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AMNH\R. Mickens

7 Gorgeous Old Illustrations of Sea Creatures

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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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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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25 Benefits of Adopting a Rescue Dog
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According to the ASPCA, 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year in the United States. Although that number has gone down since 2011 (from 3.9 million) there are still millions of dogs waiting in shelters for a forever home. October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month; here are 25 benefits of adopting a shelter dog.

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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E
New Smithsonian Exhibit Explains Why Felines Were the Cat's Meow in Ancient Egypt
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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E

From bi-coastal cat cafes to celebrity pets like Lil Bub, felines are currently enjoying a peak moment in popular culture. That’s part of the reason why curators at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery—which will re-open to visitors on Saturday, October 14, following a 3-month closure—decided to dedicate a new exhibition to ancient Egypt’s relationship with the animals.

Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” looks at the cultural and religious importance of cats, which the Egyptians appreciated long before YouTube was a thing and #caturday was a hashtag. It's based on a traveling exhibition that began at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. On view until January 15, 2018, it's one of several exhibits that will kick off the grand reopening of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries, the conjoined national museums of Asian and Middle Eastern Art.

The Freer has been closed since January 2016 for major renovations, and the Sackler since July 2016 for minor ones. The upgraded institutions will make their public debut on October 14, and be feted by a free two-day festival on the National Mall.

Featuring 80 artworks and relics, ranging from figurines of leonine deities to the tiny coffins of beloved pets, "Divine Felines" even has a cat mummy on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. These objects span from the Middle Kingdom (2008 to 1630 BCE) to the Byzantine period (395 to 642 CE).

An ancient Egyptian metal weight shaped like a cat, dating back to 305 to 30 BCE, on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Weight in Form of a Cat, 305 to 30 BCE, Bronze, silver, lead
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

The term “cat” is used loosely, as the Egyptians celebrated domestic mousers and fearsome predators alike.

“The Egyptians were close observers of nature, so they were observing cat behaviors,” Antonietta Catanzariti, the exhibition's in-house curator, tells Mental Floss. “They noticed that cats and lions— in general, felines—have aggressive and protective aspects, so they associated those attributes to deities.”

The ancient Egyptians viewed their gods as humans, animals, or mixed forms. Several of these pantheon members were both associated with and depicted as cats, including Bastet, the goddess of motherhood, fertility, and protection; and Sakhmet, the goddess of war and—when appeased—healing. She typically has a lion head, but in some myths she appears as a pacified cat.

A limestone sculptor's model of a walking lion, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Sculptor's Model of a Walking Lion, ca. 664 to 630 BCE, limestone
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 33.190

While Bastet was a nurturer, Sakhmet—whose name means “The Powerful One”—could use her mighty force to either slay or safeguard humanity. These characterizations are typical of the ancient Egyptian worldview, which perceived the universe in dualistic terms. “There’s always a positive and a negative,” Catanzariti explains.

Contrary to popular belief, however, ancient Egyptians did not view cats themselves as gods. “The goddess Sakhmet does have the features as a lion, or in some cases as a cat, but that doesn’t mean that the Egyptians were worshipping cats or lions,” Catanzariti says. Instead, they were simply noting and admiring her feline traits. This practice, to an extent, also extended to royalty. Kings were associated with lions and other large cats, as they were the powerful protectors of ancient Egypt’s borders.

These myriad associations prompted Egyptians to adorn palaces, temples, protective amulets, ceremonial vessels, and accessories with cat images. Depending on their context, these renderings symbolized everything from protection and power to beauty and sexuality. A king’s throne might have a lion-shaped support, for example, whereas a woman’s cosmetics case might be emblazoned with a cat-headed female goddess of motherhood and fertility.

An ancient Egyptian figurine of a standing lion-headed goddess, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Figurine of a Standing Lion-Headed Goddess, 664 to 630 BCE, Faience
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.943E

While cats were linked with heavenly figures and kings, they were also popular domestic pets. Their ability to catch vermin made them an important addition to households, and owners loved and anthropomorphized their pets just like we do today.

Egyptians often named, or nicknamed, their children after animals; Miit (cat) was a popular moniker for girls. It's said that entire households shaved their eyebrows in mourning if a house cat died a natural death. Some also believe that cats received special legal protection. (Not all cats were this lucky, however, as some temples bred kittens specifically to offer their mummified forms to the gods.) If a favorite cat died, the Egyptians would bury them in special decorated coffins, containers, and boxes. King Tutankhamen, for example, had a stone sarcophagus constructed just for his pet feline.

An ancient Egyptian bronze cat head adorned with gold jewelry, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Cat's Head, 30 BCE. to third century CE, bronze, gold
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

“Divine Felines” breaks down these facts, and more, into five thematic sections, including “Cats and Kings"; “Cats and Gods”; “Cats and Death”; “Cats and Protection”; and “Dogs as Guardians and Hunters.” Yes, there’s also an exhibition section for dog lovers—“a small one,” Catanzariti laughs, that explains why canines were associated with figures like Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification and the afterlife.

Did the ancient Egyptians prefer cats to dogs? “I would say that both of them had different roles,” Catanzariti says, as dogs were valued as hunters, scavengers, and guards. “They were appreciated in different ways for their ability to protect or be useful for the Egyptian culture.” In this way, "Divine Felines" is targeted to ailurophiles and canophiliacs alike, even if it's packaged with pointed ears and whiskers.

An ancient Egyptian cat coffin, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Coffin for a Cat, 664 to 332 BCE, or later, Wood, gesso, paint, animal remains
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1944Ea-b


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