Caught and Coloured: Zoology Illustrations from Colonial Victoria

The Professor, the Artist and the Argonaut

One of the strangest animals retained in the laboratory was an Argonauta nodosa or Paper Nautilus.

Argonauts are a type of octopus and, like their cephalopod relatives, the cuttlefish and squid, are actually molluscs. Unlike shellfish, however, they are highly intelligent animals with otherworldly forms.

This specimen was stranded near McCoy's home at Brighton, and it is likely that he transported it himself, by train then tram, to the laboratory in Carlton. The animal's intelligence appears to have intrigued him, with the poor creature harassed to the point where it abandoned its shell in an attempt to escape persecution.

It would have been a surreal laboratory scene as the animal observed artist Arthur Bartholomew 'with its large perfect eyes just peeping over the edge of the shell' whilst he drew its likeness. Subsequent sketches were made of the same specimen dead, before being interred in a spirit jar and added to the collection.

The individual figured was given to me by a young friend (who requested that his name not be mentioned), and was kept alive in a large tub of sea-water for a considerable time. Nothing could be more ludicrously interesting than the vigilant look-out which the creature maintained, watching suspiciously, with its large perfect eyes just peeping over the edge of the shell in which it nestled, as represented in our plate, with the arms often curled inside along with the body when at rest; at other times they hung outside or streamed in a close group in front, when the animal and shell darted backwards by shooting water out of the funnel in front of the head. Occasionally it crawled about on the bottom, head downwards, with the shell covering over its upper part. When greatly frightened it abandoned its shell and darted away with great velocity, but got back into it again when left alone. The colors varied in a few seconds from the palest pink to rich madder purple, according apparently to the will or temper of the creature.

Historical Voices:
Paper Nautilus
Paper Nautilius, Argonauta nodosa, by Arthur Bartholomew.
Paper Nautilius, Argonauta nodosa, by Arthur Bartholomew.