Thursday, June 25, 2015

Happy Birthday Waldo Schmitt!

Do you know what carcinology is?

It is the study of crustaceans, a group of arthropods that includes lobsters, crayfish, shrimp, krill, barnacles and crabs. One of the pre-eminent carcinologists (a scientist who studies crustaceans) of the first half of the twentieth century was Waldo LaSalle Schmitt. Born on this day (June 25) in 1887 in Washington, D.C., Schmitt held various positions within the United States Department of Agriculture, the Smithsonian, and the United States Bureau of Fisheries throughout his career. He authored more than 70 titles over his lifetime and was a member of numerous professional organizations, including president of the Society of Systematic Zoology and the Washington Academy of Sciences and a trustee of the Bear's Bluff Laboratories, the International Oceanographic Foundation, and the Serological Museum of Rutgers University.

Waldo Schmitt. Obituary. Crustaceana (34) 1, 1978.

While his primary field of investigation was carcinology, Schmitt actually began his career in 1907 as an Aid in Economic Botany for the United States Department of Agriculture, and his early work with natural history involved the study of both the flora and fauna of D.C. and Maryland. It was in 1910 that his true love affair with marine invertebrates began when he was appointed Aid in the Division of Marine Invertebrates at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). During the appointment, he met Mary Jane Rathbun, a fellow Smithsonian zoologist who specialized in crustaceans and described more than a thousand new species and subspecies and many higher taxa over her career. Her influence helped set Schmitt on his carcinology track, and an opportunity with the United States Bureau of Fisheries from 1911-14 helped solidify that decision.

From 1911-14, the USS Albatross, an iron-hulled, twin-screw steamer in the United States Navy that was reputedly the first research vessel ever built especially for marine research, conducted a scientific investigation of the west coast of America and Alaska. The expedition examined existing and searched for new fishing grounds around Alaska, surveyed existing fishing grounds off Washington and Oregon, and performed a biological survey of the San Francisco Bay. Schmitt served as Scientific Assistant and Naturalist aboard the Albatross during this expedition, and used the crustaceans gathered during the survey as the material for his M.A. thesis for the University of California, entitled The Marine Decapod Crustacea of California.

Diagram of a macruran decapod. Schmitt, Waldo. The Marine Decapod Crustacea of California. 1921.

Following the survey, Schmitt returned to NMNH, where he held various positions in the Division of Marine Invertebrates (serving as Assistant Curator from 1915-20 and Curator from 1920-43), the Department of Biology (serving as Head Curator from 1943-47), and the Department of Zoology (Head Curator from 1947-57). After his retirement in 1957, Schmitt continued to serve as an Honorary Research Associate with the Smithsonian until his death in 1977.

Over his career, Schmitt took part in many more biological expeditions and field trips, studying crustaceans and other biodiversity in California, Florida, South America, the Galapagos Islands, and the West Indies. His last expedition took him to Antarctica.

View of vessel during specimen collecting near Peterman Island, Antarctica, 1962-63.  SIA RU007231, Box 140, Folder. Taken during Waldo Schmitt's collecting during the Palmer Peninsula Survey 1962-63. Smithsonian Institution Archives.

The Palmer Peninsula Survey of the United States Antarctic Research Program studied marine invertebrates and vertebrates, geography, botany, and entomology in and around multiple Antarctic sites from 1962-63. Schmitt collected over 29,000 specimens for the NMNH during the survey, and in recognition of his work, a thirty-mile ice-covered series of outcrops at the base of the Antarctic Peninsula was named after him - Schmitt Mesa.

Schmitt kept a series of field books detailing his work on the Palmer Peninsula Survey, and two of them, covering the period from November 24, 1962-March 10, 1963, have been digitized by The Field Book Project and made available within the Biodiversity Heritage Library. They have also both been fully transcribed within the Smithsonian Transcription Center, making it even easier for you to browse Schmitt's incredible notes (Diary 1 and Diary 2).

Penguins on the Palmer Peninsula, 10-11am, January 28, 1963. SIA RU007231, Box 140, Folder. Taken during Waldo Schmitt's collecting during the Palmer Peninsula Survey 1962-63. Smithsonian Institution Archives.

An interesting excerpt from one of Schmitt's digitized field books reveals his frustrations with the "college textbook oceanographers" serving on the Palmer Peninsula Survey. As Schmitt writes,

"College 'students' Ph.D.'s afloat. Two men are supposed to be on duty each operation or separate phase of work. Often (or at least at times) only one is around; and that one goes down to wake his relief; then without waiting to see that the awakened man gets up and onto the job goes off to bed. [It's inconceivable].  
Expensive gear is being towed behind, needs competent watch and attention, yet when ship stops or changes course, gear (or magnetometer) is endangered & then lost, and guy in charge of it blames the bridge for not notifying him of change - "they did not tell me." Seems as though an alert man would realize change of course, absence of engine vibrations would sense at least some change requiring instrument care or retrieval. Much the same happens when wind direction dial in lab fails to register; student is aghast, I don't know what's wrong, I can't get wind direction or force - a practical or experienced man could look outside or even through port & form an estimate as any old sea dog knows. Now I know why Coast guards & others are trained in sailing ships - to get practical experience - and to be able to form personal creditable and accurate determinations of wind, weather & sea conditions.  
It would seem that any college textbook-oceanographer should serve an internship at Coast guard Acad (however limited) before being entrusted with valuable expensive and hard to replace gear & instruments. Nobody would let doctors fresh out of college operate on you, unless had interns experience, yet these Ph.D's are turned loose without any first hand real practical [knowledge] of sea, & when balled out by one who knows the sea they resent it because man has had no college training... [they think] they know better because of textbook knowledge & the degree they have, a Ph.D. never made a man out of what wasn't."

Be sure to check out Schmitt's field books to get more fascinating insight into the day-to-day life of a scientist at work in Antarctica.

Schmitt's career was truly a remarkable one, contributing extensively to our knowledge of biodiversity and particularly crustaceans. In addition to the Schmitt Mesa named in his honor, the clam genus Waldo also bears his namesake. Check out other works by Waldo Schmitt in BHL and browse photos taken by him during his many expeditions, including the Palmer Peninsula Survey, from The Field Book Project in Flickr.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Life is Short but Snakes are Long

"Life is short but snakes are long."

While some may recognize this as a quote from author David Quammen, it’s also the name of a place you can go to get some very cool information about snake natural history and herpetology research.

Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus). Holbrook, John Edwards. North American Herpetology. v. 2. 1838.

For instance, did you know that at least 15 species of spitting cobras in the genus Naja are capable of spitting their venom through the air as a defensive measure, and that some of them can aim “at targets the size of a human face with >90% accuracy up to 8 feet away”? Or that all 41 species of rattlesnakes are native to the Americas and are subject to “round-ups,” often rodeo-style, in many states? Or that the Aniliidae family contains just a single speciesAnilius scytale or the American pipesnake – and that it was illustrated by Maria Sibylla Merian, a remarkable woman best known for documenting the metamorphosis of insects? Or how about this one: Snakes have two penises. Yeah, go read more about that!

Anilius scytale struggling with a caiman. Merian, Maria Sibylla. Over de voortteeling en wonderbaerlyke veranderingen der Surinaemsche insecten. 1719.

All of this information, and much, much more, is available on the blog Life is Short, but Snakes are Long. The mastermind behind that blog is Andrew M. Durso, a PhD student in the Biology department at Utah State University.

Andrew M. Durso, holding a Hellbender, Cryptobranchus alleganiensis.

Studying snake and lizard ecology, physiology, and behavior, Andrew has been active in professional herpetology since high school. A fascination with the natural history of snakes, and a recognition of the need to education the public about snake and larger ecosystem conservation issues, compelled Andrew to start his blog as an outlet to share his research - research that is made significantly easier thanks to the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Andrew uses BHL weekly, reading pertinent titles online or downloading whole books or sections of books as part of his personal EndNote library. He's even printed illustrations from BHL as decorative artworks for his home. These illustrations also often pop-up in his blog posts.

"I think BHL is one of the most important and useful resources online right now," lauds Andrew. "Judging by how often I use it, I’d say it has an impact on my research commensurate with that of Google Scholar or Web of Science. It’s allowed me to discover and access literature that I would never have been aware of or have had access to otherwise."

With such enthusiasm about accessing this literature on BHL, it's no surprise that Andrew's response to our question on what he would like to see improved on BHL was for us to add "more literature!" He also expressed a desire to see our scientific name finding tool and synonym harmonization continue to improve. As we implement multiple methods for improving our OCR (through projects such as Purposeful Gaming and Mining Biodiversity) and identifying the species in our illustrations (through Art of Life and Zooniverse), we expect to see the number of names recognized throughout BHL continually increasing.

Effective biodiversity research requires access to a multitude of natural history books and articles, but what if you had to single-out one title that had most impacted your research? Could you do it?

Andrew Durso can. Without question, his single-favorite item in BHL is Duméril, Bibron, and Duméril’s 1834-54 nine-volume masterpiece, Erpetologie Générale on Histoire Naturelle Compléte des Reptiles (which we profiled on our blog just a few weeks ago!).

Mud snake (Farancia abacura). Duméril, André Marie Constant. Erpétologie générale ou Histoire naturelle complète des reptiles (1834-53).

"I have three prints on my living room wall from BHL’s copy of this book, and it includes some of the most gorgeous artwork I’ve ever seen," affirms Andrew. "It is also the only book that contains more original descriptions of reptiles than Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae. This monumental work gives a comprehensive scientific account of all then-known amphibians and reptiles, including their anatomy, physiology, systematics, distribution, and associated literature. As such, it is one of the classical monuments of descriptive zoology."

Be sure to check out Andrew's blog for other awesome information about snakes and herpetology research! Do you use BHL to support your own research? Want to tell us about it? Send an email to!

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

BHL members attend the 4th International Conference on African Digital Libraries and Archives

Opening ceremony with Ghana Dance Ensemble
Global Biodiversity Heritage Library members participated in the Fourth International Conference on African Digital Libraries and Archives at the University of Ghana in Accra. The conference, 27-28 May 2015, was attended by representatives from across Africa, the United States, and Europe.

is the major African forum focusing on digital libraries and associated technical, practical, organizational and social issues. ICADLA-4 was hosted by Ghana Library Association, University of Ghana Department of Information Studies and Ghana Library Authority.
Collaboration and participation was invited from regional and international policy and development institutions, archives, libraries, museums, government agencies and departments, all levels of educational institutions, funding institutions, and research centres.
Matilda Amissah-Arthur at dinner
The conference opened with welcome from Ernest Aryeetey, Vice-Chancellor (University of Ghana) and the Felix Kwakye Ofosu (Deputy Minister of Communication). The keynote was presented by Matilda Amissah-Arthur (Wife of the Vice President, the Republic of Ghana and former head of the Ghana Library Association).

Perpetua Sekyiwa Dadzie (Head of Department, Department of Information Studies, University of Ghana) led the conference and programming planning.

Kalfatovic with members of
the Ghana delegation
Martin R. Kalfatovic, BHL Program Director, and Anne-Lise Fourie, BHL Africa, attended the conference and presented on the status of BHL Africa. Kalfatovic and Fourie's presentation, African Digital Libraries in Global Content: The Biodiversity Heritage Library Model, is available online. Kalfatovic also moderated the panel "Adopting Integrated Approach To: Content Selection, Digitization, Curation and Preservation."

Other coverage of the conference:

Conference Group Photo
2015-05-30 19.32.35

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Herding the Fuzzy Bits: What do you do after Crowdsourcing?

So you've been crowdsourcing and now you've collected lots of fantastic data. What do you do with it?

Or maybe you've been thinking about crowdsourcing but you're not sure how you would integrate what you get with the data you already have.

The truth is that crowdsourcing often yields lots of fuzzy data and fuzzy solutions for reintegration with existing content. It can be challenging to figure out how to herd all of that fuzziness together in an effective way for reuse in your own project, library, or database.

Join staff from the Smithsonian Libraries and the Biodiversity Heritage Library at the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Meeting in San Francisco, CA, on Saturday, 27 June, 2015, 8:30-10:00am, for "Herding the Fuzzy Bits: What do you do after Crowdsourcing?" We'll share ideas for incorporating crowdsource-enhanced data from many sources (flickr, transcription, twitter) back into collections, along with approaches--including “whoopsies” and remaining challenges--for quality control, data discovery, data disagreement, building communities, and scalability. We'll be using Twitter, and our own session hashtag #alafuzzy, as well as interactive activities (such as live polls!) to discuss successes and challenges and demonstrate the issues and methods at play.

You'll also have a chance to win one of these fabulous fuzzy prizes!

One of the awesome fuzzy prizes you could win at our ALA session on crowdsourcing!

The session is free with conference registration. We encourage you to bring your own laptop and smart phone in order to get the most out of our interactive activities.

We look forward to seeing you there, and follow #alafuzzy on Twitter and Facebook for more information! 

Friday, June 12, 2015

Anniversary of the first organizational meeting for the BHL

June 2006 Pictures 044
Graham Highley (left, Natural History Museum;
and Tom Garnett (right, future
BHL Program Director, Smithsonian Libraries)
On June 12, 2006, representatives from the first ten partners of the just forming Biodiversity Heritage Library met in Washington at the Smithsonian Institution to plan for the formation of the BHL.

Representatives from the Smithsonian Libraries; the Missouri Botanical Garden; the Natural History Museum (London); the Marine Biological Laboratory / Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Library; the American Museum of Natural History; the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; the Ernst Mayr Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology; and the Field Museum attended the meeting. Representatives from the two remaining founding institutions, Harvard Botany Libraries and the New York Botanical Garden, were unable to attend.

Also attending the meeting were Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive, the longtime BHL partner in digitization activities; staff from OCLC; and representatives from a number of technology firms interested in the nascent work of the BHL.

Since 2006, BHL has grown from a group of ten founding institutions to a worldwide consortium of 23  Members and Affiliates in the US and the UK and global nodes in Europe, China, Brazil, Africa, Egypt, Mexico, Singapore, and Australia. We look forward to the next nine years, and hope to add many millions more pages to our library. Can we reach 100 million pages by 2024?

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June 2006 Pictures 049
Rear left, Chris Freeland, Founding BHL Techinical Director

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June 2006 Pictures 045
(left to right) Neal Thompson and Bernard Scaife (NH London),
Martin R. Kalfatovic (Smithsonian Libraries) and Brewster Kahle (Internet Archive)

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Attendees at the first organizational meeting for BHL.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Smorball and Beanstalk Are Live!

The Biodiversity Heritage Library is excited to announce the release of two new games by Tiltfactor that will improve access to BHL collections and open a new frontier for crowdsourcing and citizen science. 

Smorball and Beanstalk were designed as part of the Purposeful Gaming Project, which explores how digital games can make scanned content more accessible and searchable for cultural institutions. Based at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, Missouri, “Purposeful Gaming” was established in 2013 through an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) grant and includes partners at Harvard University, Cornell University, and the New York Botanical Garden.

Purposeful Gaming: What It's All About

Libraries and museums across the world have scanned millions of pages of books and journals in order to increase access and enable online discoverability. When digitized, these pages are merely image files, which are unsearchable and virtually unusable. Optical character recognition software (OCR) is a method for converting page images to machine encoded text so they can be searched. Unfortunately, historic literature, like that found in the Biodiversity Heritage Library, has proven to be particularly problematic for OCR because of its tendency to have varying fonts, typesetting, and layouts that make it difficult to accurately render.

This is where the games come in.

Smorball and Beanstalk, both quick and easy browser games, present players with phrases from scanned pages in BHL. After much verification, the words players type are sent to the libraries that store the corresponding pages, allowing those pages to be searched and data mined and ultimately making historic literature more usable for institutions, scholars, educators, and the public.

Why Use Games?
Sample of bad OCR output

While transcription tasks of the sort usually crowdsourced to the public can be interesting and engaging, they are often time-consuming and exacting. Games provide a fun, interactive, piecemeal method of accomplishing those same tasks.

“Cultural heritage institutions are increasingly benefiting from human computation approaches that have been used in revolutionary ways by scientific researchers. Engaging citizens to work together as decoders of our heritage is a natural progression, as preserving these records directly benefits the public,” says Dr. Mary Flanagan, founder and director of Tiltfactor. “Integrating the task of transcription with the engagement of computer games gives an extra layer of incentive to motivate the public to contribute.”

Why This Approach Is Groundbreaking

While many institutions have harnessed the power of crowdsourcing, "Purposeful Gaming" represents a new avenue of collaboration that promises wider appeal and endless possibilities for engaging citizen scientists in new, creative ways.

"The games provide a fun and engaging way for volunteers to help us with a task that we don’t have the staff to do ourselves,” explains Trish Rose-Sandler, Principal Investigator for “Purposeful Gaming.” “BHL benefits by having improved discoverability of its books and journals on plant and animal life. More importantly, benefits from the results of the project would extend to the broader digital library community. Any institution managing large text collections can learn from novel and more cost-effective approaches to generating searchable texts.”

What's the Difference between the Two Games? Where Can I Play them?

Players of the more challenging Smorball game are asked to type the words they see as quickly and accurately as possible to help coach their team, the Eugene Melonballers, to victory to win the coveted Dalahäst Trophy in the fictional sport of Smorball.  Each word typed correctly defeats an opposing smorbot and brings the Melonballers closer to the championships.

Play Smorball here:

Players of the more relaxed Beanstalk game must type the words presented to them correctly in order to grow their beanstalk from a tiny tendril to a massive cloudscraper. The more words they type correctly, the faster the beanstalk grows. Players who accurately transcribe the most words will ascend to the top of the leaderboard as a result of their valuable contributions.

Play Beanstalk here:

If you want to learn about the material that was used for the Purposeful Gaming Project, check out the writings of William Brewster and BHL's Seed and Nursery Catalog Collection.

Now, in the name of science, go play Smorball and Beanstalk. And have fun!

Patrick Randall
Project Assistant
Purposeful Gaming

Monday, June 8, 2015

A Small Town’s Large Research on the Health of the Seas

This post is the sixth in our series celebrating World Oceans Day on June 8. This series explores publications that represent important milestones in the progress of marine bioscience research and ocean exploration.

Squid have been a major marine organism model in Woods Hole for almost 150 years. Report on the conditions of the sea fisheries of the south coast of New England. 1873.

When whaling and fertilizer manufacturing ended in the latter half of the 19th century in the quaint village of Woods Hole, Massachusetts, the town turned to research, growing quickly into a world renowned center for marine science. In 1871, the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries (the antecedent of the National Marine Fisheries Service), founded by the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Spencer Fullerton Baird, published Report on the conditions of the sea fisheries of the south coast of New England. This report notes the recently passed “Joint resolution for the protection and preservation of the food-fishes of the coast of the United States”, which recognized that the nation’s fishing resources were not endless. Commissioner Baird realized the need to develop fisheries management plans to balance once abundant fisheries populations with the competing needs of the human population. The volume also created a baseline inventory of marine species and fishing techniques in and around Cape Cod and the east coast of the United States.

Commercial fishing net used in the 1870s. Report on the conditions of the sea fisheries of the south coast of New England. 1873.

By the late 1880’s, what is now the oldest continuously operating private marine laboratory in the United States, the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), had been founded, with its scientists publishing the journal Biological Bulletin. The Biological Bulletin v.67 (1934) contains an article written by biologists August Krogh and Ancel Keys entitled Methods for the determination of dissolved organic carbon and nitrogen in sea water.  The development of accurate ways to measure nitrogen concentrations in non-fresh water was critical to understanding eutrophication, a condition where excess nutrients result in algal blooms and fish kills.  Eutrophication is at the forefront of many studies related to the health of our oceans, including the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico and many coastal waters.

August Krogh’s and Ancel Keys’ apparatus for the determination of dissolved organic nitrogen in sea water. The Biological Bulletin. v. 67 (1934).
With the National Marine Fisheries Service studying marine fisheries in Woods Hole and the Marine Biological Laboratory focusing on marine biology and cell science, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) was founded in 1930 to study the still developing field of the oceanographic sciences. In 1952, WHOI began publishing a magazine/journal called Oceanus. One of the first articles published in volume 1 of Oceanus highlights the discovery of new fishing grounds off of the northeast U.S. coast, and the abundance of never before seen species.

Volume 1, number 1 of Oceanus, a photo of the WHOI research vessel Atlantis. Oceanus. v. 1, n. 1 (1952).
Fifty one volumes later, Oceanus continues to publish issues in both print and online formats, and issues archived online from 1952-2007 can also be viewed through the Biodiversity Heritage Library. As the course of the history of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has revolved around ocean exploration and studying the health of the oceans, so also has the subject matter of Oceanus, which has diligently reported on the fascinating work performed by Woods Hole scientists. 

For example, in volume 44 issue 1 (2005) of Oceanus, an announcement was made of the establishment of the Woods Hole Center for Oceans and Human Health, a collaboration between WHOI, MBL, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Over the last decade Oceanus has reported on this important collaboration many times, and in the above mentioned article WHOI physical oceanographer and Senior Scientist Dennis McGillicuddy said: “The ocean is a turbulent fluid medium that’s changing all the time…In order to make significant progress in health concerns, we have to grapple with how physics, biology, and chemistry intersect and interact. It’s really a fundamentally new direction for this research.” The author of this article, Andrea Baird, wrote: “Human health and welfare are intimately tied to the oceans. Fisheries yield 130 million tons of food each year, while biologists and chemists continue to uncover useful medicinal compounds among the snails, sponges, and other marine creatures. At the same time, exploding populations of toxic algae cause respiratory problems and shellfish poisoning, as sewage and runoff fill coastal waters with contaminants that poison fish and infect swimmers.”

Phytoplankton like these produce harmful algal blooms. Sengco, Mario. Oceanus. v. 43, no. 1 (2004). Photo by Don Anderson, courtesy of WHOI.
Since the 1970’s scientists at sea have reported seeing massive amounts of bits and pieces of plastics in the North Atlantic Ocean in the Sargasso Sea, an area bordered by the Gulf Stream, the North Atlantic Current, the Canary Current, and the North Equatorial Current. Oceanus in 2010 and 2013 published articles detailing a collaborative project concerning these human produced plastics, which was funded by the Woods Hole Center for Oceans Health, and conducted by three Woods Hole research institutions: the MBL, the Sea Education Association (SEA), and WHOI. SEA, which runs an undergraduate semester at sea program, has been collecting samples of plastics floating on the Sargasso Sea since 1986. 

In the 2010 Oceanus article, Plastic Particles Permeate the Atlantic: Scientists find new clues about what happens to plastics in the ocean , v. 48, no. 2 (2010), author Dave Lawrence speaks of the history of scientists learning of the existence of these plastics. Lawrence says: “The plastic particles showed evidence of being coated with living organisms. Are microbes or other tiny life forms digesting the plastics, causing them to sink, or are they sticking to the particles and being carried through the ocean like sailors on rafts?” 

Most of the Sargasso Sea plastics collected by Woods Hole scientists are tiny shards. Lawrence, Dave. Oceanus. v. 48, no. 2 (2010). Photo by Tom Kleindinst, courtesy of WHOI.
In the 2013 Oceanus article, Behold the 'Plastisphere': Colonies of microbes flourish on tiny bits in the ocean v. 50, no. 2 (2013), Oceanus Editor Lonny Lippsett details results produced by an analysis of the plastics. While humans are responsible for the placement of plastics in the ocean, different microbes live on the plastics, some consuming the plastics, while others are toxic disease causing bacteria. Lippsett wrote: “Using scanning electron microscopy and gene sequencing techniques, they found at least 1,000 different types of bacterial cells on the plastic samples, including many species yet to be identified. The colonies included plants, algae, and bacteria that manufacture their own food (autotrophs), animals and bacteria that feed on them (heterotrophs), predators that feed on these, and other organisms that establish symbiotic relationships. These complex communities exist on plastic bits hardly bigger than the head of a pin, and they have arisen with the explosion of plastics in the oceans in the past 60 years.” Lippsett also quotes MBL scientist Linda Amaral-Zettler: “We’re not just interested in who’s there. We’re interested in their function, how they’re functioning in this ecosystem, how they’re altering this ecosystem, and what’s the ultimate fate of these particles in the ocean,” Amaral-Zettler said. “Are they sinking to the bottom of the ocean? Are they being ingested by other organisms? If they’re being ingested, what impact does that have?”

Whether establishing concerns about the health of fisheries stocks and human consumption in the late 1800’s, detailing a new methodology for the study of nitrogen levels in the ocean in the 1930’s, or studying the impact of plastics on the health of the ocean, all of this research is united through time as trying to make the world, the oceans, and humanity a healthier place.

The MBLWHOI Library began collecting science literature when the Marine Biological Laboratory came into existence in 1888, and it has been the main library serving the Woods Hole scientific community, including all of the institutions mentioned in this post.  The MBLWHOI Library is a founding member the Biodiversity Heritage Library, scanning over 12,000 volumes, including the publications mentioned herein, since 2007.

More World Oceans Day Resources

  • Follow us on TwitterFacebook, and this blog all this week as we explore marine biodiversity and awesome related publications in BHL.
  • Check out some monumental publications in historic and present-day marine bioscience research in our BHL collection.
  • Browse a selection of marine biodiversity illustrations in Flickr and Pinterst

Matt Person
Technical Services Coordinator 
Diane Rielinger
Co-Director MBLWHOI Library 
Director of Library Services at MBL

Friday, June 5, 2015

World Oceans Day: Ernst Haeckel and Art Forms in Nature

This post is the fifth in our series leading up to the celebration of World Oceans Day on June 8. This series explores publications that represent important milestones in the progress of marine bioscience research and ocean exploration. This post is an abbreviated version of a longer feature published on the Smithsonian Ocean Portal. View the entire article here.

From recent articles published via premier scientific journals to monumental volumes marking the beginning of our study of the natural world, the Biodiversity Heritage Library's collections include information about species from every corner of the globe and ecological niche. They also include works authored by some of the most influential men and women scientists in history. 

One such individual is German zoologist Ernst Haeckel

Born in 1834 in Potsdam, Germany (then Prussia), Ernst Haeckel served as a professor of comparative anatomy and director of the Zoological Institute at the University of Jena, named and described several thousand new species of marine invertebrates, and was a member of more than 90 learned societies during his lifetime. He studied an array of zoological topics but is widely remembered for his work on many invertebrate groups, including marine organisms like radiolarians, poriferans (sponges), and cnidarians (jellyfish, anemones, and corals). He had a deep personal interest in evolution, becoming the preeminent proponent of Darwinism in Germany (though some of his evolutionary ideas did diverge from Darwin’s theories) and helping to popularize this theory throughout Europe. He also served as a consultant on the Challenger expedition – the first non-commercial exploration of the deep-sea environment – that revolutionized the field of oceanography. The author of over 40 works and thousands of drawings, one of Haeckel’s most iconic publications is Kunstformen der Natur.

Semaeostomeae Jellyfish: Desmonema Annasethe. Named after Haeckel's first wife, Anna Sethe. Haeckel, Ernst. Kunstformen der Natur (1904).

Kunstformen der Natur, translated into English as Art Forms in Nature, is a landmark publication in the field of naturalist illustration. Published in sets of ten from 1899-1904 and together in two volumes in 1904, the work contains 100 lithographic prints produced by Adolf Giltsch from Haeckel’s original sketches and watercolors. 

While much of it is stylized for artistic effect, the exquisitely drawn, detailed plates exhibiting Art Nouveau techniques alongside commentary accessible to even the general public made Kunstformen der Natur an instant success and helped popularize science and many little-known marine organisms. Indeed, while Kunstformen der Natur covers a wide range of biological diversity, a majority of the illustrations depict marine life.

The timelessness and accuracy of Haeckel’s illustrations are evident even today. Just last year, an Atlas of the larval stages of all crustaceans worldwide, co-written by Joel W. Martin, Curator of Crustaceans at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (a BHL Affiliate), featured one of Haeckel’s exquisite illustrations on the cover.

Learn more about Ernst Haeckel and Kunstformen der Natur in this online exhibit from The MBLWHOI Library. View the book in its entirety for free on the Biodiversity Heritage Library, digitized by Smithsonian Libraries, and browse all of the amazing illustrations in Flickr.


Radiolarians. Haeckel, Ernst. Kunstformen der Natur (1904).
Of all of the species Haeckel described, he is arguably most famous for the radiolarians. Planktonic, unicellular marine eukaryotes, radiolarians are found in all of the world’s oceans and represent a staple component of marine ecosystems. The multiple body compartments of radiolarians are surrounded by and elaborate mineral skeletons called the test, which exhibits the exquisite designs that so captivated Haeckel. Haeckel first encountered these beauties while at Messina in Sicily, and it was this experience that prompted him to pursue doctorate studies in zoology. Haeckel helped popularize these animals with the public through his 1862 monograph Die Radiolarien, his 1887 report as part of the H.M.S. Challenger expedition, and his illustrations in Kunstformen der Natur.


Siphonophorae. Haeckel, Ernst. Kunstformen der Natur (1904).

Siphonophorae is an order of marine animals in the phylum Cnidaria (the same phylum containing jellyfish). Although they superficially resemble jellyfish, each siphonophore specimen is actually a colony of many genetically-identical individuals, called zooids. Each zooid is specialized to serve a particular function within the colony, so much so that most cannot survive alone. The infamous and venomous Portuguese man o' war is a member of this order. Certain siphonophore species can emit light. A species in the Erenna genus found off of the coast of Monterey, California has stinging cells that glow red, probably to attract the small fish upon which it preys. This species is only the second life form known to produce a red light, the first being the scaleless dragonfish Chirostomias pliopterus

Rhizostomae Jellyfish 

Rhizostomae Jellyfish. Haeckel, Ernst. Kunstformen der Natur (1904).

Haeckel was inspired by nature to create not just stunning illustrations but decorative pieces for home interiors as well. Haeckel discovered a species of rhizostomae jellyfish in Bellagemma, Ceylon, in December 1881. He was so impressed with the form that he used it as a model for ceiling decorations in his Villa Medusa home in Jena. Today, all jellyfish species fished on a commercial basis for human consumption are from the rhizostomae order, which are typically dried and/or salted before eating. China is the first documented country to eat jellyfish, with the practice dating back to at least 300 CE. 


Nudibranchs. Haeckel, Ernst. Kunstformen der Natur (1904).

Nudibranchs (often casually called sea slugs) are soft-bodied, marine snails that have lost all trace of an external shell. The name “nudibranch” translates from the Latin as “naked gills.” Consisting of about 3,000 species, some have developed impressive defensives, including the ability to synthesize toxic compounds (such as sulfuric acid) or the ability to "hijack" and repurpose the stinging cells of the cnidarians (jellyfish, anemones, and, corals) that some of them eat.

Learn more about marine organisms and Haeckel's amazing illustrations in the full article on 

More World Oceans Day Resources

  • Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and this blog all this week as we explore marine biodiversity and awesome related publications in BHL.
  • Check out some monumental publications in historic and present-day marine bioscience research in our BHL collection.
  • Browse a selection of marine biodiversity illustrations in Flickr and Pinterst

Grace Costantino
Outreach and Communication Manager
Biodiversity Heritage Library

Thursday, June 4, 2015

World Oceans Day: A Bibliographic Exploration of Ocean Giants

This post is the fourth in our series leading up to the celebration of World Oceans Day on June 8. This series explores publications that represent important milestones in the progress of marine bioscience research and ocean exploration.

When you think of the largest creatures in the ocean, what do you picture?  You might be surprised about which creatures are largest, and about some of their fascinating histories and habits!  A recent article in the journal PeerJ documents the body length of some of the longest animals in the ocean, and in preparation for World Oceans Day on June 8, we're diving deeper into the top ten listed in that article. 
One of the First Scientists to Record a Plethora of Species: Linnaeus

Carl von Linnaeus (also known as Carl von Linné) was the first person to record several of the species in this top ten list, which he did in his book, Systema Naturae.  The tenth version of this book, published in 1758, is considered his authoritative taxonomical text, and scientists use the year 1758 to refer to Linnaeus’ taxa from this book (an important change Linnaeus made in the tenth version was to move whales to the mammal class rather than the fishes class).  Linnaeus was a Swedish zoologist and botanist, and also practiced as a physician.  He was born in Sweden in 1707, traveled to the Netherlands in his thirties to write Systema Naturae, returned to Sweden, and continued traveling throughout his life to further classify biological organisms.  He is known for creating the forerunner to the modern binomial nomenclature system, which was referred to as the Linnaean taxonomy.  He died in 1778 after having the opportunity to engage in philosophical conversations with other famous philosophers, teach medicine and botany, and continue to add to his taxonomy. 

A Dive into Ten Ocean Giants, from Longest to Smallest (though still very long!):

Lion's Mane Jellyfish | view in book here
1. The lion’s mane jellyfish (Medusa capillata, also known as Cyanea capillata) is the largest species of jellyfish, and possibly the longest animal in the world, with tentacles that make this jellyfish 120 feet in length (though some estimates suggest that the bootlace worm, found in muddy and sandy shores and tide pools around the North Sea, is longer - possibly more than 170 feet long. However, since ribbon worms can stretch much more than their actual growth rate, these estimates are controversial).  It lives in cold waters, such as the Arctic, northern Atlantic, and Pacific Oceans, as well as the English channel, Irish Sea, North Sea, Scandanavian waters and sometimes the Baltic Sea.  Its tentacles are long, thin and hair-like, which is why it is referred to as a “lion’s mane”.  The bell, or umbrella, which comprises the top part of the jellyfish, can grow up to a diameter of 78.74 inches.  The hair-like tentacles emerge from the margin of the bell, in eight groups of 70 to 150 (or more) hollow tentacles, while more tentacles emerge from the bell’s subumbrella.  This jellyfish is generally a vivid yellow, orange or red color.  It feeds on zooplankton, and small fish, among other smaller creatures, and its predators include larger fish, seabirds, other jellyfish, and sea turtles.  The lion’s mane jellyfish was first scientifically documented (as Medusa capillata) by Carl von Linnaeus in 1758, in his Systema Naturae, which you can read here:

Fun facts: The lion’s mane jellyfish was featured in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane”, in which the “murderer” turns out to be the jellyfish—although in real life, the lion’s mane jellyfish is not capable of killing humans, only causing a very painful sting that can result in blisters, cramps and affected heart rate and respiratory function. 

Blue Whale | view in book here
2. The blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) was first described by Linnaeus in 1758 in Systema Naturae, and was thought to be the largest animal on the planet, though if measuring by length, it is out-shadowed by the lion’s mane jellyfish.  The blue whale is 108.27 feet long, and can weigh as much as 40 African elephants.  This species is also considered to have one of the fastest swimming speeds, at up to 30 miles per hour.  They live in all of the world’s oceans.  These amazing mammals eat up to seven tons of krill per day, by stretching their throats to open their mouths wider, and then gulping a large amount of water filled with krill.  They then use their tongues to expel the water out again through baleen plates, which capture the krill and prevent them from escaping.  The blue whale has the deepest voice of any living creature (at a frequency below humans hearing), and their voices can be heard by other blue whales for thousands of miles underwater.  Scientists have theorized that these far-reaching vocalizations help the whales map their locations across oceans.  Very little is known about their mating patterns.  This species can live as long as a human: 80 to 90 years.  You can read Linnaeus’ account of the blue whale here:

Fun facts: Blue whales can dive underwater for up to 30 minutes.  A whale’s age can be determined by counting layers of waxy earplugs that develop in the whales over time (like counting tree rings). 

Sperm Whale, Fig. C | view in book here
3. The sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) was also first described by Linnaeus in 1758.  At a length of 78.74 feet, it is the third-longest animal listed in the PeerJ article.  Among whales with teeth, the sperm whale is the largest, and also has the largest brain of any animal on the planet.  The sperm whale’s head takes up a third of its body length, and there is a specialized feature in the head that helps this whale dive deeper or rise to the surface of the water: the spermaceti organ.  This refers to a large cavity in the whale’s head filled with a waxy substance called spermaceti oil, which can be cooled (to shrink and increase density, allowing the whale to dive deeper), or heated (to expand and decrease density, allowing the whale to rise to the surface of the water).  Scientists posit that the spermaceti oil is cooled by water intake through the whale’s blowhole.  However, scientists are still trying to figure out the purpose of the spermaceti organ, and some believe it might absorb unnecessary nitrogen during dives, or help make the whale’s communicative clicking sounds resonate more loudly.  While the head of this species is extremely large, its lower, toothy jaw is very narrow and short in comparison.  The sperm whale eats giant squid, which live in deeper parts of the ocean, thus the sperm whale can dive up to one mile deep and stay under water for up to 90 minutes.  Sperm whales can live up to 70 years, and while they are close to the top of the food chain, they can be attacked by killer whales.  You can read Linnaeus’ account of the sperm whale, which is on the same page as that of the blue whale, here:

Fun facts: In Herman Melville’s novel, Moby Dick, Captain Ahab was fighting a sperm whale.  The skin of a sperm whale is dark brown or blue-black, and is said to feel like the pit of a plum.  Sperm whales produce ambergris, which was once used in perfume making.  Scientists count the layers of dentinal growth on sections of sperm whale teeth to determine age.

Whale Shark (referred to here as Rhinodon Typicus), illustration by Sir Andrew Smith | view in book here
4.  The whale shark (Rhincodon typus), with a length of 61.68 feet, was first described by Sir Andrew Smith in 1828.  Smith published his findings on the whale shark in 1829 in Zoological Journal.  Smith (born 1797, died 1872) is considered a major influence in South African zoology.  He was born in Scotland, got his M.D., and practiced as a surgeon, ethnologist and zoologist.  He traveled with the Army Medical Services to South Africa and studied biological specimens there, as well as studying people native to the region.  He illustrated many specimens in Illustrations of the Zoology of South Africa (1838-1850), which you can read here:  Smith first noted the whale shark in 1828 after one was harpooned in South Africa while he was stationed there.  While it is similar in size to a whale, the whale shark is actually the largest fish in the world.  It has a wide, flat head and mouth, and dark, grey-blue skin with a beautiful pattern of pale yellow dots all over the top and sides of its body.  This shark has five large gills which contain cartilage that acts as a sieve.  Whale sharks generally eat smaller fish, and suck their prey into their large mouths and then swallow the unfortunates.  It is considered a filter feeder like the basking shark (to be mentioned later), but is much more active in its feeding than the basking shark, pumping water into its mouth sometimes in a stationary position, unlike the basking shark, which needs to swim in order to allow water into its mouth.  The whale shark lives in tropical and warm seas around the globe.  This species is not generally harmful to humans.  Unfortunately, people continue to hunt these sharks for human consumption, using parts of the shark in health supplements and shark fin soup.  Read Sir Andrew Smith’s description of the whale shark in The Zoological Journal here:

Fun facts: The whale shark’s mouth has up to 300 very small teeth, the function of which are unknown.  While scientists do not have a great understanding about how whale sharks reproduce, a pregnant female was captured and inside of her were 300 fetuses.  Known as gentle giants, sometimes humans can swim alongside, or catch a ride with, the whale shark. 

Basking Shark, Fig. 14 (referred to as Cetorhinus maximus) | view in book here
5.  The basking shark (originally called Squalus maximus, now known as Cetorhinus maximus), at a length of 40.25 feet, was first described by Johan Ernst Gunnerus in 1765.  Gunnerus was born in Norway, and practiced as a professor of theology and a bishop, as well as a botanist.  He helped found what became the Royal Norwegian Society of Science and Letters [Det Kongelige Norske Videnskabers Selskab, based in Trondheim, Norway], and published his findings on the basking shark in the Society’s journal in 1765.  This original publication has yet to be digitized by BHL, but its citation is as follows: Gunnerus, J.E. (1765). Brugden (Squalus maximus), Beskrvenen ved J. E. Gunnerus. Det Trondhiemske Selskabs Skerifter (v. 3). pp. 33-49.  Gunnerus communicated with Carl von Linnaeus (mentioned above, and also known as Carl von Linné) about some of his biological findings.  Linnaeus, in turn, helped found, and communicated with, The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences [Kungliga Svenska Vetenskapsakademien], which published a journal in 1770 citing Gunnerus’ discovery of the basking shark, which you can read here:  Gunnerus was elected as a foreign member to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1766.  As mentioned in the whale shark entry above, the basking shark is a less active filter feeder, and must swim over the plankton it wants to consume in order to get them into its mouth.  While basking sharks have no teeth, they have a filter that allows water to flow out of their mouths while trapping the plankton.  This species is the second-largest fish in the world.  Only one pregnant female has been caught so far, and she gave birth to six live sharks.  This shark lives around the world in boreal and temperate waters.  The basking shark can live to at least 50 years old.  They have been hunted for similar reasons to the whale shark, but are protected in British waters.

Fun facts: Basking sharks can migrate for up to 5,592 miles, and when they are not migrating or following the plankton in coastal waters, they spend most of their time in the deep ocean.  During vertical and geographical migrations, basking sharks remain in groups of the same sex and age, which suggests an interesting pattern of segregation within the species.

Giant Squid (also referred to as "Cuttle-fish") | view in book here
6.  The giant squid (Architeuthis dux), measuring 39.37 feet long, was first described by Japetus Steenstrup in 1857.  Scientists refer to the first mention of the giant squid by Steenstrup as occurring both in 1857, when Steenstrup published his findings in a paper, and in 1860, when three illustrative plates were published by Pieter Harting describing Architeuthis dux.  One year later, in 1861, Harting published a text on Architeuthis dux, along with the plates, which you can read here:, and the mention of Architeuthis dux in the description of the illustrative plates begins here (Fig. 1. A.):  Steenstrup (born 1813, died 1897) was a Danish professor of zoology, and also studied biology.  Like Gunnerus, Steenstrup was also elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, in 1857.  Pieter Harting (born 1812, died 1885) taught medicine and zoology, and studied microscopy and botany, among other things.  The giant squid eats deep-sea fish and other squid by using serrated rings on its tentacles that suck onto the prey and bring the prey toward its beak, where a toothy tongue called a radula shreds the prey.  The squid has a mantle, eight arms, two tentacles longer than the arms, and hundreds of suction cups inside the tentacles.  This species has a complex brain and nervous system, and is found in oceans all over the world.  Scientists do not yet know how deep they inhabit the ocean, but some estimate that the giant squid can reside or feed at up to 900 meters deep.  Many specimens of giant squid which you see in museums were found washed ashore or in the stomachs of dead sperm whales, which regularly feed on them.  Scientists track sperm whales in order to study giant squid since the whales are so adept at locating and hunting the squid.    

Fun facts: The giant squid has the largest eyes of any animal on earth, excepting the colossal squid, and the only creature known to have larger eyes is the extinct ichthyosaur.  The original edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, a novel by Jules Verne, has an illustration of a man entangled in the tentacles of a giant squid.  The giant squid has been represented historically as the kraken.  

Giant Octopus (referred to here as Octopus punctatus, a synonym for Enteroctopus dofleini) | view in book here
7.  The giant octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini), with a radial spread of 32.15 feet, is the largest among a group of octopuses referred to as the “giant octopus”.  The first scientific description of this particular giant octopus is by Gerhard Wülker, in 1910, where he refers to it by a synonymous name, “Polypus dofleini”.  You can read Wülker’s original description of “Polypus dofleini” here:  Wülker (born 1885, died 1930) was a German zoologist who is famous for being the first to identify the giant octopus.  E. dofleini is found in the Pacific Ocean (and is thus known as the giant Pacific octopus), and can be found as deep as 6,600 feet below the ocean's surface.  This species lives longer than other octopuses, with a lifespan of up to 5 years.  Like all octopuses, E. dofleini has a head, eight arms with suckers on each, and papillae (hooks) lining the suckers to increase the octopus’ ability to hold onto things, such as prey.  Prey include lobsters, fish, scallops, and shrimp, among other creatures.  Once prey is captured, either by using arms singularly or all together, it is brought up to the beak at the mouth and then torn apart by a toothy tongue called a radula.  E. dofleini has distinctive longitudinal folds on its body.  These octopuses follow a pattern of mating and reproducing once, and then dying, which is referred to as “semelparity”.  After reproducing, the giant Pacific octopus will enter a seemingly gruesome phase leading up to death called “senescence”: the octopuses will eat little, their skin will retract unpleasantly, white lesions appear on the body, and activity becomes clumsy until death ensues by starvation or being preyed upon.

Fun facts: The giant Pacific octopus can lay up to 400,000 eggs, which are cared for by the female members of the species; the female stops eating to do this, and dies soon after the eggs hatch.  E. dofleini sometimes eats sharks, such as the spiny dogfish (Squalus acanthias), which can be up to four feet long.   

Giant Oarfish | view in book here
8.  The giant oarfish (Regalecus glesne), which is 26.25 feet long, was described by Peter Ascanius in 1772.  Ascanius (born 1723, died 1803) was a Norwegian scientist who taught zoology and minerology in Copenhagen.  He also practiced as a biologist, and was instructed by Carl von Linnaeus.  Like other scientists in this post, Ascanius was elected as a foreign member to a society dedicated to improving knowledge in scientific fields: in 1755 he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Society [in London], where he was considered a Fellow.  The giant oarfish is known as the “king of herrings”, and lives in oceans around the world.  Its body is shaped like a ribbon and it has a dorsal fin along its back that becomes vertically long right above its head, giving it the appearance of a rooster’s cockscomb.  This species has two pelvic fins comprised of only one ray; the fins are long and resemble oars.  There is a membrane at the tip of each pelvic fin that some scientists believe is used for tasting things.  Without teeth, the giant oarfish consumes krill by gulping water and then expelling it, trapping the krill in the gullet by means of a series of long spines.  Ascanius first wrote about the giant oarfish in 1772 in his work, Icones Rerum Naturalium, which is in the process of being digitized for BHL.  You can read the next earliest mention of the giant oarfish at the Biodiversity Heritage Library here, in Volume 2 of Monsieur le comte de La Cepède’s text, Histoire Naturelle des Poissons:  La Cepède, also known as Bernard Germain Étienne de La Ville sur Illon (born 1756, died 1825), was well-known for his contributions to the abovementioned work, Histoire Naturelle, written along with Georges Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon.  La Cepède was a French naturalist and freemason.  Like other scientists on this list, La Cepède was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society [London], and as a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, as well as a member of the Institute of France [L’Institut national de France].

Fun facts: The giant oarfish has no scales—instead, its body is covered in wart-like bumps called “tubercles”.  Adult members of this species sometimes kill themselves by swimming onto beaches.  The giant oarfish can self-amputate a part of the posterior end of its body, and apparently does this several times during its lifetime, as the amputated area repeatedly heals over into a stump.

Great White Shark | view in book here
9.   The great white shark (Squalus carcharias, also known as Carcharodon carcharias), at 22.96 feet long, was first described by Linnaeus in his Systema Naturae in 1758 under the name Squalus carcharias.  The great white shark lives in most all oceans around the world, and can appear in coastal waters.  This species of shark is infamous for having the largest number of unprovoked attacks on humans.  However, the great white shark does not intentionally feed on humans.  Shark prey includes seals, dolphins, whales, sea lions, fish, seabirds, and other smaller creatures.  While they would appear to be at the top of the food chain, great white sharks can rarely be attacked, and killed, by groups of orca whales.  Scientists know very little about their mating behavior, but female sharks give birth to live young.  Great whites can swim up to 25 miles per hour in pursuit of prey, and launch themselves into the air from the water.  These sharks use smell, sound location and electroreception to spot prey from great distances.  The great white shark, unlike the majority of other fish, can maintain a higher body temperature than that of the surrounding water by means of a heat exchange system in their blood vessels.  These sharks can live up to 50 years.  Read Linnaeus’ account of Squalus carcharias here:

Fun facts: The oldest fossils of the great white shark are 16 million years old.  It is believed that the great white shark does not intentionally seek to attack humans, but is merely engaging in “test bites”, which it also performs on other unfamiliar objects in order to identify those objects.  The great white shark was featured in Peter Benchley’s novel, Jaws, as well as Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of the same.

Giant Manta Ray | view in book here
10.  The giant manta ray (Manta birostris, also known as Raja birostris) has a disc width of 22.96 feet, is the largest ray in the world, and can weigh up to two tons.  This creature was first described by Johann Julius Walbaum in 1792.  Walbaum (born 1724, died 1799), was a German physician.  He was also a naturalist and taxonomist, and the first to record many new-to-science species.  He referred to the giant manta ray as Raja birostris in his original description of the creature, though the giant manta ray is now known as Manta birostris.  This species inhabits tropical and temperate waters around the globe, and eats zooplankton like shrimp and krill.  The giant manta ray has triangle-shaped pectoral wings on either side of its body, and lobe-shaped fins towards the front of its body, extending from either side of the head.  These fins can aid in pushing water into the mouth to catch prey.  There are 18 rows of teeth in the lower jaw of its large, rectangular mouth.  Their skin is black, blue or brown, with a white underside.  Scientists look at unique patterns of markings and scars to identify individual rays.  The giant manta ray can live up to 20 years.  Read Walbaum’s description of Raja birostris here:

Fun facts: The giant manta ray can eat up to 13% of its body weight in food each week.  Sometimes the ray will remain still near a coral reef while other fish eat off pieces of loose skin and parasites, which cleans the ray and provides food for the fish.  The giant manta ray can leap out of the water, possibly as part of a mating ritual, and their offspring are called “pups”.

More World Oceans Day Resources

  • Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and this blog all this week as we explore marine biodiversity and awesome related publications in BHL.
  • Check out some monumental publications in historic and present-day marine bioscience research in our BHL collection.
  • Browse a selection of marine biodiversity illustrations in Flickr and Pinterst

Laurel Byrnes 
Social Media and Outreach Volunteer
Biodiversity Heritage Library

Some Key References:

Brightwell, C. L. (1858). A life of Linnaeus. London: J. Van Voorst.

(n.d.). Encyclopedia of Life (EOL).  Retrieved from
(n.d.). Invertebrates of the Salish Sea.  Retrieved from
(n.d.) The Linnaean Correspondence.  Retrieved from
(n.d.). World Register of Marine Species (WORMS).  Retrieved from