Explore a New Archive of 2,200 Historical Wildlife Illustrations (1916–1965): Courtesy of The Wildlife Conservation Society

Between the 1910s and the 1960s, a nature-lover with a sure artis­tic hand and a yen to see the world could have done much worse than sign­ing on with the Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Soci­ety. Dur­ing those decades, when the WCS was known as the New York Zoo­log­i­cal Soci­ety, its “Depart­ment of Trop­i­cal Research (DTR), led by William Beebe, con­duct­ed dozens of eco­log­i­cal expe­di­tions across trop­i­cal ter­res­tri­al and marine locales,” says the orga­ni­za­tion’s web site. This long-term project brought togeth­er both sci­en­tists and artists, who “par­tic­i­pat­ed in field work and col­lab­o­rat­ed close­ly with DTR sci­en­tists to cre­ate their illus­tra­tions.”

Now the fruits of those artis­tic-sci­en­tif­ic labors have come avail­able in a free online archive con­tain­ing “just over 2,200 dig­i­tized col­or and black-and-white illus­tra­tions of liv­ing and non-liv­ing spec­i­mens cre­at­ed by DTR field artists between 1916 and 1953.”

Their sub­jects include “mam­mals, birds, rep­tiles, amphib­ians, fish, insects, marine inver­te­brates, plants, and fun­gi,” all orig­i­nal­ly found in places like “British Guiana (now Guyana), the Galá­pa­gos Islands, the Hud­son Canyon, Bermu­da, the Gulf of Mex­i­co and the East­ern Pacif­ic Ocean, Venezuela, and Trinidad.”

It was in Trinidad and Toba­go that Beebe estab­lished his first eco­log­i­cal research sta­tion in 1916 — and where his long life and career came to an end more than 45 years lat­er. “Although Beebe’s name is unfa­mil­iar to most today, he was a celebri­ty sci­en­tist in his time,” says the WCS’ about page. “The DTR’s expe­di­tions were cov­ered by the pop­u­lar press, Beebe’s accounts were best­sellers, and he and the DTR staff pub­lished hun­dreds of arti­cles for both sci­en­tists and the gen­er­al pub­lic.” Pub­lished in not just spe­cial­ist media but Nation­al Geo­graph­ic and The New York Times, their illus­tra­tions cap­tured the col­or and move­ment of the nat­ur­al realm with a detail and vivid­ness that pho­tog­ra­phy could­n’t.

“Rang­ing from depic­tions of sin­gle spec­i­mens to com­plex nar­ra­tive images that show where and how ani­mals lived,” these images are avail­able in geo­graph­i­cal­ly and chrono­log­i­cal­ly orga­nized col­lec­tions at the WCS’ online archive. As many as pos­si­ble are cred­it­ed to their artists — Isabel Coop­er, Toshio Asae­da, George Alan Swan­son, Frances Waite Gib­son, and oth­ers — which ensures that this wealth of nature illus­tra­tions will do its part to not just renew inter­est in Bee­be’s life and work but gen­er­ate inter­est in those who entered into this adven­tur­ous col­lab­o­ra­tion with him. But then, Beebe him­self artic­u­lat­ed best what we can learn from appre­ci­at­ing these works of sci­en­tif­ic art: “All about us, nature puts on the most thrilling adven­ture sto­ries ever cre­at­ed, but we have to use our eyes.”

Enter the WCS archive here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Two Mil­lion Won­drous Nature Illus­tra­tions Put Online by The Bio­di­ver­si­ty Her­itage Library

The Metic­u­lous, Ele­gant Illus­tra­tions of the Nature Observed in England’s Coun­try­side

Ernst Haeckel’s Sub­lime Draw­ings of Flo­ra and Fau­na: The Beau­ti­ful Sci­en­tif­ic Draw­ings That Influ­enced Europe’s Art Nou­veau Move­ment (1889)

Behold an Inter­ac­tive Online Edi­tion of Eliz­a­beth Twining’s Illus­tra­tions of the Nat­ur­al Orders of Plants (1868)

A Beau­ti­ful 1897 Illus­trat­ed Book Shows How Flow­ers Become Art Nou­veau Designs

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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