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These so-called butterfly fish were drawn by ichthyologist Mary Margaret Smith for her 1949 textbook The Sea Fishes of Southern Africa. When she could find no suitable illustrations to accompany her book, Smith took on the task of drawing the images she needed herself. Biodiversity Heritage Library
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Gem anemone, pictured here, live on the rocky coasts in the northeastern Atlantic Ocean, North Sea, and Mediterranean Sea. This illustration was drawn by George Brettingham Sowerby for his Popular History of the Aquarium of Marine and Fresh-water Animals and Plants in 1857.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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A sperm whale featured in the seventh volume of The Naturalist's Library published in 1843. Many early nature drawings featured whales with human emotions, as seen here by the grimace on the whale's face.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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Argonauts, also called paper nautiluses, are a group of deep-sea octopuses found in tropical and subtropical waters worldwide. People once believed these octopuses used two of their arms like sails as depicted in this artwork from William Wood's 1807 Zoography. The artwork itself was drawn by William Daniell. Biodiversity Heritage Library
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These jellyfish appear in Ernst Haeckel's 19th-century series Kunstformen der Natur. The series, which contained 100 illustrations of various organisms, established Haeckel as an authority on natural science at the time. But his racist views related to eugenics have since soured his legacy among modern scientists.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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A vibrant illustration of a turkey zebrafish from the book A Selection From the Most Remarkable and Interesting of the Fishes Found on the Coast of Ceylon. The 19th-century book featured artwork by John Whitchurch Bennett, who drew from live specimens found in the waters around Ceylon or Sri Lanka as it is known today.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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This shell study appears in D'Amboinsche Rariteitkamer, a 1705 text by Georg Eberhard Rumpf. This is one of the few works by Rumpf that survived a fire which destroyed his library.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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An 1866 black-and-white study of a squid, octopus, and cuttlefish by Albin Mesnel from Le monde de la mer.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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These eels appear in 1803's General Zoology or Systematic Natural History by George Shaw.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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A "boa," "hydra," or sea dragon of sorts as depicted in John Ashton's Curious Creatures in Zoology, which was based on the works of earlier naturalists. According to Ashton, these creatures were found in 1890s Italy.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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Illustrations of crabs from Naturgeschichte der Krabben und Krebse. Released in installments between 1782 and 1804, the series described several new species and featured scientific illustrations of sea creatures from various artists such as Johann Rudolf Schellenberg, Peter Haas, and Ludwig Schmidt.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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This is an illustration of the underbelly of an octopus by Friedrich Wilhelm Winter, who provided the artwork for Carl Chun's groundbreaking 20th-century book Cephalopod Atlas.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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A green sea turtle from Johann Georg Wagler's 1833 book Descriptiones et Icones Amphibiorum .Biodiversity Heritage Library
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This artwork is from Exploration scientifique de l'Algérie pendant les années, which was published between 1840 and 1842.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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A helmet jelly, or Periphylla periphylla, by Ernst Haeckel and Adolf Giltsch for Report on the Scientific Results of the Voyage of H.M.S. Challenger During the Years 1873-76. The book was published in 1882. Biodiversity Heritage Library
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A study of mollusk shells from A Conchological Manual published in 1839. The book was authored and illustrated by George Brettingham Sowerby II.
Shells were popular among English naturalists of the 18th and 19th centuries, as collecting them was considered a popular hobby at the time.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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This is an elaborate study of a lanternfish from Andrew Garrett's Fische der Südsee series, which was published in the 19th century. Biodiversity Heritage Library
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Mudskippers are famous for their ability to survive both in and out of water. This striking study on these strange-looking amphibians came from the 20th-century book Animal Life and the World of Nature.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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Many of the earliest scientific illustrations of sea creatures featured on maps and in text books were based on hearsay, resulting in drawings of fantastical beasts like this gargantuan lobster-like creature.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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Artwork of a sacoglossan, or a "sap-suckling sea slug," created by Italian zoologist Salvatore Trinchese in the 19th-century guide Æolididae e famiglie affini del porto di Genova.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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A chromolithographic plate of various sea anemone by Louis Prang from Our Living World: An Artistic Edition of the Rev. J. G. Wood's Natural History of Animate Creation published in 1885.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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A study of a sea otter from the 1792 book Musei Leveriani explicatio, anglica et latina by George Shaw. Early illustrations often featured exaggerated attributes, like the menacing face on this sea otter. This illustration was also drawn from a preserved specimen rather than a live observation.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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Pieter Bleeker's fish studies from Atlas ichthyologique des Indes orientales néêrlandaises, a 19th-century book devoted to the fish of Indonesia.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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Vibrant drawings of various octopus in I Cefalopodi viventi nel Golfo di Napoli (Sistematica): Monografia, by Jatta Giuseppe. The book was first published in 1896.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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A "Great Fish-Lizard," from 1896's Extinct Monsters: a Popular Account of Some of the Larger Forms of Ancient Animal Life.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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This detailed visualization of various crustaceans was done by Adolph Fries for Dictionnaire pittoresque d'histoire naturelle et des phénomènes de la nature, which was published in 1835.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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The ocean sunfish, or Mola mola, is one of the heaviest-known bony fishes in the world, with adults typically weighing up to 2,000 pounds. This artwork depicts the skeleton of a three-foot specimen that was found dead at the beach in Vejlefjord, Denmark in 1878.
It was featured in Spolia Atlantica, by Johannes Japetus Sm. Steenstrup and Christian Frederik Lütken.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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Colorful wrasses in Mary Margaret Smith's The Sea Fishes of Southern Africa. Biodiversity Heritage Library
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Colorful bandfish drawn by Louis Renard in his 18th-century Poissons, ecrevisses et crabes. Approximately nine percent of the fish featured in this 1754 work are completely fantastical.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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Squid studies in I Cefalopodi viventi nel Golfo di Napoli (Sistematica): Monografia, by Jatta Giuseppe in the 19th century.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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Fairy shrimp, pictured here, swim "upside-down." They filter organic materials from the water for food and scrape algae off underwater surfaces. This study was created by popular naturalist Christine Etiennette Pernette Jurine for her father's book Histoire des monocles qui se trouvent aux environs de Genève, which was published in 1820. Sadly, Jurine died before the book came out. Biodiversity Heritage Library
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An illustration of narwhals, also known as the unicorns of the sea, by Louis A. Sargent for the 1909 book The Wild Beasts of the World.
Narwhal tusks were once believed to carry magical and medicinal powers, which turned them into lucrative targets for seafarers.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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The Vampyroteuthis infernalis, or "vampire squid from hell," was named by explorer Carl Chun after his 20th-century oceanic expedition. This was drawn by Friedrich Wilhelm Winter for Chun's Cephalopod Atlas.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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Various crustaceans by Ernst Haeckel for his Kunstformen der Natur. The book was originally published in sets of ten between 1899 and 1904 and collectively in two volumes in 1904.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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Various sea specimens drawn in shades of green by Ernst Haeckel.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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Illustration of a squid in Mollusques vivants et fossiles, by Alcide Dessalines d'Orbigny in the 19th century.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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According to 16th-century Swiss physician Conrad Gessner, this is a fearsome kraken.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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A moonfish and oarfish featured in the Field Book of Giant Fishes illustrated by W.P.C. Tenison.
The giant oarfish is a 56-foot-long deep-sea creature that usually inhabits depths of around 3,000 feet, but it has also been spotted swimming near the surface with its head sticking out of the water, which has inspired many legends in Japanese lore.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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The Field Book of Giant Fishes was a series published between the late 1890s to the mid-1900s that documented whales, dolphins, and large fish species found in the deep sea like sharks and manta rays.
The series contained 100 drawings, all of which were done by W.P.C. Tenison.Biodiversity Heritage Library
39 Vintage Illustrations Of Deep Ocean Creatures That Seem Too Strange To Be Real
Long before the days of photography, scientists relied on the skilled hands of artists to recreate their marine discoveries on paper. The results were surprisingly lifelike — and sometimes fantastical — scientific drawings of sea creatures.
As science advanced alongside our ability to explore the world, so too did the art of nature illustration. Artists became coveted members of the scientific community in the 19th-century and integral to the expression and dissemination of the knowledge that researchers had thus far collected on the natural world.
Today, the art of scientific drawing is a dying one. But the work is no less breathtaking today than it was then.
Scientific Drawings Of Sea Creatures Help Naturalists Document The World
Biodiversity Heritage LibraryTropical fish from 1912's Reptiles, Amphibia, Fishes and Lower Chordata by Richard Lydekker.
Before high-resolution photography, scientists had to get creative, both literally and figuratively, in order to visually document the specimens they studied.
Scientists of the 19th century and earlier primarily relied on talented artists to recreate images of their scientific specimens on paper as well as their own observations and the accounts of others, like travelers and sailors, to relay their discoveries to the public.
But travelers and seamen alike often exaggerated or misremembered their encounters with natural beasts, which often resulted in the creation of fantastical creatures — and this was especially true when it came to documenting particularly elusive or bizarre ocean creatures. For instance, naturalists believed that based on the tales of seafarers, whales were dragon-like beasts with fangs and long faces.
Scientific journals from as late as the mid-19th century are also filled with drawings of mythical beasts that scientists believed were real, in part, because there was no way to verify the existence of these animals in the first place. Some of these mythical sea creatures are included in the gallery above.
But as modes of transportation advanced, European scientists like Charles Darwin and Alexander Van Humboldt were able to traverse the globe themselves to study specimens in biodiversity-rich climates like South America and Southeast Asia. Among the most popular naturalists of the time was Ernst Haeckel, a German biologist and artist best known for his vibrant studies of sea creatures. Haeckel was especially fascinated by marine life, which became the primary focus of his work.
His multi-volume series Kunstformen Der Natur, or Artforms in Nature, was published in 1904. The series boasted an impressive body of detailed drawings of various living organisms, mostly from the depths of the ocean.
There are also the whimsical works of 1910's Cephalopod Atlas, which depicts the marine animals encountered by an 1898 German submarine expedition led by biologist Carl Chun aboard the SS Valdivia. Chun's crew ventured 3,000 feet into the sea where an artist drew his discoveries in real time.
The expedition was a feat of its time that resulted in the discovery of a plethora of deep-sea wildlife. But before this expedition, it was widely believed that no life existed at all that deep in the ocean. Instead, researchers were left to their imaginations.
Exploring The Illustrated Archives Of The Biodiversity Heritage Library
Biodiversity Heritage LibraryIt was commonly believed in the 19th century that there were marine counterparts for each land animal. For instance, many naturalists believed that there were sea dogs, which looked identical to terrestrial dogs but with fins.
Today, the public can access a breadth of scientific illustrations from as early as the 1400s on the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) website, which is the world's largest open-access digital library for the historical documentation of life in the natural world.
Launched in 2006, BHL's vast collection contains 58 million pages of natural science studies, including striking scientific illustrations of sea creatures by artists and naturalists of the past. The BHL archive, which is operated under a global consortium, has been accessed by over 10 million people in over 240 countries around the world so far.
And while the archive is certainly mesmerizing to look at, it also serves a scientific purpose. Researchers at the BHL believe that these vintage illustrations can help inform researchers today by providing them with up-close, detailed studies of living organisms as they existed before climate change and ascertain how they have changed as well.
The manner in which these creatures and plants were recorded also reveals the opinions and judgments scientists held at the time. For instance, many of the animal illustrations depict creatures in family units, even if they didn't congregate that way, in order to make them more relatable to humans and reflect the views of society at the time.
Although scientific illustration is rapidly becoming a dying art, these drawings of bizarre sea creatures as they were first discovered remind us of the whimsy and awe inherent in our environments. The illustrations may have once come out of a necessity to record the world, and they are now feats of artistic creativity and a testament to how far we've come in exploring our natural world.