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A pickle party: A closer look at reptile embalming

A group of herpetology enthusiasts drive through the winding canyon roads of Utah, dry, sandy mountains lining the highway. They pull over periodically, gently picking up creatures from the side of the road to place in coolers. Nestled in the backseats and trunks of cars, herpetologists bring the reptilian or amphibious carcasses they find in the desert to an annual gathering at the end of the year, ominously called a pickle party.

Alison Whiting, the herpetology curator at the BYU Life Sciences Monte L. Bean Museum, organizes the pickle party each year, inviting BYU students and herpetologists from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) to bring their desert findings to preserve and prepare for display.

“You can learn a lot from dead things,” Drew Dittmer from the DWR explains as he inspects a lizard. The most important factor of specimen preservation, he says, is the diagnostic characters of the species: number of scales, throat color, or any other differentiating characteristics. Specimen have to be preserved in such a way that these diagnostic characters are visible.

For example, Dittmer injects a side blotch lizard with carcinogens. The side blotch is the most common lizard in Utah. Side blotch lizards can have a blue, yellow, or orange throat patch—it’s a mating advantage, Dittmer explains. The colors corresponding to different members of the species like a puzzle.

According to Whiting, around 25–30 people attend the pickle party to preserve about 200 species. The pandemic has slimmed the numbers down; this year there are about 20 attendees and only 50–60 species.

“It’s mostly lizards and salamanders,” Whiting says, although, “there are some snakes and turtles, too.”

Despite the pandemic, the tradition has forged on, inviting all kinds of life science enthusiasts to learn from each other.

For example, Kristin Derieg, a mammologist and collections manager for Utah’s Natural History Museum, specializes in rodents, particularly from the Southwest. Derieg came to the pickle party to expand her knowledge on reptiles.

The Life Sciences Museum’s annual embalming ceremony has more of a communal feel than laboratory as colleagues share discoveries, ideas, and stories, all with reptiles at the center.

Two dead lizards in a person's hand

Pickling Process:

  1. Tagging: each specimen is labelled by species and locality, tagged, and logged into a spreadsheet.
  2. Injecting: specimens are injected with carcinogens in a process called fluid fixing, which makes the animal tissue rubbery and stiff for preservation.
  3. Positioning: the formula is soaked out and the specimen is placed in ethanol. The creatures are placed in standardized positions so the body is easily visible when they are behind glass in the Life Sciences Museum.