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Amazing Pictures of See-Through Fish

Most of what we know about the insides of fish is usually broiled or fried on our plates.

But Adam Summers has given us a new perspective on the internal structures of the aquatic animals, thanks to his series of artistic photographs currently on exhibit at the Seattle Aquarium.

A photo of a scalyhead sculpin
A scalyhead sculpin (Artedius harringtoni) picture that’s part of the exhibition. Photograph by Adam Summers

The exhibit, called Cleared: The Art of Science Photography, features 14 large-format photographic prints of fish specimens that were specially stained with dyes to make their skeletal tissues pop out. (See “First Photos: Weird Fish With Transparent Head.”)

Summers, a professor and associate director at the Friday Harbor Labs at the University of Washington,  said he’s been taking the uber-intricate photographs for about 18 years to help him in his biomechanics research, displaying some of his work “to decorate the lab [and] relieve the monotony.”
The artful science caught the eye of some trustees of the Seattle Aquarium, who saw the photographs during a lab tour and asked Summers if he could put some images together for a show.
A photo of a tube snout fish
A tube snout (Aulorhynchus flavidus). Photograph by Adam Summers

With the help of Ilya Brook, a longtime friend and “Photoshop wizard,” Summers reshot some of the images with artistic rather than scientific content in mind.

It was “completely surprising,” he said.

Fetching Fish

There’s a lot of complexity to be had in a fish.

“I suspect that part of what makes these fetching is that there’s an almost unlimited level of detail,” said Summers, who was also a science consultant for the movie Finding Nemo (in which he’s billed as the “Fabulous Fish Guy”).

A photo of a butterfly ray.
This image of the butterfly ray (Gymnura crebripunctata) helped scientists study the joints in its wings. Photograph by Adam Summers

“The images allow you to look really, really, really closely, but they also allow you to step back and sort of appreciate a large form. To get to that level of fractal detail is somehow viscerally appealing to people.” (Also see “See-Through Goldfish Bred; Cuts Out Need for Dissection.”)

For instance, fish have a lot more bones than, say, mammals. A person has over 200 bones in all, while there are 200 bones just in a fish’s head and the start of its vertebral column, Summers says.

“That level of sort of repetitiveness draws the eye. It’s kinda cool.”

Details to Dye For

Such fine structural details are possible due to Summers’s technique. To create the images, he uses two dyes to stain the fish’s skeleton: Alcian blue for the cartilaginous parts, and Alziarin Red S for the mineralized tissue that has become hardened, like bone. (See some of the best artistic science pictures from 2013.)

A photo of a spiny lumpsucker
A spiny lumpsucker (Eumicrotremus orbis). Photograph by Adam Summers

The fish are then lightly bleached with peroxide and an intestinal enzyme is used to dissolve flesh. The animal is placed in glycerin, which makes them appear transparent.

This formula is decades old, Summers added, but “all of us who use it have our own little recipes.

“To take pictures that are not intentionally scientific has been great fun.”

Follow Liz Langley on Facebook and Twitter.

Comments

  1. Sher Miller
    Colorado, United States
    March 11, 9:54 am

    These are amazing. I could spend hours studying the intricacy of these and appreciating the beauty. I can’t believe this methodology/style has been around for so long and it’s just now coming to light. I owe you thanks, @Liz Langley, for broadening my artistic horizons, and @Ry Beville for letting me know there is another artist who practices this style. It will be interesting to compare the photos of someone who’s been doing this for almost two decades to those of someone who is relatively new to the style.

  2. chaker khalid
    sharjah-United Arab Emirates
    February 28, 5:31 am

    It’s really stunning scientific pictures of marine creatures that look like prehistoric sea predators. When I looked at them first time I thoght these were monsters I saw in some Holywood sience fiction movies.
    Thanks to NG for providing these wealthy articles and images and many thanks of course to the researchers and scientists behind the amazing work and effort.

  3. Anna Voloshin
    Melbourne
    February 25, 9:36 pm

    ..it produced a mix of thoughts and feelings, interesting art work, scientific detail, complexity, we humans are curious indeed, they belong to the sea, sad reality of our fishing and its by-catch..

  4. Chris Lord
    USA
    February 24, 3:05 pm

    Billions and billions of lies ago, people saw such complexity and diversity (and the genetic code for continued diversification) as examples of the brilliant of a creator. But billions on billions of lies later, we’re told chance alone explains observed nature.

  5. eva grzelak
    new york
    February 24, 7:20 am

    Fabulous!

  6. Ben
    United Kingdom
    February 24, 5:49 am

    Some of the comments on here suggesting that this is a “beautiful testimony to the creative artistry of the God who put us together” and asking if we still believe in evolution need to pick up a science textbook…

  7. DanH
    Oregon
    February 23, 6:30 pm

    Such beautiful testimony to the creative artistry of the God who put us together, further evidenced in the logic, creativity, and truth-seeking efforts of humans who reflect their Creator.

  8. Larry DeClerck
    United States
    February 23, 4:31 pm

    A truly amazing tapestry that evolution has woven.

  9. Yolanda
    Spain
    February 23, 3:10 pm

    The Nature is perfection, the most beautiful and the ugliest and terrifying.

  10. mike schuster
    bellingham, wa
    February 23, 2:43 pm

    Hey, how about we all make a greater effort to save this living planet!

  11. Bani Gill
    Switzerland
    February 23, 2:23 pm

    Incredible, blending both science and art.

  12. Mike
    February 23, 12:04 pm

    Interesting! I hope that everyone’s Sunday is going both great and safe, enjoyed the recent holiday that we’ve had,having a good weekend and has another good week. I also hope that they are having /had a nice Presidents’ Day!

  13. Paul
    Florida
    February 23, 11:10 am

    And you still believe in evolution? Really?

  14. R.Dorairajan
    India
    February 23, 11:02 am

    It is amazing Photographs of Cross section of various types of Fish and about body structure with bones connected to its head from wings and tail . It is quite educative about Marine species . National Geography presents such Research oriented details to the viewers and members. Thanking NG for its great job.

  15. Geraldo A. Lobato Franco
    Rio de Janeiro, RJ - close to the beach of Ipanema
    February 23, 10:50 am

    I wonder if this is the kind of research the japanese are doing with whales. Or would it be just culinary experiments?
    Does someone know, after all, why the japs are still chasing and killing pitilessly the cetaceous?

  16. Jeanlou
    Brussels - Belgium
    February 23, 10:45 am

    Great, never seen it before !
    Many thanks for sharing this special pictures
    Regards

  17. Jorge López
    Colombia
    February 23, 10:10 am

    Scientifically chévere!

  18. Nancy
    Elgin, Il.
    February 23, 9:43 am

    The photography is just phenomenal…how incredibly special to share a talent like this, as this is the ONLY way the majority of us will ever experience this kind of beauty!

  19. Ry Beville
    Yokohama, Japan
    February 22, 2:10 pm

    Indeed, Iori Tomita deserves credit for his pioneering work in this field. He has been creating “transparent specimen” for years and, in addition to publishing two books and an app, has been featured in Wired and other magazines. His work has been an inspiration (and controversy) to many. More on him here: http://www.yokohamaseasider.com/2011/03/transparent-specimen/

  20. Ry Beville
    Yokohama, Japan
    February 22, 2:08 pm

    Indeed, Iori Tomita was a pioneer of “transparent specimen”, featured previously in Wired and other magazines. He definitely should receive recognition in this piece for his work. In fact, many of his pieces have been sold to aquariums around the world. More on him: http://www.yokohamaseasider.com/2011/03/transparent-specimen/

  21. Malvern Drewa
    Jacksonville, Florida
    February 21, 1:19 pm

    These pictures are amazing in how they show the many details of the fish. I have the same question as a previous person: Is there pictures of larger fish? Shark’s, etc.?

  22. Naresh Paliwal
    Udaipur,Rajsthan,India
    February 21, 6:59 am

    Beautiful…….

  23. Lew Green
    Townsville North Queensland Australia
    February 21, 1:58 am

    These photos are absolutely amazing. The technology of today is making so much possible. I worked in underwater photography with Noel Monkman, the pioneer of underwater photography in Australia back in the 1950’s. Would have loved the technology then.

  24. karin
    gernany
    February 20, 11:49 am

    seldom seen such brilliant pics.
    thank you.

  25. Fionnuala O'Connell
    February 20, 9:36 am

    Beautiful

  26. Mirko Perkovic
    Croatia
    February 20, 8:32 am

    Astonishing work.Never seen somthing like this before!
    Thanks for sharing.MP

  27. Bharat Kumar Javvadhi
    San Antonio, Texas
    February 19, 5:19 pm

    Amazing work! Loved it!

  28. Liz Langley
    February 19, 5:05 pm

    @Rabi Manandhar and @Marion Gresl

    Yes, some were collected specifically for certain studies but many are fisheries’ bycatch – fish that are unintentionally netted by fisheries.

  29. Marion Gresl
    Anzac Alberta
    February 19, 4:34 pm

    So the fish are bleached, their intestines disolved and then put into glycerin. Yes, they are beautiful, but then again, they are dead.

  30. Liz Langley
    February 19, 4:22 pm

    I’m happy to see so many people enjoying Adam Summers’ work!

    @trenton hamilton
    That’s exactly what I thought when I first saw them and why I wanted to do this piece! Thanks! :)

  31. Kaylee
    United States
    February 19, 3:58 pm

    I found this article quite interesting and unbelievable!!! I never knew about these such things, i’m very glad and pleased you wrote this article.

  32. charles lowe
    okmulgee
    February 19, 3:20 pm

    the animals look weird

  33. trenton hamilton
    February 19, 3:14 pm

    i love this. this is crazy

  34. Rajan gupta
    india (W.B)
    February 19, 1:35 pm

    Very nice photography…

  35. Brittany
    February 19, 1:26 pm

    Them fish look cool.

  36. Acacia
    February 19, 1:03 pm

    This is cooool. The fish looks amazing & pretty.

    A.P.

  37. claudia_taylor
    Baltimore
    February 19, 11:27 am

    can they do this to jellyfish? those are amazing animals.
    follow on me intsa big_nasty

  38. Liz Langley
    February 19, 10:22 am

    @Peter Favinger Thank you for sharing the link! Yes, Dr. Summers said the technique has been around for many years and many people use it, fascinating to see the various results!

    @Dwayne LaGrou Most of these images are quite small – in my conversation with Dr. Summers he said the biggest was 15 cm / about 6 inches across.

  39. Mary Finelli
    Silver Spring, Md.
    February 19, 9:20 am

    How sad that these beautiful, sentient beings were killed for this. See Fish Feel dot org.

  40. courtny nicole
    brown county indiana
    February 19, 8:33 am

    these pictures are amazing and it is hard for younger kids to notice how important the world around us is. i am only 14 and i understand why you are wanting us to see these amazing creatures. it is truely beautiful,and how detailed it is just makes it that much more perfect.

  41. naved ahmed
    karachi
    February 19, 3:08 am

    wowamazing anything like it

  42. Talya Redinger
    florida
    February 18, 10:40 pm

    Are any of these available for purchase?

  43. Dwayne LaGrou
    Lapeer, Michigan
    February 18, 10:39 pm

    It’s true!!! A picture really IS worth a thousand words!
    Incredible details I have never seen before. I was wondering if you had any photos of large fish? Or maybe a shark to see the differences?!

    Thanks, And keep it up.

  44. Rabi Manandhar
    Nepal
    February 18, 9:12 pm

    Just like cholangiogram ! Is this dead fish or alive fish ? Awesome !

  45. Joe Kennedy
    Cocoa Beach
    February 18, 8:42 pm

    Thank you for the stunning images. The detail is amazing.Adam Summers truly has a gift. I’m looking forward to seeing more see through creatures photographed this way.

  46. Peter Favinger
    February 18, 6:13 pm

    I do need to say that Iori Tomita has been doing this as well, and I believe he deserves the same recognition in addition to this article. http://www.shinsekai-th.com/en/profile.php

  47. Doug Rhodehamel
    orlando, florida
    February 18, 4:50 pm

    absolutely amazing!! i’m so glad you wrote this. i’ve never scene anything like it!