Enthusiasm for nominomania

 Biographies, Books, Fish, Ichthyology  Kommentarer inaktiverade för Enthusiasm for nominomania
Feb 172016

LundbergTitle2There is a little book – a dissertation actually – that lists every Swedish publication on fishes. Published in 1872 it of course had some advantage over any similar project to be raised today, but nevertheless it is a commendable work. It was presented as a doctoral dissertation at Uppsala University by Fredrik Lundberg, and  comprises 18 pages of introduction and 56 pages of bibliography. The author, Lundberg, vanished in the shadows of time, at least this dissertation is the only evidence I can find of the person. Both Fredrik (currently first name of 95962 men and 2 women in Sweden) and Lundberg (currently last names of 21123 persons, first name of 3 men and one woman in Sweden) are common names in Sweden.  Well, even if people may be interesting, it is a person’s work that counts, so I am basically content. Lundberg’s dissertation is important for tracking the history of ichthyology in Sweden, and for me it was the key to finding a rare publication that practically every other ichthyologist in Sweden refused to cite.

On page 29 Lundberg cites an article ”Om Ichthyologien och Beskrifning öfver några nya Fiskarter af Samkäksslägtet Syngnathus. Af G. I. Billberg, (Linn. Samf. Handl. 1832, p. 47-55 m. 1 col. pl. Sthlm 1833).” The article was evidently in a journal with the name encrypted. It was somehow resolved as Linnéska Samfundets Handlingar (Proceedings ot the Linnéan Society). Decryption of journal name abbreviations is not for the impatient and weakhearted; luckily this tradition has been abolished in favor of very short names easy to mix up or very long names difficult to remember. As I could not find any further mention of pipefish species named by Billberg in other Swedish fish literature, or elsewhere – they were not incorporated into the Catalog of Fishes until in February 2016 – it was too good bait to resist.

This was in 2004 and although libraries were already restricting access to their older publications, online antiquariats were few. A copy of the particular journal issue could be found, however, in a Real Life antiquariat in downtown Stockholm for a considerable price. A second copy was lent to me by Professor Bertil Nordenstam, then at the Phanerogamic Botany department of the Swedish Museum of Natural History. The author, it turned out, was mainly a botanist or horticulturist, and the publication contains images and descriptions of plants

Image used in various printed and online sources, probably public domain

”Om Ichthyologien …”, indeed, the whole issue of the Linnéska Samfundets Handlingar (the first and only), and not least the curious author, were found to be extraordinary in many ways, good and bad. It was a discovery of a forgotten milestone in Swedish natural science that certainly needed attention. Billberg, a lawyer and judge,  botanist and natural historian by devotion, and funder of of the Linnéska Samfundet, attempted to present a new classification of fishes, and also, a man of classical education more than biological, had a lot to say about other people’s scientific names on fishes. The publication is sprinkled with new names on all kinds of fishes, family names, generic names, species names, but practically all of them needed to be evaluated in relation to the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, and most of the fragmentary literature references pointed to sources not so easy to find in 2004 as they are now. So it wasn’t just the exciting discovery of three overlooked pipefishes. It was a true Pandora’s box, or can of worms, can of names.

Billberg proposed five new family names, only one of which survives as it is anolder homonym (Diodontidae). He mentions 61 genera of fishes, 41 of them listed only by name; out of  20 ”new” generic names, none is valid. He he lists 31 species of fishes.; out of 28 ”new” species names, one is potentially valid and a species inquirenda. Hardly anything in the taxonomy is justified by anything oyher than imprecise references. It turns out that Billberg probably based the whole paper on only one or two earlier works, by La Cepède (1798), and Cuvier (1817), with the outstanding exception of the description of three new pipefish species. The pipefish descriptions were based evidently only on three drawings made by Johan Wilhelm Palmstruch in 1806, probably from living specimens. So Billberg could have written his paper having examined zero fish, read two already long outdated books, and counted fin rays on three drawings. Of couse, the three new pipefish species are also junior synonyms.

Plate in Billberg 1833 showing new pipefish species 1, Syngnathus pustulatus (male 2, Syngnathus typhle), Syngnathus virens (female Syngnathus typhle), and 3) Syngnathus palmstruchii (Entelurus aequoreus)

Plate in Billberg (1833) showing new pipefish species 1, Syngnathus pustulatus (male Syngnathus typhle), 2 Syngnathus virens (female Syngnathus typhle), and 3 Syngnathus palmstruchii (Entelurus aequoreus)

What man had set his footprint so deep in the mud that it could not be retracted? In short, Gustaf Johan Billberg was born Karlskrona in Blekinge, southern Sweden in 1772. He studied law in Lund University and got a position as auditor in Stockholm in 1793. He took a similar position in Visby on the island of Gotland in 1798, but returned to Stockholm in 1808 and held various administrative and juridical positions there, mainly as a judge, until 1840. He became a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1817, and corresponded with Linnaeus’s successor in Uppsala, Carl Per Thunberg, but he never had a formal education in natural sciences. He was a collector, with large entomological collections, and took particular interest in botany and economic botany. If he had not been caught in some controversy between the Academy and Uppsala University, perhaps he could have developed a career as a botanist. Instead he devoted his fortune and time to publishing more or less unfinished works that along with other events drove him to bancrupcy. Some of these publications are significant, like his two issues of the work Ekonomisk botanik (Economic Botany) and a few  parts of the book series Svensk botanik (Swedish Botany) and Svensk zoologi (Swedish Zoology), the latter in particular a pioneering work with descriptive text and hand coloured plates of Swedish animals. The society that he initiated, Linnéska Samfundet, was equally commendable, but quickly dissipated. The society produced just one issue of its proceedings, all articles in it written by Billberg, and apparently biologists showed no strong interest in the society. Billberg did make a lasting contribution, however, in developing one of the green areas in the heart of Stockholm, Humlegården. There he organised a Linnaeus Park, including a hilly flowerbed area still present today and known as Flora’s hill, named for his daughter Flora Mildehjert. Boethius (1924) wrote a detailed biography of Billberg.

Floras Hill

Flora’s Hill, May 2014. Photo Sven Kullander, CC BY-NC

Billberg’s enthusiam for natural sciences, particularly plants and animals, carried him high up among the clouds, and let him fall hard. When he died in the winter of 1844 he was broke and ill. By contrast, his brother Johan, without interest in natural history was ennobled af Billbergh in 1826. On the other hand Gustaf Johan brought up 9 children and one of them, Alfred, a medical doctor, became a well renowned pioneer in psychiatric medicine.

Years passed, however, as they tend to. ”Om Ichthyologien…” remained a resting treasure as many other projects called for attention. The idea remained, however, to present an analysis of Billberg’s paper, and particularly to call attention to the existence of three forgotten species description contained in it. I started, stopped, and started, compiling names and checking literature sources. At first I thought that a tabular presentation would be enough, but no, too much needed to be said about this work. Eventually, after a senseless, sleepless final effort in early 2015 could I deliver a manuscript for submission. But it should take long time to see it in print. The main problem was obviously finding a reviewer. At last things could be resolved and in October 2015 there was an accepted manuscript. I will spare you all the details why its publication (Kullander, 2016) was then delayed till January 2016.

As you can read the whole analysis of Billberg’s fish names here, thanks to Open Access and somebody paying for that, this is not the place for reiterating detail that is already there. If you want a different context you can also find much of the information in the Catalog of Fishes.

Billberg’s many publications drew considerable criticism already during his lifetime, especially his unsuccessful habit of reforming the Swedish names on animals and plants. Billberg’s fish paper was ignored by all Swedish ichthyologists first probably because he was not accepted by the contemporary academics, and later because he simply fell out of memory. Several large volumes on Scandinavian fishes were published in the period 1836-1893.

Billberg has been called enthusiast, dilettante, and many other things, but on the positive side he was really an educator at heart, and it is difficult to criticize a person following a vocation to investigate things and try to make the world a better place, no matter how awkward the result then can be. The history of science is full of worse people. The worst that Billberg did was to put newly constructed names on plants and animals. That is something that many of us do …. Perhaps the review of his fish names can contribute to make him remembered more for his good aspirations than his formal failures. And serve to remind one always to be very careful when playing with names.


Billberg, G.J. 1833. Om ichthyologien och beskrifning öfver några nya fiskarter af samkäksslägtet Syngnathus. Linnéska
samfundets handlingar, 1: 47–55. [at Internet Archive]

Boethius, B. 1924. Gustaf Johan Billberg. Svenskt biografiskt lexikon, 4, urn:sbl:18212.

Cuvier, [G.] 1816. Le Règne animal distribué d’apres son organisation, pour servir de base à l’histoire naturelle des animaux et d’introduction à l’anatomie comparée. Tome II. Déterville, Paris, xviij + 532 pp.

Kullander, S. O. 2016. G. J. Billberg’s (1833) ‘On the Ichthyology, and description of some new fish species of the pipefish genus Syngnathus. Zootaxa, 3066:101–124.[at Zootaxa]

La Cepède, [B.G.] 1798. Histoire naturelle des poissons. Tome premier. Plassan, Paris, cxlvij + 532 pp.

Lundberg, F. 1872. Bidrag till öfversigt af Sveriges Ichthyologiska literatur. Akademisk afhandling med vidtberömda filosofiska fakultetens i Upsala tillstånd för Filosofiska Gradens erhållande till offentlig granskning framställes af Fredrik Lundberg Filos. kand. af Westmanl. Dala Landskap, å Zoologiska lärosalen, Lördagen den 25 Maj 1872, p.v. t. f. m. Stockholm Sigfrid Flodins boktryckeri. xviii+52 pp.


The office … ichthyology version

 Books, Fish, Ichthyology  Kommentarer inaktiverade för The office … ichthyology version
Dec 262012
Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum, London. Dome of sacred saloons of science

Marvel at those majestic buildings harbouring the biological heritage of nations. Natural history museums. Other research collections. The millions by the thousands of corpses and skins, leaves and stems, rocks and gems. Wondering about the shadows cast from time to time across the occasional window lit night after night. Dinosaur or Man, ghost or guard? Strolling through the galleries, what’s behind all those doors that remain locked? More treasures or just the junk? It is not so straightforward to explain what goes on in research collections, and difficult to imagine up. But for sure, there are collections safe in store rooms. And there are the scientists and the collection care staff. And, of course, some administrators. There is always something you can see of collections, and there are the reports, the scientific and not so scientific papers and web presentations, so nothing is really hidden.

Swedish Museum of Natural History. Magnificiently shelled science shelter

But have you ever had a glimpse of a professional abode therein? Is it roomy or squeezy, white-walled or padded with trophy heads? Is there always a Larson in lieu of less intelligible art? Coke or coffee? White coats or tees? When I was so much younger than today I had an idea but not all the imagination. Then, indeed a long, long time ago, I was led by Gordon Howes through a maze of corridors and through the one locked door after the other to arrive at the magical heart of the fish division of the British Museum (Natural History) – now known by a lesser name – and there it was, the air, perfused by alcohol fumes, the books, the microscope steady on the bench, and the uncmfrtbl (so they pronounce it) chair, the tall windows and the big men, books, books, and reprints, reprints, greasy jars, soft dead fish with their autographs helped to them by the wisest of ichthyologists, Günther, Boulenger, Regan. Enchanted, it was a revelation of what life ahead was to be like. And now it is all gone, all the smell, the patina, the deoxygenated atmosphere, the dirty windows, and the kind of yellow Wild microscopes. Everything is new and shining and the nervousness – or was there any – about that spark that would send the alcohol to flames and the building to a cloud of dust, it is no longer there, fire regulations everywhere. And all the other museums are going modern as well. Actually I like the new style too – the facelift is an expression of value and respect for the scientists and their working material. As I much later came to my museum in Stockholm, it was just like that, dirty, dark, dull, and a bit dumb. Now it is full of fresh fish, gas driven chair seats, top-end computers, motorized microscopes, and all the papers are becoming pdfs. As I started on this essay, it was because I were soon to move to new quarters, smaller, newer, and the present, acquired coziness would be part of history. I have been in this office since … 1980? and it was upgraded only once with a little paint and new floor. Since nothing of the classical ichthyological laboratories of the overladen, all-inclusive kind was saved elsewhere (or ?… challenge me!) I decided to photo-freeze a bit of ichthyological history, speaking for many a demolished scientist’s office as new times have moved in. End of the commercials, take a seat and enjoy my research workshop, something like six by three meters and the ceiling truly up in the sky almost. If you ever wondered what a classical fish researcher lab looked like a late afternoon in the winter of 2012, here are all the details (well, a good part of them). If you came upon this text my daily practice unbeknownst, you may wish a confirmation that I am a fish systematist – there it is.

What you see to left and right, front and back, upp the walls and on cabinets and desks – are books and reprints. A sine qua non for life and science alike. The books and reprints in my office are those that are required for ongoing projects and such that are needed for various office tasks such as identifying fish for the public, colleagues and whoever calls. Books that are needed for finding information fast. Highlights are of course the Scott Liddell Greek lexicon, and Erik Wikén’s fabulous Latin for botanists and zoologists (Latin för zoologer och botaniker), in Swedish. I certainly need that copy of Artedi all the time, and right now I am trying to speed learn about Tanganyika cichlids from Günther and Boulenger to Poll and a massmess of molecular writings. If the hand library fails, topping it is the department library which has one of the best collections of fish books, journals, and reprints. Would it not suffice, there are of course AnimalBase and the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Reprints used to be the blood running through the veins of ichthyology, and here they are still running across the walls.  Authors always procured a hundred or two of each of their publications and distributed them for free.  The point with reprints was that one would not need to subscribe to a journal, and one would not need to page through a whole volume of articles to find tiny scraps of information. Consequently, every footnote and misspelling was elegantly served by reprints, and so taxonomist could indulge in nitpicking ad libitum. It is only in taxonomy, in all of scientific publishing, that people comment on each other’s misprints, yes? The pdf option and Open Access have now killed the reprint collecting efficiently, but that’s all right as long as the printing errors remain …

It takes two (actually three) computers to keep things running, and all data are saved in paper format in three filing cabinets, a dossier for every species and dossiers for other data. Two microscopes may seem overkill, but one is dedicated for photography and one for fish examinations. So one can work in parallel. You will not find many jars in the study, because of fire regulations. Only lesser amounts of ethanol are permitted in offices those days, and the jars needed for the time being are assembled in trays on a cart for convenient transport back to the store rooms.

Stop the presses! Miraculously, this installation still remains. By a lucky chance the move was cancelled at the very last minute, and consequently change is not going to play with my order. Not now. I am happy. What about you? And, what’s your office like?


My office

Looking in from the corridor

Northeastern corner, journal shelves

lab bench

Midroom bench, all at hand


Reference books

Within arm’s reach

book shelf

Standing, leaning, lying, a diversity of books

File cabinets

File cabinet

A file for every species …


Microscope for imaging

Imaging in action

Canned fish in trays

microscope staring at you

(Is this microscope staring at you?)

Photos: Sven Kullander, CC-BY-NC

Northern glowlights

 Aquarium fish, Danios, Fish, Ichthyology, taxonomy, Travel  Kommentarer inaktiverade för Northern glowlights
Dec 242012
My kitchen window

My kitchen window

Winter in Sweden, and that means darkness, cold, and snow covering all and everything. No wonder every window is lit, day and night, with glowing stars, moons, snowflakes, menorahs, or the new fashion little reindeer or bears lit by led from inside. Without all those warming winter lights darkness would bend our backs, and we would get swept away by depression. Or maybe not.

Nevertheless, I would like to take this window view to remind myself of another northern glowlight, recently named Dano flagrans. It is a little fish from warmer waters. From where it hails, however,  you can actually view the snow of the eastern outcrops of the Himalayas. It is certainly the most septentrional of the Myanmar Danio, but rivalled, apparently defeated in northerliness by Danio dangila which occurs in the Brahmaputra basin in India up to the Dibru River. No other species of Danio reaches so far north.

Looking northeast from Putao

Looking norwest from Putao

The scientific history of Danio flagrans begins in 1988, when I, in the company of Ralf Britz and our guide Thein Win arrived in Putao, the northernmost major city in Myanmar. Putao is close to the Chinese and Indian borders, on hills forming the headwaters of the Mali Hka, major tributary of the Ayeyarwaddy River which then runs through Myanmar as one big muddy aorta. Up in the Mali Hka, however, the water is clear, at least in the dry season, not very deep, and the river beds paved with stones and rocks. The fish fauna of northern Myanmar mountain streams is little known. Transportation in the area is relatively complicated, and a lot remains to be done up there in terms of ichthyological exploration.

Mali Hka in Putao

Mali Hka in Putao

Back to our story, our little team was quartered in the military camp and we immediately set out to fish, having only two full days at disposal. The Mali Hka itself was too big for fishing, although alright for sightseeing, but around the regiment there were several small streams with low water and convenient for seine and handnets. The streams were shallow, the water was clear, rather cool, and fish were plenty. Here we found Badis pyema which was promptly described already in 2002, and Puntius tiantian in 2005, but other fish have lasted longer to be worked up. Walking along one of the streams, we switched direction to follow a tickle of water, almost no water, coming down the left bank hill, and in there were little skittish fish, almost invisible against the beige earth and seen only as moving shadows. A number of them, certainly Danio choprae – such was the field identification – came into formalin and one made it to a tube of alcohol. Neither Ralf nor I was into danios at the time, so the fish we just hoped would be useful for Fang, and  we went on happily, catching Badis pyema and similar fish that had more of our attention those days.

Fresh collected northern glowlight danio, Putao 1998

Fresh collected northern glowlight danio, Putao 1998

One of the Putao danios was photographed but this was in times of film photography, with no immediate quality check, and much is to be regretted by the quality of the shot. Publishable it is not, but here it can be showed off as the first image ever taken of a Danio flagrans. The alcohol specimen was sequenced and appeared in a phylogenetic tree as Danio choprae (Fang et al., 2009), and by that time noone had looked at it closely (we had other specimens, true D. choprae for the morphological data). Time passed on. This was one species that Fang never worked on, but which obviously was somewhat different from the other samples of D. choprae, and I decided to give it a go in the Spring of 2012. The manuscript was already in hand as I again met Ralf in Belgium and we spoke about past achievements and plans for the future. As he had more of the danios from Putao from a later trip, and more D. choprae, he insisted that I include this material, and so it was. The paper had to be done from almost scratch but Ralf’s material certainly improved a lot on the description and conclusions. The description of Danio flagrans, the northern glowlight danio, eventually appeared in late 2012, 14 years after its discovery (Kullander, 2012). Incidentally, it is my first own danio paper, and it was fun to do. It was enjoyable in particular, because Danio flagrans and its sister species Danio choprae do not differ only in colour (in fact they are very similar in colours), but also present some very solid morphometric and meristic differences. I am otherwise much too used to cichlid species that differ by just some pigment spot. Danio flagrans has a shorter anal fin, with less fin-rays, and longer caudal peduncle compared to Danio choprae. Perhaps this relates to their environment. Danio choprae lives more to the south, near Myitkyina, and in warmer habitats; Danio flagrans in cool hillstreams. Beware that these species may not be correctly identified in the shops. Danio choprae, the glowlight danio may appear in the market as northern glowlights, a more expensive fish. I know, three of the false northerns are swimming in a tank in my garage. These changelings are beautiful fish decorated with orange stripes. Unfortunately, they never stay still, but are constantly on the move, and they move fast, so a good view of them remains an illusion of expectation. This brings me, by association, to the conclusion of this post: Besides lights in the windows, there is one more resource to overcome winter gloom. An aquarium with beautiful fishes (all fish are beautiful). Always something to see, to learn, to enjoy.



Fang, F., M. Norén, T.Y. Liao, M. Källersjö & S.O. Kullander. 2009. Molecular phylogenetic interrelationships of the South Asian cyprinid genera Danio, Devario and Microrasbora (Teleostei, Cyprinidae, Danioninae). Zoologica Scripta, 38: 237-256.

Kullander, S.O. 2012. Description of Danio flagrans, and redescription of D. choprae, two closely related species from the Ayeyarwaddy River drainage in northern Myanmar (Teleostei: Cyprinidae). Ichthyological Exploration of Freshwaters 23: 245-262. Open Access PDF from Verlag Dr. Friedrich Pfeil.

Kullander, S.O. & R. Britz. 2002. Revision of the family Badidae (Teleostei: Perciformes), with description of a new genus and ten new species. Ichthyological Exploration of Freshwaters, 13: 295-372.

Kullander, S.O. & F. Fang. 2005. Two new species of Puntius from northern Myanmar (Teleostei: Cyprinidae). Copeia, 2005: 290-302. Open Access PDF.

Photos: Sven O Kullander, CC-BY-NC

The snail, the snake, the frog, the toad, and now the fish

 Aquarium fish, Books, Cichlids, Fish, Ichthyology, taxonomy  Kommentarer inaktiverade för The snail, the snake, the frog, the toad, and now the fish
Nov 272012

Yesterday’s discoverers are forgotten, faded to oblivion, erased from their maps. As I ask the students, do you know Rolf Blomberg’s books? They stare bufoed, but that’s not an imitation of the gaze of the giant toad discovered by Rolf Blomberg, Bufo blombergi. It is the gaze of the blankness of mind. Too much information […]

Artedi lives … again

 Biographies, Books, Ichthyology, taxonomy  Kommentarer inaktiverade för Artedi lives … again
Maj 182011

On the night of 27 September 1735 suddenly ended the life of one of the most significant founders of the science of systematic biology when Petrus Artedi, Angermannius, drowned in a canal in Amsterdam. At the age of 30, he was still not a man of fame, and did not leave wife, children or portrait. […]

Feb 112011

The latest issue of the annual proceedings of the Swedish Linnaean Society (Svenska Linnésällskapets Årsskrift, 2010) has an interesting article by Gudrun Nyberg bearing the title Ögontröst En biografi över naturforskaren Bengt Andersson Euphrasén 1755-1796. ( Eyebright A biography of the natural scientist Bengt Andersson Euphrasén 1775-1796. ) Euphrasén is (and was) one of the […]

Prickly manes, and a motor in the idle of their backs

 Art, Books, Fish, Ichthyology, taxonomy  Kommentarer inaktiverade för Prickly manes, and a motor in the idle of their backs
Feb 012011

YES – a book about seahorses!  Poseidon’s Steed, a strange breed of book by the way. Author Helen Scales, appearing in cork screw curl and soft smile on the non-optional author portrait,  a Cambridge doctor with a career in conservation, public outreach and coral reef fish studies, has summed up  a personal, life-long obsession with […]

Artedi lives!

 Ichthyology, Video  Kommentarer inaktiverade för Artedi lives!
Aug 032010

Some of you may have observed the excellent movie by Elizabeth Watson for the Artedi Symposium in 2005. It misses the Artedi part, however. Now, Elizabeth kindly made available also this critical drama. Petrus Artedi working at the waterfront, barefoot, quill pen in hand and on the whole rather charming and primitive. Starring Jonathan Ready […]

Behind the scenes in Ichthyology

 Ichthyology, Video  Kommentarer inaktiverade för Behind the scenes in Ichthyology
Jul 132009

It is true that most of the world’s population lives some distance away from a major natural history museum. Even if you live close and come often to visit the exhibits, what you experience is only a minor part of the activity, the objects and the spirits of a natural history ”museum” (better called science […]

Kyplex Cloud Security Seal - Click for Verification