Odd cou­ple peel away prej­u­dices

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - - NEWS - DAVID MEDDOWS

DEEP in the bow­els of the Aus­tralian Mu­seum, an odd pair­ing of col­leagues is em­bark­ing on a na­tional first aimed at shift­ing Aus­tralians’ per­cep­tion of our most feared preda­tor — the shark.

Of­ten de­monised as a deadly me­nace lurk­ing off our coast­line, the mu­seum wanted to find a way of ed­u­cat­ing peo­ple on just how frag­ile these crea­tures are.

Usu­ally dis­played in tanks and fully in­tact, the plan was to take it a step fur­ther and peel away the lay­ers of the shark, dis­play­ing just the skull, back­bone and fins — care­fully cleaned and per­fectly re­con­structed.

But when taxi­der­mist Ka­t­rina McCormick, renowned for her work on mam­mals and birds, was as­signed the task, she wasn’t sure where to start.

Sharks have no bones — their skele­ton made com­pletely of car­ti­lage — so the vet­eran mam­mol­o­gist was start­ing from scratch.

That’s where an un­likely col­lab­o­ra­tor came into the pic­ture with mu­seum staff dis­cov­er­ing Qan­tas long­haul flight at­ten­dant Si­mon De Marchi moon­lights as one of Aus­tralia’s only re­stor­ers of shark jaws and teeth.

“When I saw his web­site and what he’d done, I knew I’d found a creepy new friend,” Ms McCormick laughed. Mr De Marchi, who’s been do­ing skull restora­tion and re­pairs for decades, was con­tracted by the mu­seum to as­sist McCormick.

Work­ing in a mor­tu­ary­like lab un­derneath the mu­seum in Wil­liam St — clas­si­cal mu­sic blar­ing, scalpels laid out neatly — the pair work “deartic­u­lat­ing” a 2.5m mako shark given to them after be­ing caught in the shark nets off Maroubra last year.

A scan be­fore the scalpels came out re­vealed the mako had swal­lowed a com­mer­cial long­line fish­ing hook.

“We’ve re­moved all the mus­cle mass, the skin and the meat so it’s now down to lit­er­ally bare bones — or in this case car­ti­lage — and now we’re work­ing on the skull,” Mr De Marchi said.

“With the fins we’re sort of do­ing it in a way where we’re peel­ing back a sec­tion of the skin to show ex­actly what it looks like un­derneath.”

Makos, the great white’s ath­letic cousin, can reach al­most four me­tres long, swim close to 100km/h and leap nine me­tres out of the wa­ter.

Work­ing on the mako has been a steep learn­ing curve for Ms McCormick, who is amazed by the shark’s “in­cred­i­bly evolved” anatomy.

“We were just peel­ing back the lay­ers think­ing this is per­fec­tion. They’ve de­signed them­selves to per­fec­tion, then they’ve stopped there and that was some­thing like 400 mil­lion years ago. A job well done,” she said.

The mu­seum is hop­ing the shark will be part of a larger ex­hi­bi­tion that will launch within the next two years in Syd­ney be­fore trav­el­ling around the world’s mu­se­ums.

Ka­t­rina McCormick works on re­mov­ing the last of the mus­cle from the spine of a mako shark at the Aus­tralian Mu­seum. Pic­ture: Toby Zerna

Scan of the mako, with hook and Si­mon De Marchi.

A mako. Pic­ture: Al McGlashan

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