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The little monsters of the deep

Photographs of larval fish are on display at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. It’s an opportunity to see up close these curious creatures with extraterrestrial forms.

Alosa alosa © Nalani Schnell-Aurahs

They have enormous, bulging eyes, immense fins, and spines all over their bodies… The fish larvae photographed by Nalani Schnell, a researcher at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, dazzle the viewer with their shapes and colors. They don’t look anything like their adult forms. “What fascinates me about larval fish,” notes the researcher, “is their extraordinary transformation. There is no resemblance between the larval stage and the full-grown fish.” This metamorphosis may take a few hours or a few days in the case of coral reef fish, but sometimes much longer. For example, sardines and codfish need 50 days to reach adulthood, while some varieties of eel remain in the larval stage for as long as two years!

15,000 larvae

To capture these baby fish on film, Nalani Schnell has developed a singular method: she employs a “binocular microscope,” as she calls it, and takes advantage of the instrument’s depth of field and high precision to focus on these little creatures barely 20 millimeters in size. She has culled 165 different larvae for the exhibition. However, she has been working on this photographic project since 2014, and there are 15,000 types of larva left to document—a staggering figure representing a collection launched by the Muséum in 1966, and which focuses mainly on species native to the Pacific and the Antarctic Oceans. Nalani Schnell uses a black backdrop to photograph larvae preserved in formalin, and a white backdrop for chemically treated specimens. The skeleton of the latter is stained red, while their cartilage is blue. All the photographs represent dead specimens preserved in alcohol or formalin. Photographing living larvae would be, of course, much more difficult, if not impossible. “Some divers have tried it…,” notes Nalani Schnell who has given a talk on the subject.

Myripristinae sp. © Nalani Schnell-Aurahs

Masturus lanceolatus © Ralf Aurahs

By Jean-Baptiste Gauvin

Les petits des poisson

April 1, 2019 to January 5, 2020

Jardin des Plantes, 57 rue Cuvier, 75005 Paris

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