Kunstformen der Nature – Art forms of Nature

Windy ride

By  Nicole Webster

Ernst Haeckel is famous in biology for many reasons. A German biologist and contemporary of Darwin, he coined many biological terms like ecology, and phylogeny (albeit in German). He is also famous for the phrase and concept of ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’, with the illustrations of various vertebrate embryo stages to support his theory.

Ernst Haeckel: Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte, Georg Reimer, Berlin 1868.

Page from Haeckel’s Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte (The history of creation), contrasting embyos of a human  (Mensch) with a dog (Hund), chicken (Huhn), and a turtle (Schildkröte)  – Wikimedia Commons

This last is very controversial, with both contemporary and modern accusations of fraud being thrown at him. I will not get into the details, but papers by Richardson and Richards and coauthors will give you a good idea if you want to know more (see below).

I want to talk about the third main reason that Haeckel is a biology household name (and a German one). He made gorgeous figures of the animals he studied. You can find scanned plates online (his copyrights have expired), or buy a poster. Recently I was directed to a site where you can get the .pdf itself (Thanks Dave!). The most famous is his Kunstformen der Nature – Art forms of Nature, with 100 colour plates of mostly marine organisms. It is fascinating to see, mostly accurate biological drawings with bright colours and flowing shapes.
Kurt Stüber, at the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research has scanned over 100 000 pages of old and rare biology books, many with OCR (text recognition) or manually typed out transcripts! Included are also the gorgeous plates. All is sorted by year, author, or organism, and the main pages are available in English and German. Check it out here!

There are a number of Haeckel works present:

  1. Kunstformen der Nature (Art forms of Nature) with 100 plates, in the approximate phylogenetic order of the time. There is a  list of species that are illustrated with page numbers.

    Hermaea bifida; Aeolis coronata; Dendronotus arborescens; Idalia elegans; Doto coronata; Tritonia hombergii; Ancula cristata

    The ever beloved Nudibranchia

  2. Die Radiolarien (The Radiolarians) – Part of the breathtaking world of unicellular skeletons.

    Mindboggling Radiolaria

  3. Die Natur als Künstlerin (Nature as artist) with several colour or black and white plates of radiolarians and cnidarians.

    Flamboyant diversity

  4. Kristallseelen (Crystal souls) – some neat crystal figures, looks like only the one page in in colour.

    OK abiotic is pretty too.

  5. Natürliche Schöpfungsgechichte (Natural History of Creation)- This deals with his ideas on evolution and ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’, and contains some figures (depending on the edition) that are controversial in that it is unclear to what degree they have been modified. It also contains some classification systems for various organisms. This is a link to the figures and tables, click the index for the full document.

    Systemmatic overview of the animal kingdom – Can you figure out the names?

  6. Anthropogenie 

    Oder Entwicklungsgeschichte des Mensche

    (Anthropogeny OR Development history of the people) – An Embryology textbook, also with controversial and famous figures.

    The famous plates (tafel) 5 and 6, not yet copied in the incomplete version available -From Wikimedia commons

This is only the tip of the iceberg, there are plenty of other amazing texts scanned by Kurt Stüber. Google translate is an amazing resource, so don’t be afraid to poke around and see some really amazing things even if they are in German.


Richards, R.J. (2009) “Haeckel’s embryos: fraud not proven“,Biology and Philosophy 24(1):147–154

Richardson, M.K., Hanke, J., Selwood, L., Wright, G.M., Richards, R.J., Pieau, C., Raynaud, A. (1998) “Haeckel, Embryos and Evolution“, Science280(5366): 983, 985-6

Richardson, M.K., Keuck, G. (2002) “Haeckel’s ABC of evolution and development“, Biological Reviews, 77: 495-528

Stueber, Kurt. Kurt Stueber’s online library. http://www.biolib.de/ Accessed April 25, 2013.

Wikipedia, Ernst Haeckel http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernst_Haeckel Accessed April 25, 2013.

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