Flesh-eating bugs inside Te Papa

16:00, Nov 11 2012
Ricardo Palma
Of lice and men: Curator Ricardo Palma has studied lice for more than 40 years and is an international expert.

Deep in the dark recesses of Te Papa, far away from visitors' noses, is a living and breeding colony of flesh-eating dermestid beetles.

They are there to chew the flesh off bird carcasses, which they do more efficiently than a human being with a scalpel.

They leave behind a pile of bones, the museum's natural environment technician Catherine Tate explains in 100 Amazing Tales from Aotearoa, a new book based on the television series Tales From Te Papa.

Dermestid beetle
Meet and eat: An adult dermestid beetle at Te Papa. The beetles eat the fleshy remains on bird skeletons, cleaning them up to be prepared by the museum’s technicians.

The beetles, kept nice and warm in a sealed container, can reduce anything from a sparrow to an emu to a state Te Papa staff can wash, identify, label and store. There's no chance of the beetles running rampant. When the skeletons leave the beetle box, they're sealed in a bag and put in a freezer, where any beetles who have been loath to leave their dinner table are frozen to death.

Very dead, but equally startling, is a collection of more than 70,000 lice from 1000 species. They are of deep interest to their curator, Ricardo Palma, who arrived at Te Papa from Argentina in the 1970s, fascinated by lice on seabirds.

Most people, he says, look at a bird and see one animal, whereas he sees a flying zoo, since a bird can have thousands of parasites.


Mr Palma also proudly found seven headlice on a 1500-year-old Egyptian comb, one on himself, and untold numbers on taxidermy specimens. To collect them, he shakes the host they are on over a tray, reduces the louse to a tiny skeleton, mounts it in resin on a glass slide and bakes it in an oven for two weeks.

Plentiful and more spectacular is Te Papa's world-beating collection of albatrosses. There are 2000. Some have been killed as a by-product of fishing, and others found dead on the shore.

The albatross collection includes birds that died in the 1880s. Staff first investigate the cause of the death and then preserve the skin and the feathers, which tell what the birds would have been eating.

Some birds are preserved as dried skins, which are vulnerable to insects and are kept in cupboards impregnated with insect-repelling camphor, said to have kept the burgeoning collection bug-free since 1930.

Te Papa has 200,000 preserved New Zealand fish. A surprising new one arrives to be dealt with every week. Collections manager Andrew Stewart likens it to a library, except of fish preserved in alcohol, specimens able to be read like books.

They are a drop in the ocean of about two million things Te Papa holds, dating back to the truly ancient, such as a dinosaur tooth discovered in a quarry in southern England in the early 1820s.

The tooth was unearthed by a woman whose son inherited it and migrated to New Zealand.

It was exhibited at the Colonial Museum the day it opened in 1865 and has belonged to the nation ever since.

Te Papa palaeontologist Hamish Campbell says what dinosaurs have given humanity is the concept of extinction.

He has never met anyone who isn't interested in dinosaurs and he believes such a tooth must rate as one of the most significant objects on the planet.

Much more recent is a work by New Zealand artist John Reynolds comprising 7081 individual canvas panels, each painted with a phrase or a word and which, when assembled, form a giant cloud.

Reynolds completed the work in 2006 to reflect New Zealand's connection to the community of English-speaking nations and highlighting words from the Oxford Dictionary of New Zealand English. When it's not being displayed it has a special storage system involving 125 boxes, each with 60 canvases in neat trays, all in a crate.

Fascinating stories are woven around Maori taonga, including a hei tiki which belonged to Te Paea Hinerangi, known as Guide Sophia, who lived around Rotorua from the 1870s to the early 1900s and ran a business showing tourists the famous Pink and White Terraces on the shores of Lake Rotomahana at the foot of Mt Tarawera. Only days before the eruption that destroyed the terraces, she saw a phantom canoe gliding towards her, manned by 13 people with dogs' heads. She knew her days of guiding were coming to an end.

- 100 Amazing Tales of Aotearoa, with a DVD, Te Papa Press, $34.99

The Dominion Post