Shark anatomy model made from trash

TrashAnatomy Shark Model

I am SO excited to share my latest Trashmagination invention called TrashAnatomy. My plan is to create a series of anatomy models using all recycled materials. The first prototype is a shark. It is a first attempt, and my hope is that you will look at the model and help me improve it by sending your tiny odd shaped things you would normally put in the trash.

Where did the TrashAnatomy idea come from?

In December 2012, Nora asked for a shark anatomy model for Christmas. While it was interesting, my brain immediately thought – surely there is a more “green” way to make such models? And while she could put the various organs into the shark’s outer shell, I thought – surely there is a project where she could interact more wholly with the shark’s parts? That’s when I thought of making a shark anatomy model from trash, but it has taken 1.5 years to make the prototype.

What is the TrashAnatomy Shark Made Of?

Here’s what trash items went into the shark:

  • Body – 1 liter soda bottle with the bottom cut off & shaped
  • Skin – Ecofi felt from recycled plastic bottles – purchased in a variety pack from Michael’s many years ago
  • Teeth – white plastic milk jug
  • Eye – tiny “speaker” from inside a defunct ear bud – sewn on with thread
  • Olfactory lobes – round piece from defunct ear bud
  • Brain components – bread tags, sewn on with yarn
  • Mouth / esophagus – top of a 1 liter soda bottle, shaped to mimic the body
  • Stomach – prescription bottle
  • Intestine – pump mechanism from a foam soap bottle
  • Ovaries and Uterus (yes, we have a female shark here) – handle from a Tidy Cats kitty litter container
  • Gills – cap from shaving cream
  • Heart – part of the cap from a Crystal Geyser sport water bottle
  • Liver – half of a MiO drink mix container
  • Kidney – cap of a ballpoint pen
  • Gall bladder – zip component from a Ziploc bag
  • Spleen – cap of a small marker
  • Colon – spiral stick from inside deodorant, cut in half
  • Spine – white plastic strip from frozen orange juice lid

If you have any of these objects in your life, please SAVE them and give them to me!!!

Shark organs made from recycled trash
Shark organs made from recycled trash

How did the TrashAnatomy Shark Come Together?

The Skin

Last year, I thought of using a clear soda bottle as the anatomy shell, but I could not figure out how I would add the tail and fins. Then a month ago, I thought about putting something like a glove around the bottle, with a portion cut out so you could see the organs. I had some thick felt-like fabric made from recycled soda bottles. I added some elastic to hold the soda bottle in place & keep it from sliding. The “skin” for the shark made me SO excited because it made that bottle so clearly into a shark. As I was sewing it, the name “TrashAnatomy” came into my head, and immediately I wanted to make a whole bunch of species.

Shark "skin" with empty bottle sticking out
Shark “skin” with empty bottle sticking out

The Teeth

I had a few ideas about how to make the teeth. Around the top of some bottles, there is a ring that snaps when you twist the cap for the first time. I had some white ones with little spikes on them. But the teeth were small – and I wanted them to be really visible. So I took a white plastic milk jug and cut it into strips. I then cut out triangle teeth. But how would I attach it to the shark? I had a punch that would make small holes, so I punched a hole every 1/2 inch. I then could sew through the holes into the felt.

The Intestine

Other than using a clear soda bottle for the body, I had only one other idea when I started sewing. I have been fascinated by shark’s intestines ever since 1990 when I held my first shark intestine during my Environmental Studies class at Pearson College. My teacher, Gary Fletcher, showed us how a shark’s intestines are not a long hose like a human intestine. Instead, it fits in a rather small space. In order for the shark to get the most nutrients out of the food it eats, it had to make the food travel a long distance in  small space, so it evolved this spiral intestine. In my class, we poured water into the top of the intestine and watched it swirl around inside. I noticed that the pump mechanism in foam soap bottles looked exactly like the spiral intestine. In fact, it was the pump mechanism that “sealed the deal” for me – that I HAD to make this anatomy model because it was SO COOL.

I had an image in my head that the organs inside the shark would fit together like a puzzle because in fact, that is how bodies work. I also wanted it to fit together so that when you took the guts in and out of the skin, they would not just fall out in a jumbled heap. I wanted each component to stay in the correct location even if you shook the shark.

The "Guts" of the TrashAnatomy Shark - fits together like a puzzle
The “Guts” of the TrashAnatomy Shark – fits together like a puzzle

The Esophagus / Mouth

The first thing I figured out was that if you took another bottle and cut off the top, it would snap into the shark’s mouth. That made me super excited because that looked so much like looking down into the shark’s mouth, narrowing into the esophagus, but it was still clear so you could see beyond it. Plus, the spout of the bottle could then be something to build from, like the foundation for the puzzle.

Inside the shark's mouth - notice olfactory lobes
Inside the shark’s mouth – notice olfactory lobes

The Stomach

I walked around my house looking for something to connect the esophagus and the intestine. I found a prescription bottle that literally SNAPPED ON to the bottle. How incredible they were exactly the same size! I then drilled a hole in the bottom of the prescription bottle and slid in the pump mechanism. Voila! I had the digestive track and it slid easily inside the shark.

The Liver

The next thing I tried to figure out was the liver. A shark’s liver is huge. It takes up 90 percent of the shark’s body cavity. But when you look at dissected sharks, you don’t see hardly any liver. That’s because they had to cut away the liver for you to be able to see anything else. It’s like a giant sleeping bag that holds all the other stuff inside. I really struggled with the liver. If I made something like a sleeping bag, you would not be able to see the rest of the cool stuff. I tried making transparent or opaque livers, but they just look like mistakes. My colleague Jane had a great idea – she had eye covers like what you wear on the plane when you are trying to sleep. She had a bunch of them because her husband is a pilot. But when we put it in the bottle, it just looked all scrunched up. I decided to make a more symbolic liver – i.e. a liver that does not take up 90 percent of the body cavity. Bob suggested something with a bit of color, so I used the blue MiO bottle, cut in half to show how this is not the whole liver – just a piece, just enough so you get there is a liver. I still have mixed feelings about the liver though.

The Ovaries / Uterus and Colon

I had a shark dissection photo that showed a large shape near the top of the shark. I noticed that shape was not consistent across the dissection photos, and came to realize it was the ovaries and uterus. Recently we have been fostering cats, and so I had a container of Tidy Cats kitty litter. One day while changing litter I looked at the handle. It was the right size. It also had the handle components coming out from either side, so I knew it would be great in terms of making it all snap together.

When I tried to add the ovaries and uterus to the digestive track, I could get the handle to bend properly and snap on to the intestine. But I had saved components from an empty deodorant package. The spiral step that twirls up the deodorant was just the right thickness to stick inside the spiral, and skinny enough to snap into the kitty litter handle when I drilled it with my largest drill bit.

The Gills

At this point, most of my shark organs where white, clear or yellow. Bob suggested it would be visually boring unless I got some color in there. I was looking for something to represent the gills. At first I took a milk jug and cut it into gill shapes. But it was white and unexciting. So next I found a bright green lid from a shaving cream. I cut off the entire bottom of the cap and it slid over the stomach and uterus/ovaries with just barely enough room.

The Heart

I have a large collection of plastic caps. I dug through my red caps looking for something that was not perfectly round. I found this cap that had a red top and blue bottom. There was only one in my whole collection. Bob figured out how to get the red part off, leaving a small rim that could be used to attach the heart to the puzzle. But the whole puzzle was getting too wide to fit in the bottle. To make it fit, I cut out part of the gills, just the right size to fit in the heart. And I used the rubber band from broccoli to pull in tightly the components in that area. With some practice, I could just squeeze the guts back into the shark.

The Brain

Since I was tight for space, I was concerned about how I could squeeze in the shark’s brain. A shark’s brain has lots of fun components, but to summarize, it has three parts – the fore-brain, mid-brain and hind-brain. They look like three beads on a necklace. But beads were not going to fit in my tight shark model. I needed something flat-ish that would slide in. That’s when Nora thought of bread tags. We gathered three different colors of bread tags, and I sewed them on the gills.

Shark brain from bread tags - Fore-brain, mid-brain and hind-brain
Shark brain from bread tags – Fore-brain, mid-brain and hind-brain

The Olfactory Lobes and the Eye

Sharks rely very much on their sense of smell, so when I looked at shark brains, I noticed there were two round bits that stuck out near the top that were quite large. One day as I was working out, I looked down at my ear buds and noticed they looked like the olfactory lobes. I did not have the heart to cut up my functioning ear buds, so it took me a few weeks to find a defunct pair. When I tried to add them to the shark, they were too big. Bob suggested breaking the ear buds apart, and using just the tops. That looked great! As I cracked open the first ear bud, out fell a tiny speaker. It had a small dot inside, encased in clear plastic. It looked perfect for the eye.

Close-up of shark face
Close-up of shark face

The Kidney, Gall Bladder and Spleen

At this point, I just needed some very tiny trash components to represent these smaller organs. I’m not “in love” with any of these ones, and I’m still looking for a pancreas or tiny trash that either snaps better or looks more like the organs. But I wanted to get the shark out into the world so perhaps other people could help identify those components.

The Spine

The spine is made from that white piece of plastic that comes off when you open a can of frozen orange juice concentrate. The act of pulling it off the can makes it rippled, which sort of looks like vertabrate. I have been looking for something more jagged, like those circles of plastic on a bottle when you first twist off the cap, but they were all too short or the teeth too tiny. So I’m open to a better spine idea.

Lessons Learned from the TrashAnatomy Shark Prototype

Extreme Lateral Thinking

This type of inventing is incredibly physically exhausting. Seriously, I have tackled some very intellectually difficult projects in my life, but I have never been as tired as with this project. That’s a bummer because I wanted it to give me energy, not exhaust me. I think it’s “extreme lateral thinking.” You have to hold all these weird data points in your head like:

  • What does the real shark part look like? I researched this by looking at many images of dissected sharks along with artistic representations of shark organs.
  • How big are the components that you already have?
  • What do you have in your house that looks like that and will fit?
  • What products have you seen at the grocery store that might work?
  • How are you going to fit in all the various systems (digestive, circulatory, reproductive etc.) into this one liter bottle?
  • What can you drill so it will snap into itself?

Keep the Trash Recognizable

At one point, I tried making the liver by sewing together juice pouches into a liver shape. That’s when Bob had an observation that dramatically shaped the project. He said, “The trash needs to be recognizable and you should manipulate it too much. You want people to know this is trash – that is the point of this thing.” That set a rather high standard. I could not take some nice flexible materials and cut out a liver. But I think he was absolutely right, so I have tried as much as possible to keep the trash recognizable so that people have that light bulb moment – this is trash they generate, and it can represent something else, something educational. The exception here was the teeth because I really wanted them to be like big cartoon shark teeth.

What Shark Anatomy Sources Did I Rely On?

My favorite images and anatomy descriptions were found at:

Next Steps

I would like you all to send me ideas of how to improve the model!

I would like to send my model to some shark experts and see if they think it functions or whether it would be a good idea to switch out some components.

I would also like to start developing anatomy models for other species.

I would like to hear from any science teachers whether they could imagine using such a model in their classroom, especially if I developed a lesson plan. It could be used to teach about anatomy AND recycling.

Thank You

Thank you to my colleagues at National Wildlife Federation who patiently looked at the TrashAnatomy model many mornings as I came in super excited to get their feedback. In particular, Emerson Gaziano, Rachel Stemen, Jane Kirchner and Avelino Maestas all contributed important ideas that moved the project along. Thank you to Bob for coming home from work when you were completely exhausted and giving me honest feedback about the shark. Thank you to Nora for figuring out how to make the brain!