Chapter: The Diversity of Fishes: Biology, Evolution, and Ecology: Introduction

A brief history of ichthyology

Fishes would be just as diverse and successful without ichthyologists studying them, but what we know about their diversity is the product of the efforts of workers worldwide over several centuries.

A brief history of ichthyology


Fishes would be just as diverse and successful without ichthyologists studying them, but what we know about their diversity is the product of the efforts of workers worldwide over several centuries. Students in an introductory course often have difficulty appreciating historical treatments of the subject; the names are strange, the people are dead(sometimes as a result of their scientific efforts), and the relevance is elusive. However, science is a human endeavor and knowing something about early ichthyologists, their activities, and their contributions to the storehouse of knowledge that we possess today should help give a sense of the dynamics and continuity of this long-established science.


Although natural historians in most cultures have studied fishes for millenia, modern science generally places its rootsin the works of Carl Linne (Linnaeus). Linnaeus produced the first real attempt at an organized system of classification.

Zoologists have agreed to use the 10th edition of his Systema naturae (1758) as the starting point for our formal nomenclature. The genius of Linnaeus’ system is what we refer to as binomial nomenclature, naming every organism with a two-part name based on genus (plural genera) and species (singular and plural, abbreviated sp. or spp., respectively).

Linnaeus did not care much for fishes so his ichthyological classification, which put the diversity of fishes at less than 500 species, is actually based largely on the efforts of Peter Artedi, the acknowledged “father of ichthyology”. Artedi reportedly drowned one night after falling into a canal in Amsterdam while drunk, albeit under suspicious circumstances implicating a jealous mentor.


In the mid-1800s, the great French anatomist Georges Cuvier joined forces with Achille Valenciennes to produce the first complete list of the fishes of the world. During those times, French explorers were active throughout much of the world and many of their expeditions included naturalists who collected and saved material. Thus, the Histoirenaturelle de poissons (1829–1849) includes descriptions of many previously undescribed species of fishes in its 24volumes. This major reference is still of great importance to systematic ichthyologists today, as are the specimens upon which it is based, many of which are housed in theMuseum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris.


A few years later, Albert Günther produced a multivolumeCatalogue of fishes in the British Museum (1859–1870).

Although initially designed to simply list all the specimens in the British collections, Günther included all the species of which he was aware, making this catalog the second attempt at listing the known fishes of the world. The efforts of Linnaeus, Artedi, Cuvier and Valenciennes, and Günther all placed species in genera and genera in families based on overall resemblance. A modern philosophical background to  classification was first developed by Charles Darwin with the publication of his On the origin of species in 1859. His theory of evolution meant that species placed together in a genus were assumed to have had acommon origin, a concept that underlies all important subsequent classifications of fishes and other organisms.


The major force in American ichthyology was DavidStarr Jordan. Jordan moved from Cornell University to the University of Indiana and then to the presidency of Stanford University. He and his students and colleagues were involved in describing the fishes collected during explorations of the United States and elsewhere in the late1800s and early 1900s. In addition to a long list of papers, Jordan and his co-workers, including B. W. Evermann, produced several publications which form the basis of our present knowledge of North American fishes. This includes the four-volume The fishes of North and Middle America(1896–1990) which described all the freshwater and marine fishes known from the Americas north of the Isthmus of Panama. Jordan and Evermann in 1923 published a list of all the genera of fishes that had ever been described, which served as the standard reference until recently, when it was updated and replaced by Eschmeyer (1990).


Overlapping with Jordan was the distinguished Britishichthyologist, C. Tate Regan, based at the British Museum of Natural History. Regan revised many groups and his work formed the basis of most recent  classifications. Unfortunately, this  classification was never published in one place and the best summary of it is in the individual sections on fishes in the 14th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1929).


A Russian ichthyologist, Leo S. Berg, first integrated paleoichthylogy into the study of living fishes in his 1947 monograph  classification of fishes, both recent and fossil, published originally in Russian and English. He was also the first ichthyologist to apply the -iformes uniform endings to orders of fishes, replacing the classic and often confusing group names.


In 1966, three young ichthyologists, P. Humphry Greenwood at the British Museum, Donn Eric Rosen at the American Museum of Natural History, and Stanley H.Weitzman at the US National Museum of Natural History, joined with an old-school ichthyologist, George S. Myersof Stanford University, to produce the first modern classification of the majority of present-day fishes, the Teleostei. This  classification was updated in Greenwood’s 3rd edition of J. R. Norman’s classic A history of fishes (Norman &Greenwood 1975), and is the framework, with modifications based on more recent findings, of the  classification used by Nelson.


Details of the early history of ichthyology are available in D. S. Jordan’s classic A guide to the study of fishes, Vol.I (1905). For a more thorough treatment of the history of North American ichthyology, we recommend Myers (1964) and Hubbs (1964). An excellent historical synopsis of European and North American ichthyologists can also be found in the introduction of Pietsch and Grobecker (1987);a compilation focusing on the contributions of women ichthyologists appears in Balon et al. (1994). Some recent and important discoveries are reviewed in Lundberg et al.(2000).


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