Millions of Historic Images Pay Tribute to the Diversity of Life on Earth

Bask in the infinitely strange wonder of our planet with these gorgeous biodiversity galleries

The eastern spotted skunk, identified as a pol-cat in The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands by Mark Catesby. Biodiversity Heritage Library/Flickr CC
Peacock flounder in The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands by Mark Catesby. Biodiversity Heritage Library/Flickr CC
A male octopus observed in Port Gazelle, Kerguelen during the 1898 German Deep-Sea Expedition across the Atlantic and Indian oceans and published in The Cephalopoda by Carl Chun. Biodiversity Heritage Library/Flickr CC
A meticulous black-and-white illustration of a desert big-horn sheep (Ovis c mexicana) skull drawn from a specimen in the U.S. Natural History Museum collection and published in The land and sea mammals of Middle America and the West Indies by Daniel Giraud Elliot in 1904. Biodiversity Heritage Library/Flickr CC
Cactuses published in The Cactaceae: Descriptions and Illustrations of Members of the Cactus Family, a landmark series of monographs written between 1919 and 1923 by American botanists Joseph Nelson Rose and Nathaniel Lord Britton and illustrated by British botanical artist Mary Emily Eaton. Biodiversity Heritage Library/Flickr CC
Mexican funnel-eared bat (Natalus stramineus) published in Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London. Biodiversity Heritage Library/Flickr CC
Advertisement for dwarf stone tomatoes published in A. W. Livingston's Sons' Annual of "True Blue" Seeds catalogue in 1904. Biodiversity Heritage Library/Flickr CC
Common porcupine (Hystrix cristata) published in General zoology, or Systematic natural history by English zoologist George Shaw, a multi-volume natural history collection published between 1800 and 1826. Biodiversity Heritage Library/Flickr CC
Photographic portraits of a European bison (Bos bonasus and a Chartley breed English wild bull (Bos taurus) published in British mammals; an attempt to describe and illustrate the mammalian fauna of the British islands from the commencement of the Pleistocene period down to the present day by Sir Harry Hamilton Johnston in 1903. Biodiversity Heritage Library/Flickr CC
One of 1,300 hand-colored plates and engraved vignettes from W. H. Lizars, Charles Hamilton Smith, and James Stewart in the 40-volume “The Naturalist's Library” by Sir William Jardine published around 1833. Biodiversity Heritage Library/Flickr CC

Every place on our planet is filled with life, each creature quirky in its own unique way. One way to revel in this fantastical weirdness is by exploring Earth's biodiversity in the galleries of the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), which hosts thousands of scientific illustrations and photographs scanned from books in the public domain.

The BHL is a collaboration between multiple natural history, botanical and research libraries (including Smithsonian Libraries), which officially began in 2006 as an effort to make the vast collection resources digitally available to the public. Now, BHL has curated over a hundred thousand open-access images, making it easy for anyone, anywhere to appreciate the astounding biodiversity of our planet. And if that isn't enough to sate your appetite, another 2 million more BHL images reside in the Internet Archive Book Images Flickr stream.

The library started uploading the images to Flickr in 2011, and continues to this day building curated collections of images tagged by subject matter and organized into albums. One of the most important aspects of BHL, however, is its citizen science project. The library invited its users to add machine-readable taxonomic tags to their massive online collections, hunting for clues in the image captions or surrounding text. Once added, images can be automatically included in other projects like the Encyclopedia of Life (Smithsonian is also an important principle in EOL). “Approximately 30 percent of the images are tagged by taxonomic name as a result of citizen science,” Grace Costantino, Biodiversity Heritage Library outreach and communications manager, writes in an email to

One particularly important addition to the online collections, Costantino writes, are illustrations from Smithsonian Libraries' first edition copy of The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands by Mark Catesby. This illustrated guide captures the plants and animals the Catesby found during the late 18th century on his ventures across the southeastern United States and Bahamas. The book contains illustrations of now-extinct species (like the Carolina Parakeet) as well as more common animals (like the eastern spotted skunk, which he identified as a pol-cat).

But there's much more to explore within the vast archives. Constantino suggests that the curated collection is best explored in “purposeful scholarship and targeted searching.” For those wanting a guided tour, the images are also highlighted on other social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr

Overall, the project has gone far better than expected. A year after the project began, BHL declared it “an unexpected success story” in a blog post. Flickr albums proved to be a simple and searchable way to showcase their imagery—“a BHL treasure that was all but hidden in our collection," according to the blog.