Bones at Home
I Purchased a Skull From You. Does it Require Special Care?
Bones are relatively durable, and if handled gently and with common sense, will last a long while. For a printable handout with these guidelines, click here (Adobe PDF Format).
Like other natural products, bone is best stored in a cool and dry place. But don't worry about particular temperatures. What is most important is that the temperature stays constant or only changes very slowly. Rapidly fluctuating temperature or humidity makes bone swell and shrink repeatedly, eventually causing it to crumble.
Do not store wet bone. Allow bone to air dry before putting it away. Do not wrap bone in plastic for long-term storage. Storing wet bone in plastic creates a humid micro climate that promotes the growth of discoloring molds. Let your bones breath! Ultraviolet radiation is destructive to the proteins that make up bone. Do not leave bone outdoors or in direct sunlight for long periods of time, as they will become brittle and eventually fall apart.
Because bone is porous, it stains easily and absorbs oils from our skin. To prevent staining, bone should always be handled with clean hands.
Keeping your specimen in a display case or other covered environment will help prevent dust or environmental pollutants from building up.
If your specimen picks up dirt, clean it with warm soapy water using a gentle bristle brush. A soft toothbrush works great. Only wet the surface of the bone, as soaking bone all the way through will hasten decomposition or cause the bone to crack upon drying.
Handling bones safely is a matter of common sense. Don't handle specimens more than you have to. Hold specimens over a table or other surface. Supervise any handling by children.
Pick up skulls from beneath, watching out for loose mandibles. Never lift a skull by the eye sockets, zygomatic arches (cheekbones), or any other projection not meant to hold weight.
Remember that while strong, bone is not indestructible. But like so many other things, treat your specimens with care and consideration, and they will bring you pleasure for years to come.
I Found a Bone, How Do I Clean It?
For printable maceration instructions (Adobe Acrobat PDF), click here.
First of all, don't boil or bleach bone! Boiling causes fat to soak into the bone, resulting in a greasy, yellowish specimen. Superficial grease can be removed with ammonia and certain industrial solvents, but this is an unpleasant process and cannot remove deep grease which will eventually migrate to the bone surface. Chlorine based bleach irreparably damages the bone itself, resulting in chalky, weak, extremely porous specimens that will turn to bone meal with age.
So, how do you really clean bone? Maceration - Using bacterial action to clean bone
This is the simplest method of cleaning bone.
Dermestids-Our Favorite Beetle
If you're going to continue cleaning bones, or are working with very delicate specimens, you may want to start a dermestid colony. Dermestids or museum beetles are a group of small meat-eating beetles whose larvae do a marvelous job of stripping tissue from even the most delicate of bones. This is the method used by professional preparators. Dermestid beetles can be obtained from biological supply houses, local natural history museums or university zoology departments. Once a colony is set up in a warm place, they require minimal maintenance and are capable of stripping entire skulls in a day or two.
Before starting a dermestid colony, there are a few things to keep in mind. For one, these beetles need to be kept inside, as they like slightly warmer than room-temperature environments. Second, they will not eat decaying flesh or tolerate a great deal of moisture. Because of this, specimens must be fresh (freeze specimens if you cannot clean them immediately and thaw before introducing them to the beetles), skinned and de-fleshed as much as possible, and only placed in colonies large enough to clean them quickly. You will likely need to grow the colony to appropriate size before introducing the specimen. As a result, this method is not well-suited to cleaning just one specimen. But if you have many specimens to clean, a healthy dermestid colony is an efficient way to prepare the best bones possible.