Dissecting for a day

Bill Hanshumaker speaks to an attentive crowd before commencing the dissection of a salmon shark at Hatfield Marine Science Center on Jan. 12. (Photo by Stephanie Blair)

Shark necropsy at Hatfield draws crowd

NEWPORT — Bill Hanshumaker knows his way around a shark. Each year, he dissects one of these hefty fish as part of Hatfield Marine Science Center’s Shark Day — but he says, it doesn’t get old.

“I do different things each time, and I use different sharks each time,” said Hanshumaker. “Sometimes it’s not a salmon shark, and other times it’s a comparison between a shark and a ray or a comparison of two different kinds of sharks.”

On Saturday, Hanshumaker led a tightly packed crowd through the dissection of a salmon shark under bright lights. Though billed as a necropsy — a surgical procedure to determine cause of death — Hanshumaker noted early in the presentation that he already knew how the shark died, and so this was more of a dissection.

The shark in question was not a fresh catch — it was stored in a freezer since last May, after being caught in a whiting fisherman’s net. The net kept the shark from continuing to move forward and, thus, it drowned.

However, rather than tossing the carcass overboard or scavenging it for the fin — a common practice the farther east in the ocean you go — the fishermen donated the shark, giving the crowd in Newport a chance to learn more about the creature’s anatomy eight months later.

Hanshumaker, who's performed over a dozen of these events, commented that his favorite part is “just watching people’s reactions. You’d expect a lot of people to be totally grossed out about it, and they’re not. But I think it’s sort of a self-selected audience.”

While it’s true that, as he sliced and pried the sharks body to showcase its different pieces, many in attendance leaned into the blood spray and ammonia-heavy scent rather than away, there was also an option to watch the dissection on the auditorium screen in a separate room — an option many people favored.

But a great advantage to standing at the side of the table is getting to ask questions as the surgeon navigates the various organs and systems — though he has learned to anticipate many of those, from his years of doing the event.

“My presentation is done around questions,” said Hanshumaker. “I figure people want to know what kind of shark it is before they even care about the difference between this shark and other sharks. They want to know where it came from, so I talk about that first.”

Attendees were also invited to closely examine and, in some cases, touch different parts of the shark to better understand the anatomy. One lucky person even walked away with the lens of the shark’s right eye.

In a way, the presentation is on the shark, but it’s about the people there, as he explained: “The best way to look at those questions is how you can relate them to … human anatomy. In the sense that most people know something about people, but not about other animals. So, if you can build on that stuff that people already know — specifically about themselves — and say how it’s the same or different, they’ll remember it better.”

This year was Hanshumaker’s last time holding the event before he retires in July. He has left extensive notes on how he goes about it and OSU recorded this year’s presentation, in case another employee would like to step into his place after he’s gone. While he acknowledged that this could be the last time a shark dissection is held at the center, Hanshumaker commented, “I doubt it. I think somebody will do it.”

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