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Nature at the museum

Taxidermist profession aids studies in taxonomy, ecology, biogeography and the environment

EDUARDO CESAR At the Natural History Museum of Taubaté in São Paulo State, specialists retain the animals’ aesthetics and simulate the environment in which they livedEDUARDO CESAR

Fearless eyes, wet nostrils, shiny fur. At first sight, the hyper-realism promoted by taxidermy induces fascination and curiosity. The fact that the practice makes inanimate animals look as if they were alive is arousing interest in taxidermy on the part of Brazilian academic and research institutions, because of its potential for conserving rare or endangered species and for helping identify and classify species that bear close similarities. In addition, the exhibition of taxidermied animals in museums has proven to be an important educational tool for environmental studies. The little-known profession of taxidermist—once called “straw-stuffer”—is emerging as a career option for those interested in preserving animals for scientific study.

The purpose of taxidermy is to retain the aesthetics of the animal by reconstructing its physical features and, at times, simulating the environment in which it lived. The profession requires manual dexterity and theoretical experience in several subfields of biology, such as anatomy, morphology and ecology, according to taxidermist Marcelo Felix from the Ornithology Laboratory at the University of São Paulo Zoology Museum (MZ-USP). He explains that the professionals working in this field in Brazil today are highly specialized and in short supply. “Since there are no technical or university courses, most professionals begin their career in informal courses or internships at research institutions or museums,” he says. According to Felix, it is possible to find taxidermy courses being offered from time to time by the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro or the Emílio Goeldi Museum of Pará in Belém. Taxidermy is also offered in the graduate program at the University of Santo Amaro in São Paulo (see inset).

EDUARDO CESAR Professional taxidermists work on the final stage of preparing a tapir that had been hit by a vehicleEDUARDO CESAR

Although taxidermy is a technical career, interested persons will need to earn an undergraduate degree in biology, veterinary medicine or zootechny. It is also advisable to earn a graduate degree in zoology, and follow that up by pursuing internships at museums, the university itself or research institutions. During such an internship, a professional taxidermist will learn techniques for preparing animals. The sale of taxidermied specimens is prohibited by law in Brazil. The practice is permitted only for research or teaching purposes. The work of a taxidermist begins when a dead animal is sent to a zoo, scientific institution or museum.

Marcelo Felix has worked in the profession since 2008. He came into contact with the activity for the first time shortly before finishing his undergraduate degree in biology at the Adventist University Center of São Paulo. “I attended a workshop on the subject and met Emerson Boaventura, a museologist and taxidermist who was working for the MZ-USP at the time,” he says. “He was the person who guided me as I took my first steps in the profession.” During his internship with Boaventura, Felix learned the techniques involved in processing an animal for taxidermy. The first step consists of removing the hide and separating it from the carcass with the viscera intact (see infographic on page 96). The hide is immersed in a solution of citric acid and salt for decontamination purposes and to preserve its features, and the carcass is frozen. A few days later the carcass is thawed out, and the hide removed from the solution.

Cultural Dissemination Division, MZ-USP Hyper-realism can help researchers in morphological studiesCultural Dissemination Division, MZ-USP

In the next phase, the taxidermist covers the carcass with plastic wrap and then plasters over it. A few hours later, the plaster is removed from the carcass and filled with polyurethane foam, which then conforms to the exact shape of the mold and solidifies in a few hours. And lastly, a piece of wire is set into the foam in the head and each leg of the animal so that those parts will remain partially movable. This enables the taxidermist to pose the animal in the desired position. When the process is completed, the hide is sewn around the sculpted model.

Taxidermist Maria da Graça Salomão of the Butantan Institute describes the work as a refined and complex art. She too learned about the profession during her undergraduate studies in biology at the Farias Brito School of Science and Letters in Guarulhos. “In 1983 during my master’s studies, my advisor required me to retain and preserve the samples of animals I analyzed in my research.” It was then that Salomão started learning the techniques for preparing and preserving collected animal specimens. When she went to Butantan in 1987, she worked with in reptile and arachnid taxidermy there. “Our collection has animals that have been preserved for over 100 years,” she notes. Her experience in the profession enabled her to serve as a coauthor with other researchers for the book Técnicas de coleta e preparação de vertebrados [Techniques for vertebrate collection and preparation] (Brazilwood Institute of Natural History, 2002), in which she explains techniques for conserving birds, mammals, amphibians and other animals.

Animal taxidermy is an ancient profession. In Europe, the practice is known to have evolved a great deal during the Renaissance, gaining momentum in the 18th century owing to a boom in scientific expeditions and the growing desire for detailed knowledge about new animal species. In Brazil, the activity became widespread between the 1930s and the 1960s due to legalization of the hunting of wild animals. In January 1967, a federal law banned the hunting and sale of specimens of Brazilian fauna, and consequently taxidermy became less important in this country. At the time, the animals were stuffed with wire and straw—hence the term “straw-stuffer”—and exhibited as trophies. The problem was that the use of these materials compromised fidelity to the shape of the animal’s body, leaving it slightly deformed.

The taxidermied animals exhibited in educational collections at natural history museums, laboratories and zoos are usually specimens that had perished in nature. Those in good condition are restored and exhibited in museums. In other cases, they are obtained by the researchers themselves while doing field work. The animals are often exhibited along with data on where they were collected, as well as scientific and behavioral information and photographic records. Scientists use this information as a basis for identifying new species. “Researchers compare the physical features of the taxidermied animal against one found in nature,” Felix explains. The specimens also help inform morphological studies without requiring the student or researcher to go to the animal’s habitat.