Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/March 1899/A School for the Study of Life Under the Sea

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(Naples Aquarium.)


TO go deep down under the sea, in the warm waters of the south, where exist not only the varieties of fish with which we are familiar, but thousands of jewel-like forms of animal life never seen by us, has hitherto been impossible to any but the boldest fishermen and divers. But of late years in the small aquarium at Naples the sea has been brought up, so to speak, upon the earth for us to see these strange creatures as they exist in their homes under the water, as they eat their food, as they love and hate, and prey upon each other.

Small as the collection at first seems to be, there is no zoölogical station in the world to compare with it. Probably there never will be again. Because of its advantageous station on the shores of the Mediterranean, where it is claimed the waters which wash Italy and Sicily yield a greater variety of sea life than even tropical waters, and also its comparative accessibility to all countries, the scholars who come here from all over the world find that they are able to study here as they can nowhere else the strange habits of the tiny animals down at the bottom of the sea.

There is no superfluous room taken up in the Naples aquarium for the fish that may be studied in aquariums elsewhere. Only the rarest, the strangest, the most curious creatures are here to be seen.

But one room of the beautiful building devoted to the zoölogical station, which stands on that street of Naples running along the sea, is shown to the public. One walks into it from the level of the street, and the transition from the light outside to strange semi-darkness is as if one were to suddenly find himself walking upon the bottom of the sea.

The light comes only from above, shining through water of many hundreds of cubic feet, on to what seems at first a garden of moving flowers behind tanks of clear glass, which seem, so complete is the illusion, not like glass at all, but water. The visitor walks along dark alleys lined on both sides with these brilliant tanks, and the beautiful sea animals are so close that it seems easy to touch them. It is like being in a narrow, dark theater with the stage all around and about, strangely illuminated, not by footlights, but by a radiance from above.

There are about thirty tanks in all, and at the very first of these glass-walled vats we stopped entranced. Behind it were piles of rocks shining in the water, and from every crevice grew what seemed brilliant flowers, but of colors so soft and waxlike that they were almost more lovely than our flowers of earth.

"Surely these deep red ones that cover the rocks to the left are a species of aster, and these are cacti, and these, yes, these reddish-brown one are chrysanthemums and nothing else."

But even as we spoke we saw the petals of first one, then another, flower wave back and forth, and in and out, with curious curling movements, as none of our flowers do, even in the most various winds, and then from above a long pole was suddenly thrust down into the water, at the end of which was stuck a piece of raw red meat about as large as a walnut.

It was the keeper come to feed his strange charges. Again and again were the bits of meat thrust down into the hearts of the sea flowers, and then we discovered with a kind of shock that these asters and cacti and chrysanthemums were not flowers at all, but flesh-eating animals, and that each waving petal was a mouth, by which the creature sucked in the blood of the meat.

When all the juice had been extracted from the meat, the many mouths attached to each seeming flower, that had been tightly curled upon the raw flesh, now unfolded again into their petal-like positions in a circle, one over the other, and the meat, now but a tiny ball of dry pulp, slowly sank to the bottom of the tank. What the calyx was like, or whether it had any body at all, we could not see, so entirely hidden was it behind these many waving, armlike mouths.

In the next tank several sea horses were swimming merrily in and out of rocks that were covered by a growth of miniature trees. They were smaller than the tiniest hobbyhorse that has ever been seen, as small almost as the toy horses in a "Noah's ark." The resemblance of these small fish, not larger than smelts or minnows, that have come to be known as "sea horses," to real horses is in the head only. The rest of the body tapers off into the ordinary fishlike form. I wondered, as I looked at these small horses of the sea, if it was from them that the old myth of the existence of mermaids arose. "Half fish, half women" were the mermaids, but "half fish, half horses" are these fish.

They were lively little creatures, and swam in and out of the tiny forest as if they were playing a game of "tag." What a beautiful little forest it was to play in! The trees had brown trunks about the size of one's finger, and from the top a graceful, palmlike foliage branched out, but the foliage was not in greens, but deep, translucent reds, or coral pinks, or warm browns.

While I was admiring one of the little coral pink trees, one of the sea horses swam straight into its foliage, when, to my amazement, and evidently to the amazement of the sea horse also, the foliage instantly disappeared down into the tree trunk, leaving only the brown stem standing.

Aghast with surprise at the sudden revelation that this charming foliage, like the petals of the flowers in the last tank, was also a cluster of living suckers, I asked what name they were called by, and heard with disgust the answer "worms." These beautiful, curious creatures only the things we know by the loathsome word "worms!"

These sea worms, or annelids, as the scientific scholars call them, build up for themselves the brown tubes that resemble the rough stems of pines or palms, and from the top they send out their worm-like bodies in clusters, where they wave back and forth in the water, to sweep in any food that may be near, always holding themselves in readiness to withdraw into their holes at danger.

Whether the brilliant foliage of each tree was but the many tentacles of a single animal emerging from the tube, or whether it was a whole family of worms come up to the top of their home to gaze from the chimney, so to speak, we could not discover. But, strange to say, the grotesque little sea horse seemed to be trying to decide that question for himself, for, after swimming away a moment in fright at this sudden disappearance, he returned and appeared to be peeping down into the tube.

The next tank revealed even greater surprise than we had yet seen. Here in the water long white gauze ribbons were waving, as if hung from above, and so transparent that we could see quite through them, almost as if they were composed of the white of an egg. It was only by looking closely that up near the top we could see a tiny black dot, like a pinhead, in each fleecy scarf. This was the head of the animal, or its eye, or mouth, or whatever such a delicate dot might be called.

These are of the jellyfish family, and have only lately been added to the aquarium. Owing to the difficulty of procuring such pulplike masses, they are extremely rare specimens, and can be seen nowhere else. Surely nothing more frail, more delicately lovely exists on land or sea, in plant or animal life, than these gauzy living sashes of the sea.

But not all the denizens of the tanks are beautiful to look upon. There is a tank near the door of entrance filled with objects so hideous that one starts away from them with horror. These are the octopi, or devilfish. Imagine the ugliest, biggest black spider that you ever saw, and enlarge it to the size of the largest turtle you ever saw, and on the end of each of the spider's legs fasten a wicked-looking mouth, and you can form some idea of how frightful an octopus can be.

Several of these monsters were writhing near the glass wall, stretching out their long, boneless arms, and sometimes fastening their suckers upon the glass in the search for food, thus unconsciously showing off the ugliness of their mouths. It was now time for the keeper to come to them in his round of feeding. He put into the tank from above a number of crabs, when suddenly the whole tank seemed filled with octopi. They had been sleeping among the dark rocks, of which they were so much the color that we had not before observed them. The poor little crabs had probably been stunned, or perhaps killed, by the keeper, for they made no resistance when the octopi fastened upon them their long suckers in a death-grasp. The octopi fought with each other over the possession of the crabs, and for some moments there was a terrible waving to and fro of black suckers fully two yards in length.

Beside this tank was another of clear water in which were some peaceful cuttlefish. The keeper, for a few coins, stirred these out of their quiet by moving his long stick after them. They swam about in fright for a moment or two, and then we saw them no more, for the clear water had suddenly become a thick black fluid. The cuttlefish had discharged their bags of ink to escape the pursuing enemy.

The upper floors of the zoölogical station are seldom shown to visitors, but these are almost more interesting than the tank room below. Here the great scholars who make a life study of these strange inhabitants of the deep have their tables; here the dredgings of the sea are brought by fishermen and divers for them to assort; here sea animals are developed by them from the egg, and even from invisible germs.

Each investigator into the strange lower world is furnished with his own aquaria, suited to the special branch he may be studying, for nearly all are interested in a special branch of zoology. One man has come a long distance to pursue the study of sponges, and he is furnished with a perfect garden of them, for they are brought up from this part of the Mediterranean in infinite variety.

Another student is studying the habits of mollusks, and basins and jars of these and their eggs are near him. There are divers' costumes hanging on the walls in which the savants may themselves descend to the bottom of the sea and study the inhabitants in their native houses.

There are laboratories and libraries here, adapted to the most exhaustive study, and a fleet of small boats is also kept exclusively for the use of the zoological station.

Fishermen constantly bring in baskets filled with what seems to be only wet rubbish, heaps of stones, and worthless bits of pulp. This is examined and assorted by trained eyes, and placed in tanks of water where siphons are constantly pouring fresh sea water, after which the rubbish is quietly left until accustomed to its new quarters. Then cautiously this rubbish begins to move, the stones stir, and the pulp opens into the beautiful colors, the plants, the gauzy scarfs, and the numerous other strange things afterward shown to the public in the aquarium below.

Along the walls of these upper rooms are jars wherein are preserved many curious denizens of the sea that have been killed by powerful chemicals, which have surprised the delicate animals before their sensitive tentacles have had time to close, thus preserving to science many rare creatures impossible to keep long in captivity.

The great cost of this establishment is maintained in several ways—by the issuing of publications and scientific papers in several languages, by the rents from the desks or tables used by the investigators, and by the unusually large price of admission demanded from the public at the aquarium entrance. In addition to this are the fees from the students who come from afar to study here. A payment of four hundred dollars each gives students the right to study in the Naples zoölogical station for ten months of the year.