Shrunken heads are exactly what they sound like. The practice has only been seen in a few tribes in the northwest region of the Amazon rainforest, but they have become well-known around the world. They were created after someone was defeated in battle; the loser had their head shrunken and sewn shut to keep their spirit inside, which prevented revenge on the killer later on.
To create a shrunken head, the skull is removed from the inside of the skin and boiled before hot rocks and sand are used to dry it. The eyes and lips are sewn shut to capture the spirit inside. It was also believed that rubbing ash on the skin would help this as well.
When shrunken heads became more popular in the mid 20th century, many people started to make fakes using animal heads or skins. Today it is very hard to find a real one, even in museums. There is, however, a real one at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia which we got to see.
A mermaid gaff, also called a fiji or feejee mermaid, is the torso and head of a juvenile monkey sewn onto the back half of a fish. They were common in sideshows and were advertised as mummified, real specimens of mermaids. The first one in the Western world dates back to 1822 when an American sailor bought the “original” fiji mermaid from Japanese soldiers. Fiji mermaids, however, were popular in Japan long before this. It was then given to P.T. Barnum, who used it in his sideshow.
Fiji mermaids are probably the most well-known taxidermy gaff after the jackalope, which is why we would like to add it to our collection.
Diaphonization is the art/science of staining the bones and cartilage in a wet specimen. The process was first developed in 1977 by the scientists Dingerkus and Uhler, who originally called it “clearing and staining”. The “clearing” part was making the specimen clear by bathing it in trypsin, a digestive enzyme that slowly breaks down the flesh. The specimen is then soaked in multiple batches of bone, cartilage, and/or muscle dyes (the “staining”). The most common dyes are alizarin red and alcian blue. Alcian blue stains cartilage, alizarin red stains bone, and muscle is stained purple.
Diaphonization is almost always used on small specimens under one foot in length because the process takes such a long time. A large rat could take up to six months to complete. Amphibians, fish, and reptiles are particularly suited to this process because their tissues are usually too delicate to be dissected. Using diaphonization on these species is the best way to look at their inner structures without changing or harming them.
We have one diaphonized specimen in our collection so far that we’ll be posting soon!
A jackalope is a well-known taxidermy gaff (a fake specimen). One is made by attaching any kind of antlers to a regular taxidermied rabbit. They are usually displayed as a head mount on a wall, but sometimes you can find a full-bodied one.
This is one of only a couple of gaffs that we’re interested in procuring. We like real animals better, but as this one is so infamous we would like to add one to our collection.
Bloodletting was the most common medical practice for centuries. It involved cutting the skin to let blood flow from the body, and it was used for a wide variety of ailments, from acne to epilepsy to smallpox. It was based on the idea that there were four humours of the body: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Diseases were thought to be the by-product of having an imbalance of humours, most commonly blood, because it was thought to be the most dominant of the four. Bloodletting was therefore used to try to balance the humours and heal patients.
There were multiple ways to drain blood, such as using simple blades, leeches, or a scarificator. A scarificator was a spring-loaded mechanism that would be held against the skin and would snap the blades out and back in. The picture above of a metal box is a scarificator. The metal tube with spikes is an artifical leech, which would puncture the skin.
The pictures I included are of a polar bear skeleton, a grizzly bear, a cave bear skeleton, and a chart to show how big the cave bear was.
While we’re not too picky on what kind of bear, it would be really cool if we one day could get our hands on a cave bear skeleton or fossil! The cave bear went extinct about 27,500 years ago. Cave bears are most closely related to brown bears, with a last common ancestor dating to 1.2 to 1.4 million years ago.
Hopefully one day we’ll have a cave bear, but before that we’d love to acquire another species of bear skeleton too!
The blue-ringed octopus is one of the most dangerous marine species in the world. Although it is generally docile in nature and only 5-8″ long, its venom is powerful enough to kill humans (and there is no antivenom for it). The neurotoxin it uses, called tetrodotoxin, is 1,200 times more toxic than cyanide. This neurotoxin causes motor paralysis and respiratory arrest within minutes, which leads to cardiac arrest due to a lack of oxygen. The venom can also result in nausea, heart failure, paralysis, and blindness, eventually leading to death within a few minutes. A single blue-ringed octopus carries enough venom to kill 26 adults!
The good thing is it is possible to survive a bite from a blue-ringed octopus. The victim can be saved through artificial respiration, if started soon enough and kept up for the entire time the person is paralyzed until they can start breathing on their own again.
We someday want a wet specimen of this octopus for our collection, because it’s one of the most venomous species in the world (and it looks cool)!