Amazing Pictures of See-Through Fish

Most of what we know about the insides of fish is usually broiled or fried on our plates.

But Adam Summers has given us a new perspective on the internal structures of the aquatic animals, thanks to his series of artistic photographs currently on exhibit at the Seattle Aquarium.

A scalyhead sculpin (Artedius harringtoni) picture that’s part of the exhibition. Photograph by Adam Summers

The exhibit, called Cleared: The Art of Science Photography, features 14 large-format photographic prints of fish specimens that were specially stained with dyes to make their skeletal tissues pop out. (See “First Photos: Weird Fish With Transparent Head.”)

Summers, a professor and associate director at the Friday Harbor Labs at the University of Washington,  said he’s been taking the uber-intricate photographs for about 18 years to help him in his biomechanics research, displaying some of his work “to decorate the lab [and] relieve the monotony.”
The artful science caught the eye of some trustees of the Seattle Aquarium, who saw the photographs during a lab tour and asked Summers if he could put some images together for a show.
A photo of a tube snout fish
A tube snout (Aulorhynchus flavidus). Photograph by Adam Summers

With the help of Ilya Brook, a longtime friend and “Photoshop wizard,” Summers reshot some of the images with artistic rather than scientific content in mind.

It was “completely surprising,” he said.

Fetching Fish

There’s a lot of complexity to be had in a fish.

“I suspect that part of what makes these fetching is that there’s an almost unlimited level of detail,” said Summers, who was also a science consultant for the movie Finding Nemo (in which he’s billed as the “Fabulous Fish Guy”).

A photo of a butterfly ray.
This image of the butterfly ray (Gymnura crebripunctata) helped scientists study the joints in its wings. Photograph by Adam Summers

“The images allow you to look really, really, really closely, but they also allow you to step back and sort of appreciate a large form. To get to that level of fractal detail is somehow viscerally appealing to people.” (Also see “See-Through Goldfish Bred; Cuts Out Need for Dissection.”)

For instance, fish have a lot more bones than, say, mammals. A person has over 200 bones in all, while there are 200 bones just in a fish’s head and the start of its vertebral column, Summers says.

“That level of sort of repetitiveness draws the eye. It’s kinda cool.”

Details to Dye For

Such fine structural details are possible due to Summers’s technique. To create the images, he uses two dyes to stain the fish’s skeleton: Alcian blue for the cartilaginous parts, and Alziarin Red S for the mineralized tissue that has become hardened, like bone. (See some of the best artistic science pictures from 2013.)

A photo of a spiny lumpsucker
A spiny lumpsucker (Eumicrotremus orbis). Photograph by Adam Summers

The fish are then lightly bleached with peroxide and an intestinal enzyme is used to dissolve flesh. The animal is placed in glycerin, which makes them appear transparent.

This formula is decades old, Summers added, but “all of us who use it have our own little recipes.

“To take pictures that are not intentionally scientific has been great fun.”

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Liz Langley is the award-winning author of Crazy Little Thing: Why Love and Sex Drive Us Mad and has written for many publications including Salon, Details and the Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter @LizLangley and at www.lizlangley.com
  • Doug Rhodehamel

    absolutely amazing!! i’m so glad you wrote this. i’ve never scene anything like it!

  • Peter Favinger

    I do need to say that Iori Tomita has been doing this as well, and I believe he deserves the same recognition in addition to this article. http://www.shinsekai-th.com/en/profile.php

  • Joe Kennedy

    Thank you for the stunning images. The detail is amazing.Adam Summers truly has a gift. I’m looking forward to seeing more see through creatures photographed this way.

  • Rabi Manandhar

    Just like cholangiogram ! Is this dead fish or alive fish ? Awesome !

  • Dwayne LaGrou

    It’s true!!! A picture really IS worth a thousand words!
    Incredible details I have never seen before. I was wondering if you had any photos of large fish? Or maybe a shark to see the differences?!

    Thanks, And keep it up.

  • Talya Redinger

    Are any of these available for purchase?

  • naved ahmed

    wowamazing anything like it

  • courtny nicole

    these pictures are amazing and it is hard for younger kids to notice how important the world around us is. i am only 14 and i understand why you are wanting us to see these amazing creatures. it is truely beautiful,and how detailed it is just makes it that much more perfect.

  • Mary Finelli

    How sad that these beautiful, sentient beings were killed for this. See Fish Feel dot org.

  • Liz Langley

    @Peter Favinger Thank you for sharing the link! Yes, Dr. Summers said the technique has been around for many years and many people use it, fascinating to see the various results!

    @Dwayne LaGrou Most of these images are quite small – in my conversation with Dr. Summers he said the biggest was 15 cm / about 6 inches across.

  • claudia_taylor

    can they do this to jellyfish? those are amazing animals.
    follow on me intsa big_nasty

  • Acacia

    This is cooool. The fish looks amazing & pretty.


  • Brittany

    Them fish look cool.

  • Rajan gupta

    Very nice photography…

  • trenton hamilton

    i love this. this is crazy

  • charles lowe

    the animals look weird

  • Kaylee

    I found this article quite interesting and unbelievable!!! I never knew about these such things, i’m very glad and pleased you wrote this article.

  • Liz Langley

    I’m happy to see so many people enjoying Adam Summers’ work!

    @trenton hamilton
    That’s exactly what I thought when I first saw them and why I wanted to do this piece! Thanks! 🙂

  • Marion Gresl

    So the fish are bleached, their intestines disolved and then put into glycerin. Yes, they are beautiful, but then again, they are dead.

  • Liz Langley

    @Rabi Manandhar and @Marion Gresl

    Yes, some were collected specifically for certain studies but many are fisheries’ bycatch – fish that are unintentionally netted by fisheries.

  • Bharat Kumar Javvadhi

    Amazing work! Loved it!

  • Mirko Perkovic

    Astonishing work.Never seen somthing like this before!
    Thanks for sharing.MP

  • Fionnuala O’Connell


  • karin

    seldom seen such brilliant pics.
    thank you.

  • Lew Green

    These photos are absolutely amazing. The technology of today is making so much possible. I worked in underwater photography with Noel Monkman, the pioneer of underwater photography in Australia back in the 1950’s. Would have loved the technology then.

  • Naresh Paliwal


  • Malvern Drewa

    These pictures are amazing in how they show the many details of the fish. I have the same question as a previous person: Is there pictures of larger fish? Shark’s, etc.?

  • Ry Beville

    Indeed, Iori Tomita was a pioneer of “transparent specimen”, featured previously in Wired and other magazines. He definitely should receive recognition in this piece for his work. In fact, many of his pieces have been sold to aquariums around the world. More on him: http://www.yokohamaseasider.com/2011/03/transparent-specimen/

  • Ry Beville

    Indeed, Iori Tomita deserves credit for his pioneering work in this field. He has been creating “transparent specimen” for years and, in addition to publishing two books and an app, has been featured in Wired and other magazines. His work has been an inspiration (and controversy) to many. More on him here: http://www.yokohamaseasider.com/2011/03/transparent-specimen/

  • Nancy

    The photography is just phenomenal…how incredibly special to share a talent like this, as this is the ONLY way the majority of us will ever experience this kind of beauty!

  • Jorge López

    Scientifically chévere!

  • Jeanlou

    Great, never seen it before !
    Many thanks for sharing this special pictures

  • Geraldo A. Lobato Franco

    I wonder if this is the kind of research the japanese are doing with whales. Or would it be just culinary experiments?
    Does someone know, after all, why the japs are still chasing and killing pitilessly the cetaceous?

  • R.Dorairajan

    It is amazing Photographs of Cross section of various types of Fish and about body structure with bones connected to its head from wings and tail . It is quite educative about Marine species . National Geography presents such Research oriented details to the viewers and members. Thanking NG for its great job.

  • Paul

    And you still believe in evolution? Really?

  • Mike

    Interesting! I hope that everyone’s Sunday is going both great and safe, enjoyed the recent holiday that we’ve had,having a good weekend and has another good week. I also hope that they are having /had a nice Presidents’ Day!

  • Bani Gill

    Incredible, blending both science and art.

  • mike schuster

    Hey, how about we all make a greater effort to save this living planet!

  • Yolanda

    The Nature is perfection, the most beautiful and the ugliest and terrifying.

  • Larry DeClerck

    A truly amazing tapestry that evolution has woven.

  • DanH

    Such beautiful testimony to the creative artistry of the God who put us together, further evidenced in the logic, creativity, and truth-seeking efforts of humans who reflect their Creator.

  • Ben

    Some of the comments on here suggesting that this is a “beautiful testimony to the creative artistry of the God who put us together” and asking if we still believe in evolution need to pick up a science textbook…

  • eva grzelak


  • Chris Lord

    Billions and billions of lies ago, people saw such complexity and diversity (and the genetic code for continued diversification) as examples of the brilliant of a creator. But billions on billions of lies later, we’re told chance alone explains observed nature.

  • Anna Voloshin

    ..it produced a mix of thoughts and feelings, interesting art work, scientific detail, complexity, we humans are curious indeed, they belong to the sea, sad reality of our fishing and its by-catch..

  • chaker khalid

    It’s really stunning scientific pictures of marine creatures that look like prehistoric sea predators. When I looked at them first time I thoght these were monsters I saw in some Holywood sience fiction movies.
    Thanks to NG for providing these wealthy articles and images and many thanks of course to the researchers and scientists behind the amazing work and effort.

  • Sher Miller

    These are amazing. I could spend hours studying the intricacy of these and appreciating the beauty. I can’t believe this methodology/style has been around for so long and it’s just now coming to light. I owe you thanks, @Liz Langley, for broadening my artistic horizons, and @Ry Beville for letting me know there is another artist who practices this style. It will be interesting to compare the photos of someone who’s been doing this for almost two decades to those of someone who is relatively new to the style.

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