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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
Where Do Birds Get Their Songs?
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iStock

Birds display some of the most impressive vocal abilities in the animal kingdom. They can be heard across great distances, mimic human speech, and even sing using distinct dialects and syntax. The most complex songs take some practice to learn, but as TED-Ed explains, the urge to sing is woven into songbirds' DNA.

Like humans, baby birds learn to communicate from their parents. Adult zebra finches will even speak in the equivalent of "baby talk" when teaching chicks their songs. After hearing the same expressions repeated so many times and trying them out firsthand, the offspring are able to use the same songs as adults.

But nurture isn't the only factor driving this behavior. Even when they grow up without any parents teaching them how to vocalize, birds will start singing on their own. These innate songs are less refined than the ones that are taught, but when they're passed down through multiple generations and shaped over time, they start to sound similar to the learned songs sung by other members of their species.

This suggests that the drive to sing as well as the specific structures of the songs themselves have been ingrained in the animals' genetic code by evolution. You can watch the full story from TED-Ed below, then head over here for a sample of the diverse songs produced by birds.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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Animals
Watch the First-Ever Footage of a Baby Dumbo Octopus
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dumbo octopuses are named for the elephant-ear-like fins they use to navigate the deep sea, but until recently, when and how they developed those floppy appendages were a mystery. Now, for the first time, researchers have caught a newborn Dumbo octopus on tape. As reported in the journal Current Biology, they discovered that the creatures are equipped with the fins from the moment they hatch.

Study co-author Tim Shank, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, spotted the octopus in 2005. During a research expedition in the North Atlantic, one of the remotely operated vehicles he was working with collected several coral branches with something strange attached to them. It looked like a bunch of sandy-colored golf balls at first, but then he realized it was an egg sac.

He and his fellow researchers eventually classified the hatchling that emerged as a member of the genus Grimpoteuthis. In other words, it was a Dumbo octopus, though they couldn't determine the exact species. But you wouldn't need a biology degree to spot its resemblance to Disney's famous elephant, as you can see in the video below.

The octopus hatched with a set of functional fins that allowed it to swim around and hunt right away, and an MRI scan revealed fully-developed internal organs and a complex nervous system. As the researchers wrote in their study, Dumbo octopuses enter the world as "competent juveniles" ready to jump straight into adult life.

Grimpoteuthis spends its life in the deep ocean, which makes it difficult to study. Scientists hope the newly-reported findings will make it easier to identify Grimpoteuthis eggs and hatchlings for future research.

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