Interning at Bald Head Island has presented many challenges, and one of them for me was learning how to dissect and teach others about dissecting coastal critters. The general knowledge needed to teach about coastal animals was not content I had grown up learning, hailing from the Midwest. And the last time I had completed a dissection was a frog in my sophomore year of high school. As I read through the training content and watched Youtube videos on dissecting, I felt lost; everything looked the same color, and the layout of each animal’s anatomy differed. But over time, I slowly learned about the animals I dissected and grew in wonder at all the amazing animals in the ocean.
The first dissection I taught was about the spiny dogfish, and, boy, was I not prepared for the smell. The lovely stench of formaldehyde and oil that the dogfish naturally produces. Like all dissections, the spiny dogfish dissection begins with a look at the external anatomy; my favorite part to point out is their skin. The skin feels smooth when you brush it from head to tail, but it feels like sandpaper when brushed in the opposite direction. After introducing myself, the kids and I began to explore the specimens, identifying all the fins of the dogfish, finding the gills, and finally cutting open the dogfish with scissors. I was amazed that one of the kids had discovered dogfish babies inside their dogfish specimen. I had assumed that dogfish sharks laid eggs, but I learned that day that the dogfish are pregnant for around 22-24 months and give live birth to their pups.
With each dissection, I learned more and encouraged the kids and their parents to explore beyond the parts of the specimen that I could explain to them. When dissecting the squid, we found the three tiny hearts that sustain the animal, one on each gill to pump blood to the lungs and a third heart to pump blood to other parts of the body. We challenged ourselves and tried to find the squid’s brain, a doughnut-shaped structure in the squid. Sometimes we even get the chance to dissect a tiny octopus and compare it with the structures of the squid. Both animals have arms with suckers and no bones in their body, allowing them to squeeze themselves into small spaces. Each dissection is a chance to dive into the purpose of these coastal critters’ structures, understand how it benefits them in the ocean, and learn something new.
Click here to learn more about educational programs offered at the Conservancy this fall.