What will happen to our sunfish?

You’re probably aware by now, Te Papa’s scientists are conducting research on our sunfish specimen on 13 August 2013. We’ll be live-blogging and sharing the scientists’ findings through Facebook and Twitter.

Andrew Stewart weighing the sunfish specimen. Photographer: Michael Hall © Te Papa

Andrew Stewart weighing the sunfish specimen. Photographer: Michael Hall © Te Papa

It’s a fantastic opportunity to sit in as scientists do their research on these rarely seen animals.

What will happen to the sunfish after the scientists have done their research?

There are a couple of options:

  1. It is kept in Te Papa’s specimen facility.
  2. It goes on display in the museum.

Scientists and curators are currently discussing the best option. It’s a difficult decision: they need to take into account the needs of scientists across the world and also members of the public who may wish to view or learn more about the sunfish.

What’s the process?

Scientists will begin defrosting the sunfish on Sunday afternoon. It’s such a big fish that it will take over 24 hours to defrost.

Taking a closer look at the sunfish. Photographer: Michael Hall © Te Papa

Taking a closer look at the sunfish. Photographer: Michael Hall © Te Papa

On Tuesday afternoon, the scientists will carry out their research. This will include:

  • Taking measurements of weight and height
  • Investigating the contents of the stomach
  • Taking plugs that could be sampled for DNA
  • Finding out the sex

Immediately after the scientists have finished their work, the sunfish will be immersed in a solution of formaldehyde. This preserves the sunfish by killing bacteria and fungi, and helps to hold tissues together. The formaldehyde is injected into the tissues to ensure it gets right to the heart of the specimen and preserves it thoroughly.

After three months, the formaldehyde will be drained. The sunfish will then be stored in isopropyl alcohol. If the specimen is to remain in storage for scientists to carry out research in the future, it will remain in isopropyl alcohol.

If the specimen is to go on display, the alcohol will be drained when the sunfish is about to be displayed. The sunfish will then be covered in polypropyline glycole because of the risks to the public of having a large volume of flammable and noxious alcohol on display in a public space.

Andrew Stewart, Te Papa's lead scientist on the sunfish project. Photographer: Michael Hall © Te Papa

Andrew Stewart, Te Papa’s lead scientist on the sunfish project. Photographer: Michael Hall © Te Papa

There are pros and cons for both options.

Putting the sunfish on display

It’s relatively easy to remove the sunfish from isopropyl alcohol and put it in polypropyline glycol. This would give the opportunity for members of the public to come face-to-face with a real sunfish. It’s also a great opportunity for Te Papa to provide an educational role regarding sunfish and marine life in general.

However, specimens get damaged when they are put on display: the light causes damage to the skin colour and condition. Specimens can also shrink. This can prevent scientists from carrying out further research. Also, it’s not possible to reverse the transition from polypropyline glycol to isopropyl alcohol as we don’t know how the two chemicals will interact and what effect that will have on the fishes tissues in the long term.

Storing the specimen

Scientists can continue their research on the specimen and learn more about it. The sunfish will remain in good condition and be available for display in future.

Have a look at our blog “Why do we keep specimens?“ to find out why it’s important that scientists can continue research on the specimen, even after the initial research is completed.

It’s a tricky decision for our scientists and curators. One option would be to build an excellent display using the multimedia we’ll have from the sunfish science. We also have a beautiful life-size model of a sunfish that we could use in the display.

This would allow us to maintain the sunfish in good condition for research while still providing an exciting and interesting exhibition for our visitors.

Watch this space as our curators and scientists decide what the best option is.

Join in!

Te Papa’s scientists will be conducting research on our sunfish specimen on 13 August 2013. We’ll be live-blogging and sharing the scientists’ findings through Facebook and Twitter.

It’s a fantastic opportunity to sit in as scientists do their research on these rarely seen animals. Don’t miss out!

Use #sunfishtepapa to join in the conversation on Twitter.

Follow the action on Facebook.

3 Responses

  1. Dorothy Hotu

    Amazing to see a real sun fish online!!!!!!!!!!

    Reply
  2. Graham Green

    Show a model,
    preserve the fish

    Reply

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