Kunstformen der Natur

Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms of Nature) is a book of lithographic and autotype prints by German biologist Ernst Haeckel. Originally published in sets of ten between 1899 and 1904 and collectively in two volumes in 1904, it consists of 100 prints of various organisms, many of which were first described by Haeckel himself. Over the course of his career, over 1000 engravings were produced based on Haeckel’s sketches and watercolors; many of the best of these were chosen for Kunstformen der Natur, translated from sketch to print by lithographer Adolf Giltsch.

According to Haeckel scholar Olaf Breidbach (the editor of modern editions of Kunstformen), the work was “not just a book of illustrations but also the summation of his view of the world.” The over-riding themes of the Kunstformen plates are symmetry and organization. The subjects were selected to embody organization, from the scale patterns of boxfishes to the spirals of ammonites to the perfect symmetries of jellies and microorganisms, while images composing each plate are arranged for maximum visual impact.

1. Jellyfish: Jellyfish or jellies are the major non-polyp form of individuals of the phylum Cnidaria. They are typified as free-swimming marine animals consisting of a gelatinous umbrella-shaped bell and trailing tentacles. The bell can pulsate for locomotion, while stinging tentacles can be used to capture prey.

2AnnelidThe annelids formally called Annelida are a large phylum of segmented worms, with over 2,000 modern species including ragworms, earthworms and leeches. They are found in marine environments from tidal zones to hydrothermal vents, in freshwater, and in moist terrestrial environments.

3. Cephalopod:  A cephalopod is any member of the molluscan class Cephalopoda. These exclusively marine animals are characterized by bilateral body symmetry, a prominent head, and a set of arms or tentacles modified from the primitive molluscan foot.

4. CopepodCopepods are a group of small crustaceans found in the sea and nearly every freshwater habitat. Some species are planktonic (drifting in sea waters), some are benthic (living on the ocean floor), and some continental species may live in limno-terrestrial habitats and other wet terrestrial places, such as swamps, under leaf fall in wet forests, bogs, springs, ephemeral ponds and puddles, damp moss, or water-filled recesses (phytotelmata) of plants such as bromeliads and pitcher plants. Many live underground in marine and freshwater caves, sinkholes, or stream beds. Copepods are sometimes used as bioindicators.

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The Chelonians

From bottom to top:
1. Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina)
2. Geometric Tortoise (Psammobates geometricus)
3. Galapagos Tortoise (Dipsochelys dussumieri)
4. Argentine Snake-Necked Turtle (Hydromedusa tectifera)
5. Mata Mata (Chelus fimbriata)
6. Leatherback Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea)
7. Hawksbill Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata)

The Testidunes (or Chelonii, often called Chelonians) are the reptiles belonging to the order Testudines, and include all of the turtles and tortoises. This order is characterized by their protective bony carapaces, which developed from their ribs millions of years ago. Ribs still line the inside of the shell.

As they’re reptiles, they’re ectothermic, and their body temperature adjusts to the surroundings. They’re all amniotes, as well - that is, they lay eggs outside of the water.

The carapace of most chelonians is covered by bony, overlapping plates, called scutes. However, some species, such as the leatherback sea turtle, have a thick, oily skin covering their carapace instead. Chelonians also have a protective chest plate, called a plastron.


The difference between “turtle”, “tortoise”, and “terrapin” is defined differently depending upon your field and what part of the world you live in. In general, turtles live in either freshwater or the ocean. Tortoises live on dry land and cannot swim. Terrapin is a more specific term for some turtles, referring to the small, edible, hard-shelled turtles.

While all chelonians can be long-lived (as their organs do not suffer age-related decay), large torotoises are the best-known for living over a hundred years. Jonathan, a Seychelles Giant Tortoise, is 183 years old next week, and is the oldest living vertebrate!

Kuntsformen der Natur. Ernst Haeckel, 1904.


Ernst Haeckel - Kunstformen der Natur - 1899 - via Internet Archive (first image)

Ernst Haeckel - Monographie der Medusen - 1879 - via Internet Archive (second and third images)

Ernst VanHöffen - Die acraspeden Medusen der deutschen Tiefsee-Expedition -   1902 - via Internet Archive (fourth and fifth images)

Alfred Goldsborough Mayor - Medusae of the world Volume 2 - 1910 - via Internet Archive (sixth image)

Alfred Goldsborough Mayor - Medusae of the world Volume 3 - 1910 - via Internet Archive (seventh image)


World Oceans Day gives us the opportunity to share some plates from Kunstformen der Natur by Ernst Haeckel (1899-1904). While the work is inclusive of non-marine species, Haeckel’s focus on marine biodiversity is apparent as the majority of the 100 lithographic prints covered sea creatures like jellyfish, anemones, radiolarians and more.

A divisive figure, Haeckel continues to awe for his illustrations and draw ire for his theories and philosophies on human evolution (and his prioritization of aesthetic choices over scientific realism in his illustrations…) But his impulse to make science accessible to the public, his bridging the gap between art and science, and his lasting impact on biology make him a considerable figure in the history of science.

Learn more about the German naturalist from Biodiversity Heritage Library, the Public Domain Review, Scientific American, or biographies like The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought by Robert J. Richards (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008) or Visions of Nature: the Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel by Olaf Breidbach (Munich, London: Prestel, 2006).

See more Haeckel-related material from the Smithsonian Libraries in the Smithsonian Collections Search, many of which are digitized.