This week the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center (TFFC) unveiled a new Splash display featuring a full-size fiberglass replica of the fish and her complete skeleton, which was assembled and prepared for display by personnel at the University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Natural History Collections at the J.J. Pickle Research Center.
Mullennix donated Splash to TFFC, where she remained on display and starred in the daily dive show until her untimely death in December 2005. Part of the display documents the cause of her death, an old injury, which was discovered during the reconstruction of her skeleton.
After her death, microscopic examination of the growth rings in her otoliths (ear bones) revealed that Splash was about 25 years old when she died.
At 121.5 pounds, she was the largest blue catfish ever caught to that time and held that record until a 124-pound fish was caught from the Mississippi River in 2005. Splash is still the Texas state record blue catfish.
Jessica Rosales, ichthyology collection manager at the Texas Natural History Collections, is proof of the old adage “Be careful what you wish for—you might get it.”
“Having assisted in putting together a fish skeleton for another exhibit, I was itching to take on one of my own. And for some reason that I cannot now remember or fathom, I thought bigger would be better,” Rosales said. “Enter Splash. Huge catfish = very excited ichthyology collection manager!”
Rosales and coworkers spent many hours preparing Splash for display. The first step was removing as much flesh as possible by use of scalpels and knives. Next the skeleton was placed in a closed container populated by 10,000 dermestid beetles, a kind of insect that is very good at removing all traces of flesh from bones.
Altogether, Rosales estimates, she spent 100 hours working on the project over a period of about a year as other duties permitted. “Once I got her skeleton back, some bones were still really greasy, and some still had flesh that the beetles didn’t eat,” she said. “I spent a few hours running the bones through ammonium hydroxide baths and attempting to remove the remaining flesh with forceps. After the bones were as clean as I could get them, it was time to put her back together.”
After many painstaking hours with a hot glue gun and photos of Splash taken before the work began, Rosales had a skeleton ready for display. Only a few very small bones and fins are missing. The results of her remarkable skill and patience can now be seen in the new Splash exhibit at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center.
During her brief residence at TFFC Splash increased visitation by 43 percent and attracted thousands of adoring fans who delighted in watching her delicately take chicken quarters or fish from the diver’s hand during dive shows. More than 700 people attended a birthday party given in her honor on the anniversary of her arrival at TFFC. They enjoyed a life-size birthday cake decorated to resemble Splash, and 133 children brought hand-made birthday cards. “You are my idol,” one said. Many others simply said, “I love you.”
Splash is survived by thousands of descendants in Lake Texoma.
She is remembered by thousands more.
The Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center is at 5550 F.M. 2495 in Athens, which is 75 miles southeast of Dallas. The center is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $5.50 for adults, $4.50 for seniors and $3.50 for children ages 4 through 12. For more information and directions call (903) 676-2277 or visit www.tpwd.state.tx.us/tffc.