Category Archives: Fish

Penis fish

My friend Ralf Britz (Dracula fish), just released the description of a species related to the Dracula fish (Danionella dracula), viz., the Penis fish (Danionella priapus), which is number four in the genus (D. mirifica, and D. translucida were described earlier). This was a bit of of concern to me. Is the evolution of Danionella Nature’s idea of a freak show (or a Japanese game show…)? Or perhaps the fishy Fantastic Four (Bloodsucker, Flasher, Beauty, and Invisible). By the way, there is a Marvel character called Priapus.

Danionella priapus, the male holotype. Photo (c) Ralf Britz, reproduced with kind permission.

The penis, a worm-shaped intromittent reproductive organ characterizing mammals, some reptiles and very few birds, has fascinated male ichthyologists for a long time. The typical penis, in placental mammals, contains some spongy tissue and ducts for urine and sperm. Many species of fish with various elongate reproductive structures have been named with reference to the penis, or after the Greek minor deity commonly associated with an oversize penis (list below). The only group of fish that had escaped until 2008 were the Chondrichthyans, equipped with the most penis-like intromittent organ among fishes, known as mixipterygia and a synapomorphy of the group. Perhaps because in Chondrichthyans, the male reproductive organ, a modifiction of the pelvic fin, is paired. Yes, they have two. Theoretically a male shark could mate with two females simultaneously, but there seems to be no observation of such act and perhaps for reason that such pairing must be very complicated to coordinate, no other vertebrates invested in double external reproductive organ. But we all do maintain a paired internal set, except that in many fishes there is only one ovary. Marsupials, it must be added, are an exception here as in so many other respects. Males usually have a bifurcate penis unfit for peeing with and consequently used only for copulation. Females have two vaginas (with common opening), each with its own uterus, and a third for parutition.

In actinopterygian fish, sperm-transmitting elongate structures, intromittent organs, are technically known as gonopodium (live bearing poeciliids), or andropodium (Hemiramphidae; Goodeidae) in livebearers and are formed by modifications of anal-fin rays. Egglaying fish are commonly equipped with a genital papilla through which sperm or eggs are released. The genital papilla of females is sometimes referred to as the egg-laying tube or ovipositor. It is very impressive in bitterlings in which it is used for depositing eggs deep inside bivalves. None of these terms were considered suitable for a fish name, however.

What about naming fish after mammal female external reproductive organs? There is the south Asian Trypauchen vagina Schneider, 1801, a goby, for which Schneider did not explicitly explain the etymology but gave the local name, obviously based on information from the collector/correspondent in Danish India (Tranquebar), Christoph Samuel John (1747-1813), “Sewwöli, i.e., vagina cultri rubra, Tamulice”, what would mean: “Sewwöli, that is, red knife slide, of the Tamils”, i.e., nothing to do with humans. It is a slender, caudally tapering fish with a predominantly red colour. Schneider gave the same name also, spelled Sewwöti, for Cepola coecula (junior synonym of another goby, Taenioides anguillaris), another slim, red fish. There are also Thai cyprinids Probarbus labeamajor and P. labeaminor, named by Tyson Roberts in 1992, but for the thick and thin lips, respectively, of the mouth.

Trypauchen vagina

Priapos was an ancient Greek god of fertility, usually depicted with an oversize, erect penis, and according to Lemprière a rather deformed figure, not worthy of residing in the Olympics, and on the whole more of a rapist and rascal than anything else, requiring sacrifice in the form of of asses (Equus africanus, that is). This sad figure seems eventually to have converted into a garden gnome in Western garden culture. In Rome, Mutunus was the approximate equivalent. There is no fish named for Mutunus.

Interestingly, a very large number of fish possess a well developed genital papilla. In cichlids, for instance, it is long and pointed in males, but short and swollen, with at least a transverse fold in females, although there is variation, and in some genera it is hard to tell males and females apart on the papilla alone. Cottids are also well known for the long male genital papilla, as exemplified by Phallocottus, and it is also prominent in gobioids, but I could not find any relevant name in that group. The group that have most of the penile names are the livebearing poeciliids, in which the anal fin is modified to an elongate intromittent organ.

Back to Fantastic Four. As Ralf points out, these miniature fishes, and other miniatures as well, are remarkable not only for their small size. They also have conspicuous novel characters which gain significance particularly in a small body. The elongate fangs of Danionella dracula are the only oral tooth structures known from cypriniforms, and may very well be the beginning of a radically different evolutionary lineage. Males of Paedocypris (another miniature), and D. priapus have developed accessory sexual organs not known from other cyprinids, and may be actively evolving in organs that larger, more long-lived fish with longer generation times cannot afford to invest in.

Small size apparently calls for radical solutions, and those radical solutions may be the matter of evolutionary leaps. We are accustomed to think, at least I am, of evolution among fishes being based on something mid-sized rather normal fusiform, which then strikes off in different feeding niches, becoming smaller or larger depending on energy householding. But, that does not seem to lead to much real diversity (after all, all cichlids and cyprinids look very much the same). Radical morphological change as within Danionella may be one of the clues to evolutionary stepping. Most striking about species of Danionella is that they are so radically different from each other. Had they been a few centimeters longer, they would probably have been placed in different genera, but now they are considered as specialized close relatives. So, there is something important to be learned from the penis fish and friends.

Not all small fish present novel characters or behaviour, but the phenomenon seems to be particularly evident in progenetic species. This is then seen clearly in the larvae of many marine fishes in particular. The amazing spinature of many pelagic acanthopterygians, and the strange leptocephali of eels, demonstrate this. In this case, the “normal” adult provides for a backup morphology, should juvenile experimentation fail, but if these fishes turn progenetic and skip the adult stage, they may blast off in a different morphological evolutionary trajectory.

Origin of a new phylum? Larva of an unidentified species of the family Gempylidae. Photo NOAA.

Can I then go so far as to postulate that larval specializations must precede progenesis? Or does necessarily specializations have to come along with or after progenesis? Or am I making it unnecessarily difficult?

As you can now see, this post is all about evolution. But, you are right: I am also fascinated by biological nomenclature as a graffitti wall…

Anyway, here is the list of the penis fishes, based on active search in Catalog of Fishes. Many of them do not have a common name, so here is a goldmine for those constructing common names based on translations of the scientific ones … Of course all names are masculine, and all the authors are male… And, by the way, penis means tail, but is never used in that meaning, and the word phallos wasn’t intended for other than the drawings and sculptures, and again is not used in that meaning.

Phalloceros Eigenmann, 1907. Poeciliidae: Poeciliinae.

Allophallus Hubbs, 1936. Synonym of Carlhubbsia Whitley, 1951. Poeciliidae: Poeciliinae.

Arthrophallus Hubbs, 1926. Synonym of Gambusia Poey, 1854. Hubbs, 1926. Poeciliidae: Poeciliinae.

Aulophallus Hubbs, 1926. Synonym of Poeciliopsis Regan, 1913. Poeciliidae: Poeciliinae.

Curtipenis Rivas & Myers, 1950. Synonym of Poecilia Schneider, 1801. Poeciliidae: Poeciliinae.

Dicerophallus Alvárez, 1952. Synonym of Gambusia Poey, 1854. Poeciliidae: Poeciliinae.

Flexipenis Hubbs in Rivas, 1963. Synonym of Gambusia Poey, 1854. Poeciliidae: Poeciliinae.

Furcipenis Hubbs, 1931. Synonym of Alfaro Meek, 1912. Poeciliidae: Poeciliinae.

Heterophallina Hubbs, 1926. Synonym of Gambusia Poey, 1854. Poeciliidae: Poeciliinae.

Heterophallus Regan 1914. Synonym of Gambusia Poey, 1854. Poeciliidae: Poeciliinae.

Rivas 1963. Synonym of Gambusia Poey, 1854. Poeciliidae: Poeciliinae.

Phalloptychus Eigenmann, 1907. Poeciliidae: Poeciliinae.

Henn, 1916. Poeciliidae: Poeciliinae.

Plectrophallus Fowler, 1932. Synonym of Brachyrhaphis Regan, 1913. Poeciliidae: Poeciliinae.

Regan, 1913. Poeciliidae: Poeciliinae.

Priapichthys Regan, 1913. Poeciliidae: Poeciliinae.

Trigonophallus Hubbs, 1926. Synonym of Brachyrhaphis Regan, 1913. Poeciliidae: Poeciliinae.

Ctenophallus Herre, 1939. Synonym of Neostethus Regan, 1916. Phallostethidae.

Herre, 1925. Phallostethidae.

Mirophallus Herre, 1926. Synonym of Gulaphallus Herre, 1925. Phallostethidae.

Penicelinus Bolin, 1936. Synonym of Icelinus Jordan, 1885. Cottidae.

s Hubbs, 1924. Poeciliidae: Poeciliinae.

Phallobrycon Menezes, Ferreira & Netto-Ferreira, 2009. Characidae.

Phalloceros Eigenmann, 1907. Poeciliidae: Poeciliinae.

Phallocottus Schultz, 1938. Cottidae.

Phalloptychus Eigenmann, 1907. Poeciliidae: Poeciliinae.

Regan, 1913. Phallostethidae.

Solenophallus Herre (ex Aurich), 1953. Synonym of Neostethus Regan, 1916. Phallostethidae.

Galeus priapus Séret & Last, 2008. Scyliorhinidae.

Online reference:
Britz, R. 2009. Danionella priapus, a new species of miniature cyprinid fish from West Bengal, India (Teleostei: Cypriniformes: Cyprinidae). Zootaxa 2277: 53-60. (Abstract only; not Open Access)

Book references:
Lemprière, J. 1984. Lempriere’s classical dictionary. Bracken books, London, xv+734 pp. Original: A classical dictionary; containing a full account of all the proper names mentioned in Ancient authors. Reading, 1788. [Second edition, 1792] [11th edition, 1820]

Image credits:
Cover of Fantastic Four from Wikipedia, copyright, but used in fair sense, to illustrate that Nature and Fiction sometimes go hand in hand, you just need the imagination.
Trypauchen vagina from Wikimedia Commons
Gempylid larva from Wikimedia Commons.
Danionella priapus courtesy Ralf Britz

Went fishing wrote book

Among the most tragic of events in this world and our times are the deforestation and destruction of the world’s tropical rain forests, along with the conversion of the entire Amazon basin into temporary cattle ranching and soy bean plantations, South East Asia into margarine palms to tickle the well-being of health fanatics. And along with that cultures, languages, animals, and plants of immense significance for humanity and the well-being of the planet. It is an unbelievable erosion of capital, and a straight road to future devastation for the concerned countries. Just like we now also experience the demise of the oceans, and the loss of most natural biodiversity rich habitats already happened in North America, Europe, northern Asia, and much of Africa.

Fortunately, we have the stories of those who were there, and the future will be able to sense from their writings the irrational passion of fish collection and jungle exploration, and at the same time the close encounter with the meaning of life.

Iténez – River of Hope (English edition 2009) is the story of Amanda Bleher (1910-1991), a middle age, newly divorced woman in Frankfurt/Main, in the 1950s, running a pet business, earning her considerable reputation not least for importing snakes and crocodiles, a female Indiana Jones as e-jardim has it. The story focuses on her travel to Brazil in search of the discus fish (Symphysodon). Attempting to bring an American car from Germany, laden with four kids, pets, and all sorts of belongings, not least cosmetics, it is a road story with a lesser local vehicle of considerable inconvenience. Of course, there are no discus where she goes, heading for the Rio Iténez (Guaporé) on the border between Brazil and Bolivia. Love, trust, money, belongings, and belief in humanity evaporate along the way. Reaching the old Jesuit mission Vila Bela da Santíssima Trindade on the Iténez (Guaporé) River, there is considerable suffering in the tropical paradise, and with no money left, kids ill, and dubious friends failing, the dream of the Iténez has to be put back for realities for a while. Amanda eventually established a home and company near Rio, and travelled extensively afterwards, but this is the story you will want to read.

To a rational mind planning a field trip, these 277 pages of continuous impulsive re-planning on the way may be frustrating. Why is she taking the kids? Why this amount of cosmetics in the interior of Mato Grosso? Why not check out the taxonomic literature for Symphysodon localities (Amazon mainstream)? Why follow the one after the other jungle whacko so desperately? Nonetheless, this is a fascinating story of travelling in the rain forest in those days when there was forest in Mato Grosso. It is a woman’s story, and thus different from male itineraries. It does not obviously have a hero (or heroine), and it is very truthful of all those things that go wrong, all those decisions that were not so smart it turns out, that the other stories never tell. It is also a rare verdict of passion, for the animals, plants, the rain forest itself, and the search for a new existence far away from war-stricken Germany. Was Amanda Bleher a spy sent by the Germans to check out the almost-deserted Vila Bela as Brazilians at times seemed to think? Is this book her coded report back? Besides the elusive discus, Amanda Bleher was mainly interested in getting water plants for aquariums, and this book gives a vivid insight into the early days of exploration of the Amazon for aquarium fishes and plants.

Most of the history of exploration and travel is written by men. My bookshelves are laden with volumes by men discovering, exploring, and doing everything right. When I travel, it is never like that, it is always chaotic and frustrating all the time. The classical volumes of Ferreira, Humboldt and Bonpland, Castelnau, and Spix and von Martius, to mention the well-known, are faithful diaries, and there is much fact and information therein. But as literature they are boring.

There is one exceptional exception — Gordon MacCreagh’s (1886-1953) White Waters and Black (1926). It details about the Mulford Expedition 1921-1922, of six inexperienced scientists (Nathan E Pearson the ichthyologist) travelling from the highlands of Bolivia to Manaus and up the Rio Negro, with eight tons of luggage and no very clear mission. Well, the expeditioners as well as the luggage are reduced as the group proceeds, over two years’ time, and the bare truth and everything ridiculous and tragic is retold by the guide, MacCreagh, working under premises like this and worse:

The Minister of the Interior lays before me all his maps — wonderful charts showing a Yungas dotted with prosperous little towns. The Department of the Yungas, by the way, is the transandine sub-tropical and tropical jungle which, with the Department of the Beni, stretches away off to the far borders of Brazil.
“Who lives in these towns?” I ask the minister.
He is delightfully naïve about his ignorance. “Quien sabe? Perhaps Indians, perhaps fugitives from justice. At all events, they are people who pay no taxes.”
How, then, does he know that the towns are there?
He doesn’t. He shrugs with comical disgust and laughs.
“But, my good friend, I am not a maker of maps!”

I would not consider bringing 50 kg of oatmeal in glass jars on trail and river from La Paz to Manaus. But perhaps cooking pots, lanterns, if I bring an outboard motor I would make sure there were gasoline for it, and of course scientific equipment. In White Waters and Black, you can read more about what to take and not to take.

Women rarely go on expeditions, or they don’t write. Elizabeth Cabot Cary Agassiz (1822-1907) was an early exception, documenting the Thayer expedition to the Amazon (186-1867) led by her husband Louis Agassiz, but it is also a relatively dry itinerary interspersed with exclamative footnotes by Louis Agassiz, A Journey in Brazil (1868).

Much more I appreciated Lady with a Spear (1951) by Eugenie Clark, an autobiography full of passion for collecting fish, part of the story of the post war atom bomb testing in the Marianas, and also testimony to the importance of having an aquarium in every home with children.

A remarkable early explorer, the British Mary Kingsley (1862-1900), made two trips to West Africa in the late 19th Century, at a time when Europeans had less chances of surviving the diseases there. She came back to England, and came back with fishes as well, and wrote a book. In the introduction to Travels in West Africa (1897) she wrote:

To Dr. Günther, of the British Museum, I am deeply grateful for the kindness and interest he has always shown regarding all the specimens of natural history that I have been able to lay before him; the majority of which must have had very old tales to tell him. Yet his courtesy and attention gave me the thing a worker in any work most wants — the sense that the work was worth doing — and sent me back to work again with the knowledge that if these things interested a man like him, it was a more than sufficient reason for me to go on collecting them.

That is a very kind acknowledgment, and Mary must have been a very nice person, who also made headlines when defending Africans and African cultures against Christan demonisation. Mary collected fish in the Ogowe River, and has some species named after her in recognition of her contribution to ichthyology. She worked all alone and on her own expense. I find that remarkable, given the obvious hardships, the absence of cars, roads, airplanes, air-condition, and bottled water that present-day explorers make good use of. Travels in West Africa is old enough to be in the public domain and can be downloaded from various sources such as Google Books.

If you do not write down your story, it never happened.

All books here are available from Amazon and other Internet books shops, except Iténez – River of Hope, to be ordered from AquaPress. Image Sven Kullander, CC-BY-NC.

Frying tilapia

Fresh tilapia. Yunnan, 1995

Prompted by reactions to an earlier post, here is the only fish recipe I have: fried fish. Not at all like deep-fried fish in fish’n chips, but could be a milanesa de pescado. This post is particularly suitable for all who do not know how to cook and need a very simple dish that is guaranteed to make a great meal. It works with most acanthomorphs, needing firm flesh; avoid cypriniforms an clupeiforms. First time I tried this procedure was in Lusaka, Zambia, with Oreochromis andersonii, probably the best tasting tilapia species, but should work with any tilapia anywhere.

In addition to fish fillets, you need 2-3 eggs, whisked to homogeneous liquid, about 2 dl of dried breadcrumbs, some salt, pepper if you like. Tilapia, cod, and many other fish do quite well without spices, but salt is recommended. Mix the salt with the breadcrumbs, do not apply on the fish. One kilo of fish is more than enough for a whole family of four.

1. Thaw the package. Takes the whole day, unless you use the defrost option of the microwave oven.

Thawed tilapia fillets

Whisked eggs

Breadcrumbs with some salt in

2. Immerse each fillet in the whisked egg.

3. Cover the fillet with breadcrumbs.

4. Repeat 2-3 for each fillet, until you have a nice pile.

Starting to look like something

5. Locate oven, frying pan, and cooking oil/margarine (but butter is better). Heat the pan to about medium (6 on a scale to 10), apply oil to cover bottom of pan.

6. Put in 2 larger or 3 smaller fillets in the pan, leave for about two minutes or until a soft golden (not brown), then turn and fry on the other side and keep turning until both sides nicely golden. The cover absorbs the oil, so you probably need to add some for every turn.

7. Repeat 6 until all fillets fried.

Golden, golden, fried tilapia

8. Serve with rice, potatoes, or whatever you like. Real men don’t eat tomatoes, though. Eat fresh. Re-heated it will be rather dry; restaurants usually mask dry fish with some sauce.

All images Sven O Kullander, CC-BY-NC

Fishes down under. The postscript

The salamander fish that I accompanied Heiko Bleher to search for (earlier post), has now hit the movies. Heiko uploaded his video sequence to youtube, and you can see it here as well. This little Western Australian endemic, Lepidogalaxias salamandroides, member of the smelt order, the Osmeriformes, is the only fish that can bend its neck. Furthermore, it sort of walks, somewhat Charlie Chaplin gait, but nevertheless, the fish is walking on the bottom using its pelvic fins (most walking fish use the pectoral fins as limbs). The salamander fish lives in pools with highly acidic black water that dry up seasonally, and it aestivates in burrows in the bottom of the pools. It gives us a glimpse of the extreme fish and habitats that may have been the start of the tetrapods (but the salamander fish was not there then). Having a neck is one of the main characters to distinguish tetrapods from fish (but paleontologists studying fish-tetrapod transition don’t know about the salamander fish).

Heiko has more images of the fish on his AquaPress website

Chinese fish dishes

After a little like a week with family and friends in China, the image gallery consists not so much of fish. We passed through some food departments in malls, including enjoying a fish burger at KFC in Hefei that was excellently spicy, said to be from pike, but was perhaps not a fish dish.

Chinese largemouth bass before
Photo: Sven O Kullander, CC-NC-BY

Chinese largemouth bass after
Photo: Sven O Kullander, CC-NC-BY

My brother in law, Cheng Hua, is an excellent cook, and he prepared both catfish (Pelteobagrus) and largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides). I had my first noodlefish soup (that I can remember) and also noodlefish (Salanx chinensis?) topping a light omelette, and oven-baked Siniperca, as well as deepfried Sillago; witness also the split-head big-head carp head (Hypophthalmichthys nobilis). Freshwater fish generally do not taste much, and especially cyprinids tend to be of loose consistency. The trick is to marinate and prepare the fish whole (gutted, and gill-arches removed).

Split-head big-head carp head under peppers
Photo: Sven O Kullander, CC-NC-BY

Noodlefish soup
Photo: Sven O Kullander, CC-NC-BY

Shark fins? No, I have memories of boxes of shark fins from earlier visits, but this time did not see any. Perhaps a good sign, but shark fins were never cheap. Shark fin soup is excellent treat, but nothing humanity cannot live without. Thick chicken soup is equally fine. Perhaps, if chicken were to have their wings and feet cut off and still living bodies thrown to rot on the ground, chicken soup might take up competition of delicacy – or not? There will never be any shark farms to produce shark fins for soup.

So, what fish were we eating in China then. Largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides) from North America, tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus, and O. aureus) from Africa, and pacu (Piaractus brachypomus) from South America, are very common. Traditional and new aquaculture species such as the bighead, silver, black, and grass carps (Hypopthalmichthys nobilis, H. molitrix, Mylopharyngodon piceus, Ctenopharyngodon idella), the common carp (Cyprinus haematopterus), the catfish Silurus asotus, swampeel (Monopterus albus) (a favored fish on this blog), and weatherfish (Misgurnus anguillicaudatus), are of course still common.

Swampeel by the dozen. Hefei food mall.
Photo: Sven O Kullander, CC-NC-BY

Chinese aquaculture strategy seems to be expand on cultured biodiversity rather than improving or adapting species already in culture. Not very different from the rest of the world, except that, interestingly, the rest of the world mostly did not have aquaculture traditions, and only one of the traditional Chinese aquaculture species has been globally adopted, i.e., the “common carp”. With the reservation that the carp cultivated in Europe is the local species Cyprinus carpio, whereas the Chinese redfin carp Cyprinus haematopterus is only almost the same. These two species have been dispersed worldwide by fisheries people totally ignorant of what species they have been dealing with.

Carp in a bucket. Yunnan 1995
Photo: Sven O Kullander. CC-BY-NC

But I have to admit, at home, frozen tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus) imported from China, is a favorite dish. Tilapia is excellent meat. Is is not weird to eat, in Europe, African fish produced in China? And most weird of all: Why do the swedes, with all their water, eat aquaculture fish from the other side of Eurasia. When it comes to aquaculture, nothing makes sense.

Gould’s fishes

Innocent puffer in Sydney Aquarium. Photo S.O. Kullander CC-BY-NC

Flying a lot those days, I read a novel by Richard Flanagan, Gould’s Book of Fish (2001, Pan McMillan Australia). Of course, the reason for picking it up in the Perth airport bookshop was the combination of title, cover image (fish) and some fish plates inside. The book cover also said “Masterpiece” and “A work of significant genius”.

Whereas the “Book of Fishes” illustrated by William Gould exists, as well as its artist existed, the fish painter in Flanagan’s fiction is somebody else, the narrator echoing Flanagan’s exposure of the violence, cruelty, terror, lack of morale, and inhumanity reigning in the early history of Australia. It is also a tale of two ways of apprehending fish, and a layman’s mockery of 19th century exploratory science.

Whereas today’s “evil/mad scientists” are the ones constructing nuclear and biological weapons, and consequently mostly being engineers in service of politicians rather than true scientists, in those days, collecting, taxonomy, and the misguided study of phenotypical variability within Homo sapiens, along with the invention of the steam engine, textile factories with mechanical weaving machines, and other premonitory of the industrial revolution, contained considerable fuel for contemporary and subsequent flaming as pure evil.

The ‘evil’ scientist, however, is rarely, if ever, a scientist as scientists understand science: explaining how the world and everything in it works, using methods of observation that are relevant and repeatable, and reporting conclusions that are falsifiable at least in principle. This science permits us to understand why we have seasons, how to fly to the moon, why fish have scales or not, and that humans trace their ancestry to fish. Unfortunately, science is not very good at creating peace on Earth, something that is assumed to be the wish of all people. Peace is also not the task of science, but could benefit from more studies into the processes involved in human interaction, and the rational mind is better equipped to work for a world free from war and suffering.

In Flanagan’s novel, corruption, the companion of power, is at the forefront. Among other figures in the novel, the evil scientist strives foremost for academic recognition, and becomes the slave of other evil academics striving in the same direction. What was membership in an illustrious academy in the 19th Century, today has become “high impact” publication. It is only more murderous and so many people are involved that none will go to history on publication alone. Thousands of high-impact papers are published annually, without anyone noticing the impossibility of this bibliometric tool, and thousands upon thousands of research papers are disseminated without this stamp. Apparently more research is produced without the stamp than with and there is absolutely no difference in quality. We have seen earlier how Darwinius massiliae managed to reach a one-week long fame without really contributing anything exceptional, and so the show goes on. It is not enough to do research. It also has to be packaged, marketed, and sprayed over the masses. This is problematic, because with most research laymen cannot consume it directly. I cannot read a physics paper, I need it explained to me, which makes the explanation a crucial component of research. I cannot trust the scientist because of my own ignorance;, can I trust the popularizer, the journalist? Who makes the choices what to report and what not? Why was never the “link between monkey and Man” corrected? Where is the science?

Bill Gould, in Flanagan’s book, is a bad guy painting fish in a penitential settlement in Tasmania, hired for a while by the evil scientist who resorts to anything in order to have his academic membership, including cultivating a to-be smart pig, fish paintings, mollusk collecting, and beheading natives, all in the name of science in capital letters. Himself he is cheated by the Europe-located member of the academy using the collections to compete with rival academicians. There is no science here. The mere use of yardsticks, thermometers, and other instruments, the mere assembling of measurements and other numbers is not science. The mere assembling of specimens is not science. The wicked idea of beheading a fellow human to obtain academic tributes is absurd and repenting irrespective of at what time in history it occurred or for whatever political, religious, or scientific justification attached to the act. Yet, the “evil scientists”, who are not scientists, come with every corrupt government, and the scandals effected by these individuals stay in memory.

It is definitely true that colonialism put an end to human innocence. In the local exhibit in Botany Bay, there is a cartoon depicting two native Australians watching from shelter the Cook party landing in 1770. One of them says “Look, international terrorists!” We cannot rewrite history, only admit that what is wrong in science today was wrong then, because our earlier colleagues also had choices. Scientists, including another Gould (Stephen Jay), have already exposed the ridiculosity of craniometry and phrenology as a source of knowledge about intellectual and other characteristics of individuals or groups of individuals, based on scientific criteria. In ridiculing his exiled scientist in Tasmania, Flanagan, for that reason certain to be correct, shots another arrow through the black heart of phrenology with his parody of the penitentiary scientist, while at the same time giving a colourful hint at how colonialism and in particular the overseas prison colonies could create an atmosphere permitting these crimes.

Nevertheless, Flanagan is not a historian, his novel is fiction, and his dream is Rousseauan from the forebrain to the fingertips. His world is ruled by the weedy sea dragon and its conception of the universe. His message is clouded by clouds and dressed by fumes, drenched in body fluids sprayed over all pages, and most of the time reading I long for the proper use of sentences rational to the mind and true to the history behind the story. Indeed, I want the real William Buelow Gould (1801-1853) and history, because no matter how long I look at fish, I will never be one, and instead of giving up on humanity, I will live part of it, hopefully to the better of it. I would suggest “Finding Nemo” as an alternative to “Gould’s Book of Fish” if you have time to spend. But maybe you have to read “Gould’s Book of Fish” to get the point of this essay? Or you can read the more detailed review by Frances Devling Glass, revealing all including the end.

Fishes down under

The IPFC8 over, and number 9 probably located to Japan in 2011, it is soon time to bid farewell to Australia. Not much of fishes have we seen, but the Sydney Aquarium was interesting and had many fishes on exhibit both salt and fresh. I got my first closeup of a dugong, the real mermaid.

Mermaid: Dugong in Sydney Aquarium.
Photo Sven O. Kullander. CC-BY-NC
The local mall also had a nice assortment and tonight we dined on Macquairia maccullochi (hope I get this right because it is not easy to spell or remember) which was excellent. All the fish and chips and the fishburger in Pemberton were delicious but I am not sure what species is involved.

Barramundi, fish market in Sydney. Photo Sven O. Kullander, CC-BY-NC

Saturday and Sunday I was invited by Heiko Bleher, famous in the aquarium world for travelling everywhere in the world in search of interesting freshwater fishes, to come along on a trip to photograph Lepidogalaxias salamandroides.

We had a nice journey from Fremantle south, guided by a map with likely localities already marked. Lepidogalaxias salamandroides is a very special fish. It is the only fish that can turn its head in different directions, just like humans can move the head relative to the neck. In the fish, this is accomplished by an extended distance between the anterior vertebrae, providing room for muscle movements otherwise impeded by the relatively stiff normal fish vertebral column. It is confined to, but not uncommon in a relatively narrow stretch of coastline in southwestern Western Australia, and more precisely to swamp regions that dry out in the summer, and carry water only in the winter. The fish aestivates buried in the ground, and comes out only when it rains. Generally in is the only species in the pools where it is found, along with some freshwater crayfish.

And, yes, we were quite successful in finding the salamander fish, south of Northcliffe (population 200, in the middle of nowhere), where it was in all roadside pools, over white sand bottom, in clear, red-coloured water, with a typical vegetation I do not know to name. In one place we found it together with Galaxiella nigrostriata, which is also a small species, but probably not able to aestivate. Heiko will make available images and detailed information elsewhere, in the meantime enjoy the exclusive habitat of the species.

Habitat of Lepidogalaxias salamandroides near Northcliffe, Western Australia.
Photo Sven O. Kullander. CC-BY-NC

PS. No, it was Maccullochella macquariensis, locally called trout cod, difficult to spell in any case, and maybe should not have eaten because it is an endangered species, something I now have come to know.

Eel out swamp eel in

Consulting the source paper for the rectum-eating eel (Siu Fai Lo, Sin Hang Wong, Lok Sang Leung, In Chak Law, Andrew Wai Chun Yip, Traumatic rectal perforation by an eel, Surgery, Volume 135, Issue 1, January 2004, Pages 110-111) where the fish is not identified further than to “eel”, it appears from the photograph there, which is very small and in low resolution, that this is not an eel at all, but more likely a swamp eel, apparently Monopterus albus, a common food fish in China where it is sold alive in the markets. This identification is suggested by the very slender tip of the tail, and somewhat inflated gular region. Thanks to Ralf Britz, expert on this order of fishes, the Synbranchiformes, for inspiring me to look at the original paper and first suggesting the identification. The swamp eel portrayed here, was never inside a human, though:

Monopterus albus, preserved. Photo Sven O Kullander, CC-BY-NC

Eel in eel out

One of my favorite sites is Matt Clarke’s web version of Practical Fishkeeping, a British aquarium journal.

Matt’s blog recently had this message: “50cm eel removed from man’s rectum”. This report building on an article in the commercial medical journal Surgery, relates that a man put up a live eel (Anguilla, species uncertain) in his rectum to remedy constipation. I guess the eel was supposed to eat away on whatever was blocking, but it was hungrier than that. That blog post has been read 10,925 times, which is probably quite good for a fish blog. I am fascinated also by the language in the comments. That is why I am never ashamed of mine Englisch. Now, see Practical Fishkeeping for more details or forget you ever saw this message …

Image: Robbie N. Cada, public domain

Similar images

Has it not happened that you use Google search to search for images of say Danio rerio (a well-known fish). You get 16 900 hits. Unfortunately it is all too impossible to find a fish on many of those photos, because Google finds pages with the text Danio rerio having an image. And it takes time to browse through 16 900 images. This kind of image search is useful for finding the unexpected, such as anatomical drawings, phylogenetic trees, and people working on zebrafish, and definitely worth trying now and then. Without the image filter, you get 1 510 000 hits for Danio rerio, and that is just too much to browse in the hope of finding an image of the fish.

Google Labs now have a new tool under development that looks promising. It is called Similar Images, and uses some kind of image pattern recognition. What you do hear is that you specify a search for images as usual, e.g., Danio rerio, get the same result (but 16 500), but some images have the link “similar images”. Click one of those, and you get a subset of the 16 500, and on succeeding searches using the same method, you get down to 300-500 look-alike images, and most likely you have exactly what you want within reach.

This might be a tool for matching photos of unidentified fish specimens, and could also be helpful to check fish identifications on the web. Maybe could be used for other things than fish? Seems to work well with Paris Hilton (a well-known human), but for what …?

Danio rerio from Wikimedia (c) Free use

Danio rerio from Wikipedia © Free use