Popular Science Monthly/Volume 53/August 1898/Some Uses of the Camera in Zoology

By R. W. SHUFELDT, M. D., C. M. Z. S.

PRACTICAL zoölogy in these days is realizing more and more the benefits it is receiving from the use of the photographic camera. These advantages are appreciated by naturalists, educators, and the reading public, and are seen to be advancing along a variety of lines; not the least important among these being the services accruing therefrom to the morphologist, the zoölogical artist and illustrator, and to the taxidermist. To the first named the assistance rendered by photography to his science has been some time •established, having a number of years ago been placed upon a practical working basis. Its most successful operations are seen in the photomicrographs produced at the hands of the skilled laborers in such fields. Osteology is another department wherein distinct gains have resulted from photography. Bones and skeletons of every species of vertebrate are now illustrated in a manner that for beauty, accuracy, and permanency of the work, defies any character of illustration heretofore known, not even excepting the best grade of cutting, and to it it is superior in the matter of accuracy. Time, labor, and expense are also largely saved by the scientific use of the camera. For example, in order to produce a figure of the skeleton of some such medium-sized mammal as a cat for an octavo work upon osteology, the reduction and draughting often occupied an artist several days; the cost, in addition to his time and labor expended, ranging all the way from ten to twenty-five dollars; whereas now, by the use of the camera, not only are greater accuracy and beauty insured, but the resulting half-tone obtained is at a very moderate pecuniary outlay. In the matter of illustrating sections of bones there is absolutely no comparison at all, for it is quite out of the question for any artist to copy the delicate internal cancellous tissue of the bone, while a photographic picture, occupying less than an hour to secure, will exhibit all this detail with the greatest sharpness and fidelity. Passing to another field in practical zoölogical pictography, we find the works upon natural history published during the latter part of the last decade, in many instances, filled with figures of mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish, to say nothing of those of the invertebrata and plants, where not only the specimens are malproportioned, drawn in impossible attitudes, characterless, but are even in some cases totally irrecognizable. Then these figures too, or the wretched class of them to which reference is made, had come to be a species of authors' heirlooms, passing from one work on to the pages of the next published one, and so on, till they found their way even into lexicons and text-books intended for the instruction of students in schools and colleges. All this is especially objectionable, for it is fraught with the danger of teaching erroneous ideas in the very important matter of the appreciation of correct form or morphological accuracy in natural objects, giving our youth false notions of the appearances of animals of all kinds and descriptions.

Let any one examine, for example, the figures in. literature of such mammals as the walrus or the seals, published not longer ago than forty years, and my meaning will at once be made clear. Indeed, it is only in very recent time, comparatively, that we begin to see anything like correct pictures of the fur seal, and the camera has played a very important part in securing these. Among birds, and particularly among reptiles and fish, the same objectionable features are frequently noticeable, and of the charge of all this the present writer considers himself by no means guiltless, for before the photographic camera came to his aid not a few of his own published figures of vertebrates would without question have passed into the same category. Since the camera has come to his aid, however, these have been supplanted by a class of photographic pictures of living
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Fig. 1.—Deer Mouse. Life size from living specimen. Reproduced from a photograph made by Dr. Shufeldt.

specimens, frequently taken in their natural haunts, that for accuracy and beauty defy criticism.

Upon the whole, the mixture of feelings is by no means pleasurable when he comes to examine, for instance, some of the drawings of mice he had the temerity to publish in a popular journal some dozen or more years ago, that came before the eyes of a very large constituency of readers and observers. Yet he can remember very well the time and labor that were expended in attempts to faithfully portray those beautiful little animals, so difficult of correct portrayal. Unsatisfactory in the extreme were the results, and disappointment, the sole reward. How very differently does the camera do its work I Not so very long ago, having captured a fine living specimen of the common white-footed or deer mouse, the attempt was made to photograph this, one of the gentlest and prettiest little creatures in Nature. A result was obtained far exceeding the most sanguine expectations of the operator. Having placed an ear of ripe yellow corn, with husk and silk attached, the subject was induced to jump from the hand on to this as a perch. No sooner was this feat accomplished than he ran up and down it in a very excited, not to say interesting, manner. Already the ear of corn had been focused upon the ground glass of the camera box, and a holder armed with a very sensitive five-by-eight plate been duly placed in position. After having satisfied himself upon the state of things, my mouse suddenly paused and balanced himself to jump off, and if possible gain his liberty. In this attitude, and offering an opportunity not to be lost, an instantaneous exposure was made, and the plate removed to the dark room and developed.

This entire operation took no more than half an hour, and yet the outcome of the achievement was a picture of surpassing interest and accuracy, and one that even a rapid artist could not have produced in less time than a day, and then not have succeeded anything like as well. A reproduction of this picture is shown in rig. 1, which for animation and fidelity to Nature would be hard to equal.

Similar and equally successful photographs have been produced by the writer of other species of mice, of young opossums, of the muskrat, and several other mammals. With respect to birds it may be said, by employing the same means in the same way, photographic pictures have been secured of upward of fifty species of those forms occurring in our United States avifauna. A certain proportion of these are of adult individuals, while many others are of nests containing young in various stages of development. Sometimes old birds, male and female, were secured together, in the most natural attitudes upon the same limb, as in the case of cedar birds, and a life-size picture of two young catbirds, large enough to fly, was similarly obtained. Others in the collection represent vultures, hawks, owls, many warblers, Carolina paroquet, woodpeckers, crows, thrushes, and those of various other families and genera.

One of the chief beauties of such pictures is that by the use of the instantaneous shutter the operator secures a result with the subject in some attitude that even the very best of zoölogical artists fail in.

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Fig. 2.—Long-eared Owl. Subadult; about one third natural size. Reproduced from a photograph of the living specimen taken by Dr. Shufeldt.

This is well exemplified in such birds as owls, and it is a fact long known that such an accomplished ornithological artist as Wilson complained in his work of the difficulty he experienced in even depicting these in conventional attitudes. Not so with the camera, however, for with it the adroit manipulator of the instrument catches them upon the sensitive plate in almost any posture he pleases. Many of these taken by himself are to be found in the writer's collection. Last June Mr. Edward S. Schmid, the bird fancier of Washington, D. C, kindly loaned him a living specimen of a sub-adult long-eared owl, and this pugnacious bird soon proved himself to be a most capital subject from which to secure the more unusual attitudes so characteristic of the group. Having photographically pictured him in postures of rest, he was next teased to assume various ones of defiance, and these were secured with equal celerity and ease—not little, unrecognizable inch-high affairs either, but only a degree less than half natural size, capable of exhibiting all the external characters of the species. From the collection one of these is selected and offered to the reader in Fig. 2, and for a portrait of a defiant owl it is surely a very striking likeness.

Pictures as good as this one have been obtained by the writer of the screech owl, Aiken's owl (male and female in one print), the barred owl, and the barn owl, the last-named species being the most difficult subject of this famous family yet handled. Success was at last secured, however, where the specimen is shown (one third natural size) resting on one leg upon an old stump of a tree in a shady bit of woods. It has not at this writing yet been published.

Turtles, frogs, snakes, and lizards have been, to the extent of a score or more, taken with admirable success. My picture of the tree frogs has already appeared both in London and in New York, and the common bullfrog in Appletons' Popular Science Monthly. Forty or fifty have appeared in other places, and this is only noted here as proof of the practicability of illustrating zoölogical works by these methods, and in support of the fact of the way they are appreciated and utilized by naturalists.

Recently attention has been turned to the photography of fishes, a group of subjects presenting more difficulties to confront the artist and his camera than almost any other class. Nevertheless, success along these lines, too, is coming fast, and it is safe to predict that the photographic picture, in a vast number of instances, of ichthyological specimens will place the tediously produced pen-drawing in black and white in the background.

In July (1897) the Honorable United States Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries, J. J. Price, Esq., at Washington, D. C, extended the writer unusual facilities to attempt some camera work in this direction at the aquaria of the Central Station. Without any special preparation this courtesy was almost at once availed of, and, although the circumstances were by no means the most favorable under which the first exposures were made upon the living fish in the aquaria tanks, yet some of the results were more or less gratifying, and certainly measured a standard of success sufficient to encourage other and more elaborate trials. Good photographic pictures
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Fig. 3.—Long-eared sunfish (Lepomis auritus). One third natural size from life. Reproduced from a photograph taken by Dr. Schufeldt at the United States Aquaria at Washington. D.C.


of sunfish (Lepomis gibbosus and auritus) were secured, as well as one of the common pike (Esox lucius). No less than twenty sunfish appear upon one plate, and in not a single fish is any movement discernible, the exposure having been made in less than a second. A very pretty result is seen in the male long-eared sunfish that was

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Fig. 4.—Papilio turnus. Natural size, from life. Reproduced from a photograph taken by Dr. Shufeldt.

obtained, and this picture is here reproduced as a fair example of such success as attended the other attempts (Fig. 3). Where failures here were made, they were due to the insufficiency of light, the too rapid movements of the fish, and to reflections upon the glass of the aquaria. In a few cases all these difficulties conspired to defeat the hopes of the photographer.

Fortunately, however, each and every one of these drawbacks, save the second mentioned, can be overcome, and this the writer proposes to do in the near future.

Insects, again, make very instructive pictures as taken by means of the camera, though frequently they are secured with no little difficulty. Photographic pictures of this kind are in the writer's collection, showing beetles, spiders, butterflies, and the like, and a number of them have already been published. Great restlessness on the part of most of the subjects is here what chiefly has to be dealt with and overcome. The large black and yellow butterfly, taken life size, and shown in Fig. 4, occupied the best part of two hours to obtain. It was extremely restive, and declined over and over again to alight upon the day lily that had been selected for it as a perch. Still, indefatigable patience, the prime qualification for achievement in this field of art, in time won over the unintentional obstinacy on the part of this lovely insect, and victory finally crowned the long series of efforts made to secure its photograph. Nothing whatever can be gained here where harshness, haste, or lack of tact are allowed to come into play. On the contrary, one must not only be more or less familiar with the habits of the subject in Nature that he is trying to secure the picture of, but every act and movement on the part of the artist to accomplish this end must be characterized by extreme gentleness, patience, and perseverance, or else the desired goal will never be reached, and the science of zoölogy will forever remain ignorant of his power to produce portraits of living forms as they appear in Nature, by employing to that end such an instrument as the photographic camera.


Mr. C. Hose relates that one of the points of etiquette of the natives of the Baram district of Borneo forbids any man being called away from his meals; and it is even considered wrong to attack an enemy while he is eating. The people assume to converse with spirits and omen birds through the medium of fire. If a man hears the cry of a bird—which is a bad omen—he lights a fire and tells it to protect him. The fire is supposed to speak to the bird. The owner of fruit trees in fruit places round stones in cleft sticks near them, and utters a curse against any one who may attempt to steal the fruit, calling upon the stones to be his witnesses. If a friend passing by wishes to take some of the fruit, he lights a fire and tells the flame to explain matters to the stone, and that is supposed to make him safe. When a house is to be built, all the parts having been made ready to be put together and the omens having been consulted, every man, woman, and child in the neighborhood is called upon to help on a given day in erecting the structure; while a few small boys are sent out to beat gongs and keep up a din, in order that bad omens may not be heard after a good omen has been obtained.