Fishy Behavior: Modeling a snack for a Giant Squid

The giant squid (Architeuthis dux) in the Museum’s atrium has become one of our iconic exhibits, with thousands gazing up to it in wonder every year. Look up, and you’ll see an orange roughy fish (Hoplostethus atlanticus), trying desperately to avoid the grasp of the squid. But the orange roughy wasn’t the original fish in the atrium.

In 2007, new information about the feeding grounds of giant squid suggested they hunt in deep water – a place where tuna (the previous display fish) rarely go. So, the Museum’s Curator of Mollusks, Liz Shea, Ph.D., and Jennifer Sontchi, then DMNH’s Exhibits Manager, decided to update the exhibit, concluding the orange roughy was the best choice from a scientific, exhibit design, and educational perspective.

While most of the animals in museum displays are real specimens preserved with taxidermy, others have been sculpted by museum artists. Since orange roughy populations are vulnerable to extinction from over-fishing, we chose to sculpt a model for the exhibit instead of displaying an actual preserved fish. Follow along below to see the fascinating process behind creating a scientifically accurate museum model:

Reference

The first step towards producing any realistic display is excellent reference material. Dr. Liz Shea, Curator of Mollusks, oversaw the entire project to make certain every detail is correct. The fish at the top of the photo is the paper template created to provide the measurements and proportions of a real orange roughy. The fish in the lower part of the photo is the clay model itself.

Supplemental fins

This photo shows a red snapper fish having its fins molded. We made molds of the snapper’s fins, modified the casts, and inserted them into the clay model of our orange roughy. These fin casts are more realistic than if they were sculpted from scratch.

The model

The clay model of the orange roughy is complete in this photo. You can see the plastic, white, snapper fin casts inserted into the model. The clay surrounding the model is the beginning of the next step, which is making a two-piece mold.

The mold

Here you see the clay model encased on one side in a pale-colored, flexible plastic, which is cradled by a hard, grey shell. Once both sides of the clay model are molded this way, the clay fish model is removed and discarded. The mold now provides an empty space exactly the shape and size of the clay model. A cast is made by filling that fish-shaped space with a liquid plastic that then hardens into an exact replica of an orange roughy.

The cast

This is the finished plastic cast of the model. All that is needed now is paint!

The display

Voila! The orange roughy is sculpted, molded, cast, painted, and attached to the giant squid with hidden pins. That orange roughy better swim faster (just keep swimming, just keep swimming) if he wants to get away.