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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Meet the Author
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