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Subject: Moths and feathers

Moths and feathers

From: Sally Shelton <shelton.sally>
Date: Monday, February 22, 1999
Caroline Finch <ycrnp64 [at] ucl__ac__uk> writes

>I am a final year conservation student currently doing research into
>the deterioration and conservation of feathers. During my research,
>I have encountered differing opinions as to what exactly the clothes
>moth (Lepidoptera tineidae) is after when it attacks a feather and
>"eats" its keratin structure. Some suggest it is the keratin, while
>others believe the moth eats the keratin in order to obtain the
>salts and oils which are on the surface. The former statement may
>also indicate why the frasse (found in association with feathers) is
>composed mostly of keratin. Is is the keratin or is it the salts and
>oils on the feather which the clothes moth digests? I welcome any
>opinions and or recommendations for further reading regarding this
>query and feather cleaning in general.

There are a lot of folk methods for cleaning taxidermy that have no
business in conservation, but keep surfacing nevertheless. (Wasn't
someone on this list collecting the best of really bad folk
conservation methods?) Cleaning taxidermy mounts and keeping them
bug-free are not the same thing, so I'm not sure why the bread
method was brought up in the context of pest control (unless it's
intended to serve as a warning of the kinds of practices that make
more pest control necessary).

The use of products such as bread (and cornmeal) will definitely
attract more pests and compound the problem. Methods that are used
by commercial taxidermists may not be transferable to good museum

Short of applying the usual gas-phase carcinogen fumigant to the
mounts (also not advised), the best practices are good cleaning and
good storage. Taxidermy mounts can easily be treated for pest
presence through anoxia. Many of them can also tolerate freezing,
though anything with significant horn/antler/bone/tooth content, or
with fragile glass eyes, should probably not be frozen. Storage
systems should be rigorously monitored and reviewed.

There is a lot of published research on the structure, nature and
cleaning of feathers. If dry brushing works, go no further. If very, very sure that you match the appropriate solvent to
the particular feathers. If the feather pigments are soluble, you
could have real and irreversible problems with a poorly-chosen

Finally, it's worth noting that "Lepidoptera tineidae" is not a
scientific name: these two names are high-level taxa in the
hierarchical structure. The former is the order; the latter (which
should be capitalized) is the family. They should be separated by a
colon. You really need at least the genus, and preferably the
species, in order to get a good fix on the exact nature of your
little enemy. Many species have species-specific diets; you need to
know exactly which you've got. This is where a good consulting
entomologist can be priceless.

Sally Shelton
Collections Officer
National Museum of Natural History
Smithsonian Institution

                  Conservation DistList Instance 12:69
                Distributed: Tuesday, February 23, 1999
                       Message Id: cdl-12-69-002
Received on Monday, 22 February, 1999

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