Journey to Mictlan

“This cabinet is basically full of coyotes” is not a declaration you hear every day.

UW Madison Zoological Museum, WI Science Festival 2013

The coyotes were, in fact, disarticulated skeletons. Each bone was meticulously hand-labelled with a code in black ink, and shelved in a cardboard box. The cabinet was one of a phalanx lining the wall of a nondescript university corridor – part of the specimen collection of the University of Wisconsin Zoological Museum, a collection more or less as old as the State of Wisconsin itself. Mostly only researchers get to go behind the scenes there (there is a small public exhibit area), but for the 2nd annual Wisconsin Science Festival they had an open house with guided tours.

And if you showed up at the right time, you could also get shown the Dermestarium. This is where recently-deceased animal carcasses go to get the flesh and soft tissue removed from their bones by the good offices of the larvae of Dermestes maculatus, the flesh-eating beetle. This sounds like an alarming thing to get up close and personal with, but they are only interested in dead, and, indeed, dry, flesh. In fact, the preparator who showed us around asserted, they can be surprisingly finicky eaters, and get tired of the same thing after too long. They can’t, for instance, just put a single giraffe carcass in with a population of beetles, or they will get tired of the taste of giraffe and stop partway through.

The Dermestarium is a small underground chamber reached through an unassuming-looking door and a creepy passageway:
UW-Madison Dermestarium, WI Science Festival 2013

and contains several tanks – several, mysteriously, named for alcoholic beverages – in each of which various not-alive animals were getting cleaned up before going to their final resting-place, labelled and boxed in a cabinet. There was a bearded dragon, which appeared to be particularly popular:
UW-Madison Dermestarium, WI Science Festival 2013
and parts of Mishka, the polar bear from the Henry Vilas Zoo, who died earlier in the year:
UW-Madison Dermestarium, WI Science Festival 2013

And in case you were wondering how it smelled? It smelled bad. It took me an hour to get my appetite back, and I could swear I was smelling it for the rest of the day.

The room was not built as a dermestarium. In fact, it was first constructed in 1877 to house a magnetic observatory – the first in the United States. The U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey picked Madison because, in part, of John Eugene Davies, professor in the physics & astronomy department. Davies’ papers had impressed Charles Sanders Peirce – who was one of the 19th century’s greatest logicians, but in this context was more importantly the son of Survey superintendent Benjamin Peirce. The initiative to create a worldwide network of magnetic observatories had been started by Gauss and Humboldt in the 1830s, and had already resulted in observatories across the British Empire from Toronto to Hobart, Tasmania, and across the Russian Empire from St. Petersburg to Sitka, Alaska. The Toronto observatory, first built in 1833, can still be seen; it is not so subterranean, and currently is used for office space.

The properties of the magnetic observatory – thick walls, good ventilation – also made it a good place to keep the dermestids in the hot and humid conditions they like without troubling the rest of the university with the smell.

Mictlan is the Land of the Dead in Aztec legend, a gloomy place full of bones and ashes, through which departed souls made a long pilgrimage after death, towards eventual oblivion. (People dying in battle, childbirth, or, randomly enough, by drowning, get a better deal.) In one tale, as recounted in the 16th-century Leyenda de los soles, Quetzalcoatl descends to Mictlan to get bones to re-make humankind with, and has to negotiate with Death – Mictlantecuhtli – for them. That Death drives a hard bargain seems to be a human universal. Quetzalcoatl wins (mostly), in no small part because he has worms and bees on his side.

In what may be seen as an indirect tribute to this feat, Quetzalcoatl also has an awesome pterosaur named for him.

Plus, I can’t finish this post without sharing how great it is that there is a book on the care and feeding of dermestids by someone named Rob Graves. Link goes to FleshEatingBeetles.com.

Thanks go to staff & researchers at the Zoological Museum, who gave up a Saturday to show folks around.

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