Historic Literature Meets Modern Research: Discovering Octocorals in the Deep Sea of the Northeast Atlantic Ocean

To say that Albert I, Prince of Monaco (1848-1922) had a passion for the sea is an understatement.

The Prince devoted much of his life to oceanography, contributing significantly to advances in the then relatively young discipline by sponsoring over two dozen oceanographic expeditions and founding the Institute Oceanographic in Monaco. The expeditions, conducted from the Azores to the Arctic, performed zoological and physics studies and resulted in the discovery of many new-to-science species [1].

Today, H.S.H. Prince Albert II of Monaco continues this passion, recently launching the Monaco Explorations campaign, a three-year transoceanic expedition to conduct scientific research in remote locations at sea [2].

The data and outcomes from the expeditions sponsored by Albert I were published in Résultats des campagnes scientifiques du prince de Monaco, which was produced in 110 issues between 1889-1950 [3].


Primnoid octocoral caught in the Azores during the Prince Albert I of Monaco expeditions. Résultats des campagnes scientifiques du prince de Monaco. Studer, T. Fasc. 20 (1901). Contributed in BHL from MBLWHOI Library.

Among the organisms studied on the expeditions and detailed in the publications are Octocorallia, or octocorals, colonial organisms that include soft corals, blue corals, and sea pens in the orders Alcyonacea, Helioporacea, and Pennatulacea.

Íris Sampaio, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Oceanography and Fisheries at the University of the Azores & Senckenberg am Meer, Germany, has been studying octocoral taxonomy and ecology for eleven years. Résultats des campagnes has had a significant impact on Sampaio’s research, providing her with data on octocoral species collected in the Azores. Thanks to the Biodiversity Heritage Library, she now has easy access to the title’s public domain volumes [4].

“While my home university owns copies of these books, I lost much time scanning them at the beginning of my research,” recalls Sampaio. “Now they are available in BHL. I adore the coral drawings. They were my first contact with scientific art.”

image of a woman standing next to a mountain

Íris Sampaio in the Azores.

Sampaio first discovered BHL whilst looking for historic literature on Octocorallia species. The Library has since had a major impact on her work.

“BHL is an incredible project,” lauds Sampaio. “Historic literature is still a fundamental source for biological research. Without such a tool as BHL, it would take me much longer to access the old books, monographs and papers now available online.”


A plate of octocorals described from the Gulf of Naples with detailed illustrations of polyps. Koch, Gottlieb von. Die gorgoniden des golfes von Neapel, und der angrenzenden meeresabschnitte. Erster theil einer monographie der Anthozoa Alcyonaria. 1887. Contributed in BHL from Smithsonian Libraries.

Sampaio regularly uses BHL to locate descriptions and images of species, often downloading original descriptions as PDFs. These descriptions are essential when describing new species today.

“When describing a species, we have to be aware of what was already described and what names are available and valid under the rules of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature,” explains Sampaio. “For that, a literature review must be done, even when the species were described in many languages in old works.”


Plate revealing the diversity of forms of sclerites, needle-like skeletal structures, that are one of the most important characters analyzed in the discrimination of octocoral species. Kölliker, Albert. Icones histiologicae, oder, Atlas der vergleichendern Gewebelehre. 1864-65. Contributed in BHL from Smithsonian Libraries.

A literature review was an integral part of Sampaio’s work to produce a catalogue and, more recently, a census of the species and checklist of octocorals in the Azores Archipelago [5, 6]. For the catalogue, data was compiled through an extensive review of historic literature – much of it accessed through BHL – complemented with occurrence data from recent surveys, while the census was uniquely based on historic literature.

poster on octocoral catalogue

A catalogue of octocorals, a preliminary result derived from historical literature consultation and BHL use.

“I used BHL every day while I was researching the type localities and mode of designation of types of Octocorallia species inhabiting the Azores archipelago,” shares Sampaio. “As no centralized database provides literature on Octocorallia, BHL is a vital tool for their study.”

We are thrilled to know that BHL contributed to this important research, providing essential diversity and distribution data for deep-sea corals and therefore contributing to the conservation of species in Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems. As Sampaio’s testimonial demonstrates, free and open access biodiversity literature, including publications like Résultats des campagnes scientifiques du prince de Monaco, empowers science around the world, providing researchers with the information they need to study and conserve life on Earth.

Notes and References

Íris Sampaio would like to acknowledge her supervisors and the project for which her Ph.D. contributes in Europe: Íris Sampaio, PhD Candidate to Ocean Sciences, Marine Ecology at Department of Oceanography and Fisheries (DOP), University of the Azores and Senckenberg am Meer, Wilhelmshaven supervised by Dr. Marina Carreiro-Silva, Prof. Dr. André Freiwald and Dr. Gui Menezes and funded by the project EU H2020 ATLAS No 678760 and a FCT doctoral grant SFRH/BD/101113/2014.

[1] Monaco Explorations. 2018. “Monaco’s History with Science and the Sea.” About. Accessed on July 13. https://monacoexplorations.org/about/monaco-and-the-sea/.

[2] Monaco Explorations. 2017. “HSH Prince Albert Ii of Monaco Establishes Monaco Explorations: A Three-Year Campaign of Scientific Explorations at Sea – Press Release.” News, June 7. Accessed on July 13, 2018. https://monacoexplorations.org/hsh-prince-albert-ii-monaco-scientific-explorations-press-release/.

[3] OCLC. 2018. “Résultats des campagnes scientifiques accomplies sur son yacht par Albert Ier, prince souverain de Monaco.” WorldCat. Accessed on July 13. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/14588383.

[4] The Octocorallia are treated in the Alcyonaires volumes of Résultats des campagnes scientifiques du prince de Monaco: no 20. Alcyonaires [1] / T. Studer. (1901) and no 73. Alcyonaires [2] / J.A. Thomson. (1927). As a public domain work, Studer’s volume is available in BHL.

[5] Sampaio, Íris & Xavier, Joana & Ocaña Vicente, Oscar & Braga Henriques, Andreia & de Matos, Valentina & Porteiro, Filipe. 2012. Catalogue and Identification Guide of Deep-Sea Alcyonacea Lamouroux, 1912 of the Azores Archipelago (NE Atlantic) [poster communication at the 5th ISDSC]. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/258440356_Catalogue_and_Identification_Guide_of_Deep-Sea_Alcyonacea_Lamouroux_1912_of_the_Azores_Archipelago_NE_Atlantic_poster_communication_at_the_5th_ISDSC.

[6] Sampaio Í, Freiwald A., Porteiro F. M., Menezes G. & Carreiro-Silva M (submitted) Census of Octocorallia (Cnidaria: Anthozoa) of the Azores (NE Atlantic): a nomenclature update. Zootaxa.

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Grace Costantino served as the Outreach and Communication Manager for the Biodiversity Heritage Library from 2014 to 2021. In this capacity, she developed and managed BHL's communication strategy, oversaw social media initiatives, and engaged with the public to excite audiences about the wealth of biodiversity heritage available in BHL. Prior to her role as Outreach and Communication Manager, Grace served as the Digital Collections Librarian for Smithsonian Libraries and as the Program Manager for BHL.