On the Discovery Docket: Proteus

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

On the Discovery Docket is the blog’s on-going series of book, film, television and experience recommendations.

Haeckel Illustration of a Radiolaria

Many of us grew up with the idea of space as “the final frontier.” But 200 years ago, while there were plenty of people imaging the possibilities of the heavens, there was a much closer, and just as mysterious, frontier here on Earth: the oceans.

The oceans were places where the imagination still reigned and mermaids and kraken were still possible. And as the technology of the microscope improved in the 19th century, the mysteries of the water compounded again. Not only were there marine creatures that were unknown because they hadn’t been seen before, there were creatures that were unknown because they couldn’t be seen before.

Proteus, the 2004 documentary by David Lebrun, tells the history of how 19th century naturalists discovered and began to explore that unseen ocean world.

Much of the story focuses on Ernst Haeckel, a German biologist, naturalist, doctor, philosopher and artist. Haeckel is famous for his extensive, meticulous and amazingly beautiful drawings of microscopic marine life, and the darlings of his work radiolaria. Radiolaria are single-celled marine organisms with incredibly complex mineral exoskeletons and, in his lifetime, Haeckel discovered, named and classified almost 4,000 species.

In Proteus, Haeckel’s amazingly intricate and mesmerizing illustrations are combined with the images of other nineteenth century painters, photographers and scientific researchers to create a film that is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, both in the stunning animation and the remarkable story of life it tells.

They are like an alphabet of possibilities, as if the ancient sea were dreaming in its depths all the future permutations of organic and invented form. From backbones to bridges, and from the earth to the stars – Proteus

2 Responses to “On the Discovery Docket: Proteus”

  1. 1 GORDON HAROLD DOWTON January 20, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    What a period of time to live in. I refer to the sense of mystery that, from what I am able to undestand, existed…a sense of mystery and wonder as Haeckle’s drawings would support. So much UNEXPLORED…conquered perhaps,but not explored. A child could place mystery anywhere almost, without fear of it being found before perhaps they were able to undertake this task themselves…or maybe not…simply leave mystery alone. But most surely, even though, the more we think is known, the more mysterious ‘things’ become.

    Take for instance ASCIDIACEA, tunicates, sea squirts. I take from no less than Charles Darwin(1874)…’Mr. Kovalevsky has lately(in 1866) observed that the larvae of ascidians are related to the Vertebrata, in their manner of development, in the relative position of the nervous system, and in posessing a structure closely like the chorda dorsalis of vertebrate animals; … Thus, if we may rely on embryology, ever the safest guide in classification, it seems that we have at last gained a clew(Darwin’s spelling)to the source whence the Vertebrata were originated.’

    Yes. But I do not feel that our eminent Darwin understood just how fascinating these early stages to our road of development, are.

    Most truly, in the larval form, they are motile tadpole larva, consisting of TRUNK(‘tadpole’s head’) and tail, which has a NOTOCHORD and a DORSAL NERVOUS CHORD(typical chordate features).
    The larval form is briefly free swimming(lasting from 6 to 36 hours)and during this period, the larva is constantly evolving and passes many of it’s stages of development. This larva is equipped with a brainlike ganglion containing approximately 300 cells. This primitive nervous system receives sensory information about the surrounding environment through a statocyst(organ of balance), a rudimentary, light sensitive patch of skin, and a notochord(primitive spinal cord). This is the larval stage, on it’s developmental way to becoming an adult and what wonders we can expect.

    Well, maybe not this. Upon finding a suitable substrate, the larva burys it’s head into the selected location and becomes sessile(sedentary)once again. Once reattached to a stationary object the larva ABSORBS – LITERALY DIGESTS MOST OF IT’S OWN BRAIN, NOTOCHORD, TAIL AND TAIL MUSCULATURE…thereupon regressing to the rather primitive(not my choice of words)adult stage. It becomes an attached, filter feeder.

    Does that seem strange, like taking a step backwards. Why have all those ‘possibilities'(to us)in place and then, not used. It does mystify a great many people and has produced a number of theories. Personally, I love the mystery. I do not need to know why…but could proffer a suggestion of ‘something learned as a free swimming entity.’ IT WAS DANGEROUS. Movement attracts attention. Unwanted attention. The drive to survive is strong, no matter what direction that drive may take. Perhaps it was found safer to simply ‘exist and let the world pass through you.’ I like that. So very Zen. Could I recommend two books worth a glance. THE DEEP:The extraordinary Creatures Of The Abyss by CLAIRE NOUVIAN…and OUR FACE FROM FISH TO MAN by William K. Gregory. Both different,both a delight.


  2. 2 Katie January 20, 2011 at 1:55 pm

    Thanks for the recommendations!

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January 2011

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