Cleared and Stained

I try to fuse my interest in the aquarium hobby with science and art.

I consider myself a person who is always trying to think “beyond the aquarium.” I travel far to swim with rare fish, meet ichthyologists, collect rare voucher specimens and field data for science, but most of all I try to fuse my interest in the aquarium hobby with science and art. I have always also been a very curious and creative person, and as a youngster I channeled all my creativity towards creating small living worlds inside an aquarium. My curiosity lead me to read books about fish and art but I never thought or did not know how to blend all my interests together. I remember exactly when it suddenly dawned on me that there was a whole world out there that nobody talked about. Typical aquarium books and pet shops were only the tip of the iceberg of the aquarium hobby. Anyways, that is a long story for another day. What I do want to show you is how incredible one of those “beyond the aquarium” places can be.

Once upon a time

Once upon a time, many, many years ago I was in the Fish Collection ichthyologic lab of the Central University in Caracas, Venezuela. I was new to all the “science” behind tropical fish. I felt like I was in Geniusville, what NASA would look like if it worked with fish instead of rockets. The smell of formaldehyde, ethanol, and alcohol used to preserve specimens filled the air making a peculiar impression that still lasts till today. Every time I smell that particular scent it sends me back to a fish lab. The curator had let me in the lab and told me to wait until he finished something he was working on and could not wait. I stood in the middle of the room, my head resembled an oscillating fan, scanning everything from side to side, looking at all the bones, jars filled with thousands of preserved fish, microscopes, and dissecting equipment. I probably had my eyes and mouth wide open, too.

On my right, I saw many shelves filled with hundreds of small plastic drawers. With my super curious nature, I could not resist being in the room without knowing what was in them. As I opened one of the small drawers, my eyes opened even wider and my jaw dropped. My expression at the moment could be easily compared to the one we all have seen on TV, when the pirate opens the treasure box filled with gold and diamonds. This was my first encounter with cleared and stained fish. The fish looked like red and blue gummy candy! How could this be? How did they do this? Every small drawer I opened had a different fish species. There were hundreds of drawers! Each drawer had a little tag on the outside with a number, scientific name, number of specimens in the drawer, approximate dimensions of the specimens, and the place where the fish were collected. Most of the scientific names on the tags were new to me. I scanned the tags until I recognized one, Serrasalmus irritans. I opened the small drawer and there were many specimens of this beautiful piranha.