Rhombic. Oval. Heart. Circular. Lozenge. Distinctive lilac bands. Vivid blue spots. Striking dark brown saddles and rings. Ornate yellow and gold rings. Pale blue marbling. You’d be forgiven if you thought I was describing the work of a Renaissance master obsessed with geometry, or that of an impressionist dancing with the changing light on each visible brush stroke. Well, to be fair, you’re not entirely wrong. I do speak of masterpieces. Works of art on live canvases that glide gracefully through water as a carpet would through the air on an Arabian night. I speak of the Batoidea - the rays of the world that evolved from shark-like ancestors some 200 million years ago and have swam our oceans and rivers ever since.
Rays of the World (RoW) is the world’s first ‘complete pictorial atlas of the world’s ray fauna’ – a major milestone in documenting ray diversity and an important step towards raising awareness of such a little-known, yet frequently encountered group of animals. As part of the broader and global collaborative project, The Chondrichthyan Tree of Life, the book serves as a comprehensive and reliable tool to aid the identification of ray species. Unfortunately, frequent misidentification and relatively little research attention towards rays has resulted in much of the published data being incomplete or inaccurate – quite alarming when between approximately 20% to 36% of ray species are threatened with extinction (with the exception of amphibians, this is the highest rate of any vertebrate group!).
Until recently, I’d been excitedly waiting months on end for RoW to be published. My affection and respect for an often ‘ignored’ species have grown immensely since my postgraduate days of caring for and studying pregnancy in southern fiddler rays (Trygonorrhina dumerilii). Dr. Lindsay Gutteridge (née Marshall), who illustrated RoW, formed a significant foundation of my studies as her paper was the only one that documented the reproductive cycle of the southern fiddler ray. Without her paper, I would’ve stumbled endlessly through the dark and my project may not have even gotten off the ground. Suffice it to say, finally getting my hands on RoW and a chance to interview Lindsay was like Christmas and my birthday all rolled into one!
Lindsay has no official artistic training and claims her talent is simply a result of passionate interest and ‘…just working at it… the more that you do it, the more you perfect your craft.’ Her artistic talents and exceptional aptitude for spatial recognition served her well during her postgraduate studies where she developed systems to identify shark species from their fin morphology. It was through her PhD supervisor Peter Last, her Honours supervisor Will White, and Gavin Naylor (all three are also editors of RoW) that her talents, both scientific and artistic, would merge to deliver the definitive illustrated guide, RoW.
Projects are often constrained by time and budget and some might ask, ‘Why not just use really good photos? Wouldn’t this be quicker, easier and just as effective?’ Yes and no. Photos can help you identify fish, and unlike paintings, they don’t take tens of hours to craft. However, for the purpose of distinguishing species, especially those that are closely related (e.g. the Pristidae family – the sawfish; or the leopard whipray (Himantura leoparda) versus the coach whipray (Himantura uarnak)), photos aren’t as effective as you’d think. Lindsay explains that ‘…as an illustrator you can really take out that ambiguity that you have in photos…’, which can arise from bad lighting or angles skewing proportions. Interestingly, Lindsay explains that ‘…there are also species that don’t have any photos… [only] line drawings and descriptions from hundreds of years ago.’ In such cases, using artistic license but within the realms of scientific evidence and accuracy, Lindsay was able to interpret the colours, shapes and shading through her knowledge of similar ray species within their respective groups.
Painting over 600 individual ray species is no small feat by anyone’s standards and requires near-superhuman stamina and motivation. When asking Lindsay about how long each image took to paint, it was a question that was ‘…really hard to answer because it depends what species it is, how complicated it is…’ She continues by explaining that ‘…if I’ve been working on a similar group and I have a good idea of the animal in my head I can be more efficient that way, whereas if it’s a completely random species it’ll take a bit longer and I’ll have to start each one afresh.’ Ever the scientist, Lindsay developed a strategic methodology for painting with maximum efficiency without compromising quality. Where possible, species were grouped by similar features and in some cases, painting occurred layer by layer across multiple images. Of all the ray species painted, the giant stingaree (Plesiobatis daviesi) was Lindsay’s favourite; it ‘…came out exactly how I envisioned it, and I was like, yeah, I think I nailed that one.’
I’ve always enjoyed the creative arts since I was a child. Seeing Lindsay’s artwork, reading her research papers and listening to her approach and views on conservation have only emboldened my long-standing belief that science and the creative arts are very much complementary – they’re not all that different. Like artists, truly great scientists challenge ideas. With stunning creativity and by thinking outside the box, scientists are often able to answer some of the fascinating questions we have about our world.
Art can also complement science, helping to communicate concepts and issues in a manner that is engaging and appealing to a much broader audience. If we take the conservation of rays (or any species for that matter) as an example, the science of taxonomy provides us with evidence as to what species we have, what species we’re losing and where to direct conservation efforts. The artwork accompanies the taxonomy and serves a functional purpose, providing detailed and accurate images from which to identify species in the field. For me, I think that art’s biggest strength is that it speaks to everyone in their language. No matter where you’re from or what level of education you might possess, Lindsay’s art is able to bring each of the world’s ray species to life, showcasing their sublime beauty and shining rays of light on otherwise unknown or obscure animals.
Rays are sadly in serious trouble. At the very least, this book invites the reader or casual browser to truly appreciate the diversity of such magnificent creatures. RoW is both a field guide and a piece of art. To me, rays are a perfect manifestation of form, shape, grace and beauty. However, unlike most masterpieces, I’d much rather see rays alive and well long into the future than relegated to a museum of wonders passed.
For more information about Lindsay and her artwork, visit www.stickfigurefish.com.au
This book belongs on your bookshelf... if you love natural history art, snorkelling, diving, and animal diversity.
Head to the CSIRO Publishing website to purchase your copy.
Following a childhood love for sharks, Leo recently completed his PhD at Monash University investigating the effects of fishing on shark and ray populations. He is Director of Community Operations for Wild Melbourne.
You can find him on Twitter at @ElasmoBro.
Banner image courtesy of NOAA's National Ocean Service (Stingray at Sunrise) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.