Elegant Art from Dead Fish

Biologist Adam Summers has created a beautiful byproduct from a scientific process that stains cartilage and skeletal tissues for study.

A fascination with comparative vertebrate biomechanics by a biologist with the University of Washington in Seattle and Friday Harbor has created startling and unique fish art.

Adam Summers, associate director of the UW's Friday Harbor Lab (in the San Juan Islands in north of Puget Sound), studies the relationship between biochemical aspect of cartilage and its properties. To do so, he dyes the fish with alcian blue to reveal all the cartilage and then with alizarin red, which turns all skeletal tissue a crimson color. Summers lightly bleaches out dark pigments with hydrogen peroxide. Then the biologist photographs the specimens while they are submerged in glycerin.

Summers has used fish from the waters of/around Puget Sound and beyond.

Scalyhead Sculpin

This scalyhead sculpin is a north Pacific bottom dweller, and (as evidenced by the dyes) is a bony, not cartilaginous, species. This image appears on Sport Fishing magazine's final-page department, Last Cast, in the May issue.

scalyhead sculpin dyed bleached fish art
Compare this art with a photo of a living scalyhead sculpin.Adam Summers

Butterfly Ray

As one would expect for the cartilaginous rays, this stained specimen is nearly all blue.

butterfly ray dyed bleached fish art
Compare this art to a photo of a living butterfly ray.Adam Summers

Pacific Cod

Only after Adam Summers earned degrees in math and engineering did he decide to focus on fish biology, getting his M.S. in biology at New York University and his Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts.

Pacific cod are nearly identical to the Atlantic species but get nowhere near as large, rarely caught over the 10- to 20-pound range.

Pacific cod dyed bleached fish art
Compare this art with a photo of an actual Pacific cod.Adam Summers

Tubesnout

These small fish are found in the northern Pacific near shore, in kelp, eel grasses and around rocks. The dyes used in this process is designed to reveal the underlying structures within fish.

tubesnout dyed bleached fish art
Compare this art to a photo of a living tubesnout.Adam Summers

Leopard Shark

Note the difference in this leopard shark versus the dyed cod, two photos back. The bony fish is mostly magenta while this cartilaginous shark is all blue. The enzyme Trypsin was used on these specimens to remove proteins but leaving the collagen that holds skin and bones together.

leopard shark dyed bleached fish art
Compare this art to a photo of a living leopard shark.Adam Summers

Whitespotted Greenling

Whitespotted greenling, a close relative of the much larger (much toothier) lingcod, inhabits the chilly far north in eastern Pacific, occasionally turning up as far south as Oregon.

Summers used a Canon 5D Mark III camera with a 100mm macro lens to get the images in this gallery.

whitespotted greenling dyed bleached fish art
Compare this art to a photo of a living whitespotted greenling.Adam Summers

Devil Ray

The head of this devil ray (close relative of mantas) resembles some alien life form more than it does a fish.

Small, thin fish can be processed to a finished product in a few days; larger fish can take months, Summer says.

devil manta ray dyed bleached fish art
Compare this art to a photo of a living devil ray.Adam Summers

Spiny Lumpsucker

A strange little fish with a strange name, lumpsuckers have a disc beneath their heads — modified pelvic fins — which is quite adhesive and which they use to cling to the bottom.

spiny lumpsucker dyed bleached fish art
Compare this art to a photo of a living lumpsucker.Adam Summers

Little Skate

This small skate is found in the mid-Atlantic region and off the Norhteast coast.

little skate dyed bleached fish art
Compare the art to a photo of a living little skate.Adam Summers

Northern Clingfish

Found along the U.S. Pacific coast, the northern clingfish inhabits intertidal pools. Like the lumpsucker, it uses a sucker — formed by its pelvic and pectoral fins — to cling tightly to rocks. Clingfish are sometimes eaten by racoons and snakes at low tides.

northern clingfish dyed bleached fish art
Compare this art to a photo of a living clingfish.Adam Summers

Bonnethead Shark

This small member of the hammerhead sharks is found in warm, shallow waters of the Americas, in both the Atlantic and Pacific. Anglers looking for bonefish and permit often spot bonnetheads patroling the flats for anything they can chase down. This image was one of many included in an exhibition of Summers' work titled "Cleared," in the Seattle Aquarium last year.

bonnethead shark dyed bleached fish art
Compare this art to a photo of a bonnethead shark.Adam Summers

Padded Sculpin

Sculpins (Cottidae) are a huge worldwide family of fishes found in most saltwater and many freshwater habitats, typically fairly shallow. The padded sculpin, found from California into Alaskan waters, seldom reaches more than a few inches in length. This specimen, as others, was treated at the the University of Washington's Biomechanics Lab at Friday Harbor, Washington.

padded sculpin dyed bleached fish art
Compare this art to a photo of a living padded sculpin.Adam Summers

Pacific Electric Ray

A lovely image with a shocking ability — to generate up to 45 volts of electricity, apparently enough to incapacitate an unwary diver. This animal is found along the U.S. and Canadian Pacific coast in nearshore waters. Typical of sharks and rays, Summers' process renders it blue since there are no skeletal tissues to hold the Alizarin Red dye.

pacific electric ray dyed bleached fish art
Compare this art to a photo of a living Pacific electric ray.Adam Summers