AMNH\R. Mickens
AMNH\R. Mickens

7 Gorgeous Old Illustrations of Sea Creatures

AMNH\R. Mickens
AMNH\R. Mickens

The ocean is full of incredible creatures vying for our attention. The Rare Book Room at the American Museum of Natural History is giving them the spotlight they deserve, with a collection of old, exquisitely illustrated tomes dedicated to the study of those animals. The imagery from the books—and the historical research that goes along with them—is featured in Opulent Oceans, the third part in a series dedicated to rare works found in the museum's library.

“For Opulent Oceans, I wanted to cover as many groups of ocean animals and plants as possible,” author and curator of Ichthyology Melanie Stiassny told mental_floss. “The first thing I did was compile a list of all of the main groups of organisms that live in the oceans. It was a long list—from tiny copepods to giant whales, and from algae to sea urchins!—but once I had my list I began looking for beautiful images featuring representatives of as many of those groups as I could find in the Rare Book collection.”

Stiassny included plenty of well-known scientists, from Charles Darwin to David Starr Jordan, but says she was introduced to many others during her time in the library. “The museum’s collection of rare books is amazing—a real hidden gem of the place,” she says. “Even though I have worked here for ages, I have never before been able to spend so much time wandering the stacks. It really was a very special treat to discover the works of so many marine pioneers.”

Stiassny says she learned a lot in her research for Opulent Oceans, but the most exciting discovery, she says, “was the understanding that although much has changed since those pioneering years of marine biology, most of those changes are just the technological accoutrements of modern science—Global Positioning Systems, deep sea submersibles, computers, and cameras. What remains the same is the sheer excitement of exploration and the joy of discovery.”

An exhibition of artwork from Opulent Oceans, curated by Stiassny and Tom Baione, the museum's Director of Library Services, is currently on display outside the museum’s LeFrack Theater through October 2016; you can buy the book here.

1. VAMPIRE SQUID

AMNH/R. Mickens

This illustration of Vampyroteuthis infernalis—which literally means “vampire squid from hell”—appeared in French professor Louis Joubin’s 1920 book Resultats des Campagnes Scientifiques accomplies sur son yacht par Albert 1er Prince Souverain de Monaco. These denizens of the deep sea, which grow to be about 11 inches long, have reddish-brown skin and large blue eyes that can reach 0.9 inches in diameter—the largest eye-to-body ratio of any animal in the world.

2. DARWIN’S BARNACLES

AMNH/R. Mickens

Five years before he published On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin published a four-volume work on his other obsession: barnacles. A monograph on the sub-class Cirripedia, with figures on all of the species, featured these large acorn barnacles (Megabalanus tintinnabulum) which are believed to be native to the tropics, but have since spread all around the world by attaching themselves to the hulls of ships.

3. DOLPHIN

AMNH/R. Mickens

This woodcut, from the 1555 book La nature & diversité des poisons, avec leurs pourtraicts, representez au plus près du naturel by French explorer and naturalist Pierre Belon, features a not-quite-accurate member of the dolphin family, Delphinidae. The dolphin was so fanciful that Stiassny wasn’t able to pinpoint what species it was. “Often the names used for many of the organisms depicted in the older works have changed over time, so it required a bit of detective work to try and decipher what species they may actually represent,” she says. “In a few cases it simply wasn’t possible—like Belon’s lovely dolphin—but in most cases the illustrations were so accurate that I was able to track down what species they actually were.”

4. GLOWING COPEPODS

AMNH/R. Mickens

When it came time to illustrate these tiny bioluminescent crustaceans in his 1892 book Systematik und Faunistik der pelagischen Copepoden des Golfes von Neapel…, German zoologist Wilhelm Giesbrecht chose to put them on a dark background—not unlike the dark ocean environment they call home. According to the BBC, some copepods “discharge packets of bioluminescent liquid whose flashes are delayed and go off like depth charges,” which confuses their predators and allows them to get away.

5. HAWKSBILL TURTLE

AMNH/R. Mickens

In his book Historia testudinum iconibus illustrata, published between 1792 and 1801, physician and naturalist Johann David Schopf described 33 different kinds of turtles and tortoises—including this Hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricate), which today is a critically endangered species. The turtle was illustrated by Friedrich Wilhelm Wunder, who worked from Schopf’s drawings.

Fun fact: As juveniles, Hawksbill turtles have heart-shaped shells, which get longer as they grow older.

6. SIPHONOPHORES

AMNH/R. Mickens

French naturalist and explorer Francois Peron collected these marine siphonophores for his 1807 book Voyage de decouvertes aux terres australes. Some of these fragile creatures can grow to be 100 feet long.

7. KING RAGWORM

AMNH/R. Mickens

One thing Stiassny didn’t find, despite really trying, was a female scientist to feature in Opulent Oceans. “The period covered in the book was a time of deep and pervasive hostility to the active participation of women in science,” she says. But she was able to feature an image drawn by a woman, and it’s one of her favorite images in the volume: the drawing of the magnificent king ragworm (Alitta virens) from William Carmichael McIntosh's A monograph of the British marine annelids. McIntosh, who found the worm on a beach, brought it home alive for his sister, Roberta, to draw. “After her death, McIntosh dedicated his life’s work to her, describing her as his ‘fellow worker and artist,’” Stiassny says. “Although her scientific acumen went unrecognized by the scientific establishment of the day, at least her brother fully appreciated her contributions.”

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Animals
14 Bold Facts About Bald Eagles
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Bald eagles are powerful symbols of America—but there’s a whole lot more to these quirky birds.

1. YOUNG BALD EAGLES AREN'T BALD.

A young bald eagle with a brown head on a beach.
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So obviously adult bald eagles aren't really bald, either—their heads have bright white plumage that contrasts with their dark body feathers, giving them a "bald" look. But young bald eagles have mostly brown heads. In fact, for the first four or five years of their lives, they move through a complicated series of different plumage patterns; in their second year, for instance, they have white bellies.

2. BALD EAGLES SOUND SO SILLY THAT HOLLYWOOD DUBS OVER THEIR VOICES.

A red-tailed hawk.
A red-tailed hawk's screech is usually dubbed over the bald eagle's weaker scream.
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It's a scene you’ve probably seen countless times in movies and on TV: an eagle flies overhead and emits a rough, piercing scream. It's a classic symbol of wilderness and adventure. The only problem? Bald eagles don't make that sound.

Instead, they emit a sort of high-pitched giggle or a weak scream. These noises are so unimpressive that Hollywood sound editors often dub over bald eagle calls with far more impressive sounds: the piercing, earthy screams of a smaller bird, the red-tailed hawk. If you were a fan of The Colbert Report, you might remember the show's iconic CGI eagle from the opener—it, too, is making that red-tailed hawk cry. Listen for yourself and decide who sounds more impressive.

3. THEY EAT TRASH AND STOLEN FOOD.

Two bald eagles guard their prey against two magpies on a snowy field.
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Picture a majestic bald eagle swooping low over a lake and catching a fish in its powerful claws. Yes, bald eagles eat a lot of fish—but they don't always catch it themselves. They've perfected the art of stealing fish from other birds such as ospreys, chasing them down until they drop their prey.

Bald eagles will also snack on gulls, ducks, rabbits, crabs, amphibians, and more. They'll scavenge in dumpsters, feed on waste from fish processing plants, and even gorge on carrion (dead, decaying animals).

4. BALD EAGLES USUALLY MATE FOR LIFE.

Two bald eagles perched on a tree.
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Trash and carrion aside, they're pretty romantic animals. Bald eagles tend to pair up for life, and they share parenting duties: the male and the female take turns incubating the eggs, and they both feed their young.

5. … AND THEY LIVE PRETTY LONG LIVES.

Two bald eagles sitting on a rock.
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Those romantic partnerships are even more impressive because bald eagles can survive for decades. In 2015, a wild eagle in Henrietta, New York, died at the record age of 38. Considering that these birds pair up at 4 or 5 years of age, that's a lot of Valentine's Days.

6. THEY HOLD THE RECORD FOR THE LARGEST BIRD'S NEST.

Two bald eagles in their large nest.
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Bald eagles build enormous nests high in the treetops. The male and female work on the nest together, and this quality time helps them cement their lifelong bond. Their cozy nurseries consist of a framework of sticks lined with softer stuff such as grass and feathers. If the nest serves them well during the breeding season, they'll keep using it year after year. And, like all homeowners, they can't resist the thought of renovating and adding to their abode. Every year, they'll spruce it up with a whopping foot or two of new material.

On average, bald eagle nests are 2-4 feet deep and 4-5 feet wide. But one pair of eagles near St. Petersburg, Florida, earned the Guinness World Record for largest bird’s nest: 20 feet deep and 9.5 feet wide. The nest weighed over two tons.

7. FEMALES ARE LARGER THAN MALES.

Two bald eagles in their large nest.
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In many animal species, males are (on average) larger than females. Male gorillas, for example, dwarf their female counterparts. But for most birds of prey, it's the opposite. Male bald eagles weight about 25 percent less than females.

Scientists aren't sure why there's such a size difference. One reason might be the way they divide up their nesting duties. Females take the lead in arranging the nesting material, so being bigger might help them take charge. Also, they spend longer incubating the eggs than males, so their size could intimidate would-be egg thieves.

If you're trying to tell male and female eagles apart, this size difference may help you—especially since both sexes have the same plumage patterns.

8. TO IDENTIFY THEM, LOOK AT THE WINGS.

A bald eagle flies across the water.
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People often get excited about a big soaring bird and yell "It's an eagle!” just before it swoops closer and … oops, it's a vulture. Here's a handy identification tip. Bald eagles usually soar with their wings almost flat. On the other hand, the turkey vulture—another dark, soaring bird—holds its wings up in a shallow V shape called a dihedral. A lot of large hawks also soar with slightly raised wings.

9. THEY'RE COMEBACK KIDS.

Baby eagle chicks in a nest.
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Before European settlers arrived, bald eagles were abundant across the U.S. But with settlement came habitat destruction, and the settlers viewed the eagles as competition for game and as a threat to livestock. So many eagles were killed that in 1940 Congress passed an act to protect the birds.

Unfortunately, another threat rose up at about that time. Starting after World War II, farmers and public health officials used an insecticide called DDT. The chemical worked well to eradicate mosquitos and agricultural pests—but as it traveled up the food chain, it began to heavily affect birds of prey. DDT made eagle eggshells too thin and caused the eggs to break. A 1963 survey found just 471 bald eagle pairs in the lower 48 states.

DDT was banned in the early 1970s, and conservationists began to breed bald eagles in captivity and reintroduce them in places across America. Luckily, this species made a spectacular recovery. Now the lower 48 states boast over 9700 nesting pairs.

10. THEY'RE UNIQUELY NORTH AMERICAN.

An African fish eagle flies over the water.
The African fish eagle is a relative of the North American bald eagle.
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You've probably heard of America's other eagle: the golden eagle. This bird lives throughout much of the northern hemisphere. But the bald eagle is only found in North America. It lives across much of Canada and the U.S., as well as northern parts of Mexico.

Though it may be North American, the bald eagle has seven close relatives that are found throughout the world. They all belong to the genus Haliaeetus, which comes—pretty unimaginatively—from the Latin words for "sea" and "eagle." One relative, the African fish eagle, is a powerful symbol in its own right. It represents several countries; for example, it's the national symbol of Zambia, and graces the South Sudanese, Malawian, and Namibian coats of arms.

11. THEY'RE AERIAL DAREDEVILS.

A bald eagle carries a fish off in its talons.
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It seems too weird to be true: While flying, bald eagles sometimes grab each other's feet and spin while plummeting to the Earth. Scientists aren't sure why they do this—perhaps it's a courtship ritual or a territorial battle. Usually, the pair will separate before hitting the ground (as seen in this remarkable set of photographs). But sometimes they hold tight and don't let go. These two male bald eagles locked talons and hit the ground with their feet still connected. One subsequently escaped and the other was treated for talon wounds.

12. THEIR EYES ARE AMAZING.

Close-up of a bald eagle's face.
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What if you could close your eyes and still see? Besides the usual pair of eyelids, bald eagles have a see-through eyelid called a nictitating membrane. They can close this membrane to protect their eyes while their main eyelids remain open. The membrane also helps moisten and clean their eyes.

Eagles also have sharper vision than people, and their field of vision is wider. Plus, they can see ultraviolet light. Both of those things mean the expression "eagle eye" is spot-on.

13. THEY MIGRATE … SORT OF.

A bald eagle sits in a snowy tree.
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If you're a bald eagle that nests in northern Canada, you'll probably head south for the winter to avoid the punishing cold. Many eagles fly south for the winter and return north for the summer—as do plenty of other bird species (and retired Canadians). But not all bald eagles migrate. Some of them, including individuals in New England and Canada's Maritime provinces, stick around all year. Whether or not a bird migrates depends on how old it is and how much food is available.

14. THEY CAN SWIM … SORT OF.

A bald eagle
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There are several videos online—like the one above—that show a bald eagle swimming in the sea, rowing itself to shore with its huge wings. Eagles have hollow bones and fluffy down, so they can float pretty well. But why swim instead of soar? Sometimes, an eagle will swoop down and grab an especially weighty fish, then paddle it to shore to eat.

Note that the announcer in the video above says that the eagle's talons are "locked" on a fish that's too heavy to carry. In fact, those lockable talons are an urban legend.

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Animals
How Bats Protect Rare Books at This Portuguese Library
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Visit the Joanina Library at the University of Coimbra in Portugal at night and you might think the building has a bat problem. It's true that common pipistrelle bats live there, occupying the space behind the bookshelves by day and swooping beneath the arched ceilings and in and out of windows once the sun goes down, but they're not a problem. As Smithsonian reports, the bats play a vital role in preserving the institution's manuscripts, so librarians are in no hurry to get rid of them.

The bats that live in the library don't damage the books and, because they're nocturnal, they usually don't bother the human guests. The much bigger danger to the collection is the insect population. Many bug species are known to gnaw on paper, which could be disastrous for the library's rare items that date from before the 19th century. The bats act as a natural form of pest control: At night, they feast on the insects that would otherwise feast on library books.

The Joanina Library is famous for being one of the most architecturally stunning libraries on earth. It was constructed before 1725, but when exactly the bats arrived is unknown. Librarians can say for sure they've been flapping around the halls since at least the 1800s.

Though bats have no reason to go after the materials, there is one threat they pose to the interior: falling feces. Librarians protect against this by covering their 18th-century tables with fabric made from animal skin at night and cleaning the floors of guano every morning.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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