Caught and Coloured: Zoology Illustrations from Colonial Victoria

Washed Ashore

The southerly gales which sweep across Port Philip Bay come straight off the southern ocean. At a time when little was known about local marine fauna, the flotsam and jetsam thrown ashore by these storms revealed creatures that would otherwise remain hidden in fathoms of water.

McCoy noted that this species, Sarcoptilus grandis or Sea Pen, was often found washed ashore after storms. This particular specimen was illustrated by John James Wild in October 1887.

Sea pens are a small class of marine invertebrates related to corals and sea anemones. The animal lives with its 'base' embedded in sandy substrate, while polyps on their two rows of flesh 'leaves' catch passing food.

Fascinated by this strange creature, McCoy engaged two of Melbourne's most experienced marine biologists to create images to accompany his description.

Arthur Dendy, who was to become Australia's foremost Sponge expert, provided exacting drawings of the small calcareous spicules inside the Sea Pen's body. John James Wild drew the whole animal from front and back.

Wild's double page Sarcoptilus grandis lithograph is arguably the finest illustration produced for McCoy's Prodromus. The images are exquisitely detailed in seven colours, each drawn, registered and printed separately. Wild was clearly proud of these images, collecting each stage in the making of the print. This specimen, still with the label 'drawn by Dr Wild,' is preserved in the museum's collection.

Unfortunately, by this time McCoy was involved by this time in an intractable dispute with the Victorian Government, and with his health deteriorating did not provide complete descriptions of many later lithographs. As a consequence, this and approximately 80 other images were printed but never published.

Sea Pen, Sarcoptilus grandis. This is the original specimen illustrated by Wild in 1889.
Sea Pen, Sarcoptilus grandis, illustration and colour guide by John James Wild, which was printed but remained unpublished.