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The Investigation

With help from Dr. James Moffatt of St. George’s, University of London we constructed a 3D model of the inside of the merman from the CT data – a process that was much more complicated than it sounds.

Watch Dr. James Moffatt explain the construction of the Horniman merman with the 3D model:

You can also watch a series of videos showing each layer of the 3D model.

  • A 3D model of the merman built using the CT data, Here you can see clearly how different materials were used to build up the merman's shape
    Here you can see clearly how different materials were used to build up the merman's shape

  • A scan layer showing the various materials which form the Horniman merman's head, a wooden stick, a bundle of string, clay and finally papier mache
    a wooden stick, a bundle of string, clay and finally papier mache

We sampled the teeth and tail for DNA in order to work out what species of fish were used in the construction and the samples were analysed in the lab of Professor Markus Pfenninger at the Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt. DNA doesn’t last well unless the conditions are just right, a common problem when investigating preserved specimens, and we were unlucky that no useful DNA was recovered. However, the structure of the scales on the tail match the carp family and Oliver Crimmen of the Natural History Museum recognised the teeth as being similar to those of a wrasse, providing a rough idea of the kind of fish used, if not the exact species.

So it seems that the Horniman’s ‘Japanese Monkey-fish’ is in fact a ‘Japanese Fish-fish’ - assuming that the specimen even came from Japan. We had been hoping to check that assumption by identifying the species of fish used to make the merman, which would have provided a clue as to where in the world it was made, but since the DNA analysis drew a blank we had to try a different approach.

 

by Paolo Viscardi, Deputy Keeper of Natural History