Something fishy in the museum

Last updated 05:00 30/12/2013
mako shark
Dubby Henry
GRUESOME: A mako shark stored at Auckland museum’s fish collection

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Severine Hannam has trouble selecting a favourite among the thousands of fish she looks after in an East Tamaki warehouse.

But if she's pushed the woman who manages Auckland War Memorial Museum's natural sciences collection narrows it down to "the perfect-looking shark", the mean-faced mako.

"It gets mistaken for a great white shark but it's a more slender and sexy-looking fish," she says.

The mako is crammed into a 500L tank with other dead sharks that would have been its mortal enemies in life.

They're stored in a 70 per cent ethanol solution which will preserve the fish "for a long, long time - hopefully forever", she says.

More tanks have been ordered to make room as the collection grows.

Fewer than 1 per cent of the museum's fish specimens are on public display because there's no room to show the others.

Even if there were, most just aren't "pretty enough", Ms Hannam says.

Instead they serve another, arguably more important purpose as research specimens for scientists and university students.

Museums act like libraries and lend each other specimens , she says.

"It works all over the world. I've just sent shark tissue samples to a museum in America."

In her year on the job Ms Hannam has been sorting through every specimen in the collection.

She's had some great finds including a hideous hagfish picked up by a trawler in 1908.

It has no eyes and feeds on carcasses that have dropped to the bottom of the sea.

Pores along its body secrete thick mucus as a defence mechanism, causing predators such as sharks to spit it out.

Such items are an irreplaceable historical resource, Ms Hannam says.

"The number one rule of thumb for each museum specimen is to handle it like you're holding on to your life. They're all unique, especially the date they were collected, because we can't go back in time."

These days when Ms Hannam and colleagues go on dive trips they try to keep the killing to a minimum.

Most research today is done with DNA which needs only a tissue sample.

Researchers take photos and samples and then release the fish, particularly if they're "large charismatic animals like sharks", she says.

"The goal is to get one of each fish from each area. The goal is not for us to empty the oceans."

Doctoral students finished with their research material and members of the public who have stumbled across odd-looking fish are also a good source of new specimens.

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To be accepted, the fish should be in good condition with records of exactly where and when they were collected.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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