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Brooks B. Britt, BYU
Dermestid beetle larvae

PROVO — It sounds like something out of an Indiana Jones movie: black beetles that eat your bones.

Except it's actually the Dermestid beetle's babies — or larvae — that do the gnawing.

And their appetite is for dinosaur bones — although at least one person interviewed can attest to the fact they love to nibble on human flesh, as well.

A Brigham Young University geology duo has discovered ancient insects are responsible for all those missing pieces of dinosaur bones, as well as damage to the bones.

The discovery is being published in the scientific journal Ichnos this month.

For the study, Brooks Britt, 52, of Orem, an associate professor of geology at BYU, teamed up with BYU geology graduate student Anne Dangerfield, 23, of Green Bay, Wis.

Britt has a great love and respect for dinosaur fossils. That's why it bugs him that beetle babies were munching on the bones.

"Look at this bone damage," Britt says, holding up a piece of camptosaurus bone in the collections room at the BYU Earth Science Museum.

"It should be a nice, smooth bone surface," he said. "Look at these furrows. It looks like someone farmed this land with a rough tractor.

"The whole end of this bone is gone," Britt continued. "Centimeters of this bone are gone."

Britt became obsessed with dinosaur bones when he was a boy. He would go to the library and read dusty old books from the early 1900s to learn how to do a paleontological dig. He bought a rock hammer and would have his dad drop him off at random remote sites where he would dig up fossils.

"I thought geology was great stuff," Britt said. In the summer of 1970, when Britt was 14, he and his 13-year-old cousin from Ogden, decided to stay with relatives in Vernal and hunt for dinosaur bones.

The first day, the boys filled their canteens full of water and rode their bicycles 10 miles north of Vernal. They found a cave that all the old-timers had told them about — but no bones or artifacts.

They hiked around in the rocks. According to the books they had read, they should start in a ravine and look for bone fragments, then go up the wash until they couldn't find any more bones, then back up a bit and pinpoint the spot where the bone fragments began.

They tried it and it worked. They unearthed a piece of a diplodocus which is an 87-foot-long sauropod dinosaur.

The boys reported their find to the state museum officials in Vernal. The paleontologists gave the boys digging tools and whisk brooms and told the teens to go at it.

Over several summers, the pair unearthed part of the dinosaur. The excavated bones are now in the BYU Earth Science museum, 1683 North Canyon Road, Provo.

Britt's fascination with bones continues and now has increased with his study of the Dermestid beetle's relationship to fossils.

Another BYU professor, Clayton White, 72, of Orem, who teaches zoology, says you can't be too careful with the Dermestid beetle. He remembers in 1969 he was on a research trip in the arctic. White studies falcons and had retrieved some of the falcon dinner leftovers from a nest. Generally, the falcon killings consist of bird remains such as feathers, legs and beaks.

White writes in his book "Pereguin Quest" how his first mistake was examining the specimens in his tent near his sleeping bag. His second mistake was trusting a Dermastid beetle.

The larvae bore into his calf while he was sleeping, he said. "I woke up with a start. Something was eating my leg," White said.

White slapped the larvae. But a black and blue sore the size of a silver dollar appeared and lasted for months. He couldn't see a doctor since he was in the Arctic but luckily the sore eventually healed.

Britt said, "They'll take anything that doesn't bite back."

The Dermastid beetle larvae prefers meat and will even eat baby birds, but generally the bugs arrive on the scene after other insects have stripped a carcass. The larvae then go for the bone — especially the marrow. "That's food to them," he said, adding that dense, hard bone is 50 percent protein.

The larvae especially like to devour the ends of bones or broken bones which are soft and accessible, Britt said.

The Dermastid beetle larvae is good in one aspect. Museum officials and scientists actually use infant larvae to strip meat off bones. They then remove and fumigate the larvae, he said.

"Can you imagine trying to clean the flesh off a mouse and leave all the bones in position?" Britt said. "Just let the insects do it. They do a phenomenal job."

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