17 Mar 2010
Article reproduced from New Scientist
A giant squid is heading back to New Zealand, after being "stuffed" with silicone and preserved for posterity.
In 2004, a pair of Architeuthis dux were sent from New Zealand to a plastination facility in Dalian, China, to be preserved by anatomist Gunther von Hagens.
Plastination is a body-preservation technique invented by von Hagens in 1975 that replaces the natural water in a body with silicone.
Previously, von Hagens has plastinated giraffes, elephants and humans, but a giant squid – with fragile skin, no skeleton for structural support and more body water to replace than any other attempt – posed some challenges for the controversial anatomist.
For several years von Hagens and his team experimented using smaller squid, and found that the fragility of the skin needed a slower replacement process than other animal specimens.
Some 1500 litres of silicone later, the plastination of the giant cephalopods was completed in January.
The ship carrying the unique cargo is set to arrive in Auckland in March, says Steve O'Shea, a squid expert at the Auckland University of Technology who donated the specimens to von Hagens. The second plastinated squid will travel the world as part of the von Hagens's Body Worlds exhibitions.
Traditionally, marine animals are preserved in alcohol or formaldehyde, says O'Shea. But with plastination, there is no glass barrier between the viewer and the squid.
"You can actually touch it," says O'Shea. "Not that I would let anyone put their grubby little hands on this… It's priceless."
The next challenge? To plastinate a mature sperm whale, known to have a taste for giant squid. "We could have the predator and the prey together," says O'Shea. "And have them in a battle posture."
According to O'Shea, more scientists around the world are using plastination as a preservation technique, "but it's not everybody's cup of tea", he says.
And while O'Shea has dreams of plastinated whales, von Hagens has other plans. "He wants my body mounted on top of the squid when I die," says O'Shea. "I wouldn't be too keen on this."