Before there was computed tomography, before there was CLARITY, biologists used clearing and staining to study the three-dimensional anatomy of bones, cartilage, and nerves. The technique is actually straightforward, if time-consuming: soak a whole animal (dead, of course) in materials that make its skin and muscles transparent, while applying stains that meld to specific kinds of tissue.
The results are gorgeous.
A skeleton in shades of red and blue is revealed through the ghostly outline of the animal. Intricate details that normal dissection can destroy are visible: tiny bones around the eye, miniscule gill supports, the connections in living levers.
These preparations are usually stored in laboratories and the back rooms of museums – they are, after all, made for research - but two museums have brought them (or more precisely, their images) out to the public as art installations.
At the American Museum of Natural History, large-format photographs of cleared and stained fish are part of the Picturing Science exhibition, along with examples of infrared and fluorescence photography, at the museum’s Akeley Gallery until May 31, 2014. And until spring of 2014, the Seattle Aquarium is displaying enormous photographic prints of cleared and stained fish that Adam Summers used for his own research on the biomechanics of fish feeding, locomotion, and ventilation. (Adam's also made these images available on greeting cards and a 2014 calendar.)
If you find yourself on either coast before the end of winter, you should check one of these exhibits out. You'll be amazed.