Species Discovery at the First Transatlantic Cable

How repair work at the first transatlantic cable resulted in the description of new marine species

By Museum für Naturkunde Berlin

Written by Carsten Lüter, Museum für Naturkunde Berlin

CS Faraday (1874) by Davis Bros., Portsmouth, New HampshireOriginal Source: Atlantic Cable - History of the Faraday

Perhaps Carl Siemens would have liked to telegraph such a message directly from the CS Faraday in the spring of 1875, but this was anything but an exploration trip. The cable ship was out on the Atlantic to lay a communications cable and suddenly it broke. Finding the two ends was difficult, so there were more important things to do.

LIFE Photo Collection

In addition, Carl had no idea what kind of slimy creatures he had pulled along with the cable ends from the bottom of the sea at a depth of almost 3,400 meters. Nevertheless, he made sure that the “slimy ball” was preserved in alcohol. 

Siemens Ernest Werner Von 1816-1892 Industrial Engineer (Brother Of William)LIFE Photo Collection

The catch finally got to the Königliches Zoologisches Museum in Berlin via Carl's older brother Werner Siemens, co-founder of the Berlin telegraph construction company Siemens & Halske.

Theophil StuderOriginal Source: Wikimedia Commons

It wasn't until three years later that these deep-sea catches were given a name. Namely by Theophil Studer. The cnidarian specialist from Bern, Switzerland, had returned home in 1876 from a circumnavigation with the corvette Gazelle. During the trip he had collected, among other things, deep-sea Siphonophorae, which he wanted to describe as a new species. 

Bathyphysa Abyssorum by Carola Radke, Museum für Naturkunde BerlinMuseum für Naturkunde Berlin

Siemens’s material from the Atlantic, which the Director of the Zoological Museum had given him to determine, should serve as a comparison. The label, which may already have been written on board the CS Faraday and is still stuck to the collection glass today, only identified the contents as Animal matter, Polypos. Studer immediately recognized that this “animal material” was also Siphonophorae.

Ueber Siphonophoren des tiefen Wassers by Theophil StuderMuseum für Naturkunde Berlin

In his treatise “On Siphonophores of Deep Water” from 1878, Theophil Studer described the animals that had been rescued from the depths of the Atlantic thanks to the accident during the laying of the first permanently functioning transatlantic cable by the Siemens brothers. He recognized a new genus and species in them. Their name: Bathyphysa abyssorum

Bathyphysa Abyssorum by Carola Radke, Museum für Naturkunde BerlinMuseum für Naturkunde Berlin

The body of this animal, which is up to one meter long, is a colony of polyps, which are responsible for the buoyancy, the acquisition of food, the reproduction and the defense of the entire organism, and which are accordingly specialized.

Alcohol preparation of Bathyphysa abyssorum, collected by Carl Wilhelm Siemens in the North Atlantic in 1875 by Carola RadkeMuseum für Naturkunde Berlin

Enthusiastic about the presumed diversity of organisms in the deep sea, Studer closes his description with the recommendation that ships engaged in depth research should in future collect all objects adhering to the cable when hauling in, preserve them in alcohol, and hand over to competent for examination.

View into the Wet Collection (2) by Carola Radke (MfN)Museum für Naturkunde Berlin

About the author & museum

Carsten Lüter is curator of the Marine Invertebrate Collection at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin. The research collection unites twelve large groups of the animal kingdom, comprising 47,000 catalogued collection specimens.

Approximately 70 percent of all specimens have been preserved in ethanol, while there are also comprehensive dry and microscope slide collections. Large parts of the Marine Invertebrate Collection originate from marine biology expeditions of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Marine Invertebrate Collection by Carola Radke, Museum für Naturkunde BerlinMuseum für Naturkunde Berlin

The collection is used by numerous in-house and external scientists for their research. First descriptions of species (type specimens) are in particular demand for comparative studies. Recently, the historical specimens preserved in ethanol have also been used for molecular biological studies. This gives an entirely new significance to the collection, as it can be used as a unique resource for sequence-based biodiversity studies.

View into the Wet Collection by Carola Radke (MfN)Museum für Naturkunde Berlin

With over 30 million objects, the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin houses the largest natural history collection in Germany. It is the museum's core infrastructure, comprising objects from the time of the origin of the solar system more than 4.5 billion years ago until today and contains a large number of type specimens.

The Biodiversity Wall (new gigapixel panorama) (2007-08)Museum für Naturkunde Berlin

The collection is constantly being developed and available for a wide range of research, from the natural sciences to the arts, humanities and citizen science.

The Nature of Things by Hwa Ja Götz, Museum für Naturkunde BerlinMuseum für Naturkunde Berlin

This story was first published in "The Nature of Things", the museum's bestseller book connecting nature and culture and looking from different perspectives on objects which are researched in the collection of the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin.

Credits: Story


Studer, Teophil: Ueber Siphonophoren des tiefen Wassers, in: Zeitschrift für wissenschaftliche Zoologie 31 (1878), p. 1–24

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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