Stunning insight into marine anatomy revealed through colourful dye

Chris McKee
By: - 9th Feb 2014
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A biologist turned photographer has showcased his latest project that exposes the inner beauty of our ocean’s inhabitants. 

Professor Adam Summers of the University of Washington, Seattle, has used a common procedure to highlight the amazing complexity of marine life. The photos could be mistaken for a vibrant x-ray but intelligent chemical treatment has resulted in something much more fascinating.

Butterfly Ray

Butterfly Ray

By using trypsin, an enzyme that eats away at organic material but spares the collagen in the skin, Summers was able to turn the bodies of these animals into a visual treat. Hydrogen peroxide dissolved the darkness of the connective tissue and glycerine removed any presence of the inner flesh. What remained was the natural grooves and aquatic structure of the creature’s bones.

Spiny Lumpsucker

Spiny Lumpsucker

The blue pigment was chosen to represent the durability of cartilage and a deep red was used as the strong colour for solid bone. The technique is best suited to thin sea creatures with around 1cm of tissue. It can take days for the process to operate, the trypsin works steadily but slowly to digest the scales of the many varieties of fish in the display.

Little Skate

Little Skate

The specimens were positioned on an LED light table and left to settle for several hours. Summers used a Canon 5D Mark III camera fitted with a 100mm Macro lens, all mounted on a tripod. These exquisite images were displayed as part of the exhibition ‘Cleared: the Art of Science’ in Seattle Aquarium.

Northern Clingfish

Northern Clingfish

Poetry by Sierra Nelson joins each image. “It was a very natural thing when I was asked to produce this show to see if Sierra would be willing to write poems inspired by these pieces. Any keen observer of the natural world employs the same tools that a poet employs,” said Adam Summers himself when discussing the relevance of poetry with his work. The species fish were chosen by Summers because of their relevance to the biologist’s previous work at the University of Washington. The research that led to the exhibit was funded by the National Science Foundation.

Pacific Cod

Pacific Cod

Summers explained his work using his scientific background: “In my work I apply simple Newtonian physics and a bit of engineering to problems of how animals do those amazing things.  The source of questions is the natural world and there is no better skill set in my business than that of the natural historian. A keen eye for what is going on around you, and a willingness to document it, is a powerful engine for generating great questions.”

Scalyhead Sculpin

Scalyhead Sculpin

He also spoke of how he could have used a varying range of imaging techniques: “Radiographs are wonderful, but they are not 3-d and they won’t show cartilage.  CT scans show mineralized tissue in 3D, but they are expensive to generate and to process and again, they miss the cartilage.  Magnetic resonance imaging will allow 3D visualization of cartilage, but it is expensive and has lower resolution than I usually require.”

Electric Ray

Electric Ray

“I suspect this classic technique will be fuelling my research projects for many years to come,” says Summers.

Image Credit: Adam Summers/Incognito Features

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