X-Ray Vision – Fish Inside Out

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Striking X-rays of Fish Dazzle in Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition

2016 special exhibit at the MLMM

Fish are vertebrates—animals with backbones—and have bodies supported by a bony skeleton. Variations in the skeleton, such as the number of vertebrae or the position of fins, are documented with X-rays. The Smithsonian’s National Collection of these Fish X-rays represent more than 70 percent of the world’s fish specimen and is the largest and most diverse collection of its kind in the world. Although the X-rays featured in the national collection were made for research purposes, the strikingly elegant images demonstrate the natural union of science and art and are a visual retelling of the evolution of fish. “X-ray Vision: Fish Inside Out,” an exhibition from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), showcases these dramatic prints exposing the inner workings of the fish.

The exhibition features 40 black-and-white digital prints of several different specimens of fish. Arranged in evolutionary sequence, these X-rays give a tour through the long stream of fish evolution. The X-rays have allowed Smithsonian and other scientists to study the skeleton of a fish without altering the sampling making it easier for scientists to build a comprehensive picture of fish diversity.

Curators of the exhibition, Lynne Parenti and Sandra Raredon, worked in the Division of Fishes at the National Museum of Natural History collecting thousands of X-rays of fish specimens to help ichthyologists understand and document the diversity of fishes. Rare or unique specimens make particularly interesting and informative images. X-rays may also reveal other details of natural history: undigested food or prey in the gut might reveal to an ichthyologist what a fish had for its last meal.