Shark Skeleton Preparation For Taxidermist

Sharks are composed entirely of cartilage, which means they need to be treated differently from other fish, birds, and mammals. The cartilage will quickly de-hydrate if not looked after properly. This is especially true when it comes to shark jaws.

This blog will introduce you to the successful preparation of jaws, heads, fins, and whole shark specimens so they can be sent successfully to the taxidermist carrying out the work.

Shark Jaws

As with the rest of the shark, jaws are composed entirely of cartilage. The strength of the jaw comes from a hardening or mineralisation of the cartilage in certain areas of the jaw itself, such as the lower jaw, where the largest muscles are found. A cross section of a shark jaw will reveal a mineralised layer of cartilage and layers of white fibrous materials on top, forming a type of sandwich. It is important that this white fibrous material is not damaged or removed at all, otherwise the granular cartilage material will be exposed, leading to major cracking of the jaw itself.

Removing the jaws from the shark must be done with great care. The most obvious point to make is to make sure the shark is dead before attempting to do this, otherwise, you will get a very nasty and potentially painful surprise. If you have never cut a jaw out, ask someone who has. Make sure you take your time removing it, as a sharp knife can quickly cut through the jaw, rendering the repair work afterward even greater and costly. Let the knife do the work and never force any cutting, as that usually indicates you have hit cartilage, and cutting further will result in damage to the jaw. Pay particular attention to the lower flanges of the jaw, as they flare out (especially on Tiger sharks) and they can easily be nicked or even worse, sliced off completely.

Once you have completely removed the jaw from the skull, there will be a certain amount of meat left on the jaw. Makes sure you leave that, is it will offer some “protection” to the cartilage and ensures it does not dry out too much. The next important step is to rinse the jaw under cold water and remove as much blood as possible from it. You will also notice that on some jaws, especially Tiger sharks, there is a large amount of mucous-like material that covers the jaw. If you can remove that with water, all the better.

Once the jaw has been thoroughly rinsed, place it in a large enough plastic bag and write on a plastic, waterproof tag the capture details of the shark and the client’s details, and place it either in the bag itself, or attached to the jaw itself. Close the bag using a cable tie or other fastener. Place this bag inside another sturdy bag, and make sure it is tightly closed as well. Remember that some jaws, especially Makos, have long puncturing teeth that will make short work of even the toughest bags. Try to close the jaw up and make it as small as possible, as this will also help if you are posting the jaw. This also ensures the teeth are somewhat close together and not capable of cutting any bags or unwary fingers.

Once the jaw/s are in both bags, freeze them immediately (preferably within a couple of hours of removing them) trying to keep them in as much of a natural shape as possible, so there is no stress on the ligaments. Make sure you also do not place heavier frozen items on top, as this could crack the cartilage.

Keep the jaws in the freezer until you are ready to mail out. You can either send the jaws by courier, or by post. Either way, make sure the packaging is totally waterproof, as any leaking of the container will result in the carrier destroying the package and its contents. Not worth the trouble. If you have access to a large vacuum pack machine you can place the jaws inside a couple of bags and vacuum seal them, so no liquids or fluids can escape. Alternatively, if the jaw is very big or you don’t have such a machine, you can buy from any department store Space Bags (the bags they use to place clothing items inside for storage and remove all the air with a vacuum cleaner). This will ensure that no liquids can seep into the container.

Shark Heads

Shark heads are really no different to the jaws themselves, except of course there is probably less work involved, apart from removing the head from the shark itself, which can be quite challenging. Taking the head off a 12-13ft Tiger shark or Mako shark is a really hard job, as the knife will dull quickly against the skin, and getting the blade in between the cervical column can sometimes be a challenge. Nevertheless, it’s not impossible.

Essentially, when you decide you want a skull mount of a shark, you will need to decide whether you just want the head or also include the gills. Most sharks have the stock standard 5 gills, therefore make sure you cut well behind the last gill set, again taking your time with the cutting.  Once removed the head, rinse it under cold water, hosing the inside of the gills and ensuring you have removed as much blood and mucous from both the outside of the head and the inside.

Once that has been completed, use a very heavy-duty bag to place the head inside. The head will be extremely heavy, so use a bag that is very strong and make sure it is supported at all times. Again, like the jaws, best to double bag it, and place the head in the freezer within a couple of hours of cutting it off.  Make sure you once again place a waterproof tag inside the bag with capture details and contact details of the client.The longer you delay placing the head in the freezer, the greater the chance of staining of the cartilage on the skull and jaw might occur, from blood and mucous pooling in areas of the head and jaw.

Fins and Tails

The skeletonising of tail fins, dorsal fins, and pectoral fins are a relatively new form of displaying such shark parts, and they. can be very visually striking when done properly. At Elasmo-Morph I have developed a technique which primarily shows both sides of the tail, one with the skin left on and the other side revealing the beautiful cartilage structure of the fins, including the tail. Again the process is very similar to the above procedures. The important factor here is to ensure the fins and tail do not dry out, as this will cause the extremities to curl and fold over themselves, causing all sorts of issues later on when skeletonising the fins. Make sure the fins are thoroughly rinsed of all blood and dirt and are wrapped up tightly in plastic bags. Double bagging them ensures there is no freezer burn to the fins, which could result in poor quality results afterwards. When placing them in the freezer, make sure they are laid out as flat as possible so as not to bend any of the fin structures.

Whole Sharks

Usually, when I receive whole sharks at Elasmo-Morph, it’s because a client wishes to have a full skeleton mount. This can be from a 3ft shark up to a 12-13 ft specimen. Although the process of preparing the whole shark is not really that different to the above processes for the jaws and skulls, there are a few variations in preparing whole specimens to send for skeleton mounts. Although the shark will be made into a skeleton, there are still some precautions you will need to take to ensure the final specimen will look incredible. It is always best to gut the shark prior to packaging it up. This process is very important it is done correctly. The old method of inserting the knife inside the orifice and slicing the stomach open to remove the guts works fine for normal cleaning. However when preparing a specimen for skeletons this method will not work, as it will slice through the pelvic bones and pectoral girdle. A better way of doing this is to make a semi-circular cut in the belly on one side, and remove the entrails from there, as the photo below shows.
Apart from removing the entrails, there is little else to do with the whole shark. Again, hose it off in cold water, making sure as much blood and mucous is removed. Once that is done, wrap the whole shark in a plastic liner or place in large plastic bags. Keep in mind the skin will rip the bags, so make sure you put enough bags over it so no leakage will occur from holes and tears. Again, freeze the whole shark within a couple of hours of catching it if possible, otherwise try and keep as cool as possible before you freeze it. Make sure the position of the shark in the freezer is as natural as possible, and the tail and fins are not bent.

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