They Eat to Serve

The Smithsonian’s sprawling storage complex a short drive from downtown Washington would be a plausible setting for X-Files action. Most of the buildings are nondescript and government-issue plain: they look innocent or ominous, depending on the tilt of your imagination. But in at least one of those buildings, science fiction gets trumped by science fact. The place is home to the Smithsonian’s colony of dermestid beetles—tens of thousands of them, plus or minus, and too much in motion to be counted. The Greek roots for "skin" and "eat" are recognizable in dermestid, but Webster’s takes a slightly more genteel approach: it defines Dermestidae as a family of small beetles "very organic material of animal origin." That doesn’t quite do justice to the reality.

When the door behind which the Smithsonian’s dermestids go about their daily business is opened, the first thing you do is recoil—not at the sight, because you haven’t had time to take in what you’re seeing, but at the stink...odor...stench. You need a word for the sweet, foul aroma, and ordinary English lets you down. Metaphors aren’t much better. The smell, which emanates primarily from the beetles’ dung, is an invisible fog that seeps into the soul (and worse, into your clothes). It’s a wall that stops you in your tracks. It’s a linebacker who tackles you and won’t let go. Won’t let go for hours, in fact. Much later on and miles away, people may sniff discreetly in your presence, but no one will dare ask where you’ve been.

Your eyes adjust, even if your nose doesn’t. In one of two environmentally controlled tanks fashioned from converted walk-in freezers, pieces of dried animal flesh—reddish, brownish, grayish—are set out in tubs on shelves, and the swarming, single-minded dermestids are guests at a round-the-clock feast.

The dermestids are eating in the service of science. Their function is to reduce new animal specimens to skeletons, and at this they are specialists. They can clean a tiny shrew, for example, without damaging the delicate bones the way chemicals and enzymes can. The dermestids in this lab help prepare thousands of specimens a year for the research work of scientists at institutions around the world and of Smithsonian zoologists. (When some of the beetles escape their quarters along the floor and scoot past your shoes, you resist the impulse to stomp only because they’re family.) Zoology (vertebrate and invertebrate), entomology and botany are all research disciplines within the Smithsonian’s Department of Systematic Biology, the branch of biology that explores the diversity of living things by identifying and classifying them and by working out the relationships between them.

Systematics has traditionally flourished at the Smithsonian, thanks to the immense collections of organisms the Institution has built up throughout its history. There are, for example, 35 million insect specimens belonging to the National Museum of Natural History. That’s the largest (and still growing) collection in the United States, and rivals the collection of the British Museum for being the largest in the world. The specimens range from microscopic size through insects too tiny to be pierced by a pin to beetles weighing several ounces, moths with the wingspans of small birds and stick insects more than a foot in length.

Our collections—not just of insects, but of birds and fish and mammals—are like great databases, capable of continuous growth and extension, to be visited and revisited and understood anew as research adds to our knowledge. Smithsonian scientists do research not just for immediate practical use, such as containing an agricultural infestation or an outbreak of disease, but to gather data that can be stored like seeds against some future day when they will yield a harvest of understanding.

The number of species in the world may exceed 10 million (humbling thought: there are many hundreds of thousands of species of beetles alone!), but fewer than two million of them have scientific names. So if we are ever to understand fully the world’s biodiversity, a staggering project of description and classification—of systematics—lies ahead. That work builds on a tradition far older than the Smithsonian. You can trace it back fancifully to the morning in Eden when God brought the anonymous animals to Adam and had him assign them names. Adam’s task then is humanity’s task still—to comprehend the living diversity of the world, and to take responsibility for it.

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