Feasting on Feathers: What’s Eating Your Stuff?

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January 18, 2021

If you visited the Nature Museum in 2011, there’s a good chance you walked through our exhibition titled Feasting on Feathers, exploring the damage pests can do to museum collections and how to prevent it. In this special Founders Week blog, we’re taking a look back at this exhibition and learning how we can protect our precious collections both at the Nature Museum and at home.

Have you devoured a good book lately? How about a pile of feathers for dinner? Some pests take this quite literally! Museum staff work to protect museum collections from these hungry invaders. Museum collections often contain objects that are tasty treats for pests like beetle and moth larvae. Keeping specimens and artifacts safe from these critters is a vital part of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum of the Chicago Academy of Sciences’ mission to preserve our collection for future generations.

PNNM exhibits feasting on feathers 2011 07 min 2048x1530

Ostrich wing, Struthio camelus The small brown casings on this ostrich wing are old skins from a dermestid beetle larvae. The larvae’s eating spree resulted in the broken and frayed appearance of the feathers.

PNNM exhibits feasting on feathers 2011 Goliath Beetle detail 1 min 2048x1365

Elephant beetle, Megasoma sp. The powdery brown material on this elephant beetle is called “frass.” Frass is insect waste and is an indication of infestation by dermestid beetles. Take a look at the holes dermestids made in this specimen!

Like other museums, we focus on preventing pest damage to our collections through a program called integrated pest management (IPM), which uses the least toxic methods of pest control first. If you are worried about pests in your own home, you can follow the Museum’s techniques to keep your family heirlooms, clothes, and furniture safe.

Pests should never be museum visitors! The best way to manage pests in museums is to prevent them from coming through the door. Museums utilize IPM techniques to keep pests away by restricting their access to food and water and by maintaining a cool, dry, clean environment. Staff also regularly monitor for pests and pest damage. If pests are found in the collection, extra care is taken to separate contaminated items from the rest of the collection and eliminate the pests.

Visitors to the Nature Museum can help us protect our collections! When visiting the Museum in person, you should eat only in designated areas and dispose of trash and recyclables properly.

Get to know some common museum pests

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Dermestes lardarius 

Larder beetles are unique because they are both a museum’s friend and enemy: these beetles are often used in skeletal preparation to clean flesh from fresh animal bones that will eventually become part of a natural history collection. When beetles or their larvae are found munching on precious museum artifacts, however, they are considered unwelcome guests.

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Lepisma saccharina

Silverfish thrive in warm, humid environments. Some of their favorite foods include wallpaper paste and glossy paper. In museums, silverfish pose a threat to starchy materials such as papers and book bindings.

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Blattella germanica

It may not be surprising to learn that cockroaches will eat just about anything humans eat and some things we don’t—including soap and glue. In museum collections, cockroaches target a wide variety of materials, from leather, parchment (a paper made from animal skin), wool textiles, and paper.

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Tineola bisselliella

Webbing clothes moth larvae leave behind silky webbing on the textiles that they eat. The larvae eat woolens, feathers, fur, and will sometimes eat cotton and linen products if they are stained with food, body oils, or sweat. Once the larvae turn into moths, they no longer pose a risk—the adults actually don’t eat at all.

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Liposcelis corrodens

Booklice, as their name suggests, like to eat books—the more damp and moldy the better. The booklouse commonly eats microscopic molds and fungi that grow on books but they have been known to eat just about anything made of paper. Do not be fooled by their name though! These pests are not true lice and cannot harm people or pets.

Pests at home?

Here are some management tips for you!

  1. Storage: Store family heirlooms and important papers in cool, dry places. Contain them in good quality containers to protect them from moisture, light, physical damage, and pests. Your basement and attic are often the worst places to store your special items.
  2. Restrict food sources: Pests love to eat food scraps. Keep things clean and tidy.
  3. Monitor: Check your stored items periodically for damage.

But remember!

There are friendly pests, too. Spiders and house centipedes, for instance, contribute in keeping your house safe by eating other pests that may be harmful to your heirlooms. In some cases, friendly pests are monitored as indicators for the presence of other pests.

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