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Wherein Emily sees things she had only ever read about in books.


The Brain Scoop is hosted and written by:
Emily Graslie

Executive Producer:
Hank Green (

Directed, Edited, and Scored by:
Michael Aranda (

Check out the Hammerhead Bat story on NPR! Hyonk hyonk! :

Thanks to Katerina Idrik, Eva Topitz, John-Alan Pascoe, Hervé Saint Raymond, Martina Šafusová, Barbara Velázquez, Tony Chu, and Seth Bergenholtz for translating captions!

Michael Aranda: This episode of The Brain Scoop is brought to you by obscenely generous contribution from Heather Hsu.


Emily Graslie: The Chicago Field Museum is one of the largest and most respected natural history museums in the world. Join me as we go behind the scenes! Dun dun dun!

Bill Stanley: We live our lives in this building.

E: Yeah. 

B: It's like a passion. You know this.

E: Absolutely. Oh, absolutely.

B: We're not 9 to 5.

E: Yeah. No. Not at all. It's- You work and live and breathe natural history in these kind of places.

B: Exactly. So what I thought we could do is just take a walk through the preparation process and, um, and follow the path of a specimen, from cleaning to cataloging and then we can go in the collection and really blow your mind.

E: That- That'd be great. I mean, because we've talked about a couple of these things on The Brain Scoop, but it's on such a smaller level, I mean I do everything in one or two rooms. You know, we get, we get the thing and it goes in the freezer and I prep it in the same room, and the beetles, and, and then I catalog it. And it all happens in one place. But this is literally football fields worth of space of collections.

The Dermestid Beetle Colony

E: I have heard legendary things about your dermestid colony. It smells wonderf- It smells like our lab on crack. It just smells so- Oh my gosh.

Anna Goldman: And it's seasonal, it changes.

E: Look at the- Ooh. Ooh! Is that a squirrel?

A: It is a squirrel.

E: Oh, lovely.

A: And that's, that's a gorilla hand.

E: I was gonna say, it looks like you have a human in here.

A: You can see the different, different size larvae.

E: Whoa. Yeah.

A: And that makes it really good, so they can get into like the little spaces.

E: Uh-huh.

A: And the big spaces. And the big black guys are the adults.

E: They're so gross. I love this place. I love these guys.

B: So do we.

E: I mean, yeah, they do so much wo- We always joke like they're gonna start- they're gonna build a union or something.

B: This is free labor. No unions, no coffee breaks, no pay raises. We don't want to put anything in too fresh, because if it is, if it's got a lot of moisture in it, then it runs the risk of creating mold in the colony which is bad news for the larvae.

E:Yeah. Yeah.

B: So we put it out on the drying rack for at least two or three days so that- 

E: Really?

B: Uh, it does dry a little bit, but as Anna says, if it's either freezer burned or, uh, too dry, then we have to alter it slightly.

E: That's fascinating.

B: This is a squirrel that's been sitting out for...

A: Two days.

B: Two days. And it's essentially ready to go in, when...

E: Yeah.

B: only when Anna sees, uh, that the colony is hungry. And sometimes we get a little infestations of spiders.

E: Oh, ew!

B: These are the fattest, laziest spiders, 'cause, can you imagine if you're like a spider and you're here in the corner and when it's time for lunch, you just throw a thread down

E: Yeah.

B: And just catch a larvae.

E: Oh. Amazing.

B: Come on, grab it. Show it to Michael.

E: Michael.

B: Michael, check this out.

E: Michael, check it out. Wow! Are these like little keratin sheaths? Just like little horns, like regular ungulate horn development?

B: I think so.

E: That's amazing.

B: But look at the little bumps along the- orbit there.

E: Wow, that is just amazing. We don't have any chameleons in our collection.

B: Don't take that one. As Anna can show you, she opens that door, this freezer then.

E: Whooa. It's so well organized, we just have things in Ziploc bags we shove in the door. But I guess that-- they just do such a wonderful job. Our beetles could, uh, definitely take some pointers from your beetles.

The Vertebrate Record Room

E: I don't even know. I've never seen anything like that in my life. Oh my god. You're just gonna, just take it out of there. That is the ugliest thing I've ever seen.

B: Oh, come on, Emily.

E: I- Ugh.

B: Oh, come on.

E: I mean, in like a beautiful way. He's gorgeous.

B: Thank you. Thank you. This is a hammer-headed bat. This is the male.

E: Yeah.

B: And hammer-headed bats have bulbous nose and fleshy lips. And a larynx, that's so large it actually displaces the heart to the side of the thoracic cavity.

E: What?!

B: And it's the shape of a tuba.

E: You're -

B: And it-

E: You're full of it.

B: I'm not full of it!

E: You!

B: And, uh, these animals lek.

E: Uh.

B: The definition of a lek is when individuals of one sex get together as a group to advertise to the opposite sex. Like sage grouse.

E: Okay.

B: Okay? So what these fruit bats do in Eastern and Central Africa is the males hang upside down in one tree, hundreds of them, flap their wings vigorously and honk.

E: What? Oh, 'cause nothing gets me going like a bunch of, like, honking males all soliciting ladies.

B: It's just like, it's just like the bar on Friday night.

E: What?

B: Yeah. And, so they honk and the, and the nose amplifies the honk and the sound carries for miles, and, uh, you can-

E: I can't-

B: The females hear it and say: "Yo, the boys are back in town." And then they come choose a mate.

E: Oh god.

B: If you Google hammerhead bat, there's an NPR piece where there was a fellow that- you can hear them, uh, honking. It sounds like the cross between an ah-ooh-ga horn and, uh, and somebody banging on a, a steel radiator with a pipe. Nyaw-nyaw-nyaw. And they start really slow, right. Just like Friday night, 5 o'clock.

E: Yeah.

B: Nyaw-nyaw-nyaw

But then they, when the females start flying around, they get all worked up: Nyaw-nyaw-nyaw-nyaw-nyaw-nyaw.

E: Oh my gosh. I've- I've never seen anything like this in my life. That's-

B: Now this is 70% ethanol. This is potable ethanol.

E: Okay.

B: We get our ethanol from- We have to get a federal permit to get our ethanol because we don't want denatured alcohol, because they use benzene and other chemicals

E: Yeah.

B: and we don't- Our- Our job here is to make sure this specimen looks just like this five hundred years from now. So that when you and I are dust in the wind, there are still people testing hypotheses with these specimens. So everything we do is geared towards keeping this collection intact forever.


E: It still has brains on it.