Dermestid beetles feasting on a snake carcass at the HSU Vertebrate Museum. Photo by Walter Hackett

Devouring dermestids

Visiting HSU's Vertebrate Museum

Visiting HSU’s Vertebrate Museum

In a dark room flesh-eating beetles consume dead animals. That sounds like a scene straight out of a horror movie, but this is a room on campus at the Humboldt State University Vertebrate Museum.

Melissa Hawkins. is the current curator at HSU’s Vertebrate Museum. She has always been interested in animals, and told her parents she wanted to be a veterinarian at the age of six.

“I did my masters in reptiles and have done bird research as well,” Hawkins said. “I just love vertebrates.”

Melissa Hawkins poses next to a whale bone outside the beetle room at the HSU Vertebrate museum. Photo by Walter Hackett

Hawkins got her bachelor’s and master’s degree at Western Illinois University and her PhD. at George Mason. She applied for the museum curator position at HSU toward the end of 2016, and said she was excited to come to Humboldt.

“The first thing I said to myself was, ‘Wait a second, is that a redwood tree?’” Hawkins said.

Aside from her curator duties, Hawkins teaches mammalogy and evolution. Much of her research focuses on next-generation sequencing methods. She loves the discovery aspect of her research.

“For a moment in time you’re the only person that knows a fact in the the scientific world,” Hawkins said.

Stuffed and preserved chipmunks catalogued in a collection room at the HSU Vertebrate Museum. Photo by Walter Hackett

We left her office and move down the hall to one of the collection rooms. Hawkins pulled out a drawer containing rows of small chipmunks, each one splayed out neatly and accompanied by a catalog tag.

“Feel how soft they are,” Hawkins said.

At this point the small rodents in the drawer have all been stuffed with cotton and preserved, a lengthy process that is carried out at the museum itself. Some of the specimens in the drawer date back to the early 80s.

“I call it creepy arts and crafts,” Hawkins said.

From there went to see the flesh-eating beetles. The beetles remove all the flesh from the bones for any specimens the museum wants to preserve. They do the work that human hands cannot.

Dr. Nicholas Kerhoulas is the HSU Vertebrate Museum collections manager and is responsible for looking after the Dermestid beetle colony.

“Don’t stay in there too long,” Kerhoulas said. “It’ll stay on your clothes.”

We went outside and entered a small dark room. The powerful smell hits your nostrils instantly.

“Here’s the local talent,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins walked over to a box against the wall and opened the lid. A soiled rag resembling a burlap sack is inside. She removed a cover to reveal a snake carcass covered with beetles.

“They like to feel snuggly and warm,” Hawkins said.

Kerhoulas said the snake has taken the beetles some time to get through.

“I think a combination of cooler weather and perhaps that snake not being their favorite is making it take a while longer than I would have expected,” Kerhoulas said.

We headed upstairs to the museum prep room, where the team worked to prep a dolphin specimen for the beetles. Removing as much flesh as they can before giving the bones to the beetles will speed up the process. The team has to be careful though, because if they leave the bones with the beetles too long they’ll start to eat into the bones.

“Once the colony gets going they are hungry little buggers,” Hawkins said.

Dr. Nicholas Kerhoulas removes flesh from a striped dolphin carcass in the HSU Vertebrate Museum in preparation for the beetle colony. Photo by Walter Hackett

The prep room smelled like fish. This particular specimen is a striped dolphin that washed up in Crescent City and died shortly after washing ashore. Hawkins explained that these dolphins are typically found in the deep sea and the team is curious to find a cause for the beaching.

Kerhoulas and with Stella Yuan, a graduate student that works with Hawkins in the museum, are equipped with gloves and knives and removed as much flesh and blubber from the bones as they can.

“I hope you don’t have a weak stomach,” Hawkins said.

Share This Post

More Stories

Nina G uses comedy to start conversations

During the virtual comedy event held by the SDRC, Nina Ghiselli tells her story and emphasizes the importance of student disability resources within schools.

It’s not just the Capitol Police

As the world watched from their televisions on January 6, we witnessed scenes unfold before our eyes that were, to many, unimaginable: supporters of President Trump swarmed the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building, then proceeded to break in and

The San Jose State University Football Team Comes to Humboldt

On a day’s notice from administration, the SJSU football team spends a week and a half in Humboldt practicing because their county did not allow it. Students react to their presence on campus in the midst of a pandemic. Directed

Homelessness in Humboldt, CA

This is the first trailer of a homeless documentary created by HSU students. We have spent months filming and will continue to film throughout the next year. Follow the heartbreaking stories of the homeless community around Humboldt county and the

Thrifty Arcata

Taking a tour of the local thrift shops in Arcata during the COVID-19 pandemic. Directed and produced by Skylar Gaven.

House Plants Generate Peace and Meaning During the Pandemic

Three different people with the same love for plants! House plants have become quite popular these days especially since we’re all basically stuck inside during the pandemic. Not only are they aesthetically pleasing, but these beautiful green oxygen-makers provide more

Prop 22 represents political favoritism of money over workers’ rights

California’s passing of proposition 22 on Nov. 5 represents a frustrating history of workers’ rights being trampled by the overwhelming influence of greed in politics.  This proposition forces app-based workers to be classified as independent contractors, rather than employees. This

Remembering Evelyn Andrews 10 months after her passing

By Katelyn Dendas It has been 10 months since my friend, teammate and freshman year dorm mate, Evelyn Andrews, passed away. I don’t remember what the grief counselor said or what transpired after that Monday, but I do remember arriving

Protestors seek to defund HSUPD

Two local, activist organizations work together to stage a sit-in against Humboldt State’s police department.

Getting stuck on the Trump train

Writer Anthony Aragon details his experience of accidentally joining a pro-Trump car rally.

Justin Turner exposes the World Series to COVID-19

Justin Turner didn’t need to be the story in the wake of the Dodgers’ first World Series victory in 32 years. Instead here we are, wondering what sort of, if any, punishment Major League Baseball will decide to hand down

Four more years of fear

News Editor Carlos Holguin explains why he is worried about the next four years.

Dismal democracy

The Lumberjack editorial staff comments on America’s flawed electoral system As the world watches the United States 2020 election results, waiting for our pseudodemocratic process to churn out a new president, historically unprecedented voting methods misrepresents the reported Election Day

The Mario triple pack invokes a nostalgia attack

When I was a child, the first video game system I owned was a Nintendo 64. Among the games I played was Super Mario 64. I played it all the time and when I wasn’t playing it, I was lying

Women’s lacrosse drops their competitive season

Greta Roberts, president and player of Humboldt State University’s women’s lacrosse team, made the decision with her coach and teammates to cancel the upcoming spring season. The team decided that not being able to recruit in the fall would be

Dobby’s proposition opinions

Haven’t voted yet? Well, you’re running out of time. Here’s a quick rundown of California’s propositions on the ballot this year

Corporations buy out propositions

In a series of general and misleading advertisements, corporate backers of Propositions 22 and 23 show their grubby hands

CDOR continues virtually

The Campus and Community Dialogue On Race returns covering global justice for Black Lives.

Indigenous Food Sovereignty

Local food management practices of the Tolowa Dee-ni, Yurok and other indigenous peoples.

Humboldt State Admin attempts to discredit the Lumberjack

***A Lumberjack editorial represents both the majority opinion of the student newspaper’s editorial board, nine editors, as well as the overwhelming majority of Humboldt State University’s student body. Collectively, an editorial echos, embodies and advocates for community beliefs.*** Insensitive communications

Music of the Moment 6

21 Savage and Metro Boomin drop a classic with “Savage Mode II”

Spartans arrive at HSU despite campus concerns

***Editor’s note: SJSU football program was tested in congruence with Mountain West conference guidelines*** The Spartans have arrived and this time they’re not carrying spears or shields. Instead the San Jose State football team stepped onto the Humboldt State campus

Music of the Moment 5

After shooting Megan Thee Stallion, Tory Lanez cancels himself

Welcome to the Twilight Zone

Comparisons between episodes of the classic TV show The Twilight Zone and our own dismal reality

Music of the Moment 4

YoungBoy Never Broke Again dodges the sophomore slump with his new album “Top.”

Self-Care Cuts

Changing your hair to change your life

HSU Seaweed Farm sets sail

The first commercially-approved seaweed farm in California will be on the map.

Music of the Moment 3

For better or worse, Big Sean is likely gone for good.

More Layers, More Protection?

Humboldt State demands double masking on campus, does more layers equal more protection?

The Ethnic Studies Bill is a Blessing

Ethnic Studies will thankfully become mandatory for all California State University students – as it should be.

The Complex Interface of Humans and Wildfires

How fire suppression is a mixed bag in Humboldt County Every fire season, blankets of smoke roll over Humboldt County. Here on the coast, that’s as close to wildfires as some of us get. But our practice of fire suppression

Defund HSU’s Police Department

Incidents of racism from the former UPD Chief, past examples of excessive force from current officers and a shrinking university budget.

How Not To Be Bitten By A Kitten

Please prepare to be prey Congratulations, a baby feline has recently come into your life. If they’re anywhere from 2-18 months, they bite. They see you as prey. Because you are prey. You always have been. You always will be.

Graduating Into Uncharted Waters

HSU graduates attempt to navigate a world turned upside-down by COVID-19 In May, Humboldt State University graduated hundreds of students, as it does every year. Unlike past years, graduates didn’t get to shake hands with their respective dean and receive

HSU Cultural Center Budget Slashed

Associated Students leaves student body devastated after significant reductions in cultural center’s budget.

All aboard the plague ship

Unprecedented times are met with normalized behavior, HSU puts students and community members at higher risk after reopening campus and student housing.

Music of the Moment

The hip-hop community rallies behind the Black Lives Matter Movement

Inside the Immune System

How the body uses multiple levels of defense against foreign intruders

Catcalling Can’t Continue

Verbal harassment toward women is about control and the assertion of gender discrimination

Major League Marijuana

Why I don’t think marijuana is everything it’s cracked up to be in baseball

Pigs Compost on Campus

CCAT tries to reduce HSU’s food waste footprint through new pig program