Skeletons in the Closet: Inside UT’s Creepiest Lab

 

It’s a horrifying image: a decaying animal carcass crawling with beetles that feast on flesh.

It’s also a vital scientific technique used in the Skeletal Preparation Laboratory in UT’s Jackson School of Geosciences. There, lab technicians have one of the creepiest jobs in academia: using flesh-eating bugs to turn animal specimens into skeletons.

Jackson School of Geosciences public affairs representative Marc Airhart made a dozen visits to the lab over six weeks this spring to produce an audio slideshow called “Skeletons in the Closet.” He watched vertebrate skeleton technician Kenneth Bader “skeletonize” a Cooper’s hawk, transforming it from roadkill into a precisely preserved specimen for University researchers to study. In the audio slideshow, Bader skins and guts the bird, dries it, and then turns it over to a very hungry colony of dermestid beetles, which finishes the job.

Airhart’s graphic slideshow is not for the faint of heart—YouTube deemed it so disturbing that it was removed from the site—but it’s a fascinating window into one of science’s weirdest corners.

“I was both grossed out and engrossed by this story,” Airhart says. “It’s like something out of The X-Files, and very disgusting. On the other hand, it’s really important to help scientists understand how animals evolved over millions of years on Earth.”

But why use beetles to clean skeletons—couldn’t a human do the job? “Oddly enough, this technique they’ve been doing for centuries still makes the most sense,” Airhart says. Researchers can also use an acid bath to dissolve skin and muscles, but that technique doesn’t preserve the skeletal structure as well as the natural way does.

“If you have a bird with lots of tiny bones, for example, this is the way to do it,” Airhart says. “At the end, you’re left with an articulated skeleton, and it’s easy to identify where the bones go.”

Paleontologists like the Jackson School’s Julia Clarke—who recently made significant breakthroughs in the study of Microraptor, a four-winged flying dinosaur—use the modern skeletons for comparison purposes. Examining a modern skeleton can shed light on the structure and evolution of ancient creatures.

Still, Airhart says that some scientists who use the products of the Skeletal Preparation Laboratory refuse to set foot near the lab. “It’s dirty work,” he laughs.

Watch the “Skeletons in the Closet” audio slideshow here.

Photo by Marc Airhart.

 

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