Author Archives: Ulrike Fuss

Still alive

This blog is not dead yet – more in a state of hibernating due to some changes in the life settings of its writer. I had no opportunity to update anything substantial in 2018 and missed the opportunity to keep you updated about: Fantastic Beast and How to Make Them or about the Fish and Fiction exhibition at the Leiden University Library.

I have to admit: If the blog was a fish, it would be smelly by now. However, more updates and the restart of this project is planned for July and August 2019.

William Merritt Chase , Still Life: Fish, 1908
(The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The “Still Life: Fish” by William Merritt Chase (1846-1916) was painted in 1908. ” The canvas shows a tabletop with a plate containing a striped bass and a salmon; a weakfish lies directly on the table and a bowl appears in the background. Chase’s goal seems to have been to make what he called an uninteresting subject so inviting and entertaining by means of fine technique that people will be charmed at the way you’ve done it. ” (

Along these lines I am looking forward to the summer to work again on Fish in time and history.

19th-Century Marine Monster and their entanglement

In her article in the Hakai magazine (February 6, 2017) Rachel Fritts  gives some background about a dead sea monster

“25 feet [7.6 meters] long” and “shaped like an eel” with a “flat” head,

which was captured by the Maine fisherman S. W. Hanna  during a fishing expedition off New Harbor in 1880. Hanna decided to toss the body over board. Nevertheless, a report about this ‘monster, published in the  Sea-Side Press rose the interested of US American scientists.

Fritts refers to some correspondence between Hanna and the researchers J. M. Allen from Hartford, Connecticut and Spencer Fullerton Baird, US commissioner of fish and fisheries. Unfortunately there is no additional information about  these sources.

A sketch of the animal made by Hanna, allows the assumption that “the ‘sea serpent’ he spotted off New Harbor” was actually an oarfish.

Oarfish are to the small family Regalecidae. Found in all temperate to tropical oceans, they are yet rarely seen. The giant oarfish, is the longest bony fish alive, growing up to 11 m (36 ft) in length. (freely quoted from wikipedia)

In the same magazine, published on February 8, 2017, Alexander Deddy looks into the report of a whale drowned by a sea monster:

“Captain George Drevar and the crew of the sailing ship Pauline were off the coast of Brazil in 1875 when they witnessed a battle between two titans of the sea: a sperm whale and a monstrous sea serpent. Over the span of 15 minutes, Drevar watched as the serpent coiled itself around the whale and attempted to pull it below the surface. Occasionally, the battle dipped out of sight, only to rise again. Eventually the serpent prevailed, and the whale was dragged to the dark depths” (Deddy, 2017).

Deddy discusses the hypothesis that in fact the “sea monster” might have been lost fishing geer and marine debris, in which the whale got entangled and by which it was drowned.

An image published in Illustrated London News in 1857 depicts a scene in which a lighthouse keeper saw a sea monster with a head covered in white spots and a tail that stretched 60 meters. Ecologist Robert France suggests it was just a whale with fishing gear trailing behind. Photo courtesy of Robert France

In this context he refers to the books ‘The Great Sea Serpent’ (1892) by A. C. Oudemans and ‘Le Grand Serpent-de-Mer’ (1968) by Bernard Heuvelmans in which sea serpent stories were examined. Based on these works, Robert France, an ecologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, looked into “sea serpent sightings dating back to the mid-17th century, and found that oftentimes the characteristics of a sea serpent—the presence of a long tail, for instance—were merely inferred by the sailors and could have been trailing debris. In many reports, France found details he thought suggested marine debris had been involved. (…) France says nearly a fifth of the several hundred accounts he analyzed had something that made him suspect it was actually a sighting of entanglement.” (Deddy, 2017)


Further reading: Robert France, Historicity of Sea Turtles Misidentified as Sea Monsters: A Case for the Early Entanglement of Marine Chelonians in Pre-plastic Fishing Nets and Maritime Debris, CORIOLIS, Volume 6, Number 2, 2016.


The sprat: a Swedish anchovy – or how to identify a fish from a book?


The April blogspot of fishtories discusses the Babylonina confusions regarding the naming of fish which one can find  in the early modern period as well as in present times.

“The term red mullet for example, can refer to both Mullus barbatus barbatus and Mullus surmuletus in British English, but only to Mullus surmuletus in American English. In Australian English meanwhile, the term refers to neither of these but to no fewer than seven species, none of which are related to the genus Mullus. Consequently, an Englishman going out to dinner in Australia, a country where he can speak his native language, will suffer from Babylonian confusion to the point where he’ll have no idea which fish is on his plate.”

The fishstories (aka Sophia Hendrikx) explain that similar observations can be made with regards to the sprat and Baltic herring in the early modern period.  In his Fischbuch (1563), Conrad Gessner called the sprat a ‘schmelzling‘ or ‘aphya’ . The the Baltic herring is named as  ‘membras’. Hendrikx discussed earlier  that the Baltic herring looks very similar to the slightly smaller sprat and both species are found in close proximity. Explaining that Gessner based his Fischbuch on the works of Aristotele, Hendrikx assumes that this fact led him to the conclusion that – if the sprat was Aristotle’s aphya – the Baltic herring, like the sprat a Scandinavian species, must be his slightly bigger membras, also mentioned by the classic author. These terms refer at Aristotle to the anchovy  a small, common salt-water fish or a similar small fish. In the second half of the 16t century, “the terms aphya and membras were commonly used to refer to the sprat and the Baltic herring”. Looking at the geographical research are of Aristotle one wonders, however, why he should have described these to species at all, since they do not (and assumedly did not) occur in the Mediterranean. Nevertheless, tins of salted sprats are still today sold under the name ‘ansjovis’ in Sweden. Of course, “the sprat resembles the anchovies in its small size, and like the anchovies it isn’t often eaten on its own but is used to add flavour to a dish”, but it is still unclear when during the centuries, the sprat (or ‘skarpsill’) became the anchovy.

see also:

Sophia Hendrikx, What’s in a name? Mislabeling fish since the 16th century.  (2017)

Sophia Hendrikx, Spontaneously Generating Fish (2017)

Didi van Trijp, Something fishy (2016)


One of the poster presentations during the 1st. INTERNATIONAL MEETING HISTORIES OF NATURE AND ENVIRONMENTS: PERSPECTIVES AND DIALOGUES (March 15-17, 2017) focussed on early modern whaling in Brazil.

Nina Vieira summarized her research:

Marine animals and their products abound in the historical sources of the Portuguese Expansion, from  marine shells to hippopotamus of the African coast, to the ox – fish of the Amazon or the whale  throughout the Sea Ocean. From currency trading to butter and oil, those animals were soon seen as  valuable resources to the Portuguese crown, not only in the establishment of the empire overseas as also  within Atlantic trading dynamics. Some of them were part of the exotic world, used by natives and  completely unknown to European eyes, as for instances the manatee, others were not new  per se but  their abundance was, as the whale. In the case of whaling in Brazilian waters  – today known as breeding  areas for some species  –  the commercial exploitation started at least in the beginning of the 17th century  in numbers of captured animals that have not yet been determined. The activity was a royal monopoly  from 1614 to 1801, and old practices of an indiscriminate hunt, as the killing of calves and females, are pointed as one of the major reasons for the decline of the activity success and profit. Some economic  reports and memories, focused on the economic value of the whales, offer interesting insights to rebuild a trajectory of change towards whales use. Having as a starting point that the relation between whales  and humans is marked by ambiguous perceptions since immemorial to present times, the study of  whaling and the economic, cultural and scientific values of this animal can largely contribute to  understand how marine environments and animals were interpreted and handled over time. Ultimately  can also foment the discussion on how ecosystems, populations and species are being perceived  nowadays and what are the impacts of the human dominance over nature.” (Text taken from Conference Book of Abstracts)


For more information contact : Nina Vieira, CHAM-FCSH, Universidade NOVA de Lisboa and Associação Para as Ciências do Mar. Portugal,


Kleinste pot vis wordt Bruinvis

Harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) wrongly identified as dwarf sperm whale (Kogia sima).

Tekst: Diederik D’ Hert en David ‘Billy’ Herman

416 pilot whales stranded (February 2017)


416 whales stranded at Farewell Spit near Nelson, with about 75 per cent dying before rescue efforts could start.
10th February 2017 New Zealand Herald photo by Tim Cuff

416 pilot whales stranded near the base of Farewell Spit, Golden Bay, New Zealand, of which 250 to 300 were already dead when the whales were discovered early in the morning on February 10th, 2017. (NZ Herald) The stranding is New Zealand’s third biggest on record. Attempts were undertaken to refloat the remaining whales at the morning high tide. However,  240 more whales arrived on Saturday February, 11th, 2017. “The 240-odd whales that had stranded between Puponga and Pakawau late on Saturday have mostly refloated themselves on last night’s high tide (…),” conservation spokesman Herb Christophers said according to BBC news.  Seventeen of those whales which remained stranded were refloated by rescuers and volunteers. “Whale strandings have been a common occurrence throughout history on Farewell Spit. On 15 November 2012, a pod of pilot whales stranded themselves on the spit, around two kilometres north-east from the Spit Cafe. Eleven were found dead on the first day. The spit has claimed around 680 Whales since records began. In January 2014 several whales stranded and re-stranded. This included a pod of 50 pilot whales, many of whom died from stress or needed to be euthanised despite several attempts to refloat them.In February 2015, pilot whales were found stranded on Farewell Spit.  (Wikipedia)


A monster named “Jenny” (December 2016)

In the December posting of  the Leiden Arts in Society Blog; “Monstrous rays and fraudulent apothecaries”,  Sophia Hendrikx looked in three of the major early modern works about fish. Referring to Pierre Belonùs “De Aquatilibus” (Paris 1553), Conrad Gessner’s “Historiae Animalium” (Zürich 1558) and Ulysse Aldrovani’s “De Piscibus” (Bologna 1613), Hendrikx examined the presentation of the European eagle ray in these books. She explained that the monster illustrations often showed a ray which had been “cut and twisted before being dried, in order to make it look like a monster.” In the sixteenth century monsters were ‘popular’ and a “widespread interest made it a lucrative business to create objects that could reasonably pass as monstrous creatures.”   Gessner and Aldrovandi realized that these so called jenny hanivers were dissected fish and therefore man-made-monsters and advised their readers accordingly.


(ill. Jenny hanivers, Aldrovandi , De Piscibus, Bologna 1613)

More information and illustrations about this and other fishy topics can be found on Sophia Hendrikx’ Fishtories blog.

November 2016

A shark in De Panne

At the afternoon of October 29th, 2016  a shark was being spotted only 50 metres from the beach in De Panne, Belgium. The animal was completely disoriented and could not be saved.

The news was reported by the Royal Belgian Institute for Natural Sciences (KBIN) which came to the site after the shark had been spotted. “This is a hazardous strip of coastline”, Jan Haelters of the KBIN told the VRT. “It has many shoals, with deeper waters alternating with shallow parts.”

The shark had almost been washed up on the beach at first, but returned in deeper waters where it was swimming in circles some 50 metres off the beach. “It got stuck in between two shoals, and was probably completely disoriented. Every time it tries to go back into the deeper sea, it bumps into a new shoal, and returns.” (…)

The incident attracted many passers-by. Fire services cooperated with local fishermen to try and save the shark, by pulling it back into the sea with a rope, but their attempt failed. The shark eventually died.

The animal was a Cethorinus Maximus measuring 3 metres. This species feeds on plankton and is not dangerous for human beings. Haelters claims it’s the first time in decades that a shark like this one has been washed up on a Belgian beach. Although the shark has its habitat in the North Sea, it is very rarely spotted from the coastline. (…) Samples will be taken from the body to do some research.


October 2016


The new image of fish

A new image of fish was created by professor Adam Summers who used coloured dyes to create detailed images of fish that look like coloured x-ray. These pictures were edited in the photo series ‘Cleared’ which went on exhibition between 2013 and 2015. Adam Summers was trained as an engineer and mathematician. He “turned to biology to satisfy a deep need to interact with nature.  His research applies simple physics and engineering principles to animals to understand the evolution of complex behaviors like feeding, movement and reproduction.” ( The images of various fish are presented online on the site Picturing Science. While these photographies are not basically related to fish in books it is nevertheless the continuation of the same phenomenon: presenting knowledge about and pictures of fish in an appealing mass medium.

September 2016


On the Painted Fish tab you can find my first results identifying still life paintings with fish searching the internet. If you should have suggestions with regard to the identification of these fish, please let me know (referring to painters name, title and year).


Beyeren, Still-life with Fishes, Dresden

After several month I finally find the time to start again working on this project. Please expect soon a first list of still life paintings and additional information about early modern books concerning aquatic life.



“Fish in time and history” is an experiment in scientific knowledge crowed sourcing and online publishing / blogging. The intent of this site is collecting scientific knowledge about the fish in the European and Trans-Atlantic history. The leading question are:What did European scientist and other people know about fish during the early modern period (1500-1800)? How was this knowledge represented and what effect does this presentation have on today’s common knowledge about fish as animal, as food, as partner in our ecological systems, as object of art or as ontological entity to name some possible aspects?

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