Why Don’t Bugs Eat People’s Bones?

ledwell/iStock via Getty Images
ledwell/iStock via Getty Images

In her new book, Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death, mortician and best-selling author Caitlin Doughty answers real questions she's received from kids about death, dead bodies, and decomposition. In the following excerpt, she describes why the creatures that consider skin and organs a tasty snack just don't feel the same way about our skeletons. (It's nothing personal.)

It’s a lovely summer day and you’re having lunch in the park. You bite into a fried chicken wing, munching on the crispy skin and juicy flesh. Is your next move cracking into the bones, crunching them like the giant in “Jack and the Beanstalk”? Probably not.

If you yourself wouldn’t eat a pile of animal bones, why would you expect a beetle to show up and eat your bones? We expect too much from necrophages, the unsung heroes of the natural world. They are the death eaters, the organisms that fuel up by consuming dead and rotting things—and bless their hearts! Imagine, for a moment, what the world would look like without the assistance of the consumers of dead flesh. Corpses and carcasses everywhere. That road kill? It’s not going anywhere without the help of necrophages.

Necrophages do such a good job getting rid of dead things that we expect them to perform miracles. It’s like how if you do too good a job of cleaning your room, then your mom will expect perfection every time. Better to not set expectations so high. It’s just not worth the risk.

The corpse-nosher ranks are filled with diverse species. You have vultures, swooping down for a roadside snack. You have blowflies, which can smell death from up to 10 miles away. You have carrion beetles, which devour dried muscle. A dead human body is a wonderland of ecological niches, offering a wide range of homes and snacks for those inclined to eat. There are plenty of seats at death’s dinner table.

Remember the dermestid beetle? The helpful cuties we’d enlist to clean your parents’ skulls? Their job is to eat all the flesh off without damaging the bone. Let’s be clear: we don’t want them to eat the bone. Especially because other methods of flesh removal (like harsh chemicals) will not only hurt the bones, but might damage certain types of evidence, like marks on bones, which could be useful in criminal investigations. That’s why you bring in a colony of thousands of dermestids to do the dirty work. Plus, while you were over here complaining that they don’t eat enough bones, the beetles were also eating skin, hair, and feathers!

All right, but to your question: why don’t they eat bones, too? The simple answer is that eating bones is hard work. Not only that, but bones are not nutritionally useful to insects. Bones are mostly made of calcium, something insects just don’t need a lot of. Since they don’t need much calcium, insects like dermestids haven’t evolved to consume it or desire it. They’re about as interested in eating bones as you are.

But, here’s a dramatic twist: just because these beetles don’t usually eat bone doesn’t mean they won’t. It’s a cost-reward thing. Bones are a frustrating meal, but a meal is a meal. Peter Coffey, an agriculture educator at the University of Maryland, told me how he learned this firsthand when he used Dermestes maculatus to clean the skeleton of a stillborn lamb. Adult sheep bones are robust, “but in fetuses and newborns there are several places where fusion is not yet complete.” When he removed the lamb bones after the beetles finished cleaning them, “I noticed small round holes, about the diameter of a large larva.” It turns out beetles will go after less dense, delicate bones (like those of the stillborn lamb), but, Peter says, “there has to be a perfect storm of good environmental conditions and poor food availability before they’ll resort to bone, which would explain why it’s not more commonly observed.”

So, while dermestids and other flesh-eating bugs do not usually eat bone, if they get hungry enough, they will. Humans behave the same way. When Paris was under siege in the late 16th century, the city was starving. When people inside the city ran out of cats and dogs and rats to eat, they began disinterring bodies from the mass graves in the cemetery. They took the bones and ground them into flour to make what became known as Madame de Montpensier’s bread. Bone appetit! (Actually, maybe don’t bone appetit, as many who ate the bone bread died themselves.)

It seems like no creature out there wants to eat bone, really prefers bone. But wait, I haven’t introduced you to Osedax, or the bone worm. (I mean, it’s right there in the name, people. Osedax means “bone eater” or “bone devourer” in Latin.) Bone worms start as tiny larvae, floating out in the vast blackness of the deep ocean. Suddenly, emerging from the void above is a big ol’ dead creature, like a whale or an elephant seal. The bone worm attaches, and the feast begins. To be fair, even Osedax don’t really devour the minerals in the bone. Instead, they burrow into the bone searching for collagen and lipids to eat. After the whale is gone, the worms die, but not before they release enough larvae to travel the currents waiting for another carcass to comes along.

Bone worms aren’t picky. You could throw a cow, or your dad (don’t do that), overboard and they’d eat those bones, too. There is strong evidence that bone worms have been eating giant marine reptiles since the time of the dinosaurs. That means the whale eaters are older than whales themselves. Osedax are nature’s peak bone eaters, and they’re even sorta nice to look at, orangey-red floating tubes covering bones like a deep-sea shag carpet. Pretty amazing, given that scientist didn’t even know these creatures existed until 2002. Who knows what else is out there in the world, devouring bone?

The cover of Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About DeathW.W. Norton

Reprinted from Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death by Caitlin Doughty. Text copyright (c) 2019 by Caitlin Doughty. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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Action Park: New Book Goes Inside America's Most Dangerous Amusement Park

Photo courtesy Andy Mulvihill
Photo courtesy Andy Mulvihill

In the late 1970s, ski resort owner Gene Mulvihill transformed a mountain in rural Vernon, New Jersey, into a destination for thrill-seekers in the summer months. The result was Action Park, a one-of-a-kind amusement destination that left guests in charge of their own fun. In this exclusive excerpt from Action Park, new from Penguin Books, his teenage son Andy begins to realize that his father’s insistence on autonomy carries with it a measure of risk.

Emboldened by the success of the Lola race cars and their propensity to facilitate legal drunk driving in New Jersey, my father became preoccupied with growing out the entire motorized area of the park. If it needed fuel, it belonged here. He collected things that went fast and faster still, scooping up anything that could accelerate and filling up virtually every corner of the dedicated property with vehicles that guests could race or wreck.

From across Route 94, my ears partially obscured by the helmet worn while patrolling the skateboard park, I could hear the chants: “Wreck the boats! Wreck the boats!”

On a break, I walked across the road and stood out in the rain next to my older brother, Pete. We watched as people zipped around in speedboats that were roughly two-thirds the size of a full-scale version. Powerful engines that seemed way out of proportion for their flimsy plastic frames weighed them down. They populated a mucky-looking lake in Motor World with a small island in the middle.

“Why are they upset?” I asked.

“When it rains, we close down all the motorized rides except for the boats,” Pete said. “The lines get long. They get pissed and start to revolt.” Once someone got in a boat, he said, it was almost impossible to get them out until they ran out of gas.

The boats made a zipping sound as they looped around the island, noses pointed up in the air as if driven by junior cartel smugglers on the run from the Coast Guard. Two teenagers sped directly at each other, hair blowing back, bearing down on the throttle.

“Don’t do that!” Pete yelled. “Don’t you do that!”

The hulls collided with a thonk noise. Both speedboats began to capsize, spilling the occupants into the water.

“Serves them right,” Pete said.

One of them managed to get back into the boat and began cycling around the island again as Erin, the area’s traffic cop, tried to wave him in. The other climbed back on the dock, dripping with water and reeking of gasoline.

“There’s fuel all over my shorts!” he shouted. “My skin is burning, man!”

“Go to the office,” Pete said. “They have soap.”

Fuel and engine oil leaked from the motors, giving the entire lake a greasy sheen, like the top of a pizza. People who had been tossed into the water often started screaming. “Something brushed against my leg!” they would wail as they waded toward land, looking back as though a shark might emerge from the four-foot depths.

“Snakes,” Pete said. “Some of them are copperheads. We have snapping turtles, too. They can take a toe.” Doing laps in the boats first thing in the morning, Pete said, usually scared them off.

The relative sophistication of the motor-powered rides didn’t prevent us from installing low-cost attractions as well. Adjacent to the speedboat lake was a giant pile of hay bales that stretched more than ten feet in the air. They formed a winding labyrinth that resembled an obstacle course constructed for a rat in a laboratory. A sign next to it read: Human Maze.

A buddy of mine from school, Artie Williams, worked as the maze attendant. He was a good tennis player and read The New York Times every day without fail. These would normally be insufferable qualities for a teenager, but Artie managed to remain likable. He said he often heard muffled pleas for help from inside the maze. “People don’t understand it’s actually complicated and hard to get out of,” he said. “They think it’s like one of those things you draw a line through in a puzzle book. I wouldn’t go in without a rope tied around my waist.”

Snakes occasionally made their way into the bales, he said, popping out and causing people to sprint away in a mad panic, getting themselves even more lost than before. In the middle of summer, the bales also trapped heat, effectively turning the maze into a suffocating furnace. People emerged from the exit soaked in sweat and gasping. “Water, water,” they whispered, dry lips cracking. One of these disappearances actually made the local newspaper.

After a week, I saw a sign go up near the entrance:

DANGER

People Have Been Lost in This Maze for Up to 9 Hours

“It’s good to warn them up front,” Artie said, The New York Times tucked under his armpit.

As Motor World swelled, so did the rest of the park. New attractions seemed to erupt from the ground weekly, and other areas found new purpose. My father put in batting cages and basketball courts. The ski lift became the Sky Ride, a “scenic, 40-minute tour through the mountain landscape.” Trails of pot smoke surrounded the lifts. The race car mechanic, Mike Kramer, had cobbled together single-occupancy tanks that shot tennis balls at velocity at both guests and employees. It was Wimbledon meets Vietnam.

The concept of the Vernon Valley Fun Farm was already too quaint. The park was evolving, reflecting the increasingly rabid tastes of its patrons. The diesel-drenched success of Motor World and the failure of the comparatively serene skateboard park proved that people wanted speed and danger, competition and risk.

They did not want a fun farm. They wanted an action park.

Penguin Books

Excerpted from Action Park: Fast Times, Wild Rides, and the Untold Story of America’s Most Dangerous Amusement Park by Andy Mulvihill with Mental Floss senior writer Jake Rossen. Published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Andrew J. Mulvihill.