20th Century Illustrations Reveal the Mysterious Creatures Living in the Deep Sea

Cephalopod Atlas by Carl Chun

Polypus levis Hoyle
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In 1898, marine biologist Carl Chun led a German expedition on the SS Valdivia to explore the deep sea. At a time when it was thought that life didn't exist below 300 fathoms (1,800 feet), this incredible voyage was a breakthrough in oceanography. Chun and his crew of scientists explored the sea 500 fathoms deep (3,000 feet), and in the process, introduced previously unknown species to the world. Many of these marine animals were later published in Chun's 1910 Cephalopod Atlas

Beautifully illustrated by Friedrich Wilhelm Winter, each plate of the atlas shows off a specimen discovered during Chun's eight-month exploration. Thanks to these illustrations, it's clear just how much variety lives within the deep sea. Different species of squids and octopuses are some of the now-familiar cephalopods that would have seemed incredibly foreign at the time.

Winter's work also clearly shows what makes each animal unique and highlights how these deep-sea creatures have adapted to life far below the surface. Particularly interesting is the Vampyroteuthis infernalis, or vampire squid, which remains one of Chun's most well-known finds. With its red eyes and black flesh, this small cephalopod's name literally translates to “vampire squid from hell,” so you can imagine the impression it left on the crew.

Chun's discoveries, along with Winter's illustrations, have gotten renewed attention thanks to the work of Brain Pickings founder Maria Popova. Popova has restored some of Winter's gorgeous illustrations from an edition of the Cephalopod Atlas that has been digitized by the Biodiversity Heritage Library. Prints of the 23 restored illustrations are available for sale on Society6, which benefit Greenpeace and their work to protect our oceans.

In 1898, marine biologist Carl Chun led an expedition to explore ocean life below 500 fathoms (3,000 feet).

Early 20th Century Illustration of Marine Life

Vampyroteuthis infernalis

Marine Life Illustration

Velodona togata

Cephalopod Atlas Illustrations by Friedrich Wilhelm Winter

Abraliopsis Morisii Ver.

Cephalopod Atlas by Carl Chun

Eledonella pygmaea Verrill

Chun's 1910 Cephalopod Atlas highlights much of the marine life discovered during the expedition.

Biodiversity Heritage Library Cephalopod Atlas


Cephalopod Atlas by Carl Chun

Crystalloteuthis glacialis Chun / Desmoteuthis pellucida

Cephalopod Atlas Illustrations by Friedrich Wilhelm Winter

Opisthoteuthis extensa Thiele

Cephalopod Atlas by Carl Chun


These hand-drawn illustrations by Friedrich Wilhelm Winter capture the anatomy of these squids and octopuses.

Cephalopod Atlas by Carl Chun

Polypus juv.

Cephalopod Atlas by Carl Chun

Mastigoteuthis flammea / Mastigoteuthis glaukopis

Cephalopod Atlas Illustrations by Friedrich Wilhelm Winter

Histioteuthis ruppellii

h/t: [Brain Pickings]

All images via the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

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Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Staff Editor and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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