Shark Dissection!

By Ruth Manna on November 10, 2010

 

A few years ago when one of my 2nd grade reading groups was reading Sharks by Gail Gibbons, I said, “Wouldn’t it be fun to get an up-close, personal look at a real shark?”

Since we live far from an ocean or aquarium, we ordered a spiny dogfish shark specimen and dissected it. Every year since, my class has begged, “When are we going to dissect a shark?” Shark dissection has become an annual ritual.


Read on to find out what we did.

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I ordered a spiny dogfish shark from a biological supply company, Carolina Biological Supply. Carolina sells specimens, dissecting kits, and dissection manuals. Since a double-injected spiny dogfish shark costs $13.25, I purchase one shark and work with young scientists in small groups while I dissect.

The specimen we get is a 22" to 27" spiny dogfish shark. For about $3.00 extra, we get a “double,” a shark that has blood vessels double injected with latex, red for arteries and blue for veins.  Last year I ordered a pregnant female shark with five pups, which made for even more interesting conversations.

Dissection kit

A dissecting kit is nice have, though not essential. You could use a pair of sharp, pointy scissors and a knife. I like to have a dissecting kit because the tools make the dissection more special and scientific.

Dissection book

A dissection manual is helpful, especially for a first shark dissection. Directions help you find your way around the interior and identify organs.

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Students usually ask to see the brain. If you’re careful, you can open the skull and find not only the brain, but the optic nerve. I wasn’t able to do this the first year, but my clumsy scissor work has improved since then.


Here are things to look for with your students:

  • Multiple rows of teeth
  • Denticles
  • Eyes
  • Tiny sensory holes in skin
  • Brain and optic nerve
  • Cartilage
  • Gill slits and gills
  • Heart and circulatory system
  • Stomach and intestines (including contents)
  • Liver, pancreas, and spleen
  • Cloaca

Latex gloves are a good idea for students and teacher. Students may remove their gloves to touch the shark’s skin and feel the denticles — sandpaper-like skin made up of tiny teeth/scales — but most of the time, you’ll want young scientists to wear gloves. We had paper doctor masks available and some students chose to wear them, mostly because of the smell of preservatives. Ask your school nurse for a box of gloves.

To organize your class, divide into groups of five or six and call small groups to your lab table to see part of the dissection. All students will get to see part of the dissection and can return to see the specimen while they draw. Those who are waiting either read books about sharks or work on their dissection sketches.

Diagram

Sketches — Cut white construction paper into 6" X 18" pieces and give each student two pieces of paper. Ask students to sketch and label with pencil and later trace pencil lines with a Sharpie or Flair pen. Students sketch and label the outside of the shark on Day 1. On Day 2, students sketch and label interior organs on a second sheet of paper. 
   
Doing the actual shark dissection on Day 2 builds excitement. It also gives students a chance to get familiar with the specimen. Students may need reminders about acting like scientists and not saying “EWW!” or “Yuck!” No one is forced to witness a dissection, but almost all, if not all, students are curious and want to participate.

Incredible Sharks by Seymour Simon
Other Pointers for Teachers

  • Use a roasting pan to contain the shark.
  • Keep shark refrigerated in a plastic bag when you are not working with it.
  • Rinse shark first to remove preservatives.
  • Take your time. Don’t rush the dissection.
  • Check to make sure students’ sketches are accurate.
  • Create a bulletin board display of the sketches.

Shark painting
 

More Ideas

 
Book Display — Set up a shark books display and encourage students to read about sharks.
Paintings — Students show what they know through art.

What’s the probability of a shark attack? Check it out!

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Comments

Thanks for your encouragement, Mitch! One thing I've observed in my visits to classrooms lately, is that science seems to be missing. I rarely see plants and animals in classrooms. Also missing are rock and shell collections and areas of a classroom that are just for messing around with science, like a magnets station or a table full of equipment for making simple machines. It's sad teachers are so oriented toward standardized tests, they deprive students of the hands-on experiences and rich conversations that would actually improve test scores. Ironic, isn't it?

Great! Students often get to learn about science, but yours *do* science. It also is important that you've surrounded the experience with meaning and with connections to other things they are doing in school.

A trip to the fish market or the butcher, or, for that matter, the vegetable market all offer opportunities to make science relevant and to reveal the science of the everyday lives of learners.

Dissecting a trout, a gladiola, a fresh chicken (with the proper sanitary measures) all give learners (and teachers) direct experiences that illuminate their own worlds and may continue at home with their families as they prepare and eat meals, tend their houseplants and...live their lives.

Thanks for your comment. There's something about examining a real shark up close that is so exciting for students. It makes them want to read and learn all about sharks. We do an owl pellet dissection when we study owls and raptors and it has a similar effect. I'm reading a great book called The Last Child in the Woods. The author says many children are "nature deprived" and lack experience in the outdoors. When my brothers and I were kids we lived at beach house on the Gulf of Mexico every summer and played with Horseshoe Crabs, shells, and driftwood.

Kids love sharks. My daughter is fasinated by them. We use shark teeth when we study fossils and it is the same effect.

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