How to clean a dolphin’s teeth

How to clean a dolphin’s teeth

With the opening of our new nature zone in 2019, our conservation team are busy preparing specimens for the exhibition.

Conservator Robert Clendon is undertaking the bizarre job of cleaning the teeth of a bottlenose dolphin and then gluing them into position so they don’t pop out while on display.

Conservator Robert Clendon smiles in front of specimens including whale skulls and taxidermy birds
Conservator Robert Clendon, 2018. Photo by Kate Whitley. Te Papa

A jigsaw to get your teeth into

In the case of this bottlenose dolphin, the teeth have been carefully removed and stored so that we can put them back in later.

My first task is to remove any residual adhesive tape from the teeth, as originally they were laid out in sequence on low-tack adhesive tape to keep them in order.

Before gluing the teeth into position, I insert the teeth in the jawbones to check the order is correct. Each tooth fits in almost like a jigsaw, with the tooth root fitting neatly into its unique jaw socket.

To glue, I use a conservation-grade adhesive mixed with a fill material to form a kind of ‘putty’ that will be the same colour as the bone which will hold the teeth in place. If required, this is easily removable later, and won’t cause damage to the teeth or bone.

Once they’re glued in place, the skull can be moved without any risk to the teeth being lost.

The lower jaw is in two pieces and these parts will also be glued together using the same reversible adhesive and archival techniques.

Once this job is complete, the skull and jaw will be fixed to the display mount ready for long-term exhibition display.

Our new nature zone opens in 2019

When first published, this blog wrongly identified the specimen as a pilot whale. We’ve corrected this thanks to feedback from our readers, and updated our process for the future.

1 Comment

  1. But it is not a pilot whale of any kind so perhaps this unique specimen ought not be on display! Moreover it ought to be treated with great respect for the rare thing it is, ie not put on dispaly where its data will be lost and it damaged – seems already the real data is near lost

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