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Wisconsin’s fish – all of them – star in new poster series

August 4, 2015 By Terry Devitt

Photo: Kandis Elliot in front of fish poster

Kandis Elliot, emerita senior artist in the Department of Botany, is pictured with a poster she created that features life-size illustrations of every fish species in the state of Wisconsin. The poster hangs outside her office in Noland Hall.


Fully grown, the least darter is one inch long — Wisconsin’s smallest fish. The lake sturgeon, which can grow to more than 6 feet in length, is Wisconsin’s biggest.

In between are 181 other species, and each and every one of them will soon have its moment in the spotlight, thanks to scientific illustrator Kandis Elliot.

Elliot spent decades drawing plants and their anatomy in support of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s botany department. Now retired, she is devoting her time, personal resources and considerable skill to portray Wisconsin’s finned creatures like never before.

Image: Fishes of Wisconsin Poster

The Fishes of Wisconsin

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Images © University of Wisconsin Zoological Museum

In a series of educational outreach posters — including an epic 13-foot by 44-inch poster that depicts all 183 species of Wisconsin fish to average adult-size scale — Elliot is on a mission to accurately document the inhabitants of our state’s more than 15,000 lakes, rivers and streams.

“The idea behind the posters is to create a splash,” Elliot deadpans. “There is a wow factor. We want people, especially kids, to have an awareness of all our fishes, not just hook-and-line species.”

The series of posters is being sold in support of the UW–Madison Zoological Museum, much as some of Elliot’s previous work generates funds for the botany department.

Image: Catfish poster

The Catfish Family

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There are currently 10 posters in the fish series: the large banner depicting all of Wisconsin’s fish, one that illustrates the “little fishes of Wisconsin,” and eight more that depict the sunfish, perch, pike, catfish, gar, salmon, sucker and minnow families.

“I thought I would never be done with the minnows,” says Elliot. “After three dozen or so, it got easier.”

While there have been other posters of Wisconsin fish, none have been all-inclusive, nor have they been drawn to life-size scale: “I insist on making them life size. It’s visual information, a sense of wonder, that you can’t get from just numbers,” says Elliot, who’s been working on the project for the past two years. “People ask me if they can get them smaller, but that misses the point.”

Image: Perch poster

The Perch Family

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Image: Pike poster

The Pike Family

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For spice, many of the fish are drawn in their breeding colors. Like birds, some fish dress up in brighter colors to demonstrate their fitness and attract mates.

To accurately depict the fish, Elliot, whose graduate research was in aquatic biology, has been aided by photographs taken by John Lyons, a UW–Madison-trained Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources fisheries research scientist. “I wasn’t going to work from dead, pickled fish,” Elliot says.

Many of the fish are uncommon, according to Elliot. One, the black cisco, is extinct. Another, the gray gar, is just beginning to make an appearance in Wisconsin as it expands its range north due to changing climate.

Image: Salmon poster

The Salmon Family

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Image: Sucker poster

The Sucker Family

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Elliot’s favorite? The redfin shiner. “They lay their eggs over sunfish nests, so if you don’t have sunfish, you won’t have these guys.”

The large banner poster is printed on canvas and the smaller posters are made using archival quality paper. The specialized printer Elliot uses takes one-and-a-half hours to print one of the banner posters — assuming one or more of the wide-format printer’s twelve cartridges don’t run out of ink. The machine was purchased with her own money.

The canvas banner poster costs $150, and they began selling not long after the ink dried on the first large poster as word got around. Among the first customers was Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium. The smaller posters of the various fish families are selling for between $25 and $50.

Posters can be purchased through the website of the UW–Madison Zoological Museum.

Image: Little fishes poster

Little Fishes of Wisconsin

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