Natural History Museum Vienna

Natural History Museum Vienna

Arapaima gigas. Also pirarucu, paiche. Amazon Basin, Brazil. Natterer, 1817-1835.

This arapaima is one of the oldest skin mounts in the world. The cadaver of the rare freshwater predatory fish was superbly mounted by 19th century standards.

When Brazilian explorer Johann Natterer sent this arapaima to the royal and imperial natural history cabinet in Vienna before 1835, it was common practice literally to stuff animal skins. However, this priceless Amazonian fish was mounted using the dermoplastic method. In other words, the skin was pulled over a mannequin – a technique that did not become widespread until the middle of the 19th century and required not only an outstanding knowledge of anatomy but also great artistic expressive power.
The arapaima is native to South America, above all in the Amazon and the Orinoco. Reaching lengths of nearly five meters, it is one of the largest freshwater fishes on earth. In the past, spectacular samples were caught time and again; today, due to massive overfishing the fish are significantly smaller.
Arapaimas are not only excellent edible fish, the flesh of which is greatly valued for its high fat content; the red-rimmed large scales are also used in jewelry making, and the rock-hard rough tongue makes outstanding files.
Like many fish species that live in oxygen-deficient water, the arapaima breathes not just through gills but also using a lung. Because of this, it comes to the surface every five to ten minutes to get air, making a distinctive coughing noise that can be heard for some distance. This behavior, its size and its green-silvery to luminous pink coloring caused the primeval predatory fish to become the subject of Brazilian folklore. As the story goes, the fish is the chieftain’s son Pirarucu, who was condemned by the gods to live in the water because of his cruelty.

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  • Title: Arapaima
  • Rights: (c) NHM (Lois Lammerhuber)