Capturing the Beauty of Underwater Flight


A heteropod, a type of sea snail also called a “sea elephant,” as seen under an inverted microscope in the BIOS Environmental Change Research Facility. The microscope has the light source on top and is equipped with a variety of imaging equipment that allows researchers to capture still photos and video of the organisms being studied.

In mid-May artist Samm Newton drew the tubular mouthpiece, transparent shell, and delicate swimming foot of a heteropod from the Sargasso Sea, a type of tiny sea snail studied by BIOS biologist Amy Maas and collaborator David Murphy from the University of South Florida. Newton spent several hours repeatedly watching the video to reconstruct the creature’s anatomy. Her sketches will form the base of a series of much larger acrylic paintings destined for an upcoming Oregon-based art exhibit.

Her efforts are also part of a collaboration with Murphy to write and illustrate a children’s book about pteropods, swimming snails similar to heteropods, that are also known as sea butterflies.

She said her creative practice “asks questions about how scientists interact with and study these strange, beautiful creatures—after all, zooplankton play an important role in how we talk about the oceans.”

Newton, 34, began her collaborations with BIOS scientists and affiliated researchers in 2016 aboard the research vessel Atlantic Explorer investigating the role of marine microbial communities in the global carbon cycle.


By viewing the heteropods on a large screen, Newton is able to make detailed illustrations of the animals that will serve as the foundation for future projects, including paintings and a children’s book.