animal rights in the world. That's why we're here—we love animals."

Hinshaw's love of animals extends even to the deer mice—which he calls by their taxonomical name, peromyscus—that nest in his house. In the summer they get live-trapped and released a few miles down the road, but in the winter, Hinshaw says he doesn't have the heart to turn them out.

"They're cute little guys," he says. "Peromyscus are native to the area, but it's still pretty cold outside for them."

He says studying animals has been a lifelong passion, one that helps him manage a collection that grows at a rate of a few thousand specimens each year. And though parts of his job might make some squeamish and leave others exhausted, ask Hinshaw if he loves what he does and he'll answer you simply.

"Absolutely."

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