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Scientist: Broken Jaw Likely Cause of Death for 'Splash', Texas Record Blue Catfish

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ATHENS, Texas -- Like thousands of other people, Dr. Andy Gluesenkamp, Ph.D., saw news photos of a world record blue catfish in the arms of the man who caught her in January 2004.

"I was blown away by such a huge fish," Dr. Gluesenkamp said of the 121.5-pound giant. Cody Mullennix of Howe, Texas, pulled the fish from Lake Texoma on January 16, 2004. While the fish is no longer the world record, it remains the record Texas blue catfish.

When he first saw Splash, as Mullennix named her, Dr. Gluesenkamp had no idea he would someday be involved in her story. But he works as a skeletal preparator for the Texas Natural Science Center (TNSC) in Austin, and after Splash died of unknown causes at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens in December 2005, her remains were sent to the Texas Natural History Collections, part of the TNSC, to be skeletonized.

In the course of his work, Dr. Gluesenkamp and his colleagues discovered the probable cause of Splash's death: severe damage to bone in her jaw area.

"It's hard to tell if the injury was a break that got infected, or if the bone became so infected it simply fell apart," Dr. Gluesenkamp said. "She sustained that injury a long time ago. The bone basically rotted away. I would not be surprised if that was where she took the hook, and bacteria got inside the bone. I'm not a fish veterinarian, but I would bet dollars to doughnuts that the injury was what killed the fish."

An examination of the bones by Dr. Dean Hendrickson, Ph.D., Curator of Ichthyology for TNSC, confirmed Gluesenkamp's suspicions. "Andy was definitely right. Splash clearly had a nasty infection that had been festering for some time," Dr. Hendrickson said.

Dr. Hendrickson's analysis showed that the damage occurred in an area where two bones join. "This area is called the hyoid arch and is between the lower jaw and the gills," he explained. "The arch is involved in creating the pumping action that keeps water flowing over the gills and the strong suction used for predatory feeding. Infection from the injury apparently penetrated the bone and consumed it. At some point blood loss would have been extensive. While we don't know for certain that the initial injury was due to being hooked, that seems to be the most likely explanation."

Presently Dr. Gluesenkamp and Jessica Rosales, Ichthyology Collection Manager for the Texas Natural History Collections, are working to prepare Splash's skeleton for display at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center.

Following hand removal of as much flesh as possible from the bones, the skeleton was placed in plastic tubs with larvae from dermestid beetles. These flesh-eating insects, which are also found on the floor of bat caves, are the most effective way of removing all the flesh from a skeleton. "Splash probably has 5,000 to 10,000 beetles on her right now," Dr. Gluesenkamp said. "We've never worked on a fish this large. We had to delay the start of work until we built up our beetle colony to be sure we had enough to do the job."

Once Dr. Gluesenkamp and the beetles finish their work, Rosales will rearticulate the skeleton-put it back together with hot glue, posed in a lifelike position. "It takes time, patience and modeling clay in addition to lots of hot glue," Dr. Gluesenkamp said. "I estimate it may take a week of painstaking work to put the skeleton back together."

"It will take time, but the process is fun and is something that I really enjoy doing," said Rosales.

"Splash had such an impact on TFFC," said Allen Forshage, director of the East Texas facility. "Her first year here she increased our visitation by 43 percent. She was an amazing fish to look at. She would look at you eye-to-eye from her home in the dive tank. Her death saddened everyone here at the center, plus we had inquiries from around the country about her death. The findings about the hooking injury helped us understand why she died so quickly after we moved her in December 2005 because of repair work on the dive tank. We are going to add a new display which will have her replica (done by Lake Fork Taxidermy) and a really unusual display of her skeleton, thanks to the work now being done at the Texas Natural Science Center."

Dr. Gluesenkamp said working on Splash has been the highlight of his career. "I have to say it's been really exciting. I saw photos of that fish in the arms of the man who caught her, and to be involved with that fish two years later is a joy. I am really thankful to be able to work on a fish with celebrity status. Splash: Everyone knows her name."

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