The Aquarium. D. W. Mitchell. 1855.
(Extract from A Popular Guide to the Gardens of the Zoological Society of London)
If we now retrace our steps along the border of the plantation, which forms a deep green background for countless dahlias, and moreover screens the garden from the biting east, we shall by turning to the right hand, come upon the Aquarium, the latest and most attractive sight in the gardens. How cool and delicious! Around us we perceive slices of the deep sea-bed and the rapid river. Were we mermen we could not examine more at ease the rich pavement of the ocean set with strange and living flowers. In the midst of the green walls of water which surround us, mimic caves, waving with sea-weed and other marine plants, afford shelter and lurking-holes for bright fish which stare and dart, or for shambling crustacean which creep over the pebbly bottom. Against the dark verdure of these submerged rocks, the sea-anemone rears its orange base tipped with flower-like fans, or hangs its snake-like tentacles, writhing as the head-dress of Medusa. But we must look narrowly into each nook and under every stone, if we wish to realise the amount of animal life which here puts on such strange vegetable forms. Let us consider well for a few minutes one of the tanks running down the middle of the building. For months all the minute animal and vegetable life has been multiplying and decaying, and yet the water remains pure and bright. The explanation of this phenomenon affords one of the most beautiful examples of the manner in which nature on a grand scale holds the balance true between her powers. If we were to put these little bright-eyed fish alive into the crystal tank, in a week's time they would die, because they would have withdrawn all the oxygen it originally contained, and contaminated it with the poisonous carbonic acid gas exhaled from their lungs. To prevent this, the philosopher hangs these mimic caves with verdant seaweed, and plants the bottom with graceful marine grasses. If the spectator looks narrowly at the latter, be finds them fringed with bright silver bells: these bells contain oxygen, which the plants have eliminated from their tissues under the action of light, having previously consumed the carbonic acid gas thrown out by the fishes and zoophytes. Thus plants and animals are indispensable to the preservation of each other's life. But even now we have not told the entire causes which produce the crystal clearness of the water. The vegetable element grows too fast, and, if left to itself, the sides of the tank would be covered with a confervoid growth, which would speedily obscure its inmates from our view. We want scavengers to clear away the superfluous vegetation, and we find them in the periwinkles which we see attached by their foot-stalk to the glass. These little mollusca do their work well: Mr. Gosse, who has watched them feeding with a pocket-glass, perceived that their saw-like tongues moved backwards and forwards with a crescentic motion, and thus, as the animal advances, he leaves a slight swathe-like mark upon the glass, as the mower does upon the field. But it is clear that there are not enough labourers in the tank we are inspecting to accomplish their task, as the lobster, who comes straggling over the stones in such an ungainly manner, is more like a moving salad than any living thing, so thickly are back, tail, feelers, and claws, infested with a dense vegetable growth. A few more black mowers are imperatively called for.
The fish, the weed, and the mollusc, having secured to us a clear view of the inhabitants of the tank, let us inspect them one by one. Here we see the parasitic anemone. Like the old man of the sea, it fixes itself upon some poor Sinbad in the shape of a whelk, and rides about at his ease in search of food. Another interesting variety of this zoophyte is the plumose sea-anemone, a more stay-at-home animal, who generally fixes himself upon a flat rock or an oyster-shell, and waits for the food to come to it, as your London housewife expects the butcher and baker to call in the morning.
The pure white body of the neighbouring actinia renders it more observable. Its tentacles, displayed in plumes over the central mouth, which is marked with yellow, give it the exact appearance of a chrysanthemum, and should be much in favour with the mermaids to adorn their hair. A still more extraordinary creature is the Tabella ventilabrum. The tube of this strange animal is perfectly straight, and its large brown silk-like radiating fans, whilst in search of food, revolve just as the old-fashioned. whirling ventilators did in our windows. The instant this fan is touched it is retracted into the tube, the ends just appearing outside, and giving it the appearance of a camel's-hair brush.
We shall not attempt to describe the different species of zoophytes and annelides, amounting to hundreds - indeed, they are not all familiar to scientific men. We have little more to say of the crustacea that go scrambling about, yet it would be impossible to overlook that peripatetic whelk-shell, which climbs about the stones with such marvellous activity. On a narrower inspection we perceive that it moves by a foreign agency. Those sprawling legs protruding from its mouth discover the hermit crab, which is obliged to dress its soft body in the first defensible armour it can pick up. A deserted whelk or common spiral shell is his favourite resort, but, like many bipeds, he has a love of changing his house; and those who have narrowly watched his habits state that be will deliberately turn over the empty shells upon the beach, and, after examining them carefully with his claws, pop his body out of one habitation into another, in order to obtain the best possible fit. But there are still stranger facts connected with this intelligent little crustacean. We have before observed that the parasitic sea-anemone invariably fixes himself when possible upon this moveable house, perfectly regardless of the many bumps and rubs which necessarily fall to its lot. Another warm friend, the cloak-anemone, clings still closer, for it perfectly envelops the lip of his shell with its living mantle. He has still a third intimate acquaintance, who sponges upon him for bed and board, in the shape of a beautiful worm, Nereis bilineata, which stows itself behind the crab in the attic of the whelk-shell, and, the moment its protector by his motions indicates that he has procured food, glides between the two left-foot jaws, and drags a portion of the morsel from his mouth, the crab appearing to evince no more animosity at the seizure than the Quaker who suddenly finds his spoons taken for church-rates. The interesting specimens we have dwelt upon are confined to the sea-water tanks, which line the Aquarium on the side opposite the door, and those which run down the centre of the apartment. Vis-à-vis are the fresh-water tanks, in which we may watch the habits of British fishes. There is a noble pike lying as still as a stone-a model sitter for the photographer who lately took his portrait. The barbel, bream, dace, and gudgeon are seen going about their daily duties as though they were at the bottom of the Thames, instead of sandwiched between two panes of glass, and inspected on either side by curious eyes. Those who go early in the morning will have a chance of seeing the lampreys hanging like leeches from the glass by their circular mouths, and breathing by the seven holes which run beside their pectoral fins. The marine fish should also be studied – strange forms with vicious-looking jaws, the dog-fish for example, which is a young fry as yet, but which will grow a yard or two in length. At the east end of the building the alligators' pool discovers here and there a floating reptile's head, the outline of which reminds us of the hippopotamus. In both cases the habit of resting in the water with the head and body almost entirely sub-merged necessitates a raised form of the nostril and eye-socket, in order to allow the animal to see and breathe. A similar formation of the face is observable in the wart hog (in another portion of the Gardens), which wallows up to its eyes in slush and mire. The alligators have the tank to themselves, with the exception of a couple of turtles, which are too hard nuts for even them to crack.
The Council has scarcely established the Aquarium two years, and already it is well stocked with specimens of British zoophytes and annelides, for the most part dredged from the neighbourhood of Weymouth. If these are so beautiful, what must be the wonders of the deep sea in tropical climates? Who knows what strange things a bold adventurer might pick up, who, like Schiller's diver, would penetrate the horrid depths of the whirlpool, not for the jewelled cup of the monarch, but for the hidden living treasures nature has planted there? Doubtless, among the rusty anchors and weed-clung ribs of long-lost armadas, there nestle gigantic zoophytes and enormous star-fish, which would make the fortune of the Gardens in a single season. At all events we hope to see the Aquarium greatly extended, as it will afford the means of studying a department of natural history of which we have hitherto been almost wholly in the dark.
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