Taxidermy is a museum skill used to bring animals back from the dead. It is the art of preserving the skin, together with the fur, feathers or scales of an animal.

Mounted seal specimen A seal is mounted in a life like pose for display.Animals on display at the museum need to tell the visitor a story. Displaying an animal in a life-like pose and placing it in a diorama with aspects of its natural environment helps the visitor to interpret information about it. It shows its size and shape, how it might move, where it lives, what it might eat, as well as characteristics that help the individual to catch prey, climb trees, swim, attract a mate, etc.

Dead animals are brought to the museum from a wide range of sources: National Parks rangers, scientists, wildlife carers and the public. Many of these are road kills, window strikes, beach washed, and cat or dog kills.

Stories related to the animals are kept with the specimen (where it was collected including GPS readings, when it was collected, who collected it, and a description of its habitat).

When specimens are received by the museum, they are quickly identified, then placed in a freezer at -20ºC until work on the specimen can be commenced.

Taxidermy process

The taxidermy process covers the following steps:

  1. Measurements are taken of the body. These might include the length of the body; tail; head; wing; hind foot; ear; wingspan; etc. Skin colours that can fade after drying (such as facial wattles and eye rings) are also noted. Photographs may also be taken to assist in the reconstruction stage.
  2. The skin is removed retaining the defleshed feet and leg bones (and skull with beak for a bird).
  3. The pose of the final mount is decided and photographic references are gathered to assist. 
  4. The skinned carcass is studied, drawn and measured taking special note of muscles, again to assist in the reconstruction process. If not immediately obvious, the sex of the animal is determined by looking internally at its gonads. 
  5. Flesh is removed from the skin, then it is washed and dried. 
  6. The skin is rubbed with sawdust or borax if small, or for larger skins soaked in a pickling then tanning solution (for a few days to a few weeks depending on the size of the skin). 
  7. A base is produced on which to mount the specimen. This could be a branch, log or something similar.
  8. Using the photographs, sketches and measurements, a wire frame just smaller than the body size is made.  The body form and muscle tone are built up over this using sisal and polyester fibre bound tightly with strong thread. This continues until the original body form is replicated. The skull is cast or a replica carved, and glass eyes set into it.
  9. The tanned skin is fitted back over the fabricated skull and body form, then glued and pinned in place taking meticulous care with eyes, ears, nose and whiskers. It is then allowed to dry for several weeks.
  10. Skin areas that have faded in the drying process are painted to return them to their original colours.

The mount is now ready for display.

How specimens are used for museum research

Most animals coming into the museum are used in the research collections. The bird and mammal research collections have almost 60,000 specimens of over 2700 different species. They have been built up over the last 150 years and foremost document the natural history of Queensland with smaller collections from New Guinea, other Australian states and samples from around the world. 

These animals do not need to look life-like for researchers so they are made into flattened study skins to minimise the storage space needed to house them. The animal is carefully weighed and measured and skinned in much the same way as a display mount. However, only a little polyester fibre or cotton wool is used to fill them and usually wire or thin dowel is inserted from the skull to the tail for support. In most birds, the wings are folded against the body (again to minimise space) but a few of each species has the wing spread out to display the feathers. The carcass of the animal is often made into a skeleton. Tissues samples, usually liver and muscle are taken and stored at -80ºC for genetic studies.

Each specimen is registered and the data associated with the specimen kept in a database. The collections are used widely by Museum curators, scientists, artists, and members of the public.

Draw of bird specimens Bird specimens Bird study skins in the Queensland Museum’s research collection.

Queensland Museum's Find out about... is proudly supported by the Thyne Reid Foundation and the Tim Fairfax Family Foundation.