Oil & alkyd on canvas over panel, 4’ x 6’
NUDIBRANCHIA is a celebration of the wild variety of physical and behavioral traits that have evolved in this order of animals. Nudibranchs are mollusks without shells: “nudi” = naked and “-branch” = gill. The 206 species here are just a small portion of those known: estimates of the total number of species run from 3000 to 6000. Given how vast the oceans are, how short a time we humans have been able to physically explore underwater, and how small a percentage of the 7/10’s of Earth’s total area has been visited, who knows? The oceans are the last great frontier on the planet. Nudibranchs inhabit every part of every ocean: from shallow reefs and mudflats to the depth of a thermal vent, from the Arctic to the equator. These creatures are short lived. M any have only a few days to a few months to reproduce once they reach sexual maturity. In order to maximize their chances of finding each other, all are hermaphrodites. They can also mate across generations, in what is called protandry (making a baby with your grandfather or great niece): any sexually mature nudibranch can mate with any other mature one of its species, regardless of size. Penile and vaginal structural variation in nudibranchs is truly stupefying and wondrous. A wide array of mimicries and camouflages has also evolved among nudibranchs. Some slugs’ cerata look so much like their prey species that the slugs are virtually invisible if nestled amongst the prey. Many can swim. Each nudibranch is represented as large as a member of its species can get.
For two decades my work has been recording, in an old fashioned, very analog way, images of plants and animals that may not last out this century. These are animals, birds, bugs, flowers, and trees that are around us, whose absence we can observe. (When did YOU last see lightening bugs? Lawn chemicals and insecticides are virtually wiping them out.) However, we cannot see into the sea to witness our impact. Development of technologies for underwater exploration and assessment has risen dramatically in the past few decades, allowing us to begin to understand how we are affecting what was once thought boundless and inexhaustible. Do you remember first seeing a photo of Earth from space? Did it give you of the feeling that we are on a very tiny blue and green marble that is fragile? Dead zones in the ocean are visible from space, as is the north Pacific gyre. The degree of our impact has become glaringly apparent.
Once more, I cannot resist trying to make a permanent record of some pinnacles of evolution and speciation in the guise of critters so fragile they may not survive this age of the “human plague”: the Anthropocene. We have been blindly tossing wrenches into the planetary breathing and recycling systems for several millennia now. You can’t do that to a complex system without causing un-intended consequences. That is why it is imperative for more humans to devote more energy to understanding the workings of the natural world.
Through the lens of nearly 1,000 species I have painted, I want people to recognize that what they do everyday has an enormous impact. If a single young person is inspired to go into the natural sciences because of falling in love with nudibranchs, this painting will have done its job. If this work I do can inspire a few more of the right people to care about some particular small creature, it could change the world. That’s what you try to do as an artist, right?
To all of you who shot and shared photos of nudibranchs on the web: thank you for helping me see them clearly through your collective lens(es).
Perpetual thanks to:
- John McCosker
- Terry Gosliner
- The California Academy of Sciences
- Ryan Phelan and Stewart Brand
- The Long Now Foundation
- Peter and Mimi Buckley
- Christopher Tellis
All of the underwater photographers who have nudibranch shots on the internet