Noel Lyon – Spring intern 2015
The mammal collection at the Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections (BRTC) contains thousands of scientific specimens. These include alcohol specimens, skeletons, skulls, and scientifically prepared specimens. One of the greatest dangers to skeletons, skulls, and alcohol specimens is being dropped, whereas scientifically prepared specimens are threatened by insect pests. One of the many insect pests detrimental to preserved animal skins is the cigarette beetle. Larvae feed by burrowing into the skin, which can damage or ruin a museum specimen. Feeding by adults on the proteins within the skins can also ruin specimens. Adults are small, about 2-3 mm in size, and are reddish brown in color. The eggs of cigarette beetles are coated with a layer of B vitamins when they pass through the oviduct upon laying, which larvae can utilize as a food source (Cabrera 2001). Females lay 10-100 eggs in the food source and larvae typically emerge in 6-10 days (Cabrera 2001). The life cycle of the cigarette beetle ranges from 40 to 90 days depending on temperature and availability of food (Cabrera 2001). With the large number of eggs produced by each female in addition to their relatively long life cycle, an unchecked infestation of cigarette beetles has the potential to destroy many valuable museum specimens and the data they provide.
An important, although seemingly dreaded task, is to thoroughly search every case in the collection for signs of a cigarette beetle infestation. I spent a good deal of time inspecting hundreds, if not thousands of specimens for signs of beetles. Opening drawers and looking for beetles simply isn’t sufficient. Every specimen must be removed and checked. The average case holds about 10-15 drawers, and depending on the size of the animals, one drawer can hold up to 30-40 specimens. If I found a live beetle, then the case was fumigated using ethyl acetate to kill the beetles and remove the infestation. Whenever I came across the body of a dead beetle, I pinched it between two fingers to estimate its age. If the beetle was juicy, than it was relatively fresh, and every specimen was examined extremely carefully to determine if there was an active infestation. If an infestation was found, the case was fumigated. If the beetle crumbled to dust when I pinched it, than it was old, and the bug and specimen debris was vacuumed out. In addition to looking for signs of insect damage, I also replaced or added mothballs to the jar lids that are in every case to deter cigarette beetles and other insect pests. Lastly, I also recorded my findings on a log kept inside each case to monitor infestations over time. Thankfully, I did not find any infestations.
A great deal of information is contained with each specimen housed within the BRTC. For mammal specimens, this information includes collector and collector number, the location they were collected, any measurements taken at the time of collection, and sometimes other tidbits such as the cause of death and whether the animal was reproductive. This information is included in the database and on tags associated with each specimen. However, these specimens and their information lose their value if the specimens are eaten or destroyed by cigarette beetles. As I went through the drawers and cases, I read the information contained on many of these tags, and I was amazed at the age of some specimens. Some are from the 1920’s and 30’s and are in excellent condition. This would not be possible if not for vigilance by many people looking for cigarette beetle infestation signs over time. I was not the first, nor will I be the last person to check the cases. I can’t say it was the most exciting thing I’ve ever done, but I did learn a lot more than I thought I would.
Cabrera, B.J. 2001. Cigarette beetle. Entomology and Nematology. University of Florida. http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/urban/stored/cigarette_beetle.htm