OpenVertebrate Presents a Massive Database of 13,000 3D Scans of Vertebrate Specimens

From The Flori­da Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry comes the open­Ver­te­brate project, a new ini­tia­tive to “pro­vide free, dig­i­tal 3D ver­te­brate anato­my mod­els and data to researchers, edu­ca­tors, stu­dents and the pub­lic.” Intro­duc­ing the new project (oth­er­wise known as oVert), the muse­um writes:

Between 2017 and 2023, oVert project mem­bers took CT scans of more than 13,000 spec­i­mens, with rep­re­sen­ta­tive species across the ver­te­brate tree of life. This includes more than half the gen­era of all amphib­ians, rep­tiles, fish­es and mam­mals. CT scan­ners use high-ener­gy X‑rays to peer past an organism’s exte­ri­or and view the dense bone struc­ture beneath. Thus, skele­tons make up the major­i­ty of oVert recon­struc­tions. A small num­ber of spec­i­mens were also stained with a tem­po­rary con­trast-enhanc­ing solu­tion that allowed researchers to visu­al­ize soft tis­sues, such as skin, mus­cle and oth­er organs.

The mod­els give an inti­mate look at inter­nal por­tions of a spec­i­men that could pre­vi­ous­ly only be observed through destruc­tive dis­sec­tion and tis­sue sam­pling.

In the com­ing years, the open­Ver­te­brate team will “CT scan 20,000 flu­id-pre­served spec­i­mens from U.S. muse­um col­lec­tions, pro­duc­ing high-res­o­lu­tion anatom­i­cal data for more than 80 per­cent of ver­te­brate gen­era.” The project will also make dig­i­tal images and 3D mesh files avail­able to down­load and 3D print.

The video below pro­vides a short, visu­al intro­duc­tion to the dig­i­tal col­lec­tion. You can learn more about the project here.

via Boing­Bo­ing

Relat­ed Con­tent

Franz Kaf­ka Says the Insect in The Meta­mor­pho­sis Should Nev­er Be Drawn; and Vladimir Nabokov Draws It Any­way

Watch The Insects’ Christ­mas from 1913: A Stop Motion Film Star­ring a Cast of Dead Bugs

Cap­ti­vat­ing Col­lab­o­ra­tion: Artist Hubert Duprat Uses Insects to Cre­ate Gold­en Sculp­tures


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Free: Watch Our Planet, a Groundbreaking Nature Documentary Series Narrated by David Attenborough

The nature doc­u­men­tary series Our Plan­et opens with a star­tling­ly stark obser­va­tion cour­tesy of broad­cast­er, biol­o­gist, nat­ur­al his­to­ri­an, and author Sir David Atten­bor­ough:

Just 50 years ago, we final­ly ven­tured to the moon…

Since then, the human pop­u­la­tion has more than dou­bled…

(and) In the last 50 years, wildlife pop­u­la­tions have, on aver­age, declined by 60 per­cent.

The twelve-episode series, nar­rat­ed by Atten­bor­ough, is the result of a four-year col­lab­o­ra­tion between Net­flix, Sil­ver­back Films and the World Wildlife Fund. The cre­ators aren’t shy that it’s a race to beat the clock:

For the first time in human his­to­ry, the sta­bil­i­ty of nature can no longer be tak­en for grant­ed.

Rather than take view­ers on a doom scroll of glob­al pro­por­tions, they cul­ti­vate their con­ser­va­tion­ist impuls­es with gor­geous, nev­er-before-filmed views of ice caps, deep ocean, deserts and dis­tant forests.

The high def footage of the mul­ti­tudi­nous crea­tures inhab­it­ing these realms is even more of a hook.


Whether the frame is filled by a Philip­pine eagle chick, a herd of migrat­ing ele­phants, a hunt­ing Ben­gal tiger or a male orchid bee per­fum­ing him­self to bet­ter his chances of attract­ing a mate, Our Plan­et’s non-human stars are con­sis­tent­ly cap­ti­vat­ing.

Some of the footage speaks direct­ly to the hard­ships these crea­tures are expe­ri­enc­ing as the result of cli­mate change, dwin­dling habi­tats, and oth­er hav­oc wreaked by our species.

Field pro­duc­er Ed Charles said Atten­bor­ough remarked that the plight of a starv­ing polar bear and her cubs pad­dling around the Arc­tic Ocean in search of food was “a real heart­break­er, and that it would cap­ture peo­ple’s imag­i­na­tions:”

This moth­er and her cubs should have been hunt­ing on the ice, even bro­ken ice. That’s where they’re supreme­ly adapt­ed to be, but we found them in water that was open for as far as the eye could see. That’s the real­i­ty of the world they live in today. Nature can be bru­tal. But to see this fam­i­ly with the cub, strug­gling due to no fault of their own, it makes it very hard.

Giv­en how many non-human crea­tures’ fates hinge on human action, and the film­mak­ers’ goal of help­ing us “tru­ly under­stand why nature mat­ters to us all, and what we can do to save it, (so) we can cre­ate a future where nature and peo­ple thrive”, it’s awful­ly sport­ing of Net­flix to bring the series out from behind its sub­scrip­tion pay­wall.

The first sea­son can cur­rent­ly be enjoyed for free on YouTube here.

The film­mak­ers also pro­vide a num­ber of free edu­ca­tion­al resources for schools and younger view­ers.

Not that we adults should sit back and wait for the younger gen­er­a­tion to bail us out of this seem­ing­ly insol­u­ble mess.

Our Plan­et’s web­site shares ways in which all of us can take an active role in sav­ing and restor­ing pre­cious parts of the plan­et our species has near­ly destroyed.

Again, it’s bet­ter than doom scrolling.

Con­sid­er our remain­ing jun­gles and rain­forests, “a nat­ur­al ally in the fight against cli­mate change” due to the incred­i­ble diver­si­ty of life they har­bor.

They help reg­u­late glob­al weath­er, cool the plan­et by reflect­ing the sun’s heat, gen­er­ate and send out vast amounts of water, and remove car­bon from the atmos­phere.

Atten­bor­ough points out that humans have cleared jun­gle and for­est suf­fi­cient to meet­ing all future human demand for food and tim­ber. The trick will be learn­ing how to use this pre­vi­ous­ly cleared land more effi­cient­ly while prac­tic­ing envi­ron­men­tal stew­ard­ship.

Indi­vid­u­als can start by edu­cat­ing them­selves and hold them­selves to a high stan­dard, refus­ing to buy any item whose pro­duc­tion is tied to defor­esta­tion.

Gov­ern­ments can offer finan­cial incen­tives to com­pa­nies with a proven com­mit­ment to using this land in thought­ful, eco­log­i­cal­ly sus­tain­able ways.

Rather than suc­cumb to over­whelm­ing despair, take heart from inno­va­tors breath­ing new life into a defor­est­ed part of Brazil sev­en times the size of the Unit­ed King­dom.

Eco­log­i­cal con­cerns did not seem near­ly so press­ing when vast amounts of rain for­est once occu­py­ing this land were cleared in order to pas­ture cat­tle. A lack of fore­sight and sus­tain­able prac­tices led it to become so degrad­ed it could no longer sup­port graz­ing.

(Cat­tle aside, birds, insects, mam­mals, plants and oth­er for­mer inhab­i­tants were also SOL.)

Rather than cut down more pre­cious jun­gle, trail­blaz­ing envi­ron­men­tal vision­ar­ies are pro­mot­ing regen­er­a­tion with native seedlings, plant­i­ng fast-grow­ing, super-effi­cient crops, and restor­ing the jun­gle adja­cent to grow­ing areas as a form of nat­ur­al pes­ti­cide.

That pro­vides a glim­mer of hope, right?

The 97-year-old Atten­bor­ough can even get on board with eco­tourism, a risky move giv­en how a large car­bon foot­print can trans­late to a dim pub­lic view.

Per­haps he’s bank­ing that first-hand encoun­ters with won­ders once encoun­tered only in doc­u­men­taries could help keep the plan­et spin­ning long after we’re no longer here to bear wit­ness.

Watch the first sea­son of Our Plan­et for free here.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

David Atten­bor­ough Reads “What a Won­der­ful World” in a Mov­ing Video

How Sounds Are Faked For Nature Doc­u­men­taries: Meet the Artists Who Cre­ate the Sounds of Fish, Spi­ders, Orang­utans, Mush­rooms & More

Watch Young David Atten­bor­ough Encounter Ani­mals in Their Nat­ur­al Habi­tats: Video from the 1950s and 1960s

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

The Incubator Babies of Coney Island: How an Early 1900s Boardwalk Attraction Saved Thousands of Premature Babies Lives

Step right up, folks!

Shoot the Chutes!

Thrill to the Fire and Flames show!

Ride an ele­phant!

See the Beard­ed Lady!

Ear­ly in the 20th cen­tu­ry, crowds flocked to New York City’s Coney Island, where won­ders await­ed at every turn.

In 1902, the Brook­lyn Dai­ly Eagle pub­lished a few of the high­lights in store for vis­i­tors at Coney Island’s soon-to-open “elec­tric Eden,” Luna Park:

…the most impor­tant will be an illus­tra­tion of Jules Verne’s ‘Twen­ty Thou­sand Leagues Under the Sea’, which will cov­er 55,000 square feet of ground, and a naval spec­ta­to­ri­um, which will have a water area of 60,000 square feet. Beside these we will have many nov­el­ties, includ­ing the Riv­er Styx, the Whirl of the Town, Shoot­ing the White Horse Rapids, the Grand Canyon, the ’49 Min­ing Camp, Drag­on Rouge, over­land and incline rail­ways, Japan­ese, Philip­pine, Irish, Eski­mo and Ger­man vil­lages, the infant incu­ba­tor, water show and car­ni­val, cir­cus and hip­po­drome, Yel­low­stone Park, zoo­log­i­cal gar­dens, per­form­ing wild beasts, sea lions and seals, caves of Capri, the Flori­da Ever­glades and Mont Pelee, an elec­tric rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the vol­canic destruc­tion of St. Pierre.

Hold up a sec…what’s this about an infant incu­ba­tor? What kind of name is that for a roller coast­er!?

As it turns out, amid all the exot­i­ca and bedaz­zle­ments, a build­ing fur­nished with steel and glass cribs, heat­ed from below by tem­per­a­ture-con­trolled hot water pipes, was one of the boardwalk’s lead­ing attrac­tions.

Anti­sep­tic-soaked wool act­ed as a rudi­men­ta­ry air fil­ter, while an exhaust fan kept things prop­er­ly ven­ti­lat­ed.

The real draw were the pre­ma­ture babies who inhab­it­ed these cribs every sum­mer, tend­ed to round the clock by a capa­ble staff of white clad nurs­es, wet nurs­es and Dr. Mar­tin Couney, the man who had the ideas to put these tiny new­borns on display…and in so doing, saved thou­sands of lives.

Couney, a breast feed­ing advo­cate who once appren­ticed under the founder of mod­ern peri­na­tal med­i­cine, obste­tri­cian Pierre-Con­stant Budin, had no license to prac­tice.

Nor did he have an md.

Ini­tial­ly paint­ed as a child-exploit­ing char­la­tan by many in the med­ical com­mu­ni­ty, he was as vague about his back­ground as he was pas­sion­ate about his advo­ca­cy for pre­emies whose sur­vival depend­ed on robust inter­ven­tion.

Hav­ing pre­sent­ed Bud­in’s Kinder­bru­tanstalt — child hatch­ery —  to spec­ta­tors at 1896’s Great Indus­tri­al Expo­si­tion of Berlin, and anoth­er infant incu­ba­tor show as part of Queen Vic­to­ria Dia­mond Jubilee Cel­e­bra­tion, he knew first­hand the pub­lic’s capac­i­ty to become invest­ed in the pre­emies’ wel­fare, despite a gen­er­al lack of inter­est on the part of the Amer­i­can med­ical estab­lish­ment.

Thus­ly was the idea for the board­walk Infan­to­ri­ums hatched.

Claire Pren­tice, author of Mir­a­cle at Coney Island: How a Sideshow Doc­tor Saved Thou­sands of Babies and Trans­formed Amer­i­can Med­i­cine, writes that “many doc­tors at the time held the view that pre­ma­ture babies were genet­i­cal­ly infe­ri­or ‘weak­lings’ whose fate was a mat­ter for God.”

As word of Couney’s Infan­to­ri­um spread, par­ents brought their pre­ma­ture new­borns to Coney Island, know­ing that their chances of find­ing a life­sav­ing incu­ba­tor there was far greater than it would be in the hos­pi­tal. And the care there would be both high­ly skilled and free, under­writ­ten by pay­ing spec­ta­tors who observed the oper­a­tion through a glass win­dow. Pren­tice notes that “Couney took in babies from all back­grounds, regard­less of race or social class:”

… a remark­ably pro­gres­sive pol­i­cy, espe­cial­ly when he start­ed out. He did not take a pen­ny from the par­ents of the babies. In 1903 it cost around $15 (equiv­a­lent to around $405 today) a day to care for each baby; Couney cov­ered all the costs through the entrance fees.

The New York­er’s A. J. Liebling observed Couney at the 1939 World’s Fair in Flush­ing, Queens, where he had set up in a pink-and-blue build­ing that beck­oned vis­i­tors with a sign declar­ing “All the World Loves a Baby:”

The back­bone of Dr. Couney’s busi­ness is sup­plied by the repeaters. A repeater becomes inter­est­ed in one baby and returns at inter­vals of a week or less to note its growth. Repeaters attend more assid­u­ous­ly than most of the patients’ par­ents, even though the par­ents get in on pass­es. After a pre­emie grad­u­ates, a chron­ic repeater picks out anoth­er one and starts watch­ing it. Dr. Couney’s prize repeater, a Coney Island woman named Cas­satt, vis­it­ed his exhib­it there once a week for thir­ty-six sea­sons. Repeaters, as one might expect, are often child­less mar­ried peo­ple, but just as often they are inter­est­ed in babies because they have so many chil­dren of their own. “It works both ways,” says Dr. Couney, with qui­et plea­sure.

It’s esti­mat­ed that Couney’s incu­ba­tors spared the lives of more than 6,500 pre­ma­ture babies in the Unit­ed States, Lon­don, Paris, Mex­i­co and Brazil.

Despite his lack of bonafides, a num­ber of pedi­a­tri­cians who toured Couney’s infan­to­ri­ums were impressed by what they saw, and began refer­ring patients whose fam­i­lies could not afford to pay for med­ical care. Many, as Liebling report­ed in 1939, wished his board­walk attrac­tion could stay open year round, “for the ben­e­fit of win­ter pre­emies:”

In the ear­ly years of the cen­tu­ry no Amer­i­can hos­pi­tal had good facil­i­ties for han­dling pre­ma­tures, and there is no doubt that every win­ter many babies whom Dr. Couney could have saved died. Even today it is dif­fi­cult to get ade­quate care for pre­ma­ture infants in a clin­ic. Few New York hos­pi­tals have set up spe­cial depart­ments for their ben­e­fit, because they do not get enough pre­ma­ture babies to war­rant it; there are not enough doc­tors and nurs­es expe­ri­enced in this field to go around. Care of pre­ma­tures as pri­vate patients is hideous­ly expen­sive. One item it involves is six dol­lars a day for moth­er’s milk, and oth­ers are rental of an incu­ba­tor and hos­pi­tal room, oxy­gen, sev­er­al vis­its a day by a physi­cian, and fif­teen dol­lars a day for three shifts of nurs­es. The New York hos­pi­tals are mak­ing plans now to cen­tral­ize their work with pre­ma­tures at Cor­nell Med­ical Cen­ter, and prob­a­bly will have things orga­nized with­in a year. When they do, Dr. Couney says, he will retire. He will feel he has “made enough pro­pa­gan­da for pre­emies.”


Lis­ten to a Sto­ryCorps inter­view with Lucille Horn, a 1920 grad­u­ate of Couney’s Coney Island incu­ba­tors below.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

The Lit­tle Albert Exper­i­ment: The Per­verse 1920 Study That Made a Baby Afraid of San­ta Claus & Bun­nies

Why Babies in Medieval Paint­ings Look Like Mid­dle-Aged Men: An Inves­tiga­tive Video

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. She greet­ed 2024 with thou­sands of oth­er New York­ers, tak­ing a polar bear plunge at Coney Island. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Hortus Eystettensis: The Beautifully Illustrated Book of Plants That Changed Botanical Art Overnight (1613)

If you made it big in sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry Bavaria, you showed it by cre­at­ing a gar­den with all the plants in the known world. That’s what Johann Kon­rad von Gem­min­gen, Prince-Bish­op of Eich­stätt did, any­way, and he was­n’t about to let his botan­i­cal won­der­land die with him. To that end, he engaged a spe­cial­ist by the name of Basil­ius Besler to doc­u­ment the whole thing, and with a lav­ish­ness nev­er before seen in books in its cat­e­go­ry.

The medieval and Renais­sance world had its “herbals” (as pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture), many of which tend­ed toward the util­i­tar­i­an, focus­ing on the culi­nary or med­ical prop­er­ties of plants; Hor­tus Eystet­ten­sis would take the form at once to new artis­tic and sci­en­tif­ic heights.

When the book came out in 1613, after six­teen years of research and pro­duc­tion, von Gem­min­gen was already dead. But it proved suc­cess­ful enough as a prod­uct that Besler made suf­fi­cient mon­ey to set him­self up with a house in a fash­ion­able part of Nurem­berg for the price of just five copies — five copies of the extrav­a­gant (and extrav­a­gant­ly expen­sive) hand-col­ored edi­tion, at least.

Hor­tus Eystet­ten­sis “changed botan­i­cal art almost overnight,” writes David Marsh in a detailed blog post on the book’s cre­ation and lega­cy at The Gar­dens Trust. “Now, sud­den­ly plants were being por­trayed as beau­ti­ful objects in their own right,” with depic­tions that could attain life size, all cat­e­go­rized in a sys­tem­at­ic man­ner antic­i­pat­ing clas­si­fi­ca­tion sys­tems to come. Marsh sees the project as exem­pli­fy­ing a cou­ple major cul­tur­al ideas of its time: one was “the collector’s cab­i­net of curiosi­ties or wun­derkam­mer, which helped reveal a gentleman’s inter­est and knowl­edge of the world around him.” Anoth­er was the con­cept of the per­fect gar­den, which “should, if at all pos­si­ble, rep­re­sent Eden and con­tain as wide a range of plants and oth­er fea­tures as pos­si­ble.”

This lev­el of ambi­tion has always had its costs, to the con­sumer as well as the pro­duc­er: Marsh notes that a 2006 repli­ca of Hor­tus Eystet­ten­sis had a price tag of $10,000, though a more afford­able edi­tion has since been made avail­able from Taschen, the major pub­lish­er most like­ly to under­stand Besler’s uncom­pro­mis­ing aes­thet­ic sen­si­bil­i­ty in the craft of books. But you can also read it for free online at an edi­tion dig­i­tized by Teylers Muse­um in the Nether­lands, which, in a sense, brings von Gem­min­gen’s project full-cir­cle: he sought to encom­pass the whole world in his gar­den, and now his gar­den — in Besler’s rich­ly detailed ren­der­ing — is open to the whole world.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The New Herbal: A Mas­ter­piece of Renais­sance Botan­i­cal Illus­tra­tions Gets Repub­lished in a Beau­ti­ful 900-Page Book

Behold 900+ Mag­nif­i­cent Botan­i­cal Col­lages Cre­at­ed by a 72-Year-Old Wid­ow, Start­ing in 1772

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.

The Surprising Map of Plants: A New Animation Shows How All the Different Plants Relate to Each Other

Are pinecones relat­ed to pineap­ples? This was the unex­pect­ed ques­tion with which my wife con­front­ed me as we woke up this morn­ing. As luck would have it, Dominic Wal­li­man has giv­en us an enter­tain­ing way to check: just a few days ago he released his Map of Plants, through which he gives a guid­ed tour in the video from his Youtube chan­nel Domain of Sci­ence. Here on Open Cul­ture, we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured Wal­li­man’s maps of biol­o­gy, chem­istry, med­i­cine, quan­tum physics, quan­tum com­put­ing, and doom, all of which may seem more com­plex and daunt­ing than the rel­a­tive­ly famil­iar plant king­dom.

But if you com­pare the Map of Plants to Wal­li­man’s pre­vi­ous cre­ations, down­load­able from his Flickr account, you’ll find that it takes quite a dif­fer­ent shape — and, unsur­pris­ing­ly, a more organ­ic one.

It’s a help to any­one’s under­stand­ing that Wal­li­man shot sec­tions of his explana­to­ry video at the Roy­al Botan­ic Gar­dens, Kew, which affords him the abil­i­ty to illus­trate the species involved with not just his draw­ings, but also real-life spec­i­mens, start­ing at the bot­tom of the “evo­lu­tion­ary tree” with hum­ble algae. From there on, he works his way up to land plants and bryophytes (most­ly moss­es), vas­cu­lar plants and ferns, and then seed plants and gym­nosperms (like conifers and Gink­go).

It is in this sec­tion, about six and a half min­utes in, that Wal­li­man comes to pinecones, men­tion­ing — among oth­er notable char­ac­ter­is­tics — that they come in both male and female vari­eties. But he only reach­es pineap­ples six or so min­utes there­after, hav­ing passed through fun­gi, lichens, angiosperms, and flow­ers. Belong­ing to the mono­cots (or mono­cotyle­dons), a group that also includes lilies, orchids, and bananas, the pineap­ple sits just about on the exact oppo­site end of the Map of Plants from the pinecone. The sim­i­lar­i­ty of their names stems from sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry colonists in the new world encoun­ter­ing pineap­ples for the first time and regard­ing them as very large pinecones — an asso­ci­a­tion vis­i­bly refut­ed by Wal­li­man’s map, but for­ev­er pre­served in the lan­guage nev­er­the­less.

Relat­ed con­tent:

1,100 Del­i­cate Draw­ings of Root Sys­tems Reveals the Hid­den World of Plants

The New Herbal: A Mas­ter­piece of Renais­sance Botan­i­cal Illus­tra­tions Gets Repub­lished in a Beau­ti­ful 900-Page Book

Behold 900+ Mag­nif­i­cent Botan­i­cal Col­lages Cre­at­ed by a 72-Year-Old Wid­ow, Start­ing in 1772

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

The Bio­di­ver­si­ty Her­itage Library Makes 150,000 High-Res Illus­tra­tions of the Nat­ur­al World Free to Down­load

Björk Takes You on a Jour­ney into the Vast King­dom of Mush­rooms with the New Doc­u­men­tary Fun­gi: Web of Life

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.

When the US Government Commissioned 7,497 Watercolor Paintings of Every Known Fruit in the World (1886)

A pic­ture is worth 1000 words, espe­cial­ly when you are a late-19th or ear­ly-20th cen­tu­ry hor­ti­cul­tur­ist eager to pro­tect intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty rights to new­ly cul­ti­vat­ed vari­eties of fruit.

Or an artis­ti­cal­ly gift­ed woman of the same era, look­ing for a steady, respectable source of income.

In 1886, long before col­or pho­tog­ra­phy was a viable option, the US Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture engaged approx­i­mate­ly 21, most­ly female illus­tra­tors to cre­ate real­is­tic ren­der­ings of hun­dreds of fruit vari­eties for lith­o­graph­ic repro­duc­tion in USDA arti­cles, reports, and bul­letins.

Accord­ing to the Divi­sion of Pomol­o­gy’s first chief, Hen­ry E. Van Deman, the artists’ man­date was to cap­ture “the nat­ur­al size, shape, and col­or of both the exte­ri­or and inte­ri­or of the fruit, with the leaves and twigs char­ac­ter­is­tic of each.”

If a spec­i­men was going bad, the artist was under strict orders to rep­re­sent the dam­age faith­ful­ly — no pret­ty­ing things up.

As Alice Tan­geri­ni, staff illus­tra­tor and cura­tor for botan­i­cal art in the Smithsonian’s Nation­al Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry writes, “botan­i­cal illus­tra­tors and their works serve the sci­en­tist, depict(ing) what a botanist describes, act­ing as the proof­read­er for the sci­en­tif­ic descrip­tion:”

Dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy, although increas­ing­ly used, can­not make judge­ments about the intri­ca­cies of por­tray­ing the plant parts a sci­en­tist may wish to empha­size and a cam­era can­not recon­struct a life­like botan­i­cal spec­i­men from dried, pressed mate­r­i­al… the thought process medi­at­ing that deci­sion of every aspect of the illus­tra­tion lives in the head of the illus­tra­tor.

 …the illus­tra­tor also has an eye for the aes­thet­ics of botan­i­cal illus­tra­tion, know­ing that a draw­ing must cap­ture the inter­est of the view­er to be a viable form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Atten­tion to accu­ra­cy is impor­tant, but excel­lence of style and tech­nique used is also pri­ma­ry for an illus­tra­tion to endure as a work of art and sci­ence.

Pri­ma­ry con­trib­u­tors Deb­o­rah Griscom Pass­more, Mary Daisy Arnold, Aman­da Almi­ra New­ton and their col­leagues estab­lished norms for botan­i­cal illus­tra­tion with their paint­ings for the USDA’s Pomo­log­i­cal Water­col­or Col­lec­tion, simul­ta­ne­ous­ly pro­vid­ing much-need­ed visu­al evi­dence for cul­ti­va­tors wish­ing to estab­lish claims to their vari­etals.

(Fruit breed­ers’ rights were for­mal­ly pro­tect­ed with the estab­lish­ment of the Plant Patent Act of 1930, which decreed that any­one who “invent­ed or dis­cov­ered and asex­u­al­ly repro­duced any dis­tinct and new vari­ety of plant” could receive a patent.)

The collection’s 7,497 water­col­ors of real­is­ti­cal­ly-ren­dered fruits cap­ture both the com­mon­place and the exot­ic in mouth­wa­ter­ing detail.

Both aes­thet­i­cal­ly and as a sci­en­tif­ic data­base, the Pomo­log­i­cal Water­col­or Col­lec­tion is the berries — specif­i­cal­ly, Gandy, Chesa­peake, Excel­sior, Man­hat­tan, and Gabara to namecheck but a few types of Fra­garia, aka straw­ber­ries, pre­served there­in.

Oth­er fruits remain less­er known on our shores. The USDA spon­sored glob­al expe­di­tions specif­i­cal­ly to gath­er spec­i­mens such as the ones below.

Queen Vic­to­ria report­ed­ly offered knight­hood to any trav­el­er pre­sent­ing her a man­gos­teen — still a rare treat in the west.  They were banned in the U.S. until 2007 in the inter­est of pro­tect­ing local agri­cul­ture from the threat of stow­away Asian fruit flies.

The thick, square-end­ed Popoulu banana would nev­er be mis­tak­en for a Chiq­ui­ta from the out­side. Accord­ing to The World of Bananas in Hawai’i: Then and Now, its lin­eage dates back tens of thou­sands of years to the Van­u­atu arch­i­pel­ago.

If you cel­e­brate the har­vest fes­ti­val Sukkot, you like­ly encoun­tered an etrog with­in the last month. The noto­ri­ous­ly fid­dly crop has been cul­ti­vat­ed domes­ti­cal­ly since 1980, when a yeshi­va stu­dent in Brook­lyn, seek­ing to keep costs down and ensure that kosher pro­to­cols were main­tained, con­vinced a third-gen­er­a­tion Cal­i­for­nia cit­rus grow­er by the name of Fitzger­ald to give it a go.

Explore and down­load hi-res images from the Pomo­log­i­cal Water­col­or Col­lec­tion here.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

A Col­lec­tion of Vin­tage Fruit Crate Labels Offers a Volup­tuous Vision of the Sun­shine State

In 1886, the US Gov­ern­ment Com­mis­sioned 7,500 Water­col­or Paint­ings of Every Known Fruit in the World: Down­load Them in High Res­o­lu­tion

A Stun­ning, Hand-Illus­trat­ed Book of Mush­rooms Drawn by an Over­looked 19th Cen­tu­ry Female Sci­en­tist

Via Aeon

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

How Scientists Are Turning Dead Spiders Into Robots That Grip

Kids who dig robot­ics usu­al­ly start out build­ing projects that mim­ic insects in both appear­ance and action.

Daniel Pre­ston, Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Mechan­i­cal Engi­neer­ing at Rice Uni­ver­si­ty and PhD stu­dent Faye Yap come at it from a dif­fer­ent angle. Rather than design­ing robots that move like insects, they repur­pose dead wolf spi­ders as robot­ic claws.

Very lit­tle mod­i­fi­ca­tion is required.

Yap explains that, unlike mam­mals, spi­ders lack antag­o­nis­tic mus­cles:

They only have flex­or mus­cles, which allow their legs to curl in, and they extend them out­ward by hydraulic pres­sure. When they die, they lose the abil­i­ty to active­ly pres­sur­ize their bod­ies. That’s why they curl up.

When a sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly inclined human inserts a nee­dle into a deceased spider’s hydraulic pro­so­ma cham­ber, seals it with super­glue, and deliv­ers a tiny puff of air from a hand­held syringe, all eight legs will straight­en like fin­gers on jazz hands.

These necro­bi­ot­ic spi­der grip­per tools can lift around 130% of their body weight — small­er spi­ders are capa­ble of han­dling more — and each one is good for approx­i­mate­ly 1000 grips before degrad­ing.

Pre­ston and Yap envi­sion putting the spi­ders to work sort­ing or mov­ing small scale objects, assem­bling micro­elec­tron­ics, or cap­tur­ing insects in the wild for fur­ther study.

Even­tu­al­ly, they hope to be able to iso­late the move­ments of indi­vid­ual legs, as liv­ing spi­ders can.

Envi­ron­men­tal­ly, these necro­bi­ot­ic parts have a major advan­tage in that they’re ful­ly biodegrad­able. When they’re no longer tech­no­log­i­cal­ly viable, they can be com­post­ed. (Humans can be too, for that mat­ter…)

The idea is as inno­v­a­tive as it is off­beat. As a soft robot­ics spe­cial­ist, Pre­ston is always seek­ing alter­na­tives to hard plas­tics, met­als and elec­tron­ics:

We use all kinds of inter­est­ing new mate­ri­als like hydro­gels and elas­tomers that can be actu­at­ed by things like chem­i­cal reac­tions, pneu­mat­ics and light. We even have some recent work on tex­tiles and wearables…The spi­der falls into this line of inquiry. It’s some­thing that has­n’t been used before but has a lot of poten­tial.”

Con­quer any lin­ger­ing arachno­pho­bia by read­ing Yap and Pre­ston’s research arti­cle,  Necro­bot­ics: Biot­ic Mate­ri­als as Ready-to-Use Actu­a­tors, here.

Hat Tip to Open Cul­ture read­er Dawn Yow.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Isaac Asi­mov Explains His Three Laws of Robots

200-Year-Old Robots That Play Music, Shoot Arrows & Even Write Poems: Watch Automa­tons in Action

MIT Cre­ates Amaz­ing Self-Fold­ing Origa­mi Robots & Leap­ing Chee­tah Robots

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Death-Cap Mushrooms are Terrifying and Unstoppable: A Wild Animation

Mush­rooms are just­ly cel­e­brat­ed as vir­tu­ous mul­ti­taskers.

They’re food, teach­ers, movie stars, design inspi­ra­tion

…and some, as any­one who’s spent time play­ing or watch­ing The Last of Us can read­i­ly attest, are killers.

Hope­ful­ly we’ve got some time before civ­i­liza­tion is con­quered by zom­bie cordy­ceps.

For now, the ones to watch out for are amani­ta phal­loide, aka death cap mush­rooms.

The pow­er­ful ama­tox­in they har­bor is behind 90 per­cent of mush­room-relat­ed fatal­i­ties world­wide. It caus­es severe liv­er dam­age, lead­ing to bleed­ing dis­or­ders, brain swelling, and mul­ti-organ fail­ure in those who sur­vive. 

A death cap took the life of a three-year-old in British Colum­bia who mis­took one for a tasty straw mush­room on a for­ag­ing expe­di­tion with his fam­i­ly near their apart­ment com­plex. 

In Mel­bourne, a pot pie that test­ed pos­i­tive for death caps result­ed in the deaths of three adults, and sent a fourth to the hos­pi­tal in crit­i­cal con­di­tion.

As the ani­ma­tors feast on mush­rooms’ lim­it­less visu­al appeal in the above episode of The Atlantic’s Life Up Close series, author Craig Childs deliv­ers some sober­ing news:

We did it to our­selves. Humans are the ones who’ve enabled death caps to spread so far beyond their native habi­tats in Scan­di­navia and parts of north­ern Europe, where the poi­so­nous fun­gi feed on the root tips of decid­u­ous trees, spring­ing up around their hosts in tidy fairy rings.

When oth­er coun­tries import these trees to beau­ti­fy their city streets, the death caps, whose frag­ile spores are inca­pable of trav­el­ing long dis­tances when left to their own devices, tag along.

They have sprout­ed in the Pacif­ic North­west near import­ed sweet chest­nuts, beech­es, horn­beams, lin­dens, red oaks, and Eng­lish oaks, and oth­er host species.

As bio­chemist Paul Kroeger, cofounder of the Van­cou­ver Myco­log­i­cal Soci­ety, explained in a 2019 arti­cle Childs penned for the Atlantic, the inva­sive death caps aren’t pop­ping up in deeply wood­ed areas. 

Rather, they are set­tling into urban neigh­bor­hoods, fre­quent­ly in the grass strips bor­der­ing side­walks. When Childs accom­pa­nied Krueger on his rounds, the first of two dozen death caps dis­cov­ered that day were found in front of a house fes­tooned with Hal­loween dec­o­ra­tions. 

Now that they have estab­lished them­selves, the death caps can­not be roust­ed. No longer mere tourists, they’ve been seen mak­ing the jump to native oaks in Cal­i­for­nia and West­ern Cana­da.

Childs also notes that death caps are no longer a North Amer­i­can prob­lem:

They have spread world­wide where for­eign trees have been intro­duced into land­scap­ing and forestry prac­tices: North and South Amer­i­ca, New Zealand, Aus­tralia, South and East Africa, and Mada­gas­car. In Can­ber­ra, Aus­tralia, in 2012, an expe­ri­enced Chi­nese-born chef and his assis­tant pre­pared a New Year’s Eve din­ner that includ­ed, unbe­knownst to them, local­ly gath­ered death caps. Both died with­in two days, wait­ing for liv­er trans­plants; a guest at the din­ner also fell ill, but sur­vived after a suc­cess­ful trans­plant.

For­agers should pro­ceed with extreme cau­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

The Beau­ti­ful­ly Illus­trat­ed Atlas of Mush­rooms: Edi­ble, Sus­pect and Poi­so­nous (1827)

A Stun­ning, Hand-Illus­trat­ed Book of Mush­rooms Drawn by an Over­looked 19th Cen­tu­ry Female Sci­en­tist

Alger­ian Cave Paint­ings Sug­gest Humans Did Mag­ic Mush­rooms 9,000 Years Ago

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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