The Flesh-Eating Beetles that Work at Natural History Museums

UNO SCHMIDT, FLICKR // CC BY-SA 2.0
UNO SCHMIDT, FLICKR // CC BY-SA 2.0

Not long ago, the thing in the tank was a living animal—a bobcat that prowled and hunted the way bobcats do, and then eventually died. What’s in the tank doesn’t resemble a bobcat, though. It’s just a mass that looks a little bit like jerky meat still on the bone. And the bobcat isn't alone, either: Little black beetles and setae-studded larvae are swarming all over the meat, devouring it. Put an ear to the top of the tank, and you’ll hear something akin to the snap-crackle-pop of Rice Krispies just drenched in milk—the sound of thousands of dermestid beetles hard at work.

The bobcat is on its way to becoming an osteological specimen at Chicago’s Field Museum. Like most natural history museums around the world, the Field uses Dermestes maculatus, or hide beetles, to clean its specimens. The museum has 10 colonies, which live and work in aquaria around a third-floor room that’s closed off from the rest of the museum by two double doors. The specimens within the tanks are in various stages of cleanliness: One holds what appears to be a sloth arm, and in some, beetles and larvae hunt for meat on skeletons that are nearly picked clean.

Across the room, on a countertop next to the sink, carcasses stripped of their skin and excess musculature sit drying on racks and plastic trays. “The beetles like the meat a little bit dry,” explains research assistant Joshua Engel. He points to one—“this is a seagull”—then another: “This one might be beaver.” The scent of putrid meat hangs in the air. “You get used to it pretty quickly,” he says.

If the thought of beetles eating the meat off animal bones in an enclosed space turns your stomach, you’re not alone. But despite the ick factor, natural history museums are so indebted to the insects that they’ve been nicknamed “museum bugs.” And in fact, dermestid beetles have a number of advantages over other osteological prep methods: They eat the tissue from specimens in a fraction of the time (a colony can clean off a small rodent in just a few hours, a big bird like a seagull in a few days), are significantly less messy than other methods, and are much less harmful to the bones themselves. “We love them,” William Stanley, director of the Field Museum’s Gantz Family Collections Center, tells mental_floss. Dermestid beetles are, he says, the unsung heroes of natural history museums. As long as they don’t escape.

Studio stack: Flesh eater

D. maculatus larva. Photo by John Hallmén. Embed via Flickr.

 
There are many, many species in the Dermestidae family, and if you look closely enough, you can find them anywhere. Have you spotted carpet beetles under your rugs, or Khapra beetles in your pantry? Congratulations—you’ve met a dermestid.

D. maculatus (which has also gone by the name D. vulpinus) can be found around the world. According to scientists at the American Museum of Natural History, the beetles go through a complete metamorphosis: egg, larva, pupa, and, finally, adult. The eggs, which are about a millimeter in size, hatch around three days after they’re laid. Then comes the larval stage, during which the larvae go through seven or eight instars. With each molt, the beetle-to-be sheds its exoskeleton.

It’s at this stage that a beetle is the most efficient. Though both the adults and the larvae eat, “the larvae are doing most of the cleaning,” says Theresa Barclay, manager of the dermestid colonies at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (MVZ) at Berkeley. “By the time they become adults, they’re not eating as much.” The more larvae are present in a colony, the faster specimens get cleaned.

When it’s time to pupate, the larva does so in its own skin—no cocoon here. The adult beetle emerges after five days, goes through five days of maturation, and then becomes reproductive, mating and eating for the next two months. (Females can lay between 198 and 845 eggs in that time.) Then they die, joining the ever-growing pile of frass—old exoskeletons ground to dust, beetle poop, and dead insects—at the bottom of the tank.

A single beetle’s lifespan is about six months, but depending on the size of the tank, the life of a museum colony can be much longer. According to Stanley, the Field Museum’s colonies last for about five years—and that’s a limit only because the tanks fill with frass and need to be cleaned out. “It takes literally years for that dust to build up until it’s so high that we can’t fit any more skeletons into the aquarium,” Stanley says. “So we stop giving that aquarium any food, and slowly but surely, the colony dies off.” After freezing the colony for seven days to make sure the bugs are good and dead, the whole thing goes in the trash (frass doesn’t make good compost). “Then we have an empty aquarium,” Stanley says, “and we start all over again.”

But that all makes the process sound a little too easy. Getting the beetles to chow down just the way a museum director needs them to has taken decades of work—and some people didn’t even want them in museums in the first place.

Timelapse of a two-faced calf skull being cleaned in one of the Field's beetle colonies from an episode of Brain Scoop. View the full episode (which contains graphic content) here; footage courtesy of the Field Museum.

 
There’s no precise record for when naturalists decided to put dermestid beetles to work in museums doing what they do in nature, but judging by the beetles’ family name, they knew what the insects were capable of: Derma is Latin for skin and este means “to consume.”

The first to use beetles in an institutional setting might have been Charles Dean Bunker, who joined the Kansas University Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum in 1895. According to the institution's website, Bunker was mostly concerned with the preparation of entire skeletons, and he “developed innovative techniques for cleaning bones, emphasizing methods for the maintenance of colonies of dermestid beetles.” Bunker’s students were called “Bunk’s Boys,” and they took what they learned from him and put it into practice when they went to other institutions.

That’s how Berkeley’s MVZ ended up with a colony in 1924. E. Raymond Hall, who had been one of Bunk’s Boys at KU, told Joseph Grinnell about the beetles, says Christina V. Fidler, archivist at MVZ, and Grinnell sent Bunker a letter requesting the bugs. Though there were issues with the methodology—“Bunker told him, ‘We had a problem with the beetles and our large mammals, and [the colony] was infested by spiders,’” Fidler says—he sent Grinnell a colony anyway.

But MVZ’s colony didn’t revolutionize osteological prep at the museum as Grinnell might have hoped—at least not at first. The museum’s preparer, a woman named Edna Fischer, wasn’t interested in using the beetles. She thought they wouldn’t work, and instead boiled the bones, then cleaned specimens by hand, at a rate of 10 skulls a day. She was two years behind on skulls, and five years behind on skeletons.

Meanwhile, in the basement, 50 gunny sacks packed with specimens that had never been cleaned were full of dermestids doing what they do best.

The museum’s colony languished until 1929, when Fischer left and Ward C. Russell took over as preparer. He began using the beetles in earnest, refining the methodology as he went, and in 1933, he and Hall published a paper outlining their methods, “Dermestid Beetles as an Aid in Cleaning Bones,” in the Journal of Mammalogy—the first paper on the subject. Their aim was to speed up the prep time while creating better osteological samples, and they hit upon a solution: “By combining two common methods of preparation,” they wrote, “namely removing cooked flesh by means of instruments and exposing dried specimens to these beetles and their larvae, a system has been devised which we now feel justified in describing as possibly of help to others.”

Ward and Hall instructed scientists to find a warm room, and outfit it with wooden boxes topped with 3-inch strips of tin to keep the bugs inside. Next, they were to place a small, dried carcass in the box, drop some adult beetles on top, and leave them for a month. “At the end of this time,” Russell and Hall wrote, “the bugs have greatly increased in number and have consumed most of their meat supply. Conditions are then at an optimum for their use as cleaners of specimens.”

Now, finally, the real process of bone cleaning could begin. Hall and Russell advised scientists to line a shallow cardboard box with cotton; place a specimen to be cleaned inside, then cover it with more cotton, which would give the larvae a place to pupate. Those cardboard boxes were to be placed in the wooden boxes. Labeling the specimen was another matter: colleagues were instructed to use hardy paper (anything soft would be devoured or defaced by the bugs) with ink that could withstand both water and ammonia (which would be used to degrease the bones after cleaning) placed carefully inside.

Working with the beetles and using this method, Russell was able to clean a staggering 80,000 specimens during his 40 years at the museum. Even more impressively, the methods endure. These days, scientists at the Field and other institutions create colonies in much the same way Russell did.

But while the techniques stayed with the museum, some of the bugs didn’t: Russell took a colony home with him, Fidler says, and proudly showed it off to MVZ’s oral historians years after he retired.

A specimen dries in the beetle room at the Field Museum. Photo by Erin McCarthy.

 
Different natural history institutions house their beetles in different ways. At AMNH, for example, the beetles are kept in sealed metal boxes, and MVZ has two aquaria and one environmental chamber with multiple trays of beetles. Meanwhile, scientists at the Field mimic as much of the natural world as possible.

Former collections manager Dave Willard established guidelines that employees at the museum still use. Mesh tops give the beetles open air, and scientists turn the lights off at night to replicate the natural day/night cycle. To get the colonies to stay efficient, they’re kept at a constant temperature—around 70 degrees—and a constant humidity. And the amount of food in each tank must be just right.

It’s hard work, but it’s worth it—and Stanley thinks this extra attention to detail might be why the Field’s colony is especially vigorous. “I’ve never seen a better colony than the one here,” he says. “On any given day, when the colony is really cranking, we say that it’s hot—and we mean that literally. You can put your hand over the colony and feel the metabolic heat of the beetles. When the colony is like that, a mouse can take a little as an hour to clean.”

Preparing specimens for a trip to the beetle tank isn’t pretty—each has to be tagged, skinned, gutted, and dried, which both cuts down on the likelihood of rot and mold and makes the meat smellier, to better attract bugs—but learning about other methods of cleaning suddenly makes dermestid beetles seem like the best option by a mile.

Imagine boiling a skull until the flesh falls off, or burying a specimen too large for the beetles in elephant dung and compost, leaving it for a few weeks, and coming back to dig it up. Or steeling yourself to pull bones from a putrid barrel full of water, rotten flesh, and maggots. All are methods that natural history museums use, but each has their own pitfalls.

Once, when he was working at Humboldt, Stanley found himself facing five garbage cans. “Each of these garbage cans had a sea lion in it that had been macerating for months with maggots at the top,” he says. “My job was to fish through this goop and pull out the skeleton and clean off the rotting flesh. It was just disgusting.”

Macerating—in which specimens are dunked in water, allowing bacteria to feed for months so that flesh falls off the bone—totally works, Stanley says, but “the moisture and the activity by the bacteria are detrimental to the bones. If you aren’t incredibly careful, then femurs and humeri crack, and teeth will fall out of the skull.” Cleaning by burying can be disrupted, he says, and boiling is even more detrimental to the bones.

Stanley compares the beetle process to “putting a T-bone steak in the colony and coming back to find just the T of the bone.” Though a lot of people are grossed out by the beetles, it’s a relatively dry way to clean bones—and believe it or not, it even smells better than other methods. “If we were to show you some of the containers where we macerate things,” Stanley says, “it would be a lot worse.”

Dermestidae damage to a Manduca quinquemaculata specimen at the Texas A&M University Insect Collection. Image courtesy of Shawn Hanrahan, Wikimedia Commons //CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0.

 
If Dermestid beetles are the unsung heroes of natural history institutions, they also have the potential to be a museum’s greatest villain. “They are the method of choice for cleaning skeletons, but they are also one of the biggest threats for the very collection that we’re using them for,” Stanley says. “All of the specimens that are being prepared as study skins have dried tissue in them. If the beetles didn’t have anything else to eat, they would burrow into those skins and turn them to dust.

“If you get an infestation started in the collection,” he continues, “you are screwed.”

Take, for example, what happened at the South Australian Museum. In 2011, the museum’s insect collections—which included 2 million specimens collected over 150 years—were overrun by carpet beetles, and some holotype specimens (the first example of a species) were damaged. The Australian government allocated $2.7 million to eradicate the pests; museum staffers froze specimens for three months before moving them to special-built, nearly airtight cabinets.

“They can come in lots of different ways. You can bring them in on your clothes, your shoes, they can get in through ventilation or other access points,” Luke Chenoweth, an entomologist at the South Australian Museum, said. “They can decimate a specimen quite quickly, particularly the larvae. We had a large amount of dead insects in one place so it was the perfect environment for these pests to chew away.”

Museums don’t use carpet beetles, but what happened to the South Australian Museum could easily happen anywhere if a hide beetle were to escape, so institutions take special care to avoid this worse-case scenario. AMNH’s boxes have smooth sides and Vaseline in the corners so the bugs can’t climb out. Scientists also place sticky traps across the doors to contain any rogue beetles. (Another key is keeping them well-fed; when they’re hungry, they try to escape.) At the Field, the colony is on the same floor as its ornithology collection, right next to the bird prep lab, which causes scientists from other museums to “freak,” Stanley says. Elaborate mesh screens are used to keep flying beetles in place, and the double doors seal them off from other collections. At other institutions, the beetles are kept at more of a distance. MVZ has its colony in the same building, but on a different floor than the collections.

Institutions take other precautions, too. Just as a specimen must go through several steps before it gets into a beetle tank, it must go through several steps before it goes into collections. The process starts when scientists reach inside the tank, grab the specimen, and shake the beetles off. At that point, a skeleton might look clean, but, says Stanley, “Tiny larvae could be inside brain cavities or vertebral columns.” To make sure there are no stowaways, scientists freeze all specimens. (There doesn’t seem to be a set amount of time a specimen should be frozen; the Field freezes each specimen for 24 hours, while MVZ freezes for a week, places the specimens in quarantine for an additional week, and freezes again if necessary.)

Next, the bones are dunked in an ammonia solution—one part ammonia, nine parts water—to degrease them. The bones remain in the solution for 24 hours, then are picked at in the sink. “In theory, the beetles eat everything but the bones and the cartilage, but in practice, they often will leave little bits of tissue on the pads of feet for example or along the palette,” Stanley says. “So a lot of our volunteer time is spent with fine forceps and scalpels at the sink just to make sure that everything’s off.”

The Field Museum Bug Room's Facebook Page

 
Only once a specimen has gone through all of these steps—freezing, dunking, and picking—can it finally move into the collections. Most will end up in boxes next in the museum’s miles and miles of storage, where researchers will pull them out for study—and potentially make important scientific discoveries. Others will end up on display in the museum itself, with most visitors none-the-wiser about how the skeleton was prepared.

“We’ve harnessed nature to study nature,” Stanley says. “If we could, we would use beetles every time.”

What Makes Dogs Tilt Their Heads?

iStock.com/JoeChristensen
iStock.com/JoeChristensen

By tilting its head slightly to the side, a dog can melt the heart of even the most hardened cat person. Most everyone finds this behavior adorable, but few people can explain what compels a dog to do it. Are dogs somehow aware of the effect they have on humans, using a cute trick to exploit us for affection?

Experts say the real answer has more to do with your dog's ability to empathize. Dogs are impressively good at reading and responding to our body language and vocal cues. When you're lecturing your pooch for taking food off the counter, they're taking it all in even if the literal message gets lost in translation. Same goes for when you’re giving your pup praise. Dogs are capable of recognizing certain parts of human language, so when they cock their heads as you speak to them, it's possible they're listening for specific words and inflections they associate with fun activities like meals and playtime.

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The head-tilt may also have something to do with how the canine ear is constructed. Even though dogs sense frequencies humans are incapable of hearing, their ability to detect the source of sounds is less precise than ours. A dog's brain calculates extremely minuscule differences between the time it takes a sound to reach each ear, so a simple change in head position could provide them with useful sensory information. When dogs tilt their heads, some experts believe they are adjusting their pinnae, or outer ears, in order to better pinpoint the location of a noise.

Stanley Coren of Psychology Today believes that vision also has something to do with this behavior. If you try holding your fist in front of your nose, you can get a fair sense of what it’s like to view the world with a muzzle. When watching someone speak, the "muzzle" will block the lower part of their face from view, and if you tilt your head to one side you will be able to see it more clearly. In addition to being able to perceive emotional cues in our voices, dog can also read our facial expressions. When cocking their heads to the side, Coren suggests that dogs are trying to get a better view of our mouths, where our most expressive facial cues originate.

If your dog is a frequent head-tilter, this could mean that they're especially empathetic. Some experts have reported that dogs who are more socially apprehensive are less likely to tilt their heads when spoken to. But if your dog doesn't display this behavior, there's no need to automatically label them as a canine sociopath (especially if they have pointy ears or a flatter snout). And even if the head tilt does come from instinct, the more owners respond to it with positive reinforcement, the more likely dogs are to do it in search of praise.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, send it to bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

25 Facts About Puppies

iStock.com/sArhange1
iStock.com/sArhange1

Everyone loves puppies, we know. It's scientifically proven that they're heart-meltingly cute. But there's more to the little fur babies than just those adorable puppy eyes. In honor of National Puppy Day (which happens on March 23), here are 25 things everyone should know about these four-legged snuggle buddies.

1. The word puppy has French roots.

A dog with a red beret and a scarf.
iStock.com/Sergii Kozak

Etymologists think the term puppy may come from poupeé, a French word meaning doll or toy. The word puppy doesn't appear to have entered the English language until the late 16th century—before that, English speakers called baby dogs whelps. William Shakespeare's King John, believed to be written in the 1590s, is one of the earliest known works to use the (super cute) term puppy-dog.

2. Puppies evolved to be blind and deaf at birth.

A newborn baby puppy
iStock.com/ilona75

Puppies are functionally blind and deaf at birth. On day one, their eyes are firmly shut and their ear canals closed. Why? In brief, it’s part of an evolutionary trade-off. Since pregnancy can hurt a carnivore's ability to chase down food, dogs evolved to have short gestation periods. Brief pregnancies meant that canine mothers wouldn't need to take prolonged breaks from hunting. However, because dog embryos spend such a short time in the womb (only two months or so), puppies aren't born fully developed—and neither are their eyes or ears.

3. Puppies have baby teeth, too.

A puppy that still has its baby teeth
iStock.com/exies

Like many newborn mammals, puppies are born completely toothless. At 2 to 4 weeks of age, a puppy's 28 baby teeth will start to come in. Around 12 to 16 weeks old, those baby teeth fall out, and by the time pups are 6 months old, they should be sporting a set of 42 adult teeth.

4. Puppies take a lot of naps.

A puppy sleeps against a plush toy.
iStock.com/stonena7

Like children, puppies need a lot of sleep—up to 15 to 20 hours of it a day. The American Kennel Club strongly advises dog owners to resist the urge to disturb napping puppies, because sleep is critical for a young canine's developing brain, muscles, and immune system. Puppy owners should also establish a designated sleeping space on their pup's behalf so they can snooze undisturbed.

5. Certain breeds are usually born by C-section.

Three bulldog puppies
iStock.com/cynoclub

Purebred dogs can exhibit some extreme bodily proportions, which doesn't always make for easy births. Breeds with atypically large heads are more likely to be born by C-section than those with smaller skulls. A 2010 survey of 22,005 individual dog litters in the UK found that terriers, bulldogs, and French bulldogs had Caesarian births more than 80 percent of the time. The other breeds with the highest rates of C-sections were Scottish terriers, miniature bull terriers, Dandie Dinmont terriers, mastiffs, German wirehaired pointers, Clumber spaniels, and Pekingeses, according to the study.

6. Some breeds have bigger litters than others.

A Neopolitan Mastiff dog
iStock.com/Okikukai

As a general rule, smaller breeds tend to have smaller litters, while bigger dogs give birth to more puppies. The biggest litter on record was born to a Neapolitan mastiff that gave birth via Caesarian section to a batch of 24 puppies in Cambridgeshire, UK in 2004. In rare cases, very small dogs do give birth to relatively large litters, though. In 2011, a Chihuahua living in Carlisle, England gave birth to a whopping 10 puppies—twice as many as expected. Each weighed less than 2.5 ounces.

7. Some puppies are born green.

A golden retriever puppy wrapped in a green and white towel
iStock.com/yellowsarah

Sometimes, a puppy in a light-colored litter can be born green. On two different occasions in 2017, in fact, British dogs made the news for giving birth to green-tinted puppies. In January, a 2-year-old chocolate lab in Lancashire, UK gave birth to a litter that included a mossy-green pup. Her owners named her FiFi, after Fiona, the green-skinned ogre from Shrek. Just a few months later, a golden retriever in the Scottish Highlands also gave birth to a puppy with a green coat, a male named Forest. How did the puppies end up looking like Marvin the Martian? In rare cases, the fur of a light-haired puppy can get stained by biliverdin, a green pigment found in dog placentas. It's not permanent, though. The green hue gradually disappears over the course of a few weeks.

8. Puppies don't find your yawns contagious.

A puppy stands on a wooden walkway yawning.
iStock.com/Laures

Ever notice that when somebody yawns, other people may follow suit? Contagious yawning, thought to be a sign of empathy, affects humans, baboons, chimps, and yes, dogs. But as research published in Animal Cognition suggests, young canines aren't susceptible to catching yawns from birth. In the 2012 study, Swedish researchers took a group of 35 dogs between 4 and 14 months old on closely monitored play dates, feigning yawns in front of each individual animal. Dogs that were less than 7 months old didn't react, yet many of the older dogs would respond with a yawn of their own. This pattern mirrors what happens with humans—children don't pick up the habit of contagious yawning until around age 4, when they start to develop social skills like empathy. These results suggest that dogs, too, may develop empathy over the course of their puppyhood.

9. Puppies like "baby talk" more than their parents do.

A woman holds up a puppy.
iStock.com/jmalov

Like humans, puppies seem to grow out of baby talk, recent research has found. As part of a 2017 study, 30 women were asked to look at assorted photographs of people and dogs and utter this pre-written line: "Hi! Hello cutie! Who's a good boy? Come here! Good boy! Yes! Come here sweetie pie! What a good boy!" To the surprise of no one, the human test subjects spoke in a higher register while looking at dog pictures, especially puppy photos. Afterward, the researchers played the recordings for 10 adult pooches and 10 puppies. Almost all of the pups started barking and running toward the speaker when they heard the baby-talk recordings. In contrast, the grown dogs pretty much ignored the recordings altogether.

10. Dalmatian puppies are born without spots.

A mother Dalmatian and her puppy snuggle together.
iStock.com/SolStock

Beloved by firefighters, Disney fans, and George Washington, Dalmatians arguably have the most recognizable coat of any dog breed. Or at least, full-grown Dalmatians do. As puppies, they're born white and spot-less. The markings usually begin to show up after four weeks or so. (A small subset of Dalmatian puppies are born with one or two large black blotches, known as patches, but those markings aren't allowed in most competitive show rings.)

11. Puppies know how to manipulate you with their eyes.

Cute pug with sad eyes
iStock.com/feedough

Those adorable "puppy eyes" aren't an inadvertent expression of canine emotion; they're a deliberate ploy to get our attention. Puppies (and adult dogs) have learned that raising their eyebrows, which makes their eyes appear bigger and sadder, makes them magnets for human attention. According to one study from 2017, dogs are more likely to make dramatic facial expressions like puppy-dog eyes when they know humans are watching. And it works. Research has shown that shelter puppies who put on such faces get adopted more quickly than dogs that show other behaviors, like wagging their tails.

12. Puppies can have identical twins.

Two identical puppies and their mother sit in the grass.

Scientists don't know how common identical twin puppies are, because until very recently, no one was able to prove that they existed at all. In 2016, Kurt de Cramer, a South African veterinarian, noticed something unusual while performing a C-section on a pregnant Irish wolfhound. Normally, every puppy gets its own placenta, yet de Cramer noticed that two of the seven pups in this litter shared a single placenta. Testing later verified that the puppies were genetically identical. It was the first confirmed case of identical twin puppies in the world.

13. Scientists have successfully cloned (and re-cloned) them.

Three puppies sit on a cushion.
Kim et al., Scientific Reports (2017)

In 1996, Dolly the sheep became the first successful mammal clone. Nine years later, geneticists in South Korea used the same process to engineer the world's first canine clone, an Afghan hound named Snuppy. While Snuppy passed away in 2015 at the respectable age of 10, his story isn't over yet. In 2017, researchers announced that four puppies had been cloned from his stem cells. Sadly, one of the pups died a few days after its birth, but the other three survived. Scientists hope that these young dogs will teach us how healthy cloned animals are compared to their naturally conceived counterparts.

14. Lin-Manuel Miranda's puppy inspired a song in Hamilton.

Lin-Manuel Miranda
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

In the award-winning musical Hamilton, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton sing a ballad called "Dear Theodosia" to their newborn children. The tender song's inspiration wasn't a newborn babe, though. Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote it the week he adopted Tobillo, a stray puppy he and his wife found while on vacation in 2011.

15. A puppy destroyed half of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men manuscript.

A black-and-white portrait of John Steinbeck
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Of Mice and Men might feature one of the biggest animal lovers in American literature—the rabbit- and puppy-loving Lennie—but ironically, a puppy once jeopardized the novel's existence. In May 1936, John Steinbeck's Irish setter, Toby, was going through his teething phase. Left alone one night, he demolished half of his master's manuscript for Of Mice and Men, eating through two months of work ... and Steinbeck didn't have any backup copies. But the author found it hard to stay angry with the puppy. "I was pretty mad, but the poor little fellow may have been acting critically," Steinbeck wrote. "I didn't want to ruin a good dog for a manuscript I'm not sure is good at all." He just buckled down and rewrote the shredded chapters.

16. Keith Richards once smuggled a puppy through British customs.

English guitarist Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, circa 1965
Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

While the Rolling Stones were on tour in the U.S. in 1964, a fan gave guitarist Keith Richards a collie puppy named Ratbag. When Richards returned to the UK, rather than subject the pup to quarantine, he smuggled the animal through British customs under his coat. The dog would become one of Richards's most beloved companions, and a biographer would later write that the star "appeared to identify [with Ratbag] more than anybody else."

17. Barack Obama's puppy has his own baseball card.

Bo Obama sits on the White House lawn.
Obama White House, Flickr // Public Domain

In April 2009, the Obamas adopted Bo, a 6-month-old Portuguese water dog. That summer, the White House put together an official baseball card loaded with fun facts about America's First Pooch. (For one: He can't swim.) You can still download the collectible card online.

18. The Soviet Union once gave JFK a very special puppy.

President Kennedy, John F. Kennedy Jr., Mrs. Kennedy, Caroline Kennedy. Dogs: Clipper ( standing ), Charlie ( with Caroline ), Wolf ( reclining ), Shannon ( with John Jr. ), two of Pushinka's puppies ( with Mrs. Kennedy ).
Cecil Stoughton White House Photographs, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Dogs can bring out the best in people, including political adversaries. While seated next to each other at a state dinner in Vienna in the early 1960s, First Lady Jackie Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev got to chatting about Strelka, the world-famous dog who had recently been sent into low-Earth orbit by the Soviet space program. Afterward, Khrushchev sent the Kennedys one of Strelka's newly born daughters. The puppy's name was Pushinka, which means fluffy in Russian.

19. A Boston museum has enlisted a puppy to find art-destroying pests.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
iStock.com/dosecreative

In early 2018, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts "hired" a Weimaraner pup named Riley to find unwanted pests that, if left unchecked, could harm priceless masterpieces. Riley is being taught to sniff out art-threatening insects like textile-eating moths and wood-boring beetles. "Pests are an ongoing concern for museums," deputy director Katie Getchell told The Boston Globe in January 2018. "It's exciting to think about this as a new way to address the problem." If Riley is able to do his job well, she said, other museums and archives that collect infestation-prone materials might be able to use trained dogs as a defense against bugs, too.

20. IBM's Watson is judging puppies now.

Guide dog puppies in training are led by their trainers.
Erik S. Lesser, Getty Images

Not all puppies have what it takes to become guide dogs. Guide dogs have to be healthy, confident, hardworking, and not easily distracted. At the end of the day, many pups just aren't cut out for this line of work—at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a nonprofit that trains and places seeing eye dogs in New York, only about 36 percent of trainee dogs make it. That's where Watson, the IBM supercomputer famous for winning Jeopardy, comes in. IBM has developed a program for Watson that helps it predict how likely individual puppies are to graduate from Guiding Eyes's training school using data on the temperament, medical history, and genetics of the dogs as well as the personality traits of their trainers. 

21. Looking at puppies can make you more productive.

A poodle puppy sits on a desk next to a man working on a laptop.
iStock.com/ThamKC

That puppy portrait hanging in your cubicle at work might be a bigger asset than you realized. For a 2012 Hiroshima University experiment on productivity, participants were asked to look at pictures from one of three categories: tasty food snapshots, pictures of adult animals, or photos of puppies and kittens. Then, they were asked to play a board game that required lots of precision. As it turned out, people who'd just seen puppies and kittens had an easier time concentrating on the task at hand than study subjects who saw other types of images.

22. Our stone-age ancestors took good care of their puppies.

A canine jawbone
Janssens et al., Journal of Archaeological Science (2018)

In 1914, archaeologists in Germany discovered the fossilized jawbone of a puppy that lived 14,000 years ago. According to a 2018 study on the specimen, the jaw probably belonged to a 27- or 28-week-old pup—and a sick one, at that. The teeth showed signs of canine distemper virus, a life-threatening disease that still has no cure. Analysis of the bone suggested that the animal first came down with the sickness at 19 weeks old. "Without adequate care," study co-author Luc Janssens noted in a press release, "a dog with a serious case of distemper will die in less than three weeks," yet this pup survived for another eight weeks. Even though the puppy wouldn't have been very useful to its prehistoric human owners, they kept it clean, warm, and well-fed for months, helping it survive for longer than it otherwise would have.

23. There's a 17-ton puppy sculpture in Bilbao, Spain.

Puppy kissing the Iberdrola skyscraper at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
iStock.com/luisrsphoto

Since it opened in 1997, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao has been home to Puppy, a towering, flower-covered sculpture that artist Jeff Koons modeled after a young West Highland terrier. The 17-ton pooch owes its shape to a fabric-covered mesh that is topped with 37,000 live flowers. The 40-foot-tall, puppy-shaped garden is now regarded as a mascot for both the museum and the city itself.

24. They're not running around the Puppy Bowl live. (Sorry.)

A puppy plays with a toy at the Puppy Bowl.
Animal Planet

The fur-rocious Super Bowl spoof known as the Puppy Bowl made its debut on Animal Planet back in 2005. Viewers might be surprised to find out that, unlike the real game, the Puppy Bowl isn't broadcast live. Instead, the contest is shot over the course of an entire week. The crew spends two days filming the dogs with the help of 100 or more canine wranglers. 

25. Hollywood's most iconic dog was a troublesome puppy.

Lassie
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The first dog to play Lassie on film was really a "laddie." Specifically, he was a male Rough collie named Pal. As a pup, the dog had some behavior issues—little Pal was overly enthusiastic and drove his first owner crazy with nonstop barking. (Even more disconcerting was the puppy's habit of chasing down motorcycles, a pastime he never outgrew.) After animal trainer Henry Peck failed to make any progress with Pal, he referred the puppy's owner to a colleague by the name of Rudd Weatherwax, who was much more successful at training him. Pal's original owner eventually gave him to Weatherwax, and the rest is history. Under the trainer's guidance, Pal starred in seven Lassie movies, plus two episodes of the spinoff TV series. Decades after his passing, The Saturday Evening Post declared that Pal had enjoyed "the most spectacular canine career in film history."

This story first ran in 2018.

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