How Do Taxidermists Clean Their Specimens?
The vibrant white of a professionally cleaned skull is respected and revered in the memory of its origins. For many, these decorations serve as a permanent reminder of the ceremonial procurement and cleaning from life after death. Creating an end result as pristine as a snow-white skull comes with time, patience, and experience.
Taxidermists specializing in European mounting methods focus only on the skull of a carcass, while other methods include full-body or shoulder representations of their subjects. Cleaning procedures can vary, although most are conducted through the use of dermestid beetles to fully clean organic tissue and remnants from the bone. We’ll explore the fundamentals of how taxidermists properly prepare and care for their specimens for a clean, odorless result.
Cleaning Skulls/Bones Without Dermestid Beetles
As mentioned, dermestid beetles have been a preferred method of full and comprehensive bone cleaning for over 100 years by taxidermists and enthusiasts alike. Although dermestid beetles are recommended as one of the most optimal methods, supplies found in the average home can provide comparable results.
For smaller specimens and extra steps, the following supplies can handle most bone cleaning projects:
- Hand protection
- Container large enough for the specimen
- Environmentally safe soap
- Hydrogen peroxide (40 volume-12%)
- Handheld brushes
Removing the Organic Remains
The first step in cleaning bones of any kind begins with cleaning of the organic remains. Taxidermists meticulously scour their specimens to ensure soft tissue is removed to deter odor and insects before proceeding. Simpler methods begin by fully submerging bones in water for weeks or months on end. This natural yet amplified deterioration process allows microbes and water to dissolve excess tissue and material, leaving the bones fully intact without any form of degradation.
Other methods rely on burial of the bones with access to natural organisms that feast on the organic tissue, similarly to that of the dermestid beetle. This process requires more maintenance as some insects can burrow into or eat keratin, consequently damaging the bones if not monitored properly. Tissue, however, will likely remain even after weeks of deterioration. To continue the tissue removal, brushes are carefully swept across the bone to eradicate any excess material. Taxidermists often refrain from steaming or boiling bone as a means of extracting tissue from tight spaces as fat can become absorbed by the bone. This adds to the potential for odor and rot as fat begins to seep from the bone over time.
Preparing the Bones
With a brush and environmentally safe soap, bones are submerged in water and scrubbed to remove oils and fat. This process can prove more meticulous, as taxidermists must gently brush along tight spaces and crevices for complete coverage. If teeth remain in the skull, more time is taken to ensure none are accidentally removed from the jawbone. If so, steps can be taken to reattach teeth after the proper cleaning.
After a comprehensive brushing, bones are usually soaked in soapy water for at least 24 hours to extract excess fats, oils, and grease absorbed by the bone. If the soaking has worked effectively, grease will line the top of the water to indicate an adequate amount of material has been removed. To ensure a complete removal of extra material, bones can be soaked again until no noticeable oils have lined the surface of the water.
Taxidermists implement chemical cleanings to create the pearly-white appearance of the bone. Although this process can be referred to as bone bleaching, it is never advised to use actual bleach to whiten bone. Bleach can deteriorate the bone, leaving the integrity compromised and the specimen damaged from overly harmful chemicals. However, with a 12% hydrogen peroxide, or 40 volume hair developer containing hydrogen peroxide, bones can be neatly bleached to adopt the color and appearance the taxidermist requires.
For approximately 24 hours, bones are left to soak in the hydrogen peroxide. The effectiveness is measured by bubbling or foaming around the bone, ensuring organic materials and excess fats are entirely removed and sanitized. Over the period of the soaking, bones should result in a white finish. This process can be repeated to achieve a final result worthy of the taxidermist.
Cleaning Skulls/Bones With Dermestid Beetles
For the most comprehensive and desired results for the majority of taxidermists and DIY enthusiasts, dermestid beetles provide a natural and efficient means of removing organic tissue from bone. A colony of 300 beetles and larvae are capable of eliminating material on a small skull within 1 week, while diminishing the probability of damage to the specimen by ulterior methods. This isn’t to say, however, that dermestids are left without observation. If left unmonitored on size-dependent specimens, dermestids can eat keratin and bone as any other microbe or insect might in the wild.
Feasting on Tissue
A specimen is frozen for a period of 72 hours beforehand to remove any insects, mites, or harmful bacteria that might pose a threat to dermestid beetles. Usually contained in an enclosed container with either glass or plastic sides, the beetles are monitored over the course of one week—shorter or longer depending on the size of the specimen—to fully remove any flesh or organic tissue that may remain on the bone. The small and insatiable larvae feast anywhere and everywhere tissue can be found, adding to the efficiency of a proper cleaning method of any taxidermist.
Rinse and Repeat
Many of the previously mentioned steps are applied after the organic material is removed from the skull or bone, as these methods are dependent on the taxidermist and their preferred methods and capabilities. Traditionally, bones are frozen once removed from the dermestid beetle enclosure to rid the specimen of any lingering larvae or beetles that may continue to damage the bone if left unnoticed. After its second freezing, the bones are prepared and bleached in accordance with the taxidermist, or left to sun dry over the course of several days.
The Taxidermist’s Choice
Dermestid beetles require little maintenance with big results. Taxidermists agree, these flesh-eating beetles are the most efficient means of cleaning and preparing skulls or bones for museums, law enforcement, hunters, sportsmen, and enthusiasts. In addition, beetles are cheap to acquire and fast to procreate, allowing anyone the ability to house their own colonies in preparation for future cleanings.
Companies like Boneyard Beetleworks based out of Shelley, Idaho, have provided simple guidelines since 2001 to successfully cultivate thriving colonies of all life stages, and the quantity of beetles you may need. These are carefully monitored and raised in the most sterile of environments to ensure the healthiest possible colonies, guaranteed free of mites or invasive pests. To begin professionally cleaning your own bones and skulls, reach out to Boneyard Beetleworks to obtain the results you require.