So for us terrestrial animals our bones will be cleaned by bugs and bacteria, but what happens under the water? Eight years ago the accidental discovery was made of bone worms and ever since the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute has been doing research on these amazing worms. Osedax worms which is Latin for bone devourer are as interesting as they come. They have no mouth or gut but produce root systems containing bacteria that attach and feed off of the animal. You will also only see the females, the males are microscopic and live inside the female.
For more information visit the MBARI web site: http://www.mbari.org/news/homepage/2008/boneworm.html
There are several different methods to cleaning bones. The first would be bugs. Dermestid beetles are your scavengers. If you plan on getting serious with cleaning this is the best method, but it takes time to set up. You need about a month for your larvae to be old enough and you need a lot of them. I recommend nothing under 500 bugs and the bigger the head the bigger the colony. Once established your bugs can clean a deer head in 2 days. It all depends on your bugs. Second option is maceration. You would have to clean as much hide and muscle from the bone before starting this process. It requires a closed contained (like a pot) that you can keep at a steady temperature. Place your head inside and fill with water, an enzyme to assist the process and a detergent. Let it sit. The bacteria are going to do the cleaning for you. Every couple of days you may need to change the water. The downside to this process is it takes more time. To do a dog head takes around 2 weeks. You need to have a place to keep this pot because it is going to smell awful. Third is boiling. This is the method I use. I move around a bit and cannot bring my beetle colony with me and I do not like the smell of maceration, so I boil. Boiling is very efficient and fast, but it must be watched. You can over boil bone and bone can burn if you do not have enough water in the pot. Boiling is also very easy for beginners because we have all boiled some food in our past and this is the exact same method. Those would be my top three methods. You can just leave the skull outside and let nature do what nature does (expect a lot of maggots). Tying the head to a stake and leaving it on a red ant hill will also clean it. You can talk to countless people and everyone will have their own method or have a preference depending on the size of the animal.
Tools of the trade
- Dissection Kit
If you cannot get a kit, start off with forceps with medium points, forceps with fine points and scissors. You can later add another set of scissors, probe, scalpel, and hemostatic forceps.
Designate this pot as your head pot, try to get a size that will allow you to submerge the head. If you do not get one big enough to submerge the head you will have to rotate the head while it is cooking
Visit your local hunter, butcher, taxidermist, packing plant, or drive around for road kill (this does require a permit in some areas).
Once you have those three items you are ready to get started.
It really is as simple as it seems. You place the head in the pot with water and slow cook. Check on the cooking to make sure there is always enough water and see if the meat is starting to fall off the bone. Once most of the meat has fallen off or can easily be removed drain the water and place the head on some newspapers at a table. Paper towels are always handy to clean the tools while cleaning. This is when you start testing your patience. Just go nice and easy removing anything that is not bone. Once you have cleaned it you are done. Yay! Some bones after the cooking will be whiter than others. If you want to brighten your skull there are a few methods to use. I use hydrogen peroxide; it not only brightens the bone it kills any bacteria that may be on it, just soak the head in it. Other methods include letting it soak in soaps or using bleach (be very careful with this method it can damage the bone). You can also do the reverse and dye your bone a color by letting it soak in a fabric dye.
This is a hobby you can make money at, which is always nice. There are skull cleaners all over the world and you can sell your skulls to them or you can sell them on your own. Good luck with your cleaning, let me know how it goes!
Some say “cool,” some say “weird,” and some say “morbid.” I can agree with all three. I really wanted to have some profound reason for my curiosity in bones and be able to explain it to you readers, but I’m blank. I don’t know what perked my interest. It could have been because I was in close proximity to skulls so I took advantage of the opportunity, maybe it was my scientific mind wanting more knowledge, or maybe it was just
something to do while sitting in the woods for hours. Who knows? What I do know is you cannot hide from bones. Skulls are on t-shirts, tattoos, motorcycles, cars, jewelry, alcohol, the list just keeps going. You have to eat your way around beef, pork, turkey, chicken and fish bones. I guess I just went one step further.
I clean heads. Not an opening line I use when being introduced to people, but it is a fun fact about me. I’ve been cleaning for about three years now and have accumulated around 50 different heads, everything from a field mouse to an African bushhog. I use my collection for educational purposes. I go to schools and events to help children get a better understanding about animal adaptations. Why is the eye cavity (orbital bone) so big? Why are there different kinds of teeth? A bonus is kids are all a little weird so they love bones.
I want this site to be dedicated to bones. How to prepare your own specimens, the best places to go to see bones, and how people are using bones. Welcome!