The History of Ichthyology: from its earliest Beginning to Georges Cuvier with Respect to Channa

Christian Kanele ; -

Table of Contents (ToC)

  1. Introduction for the Reader
  2. The Earliest Beginnings
  3. Aristotle and his School
  4. Roman Ichthyology and the Silence of the Middle Ages
  5. The sixteenth and seventeenth Century Revival
  6. The Foundations of Modern Classification: Linnaeus, Bloch, and Others
  7. Quick Rush Works honored: Lacépède, Russel, Hamilton
  8. Quick Rush People honored: Kuhl, van Hasselt

Introduction for the Reader

This text is first hand a summary of Georges Cuvier's first part of his fundamental Histoire naturelle des poissons published in 1828. This traces the history of ichthyology from ancient origin until the first quarter of the 19th century. In our summary of this work, instead of following every trace and winding, we take it as jump start into the ichthyological world of Channa and into the sections of

gives you background understanding of nowaddays Channa discussions and inquiries, and last but not least, shows you how ichthylogical information on is grouped.

Since we all are pygmies, we stand on the shoulders of Theodore W. Pietsch's edition, published in The Johns Hopkins University Press 1995. It is full of updated bibliographic references. I want to encourage every interested person to buy this book.


The Earliest Beginnings

The very first records about fishes can be found in Egypt and in the ancient Mediterranean world. They report mostly about fish as food. In the Egyptian tombs of Theben, walls do carry fish catching scenes, from which several species could get recognized. Herodot (484 to 425 B.C.) called father of history, born in the today's Turkish Bodrum, wrote in his Persian Wars about fish eaters in the near East. He also reported that Egyptian priests were not allowed to eat fish. Common people, on the contrary had eaten them raw, sun dried, or salted. In the ancient Greek world, Homer's heroes never were served fishes and during the Ulysses, the companions only eat them only after being pressed by hunger. In Aristophanes works twenty citations concering fishing canbe found in his leftover works. In the Hebrew world, the Levithicus regulated which fishes were to eat.


Aristotle and his School

Still Plato attributed in his Republic the abstinence of these warriors from eating fishes to the fear of weaking themselves with too pleasant a diet. Different with Aristotle. The Macedonian, born in 384 B.C. first studied medicine under his father. He went to Athens when he was eighteen, where he studied under Plato. In 331 B.C. he opened his own school in Athens after tutoring Alexander the Great. He died in 322 B.C.. Aristotle is considered the first under whom zoology and ichthyology took form of a true science. He collected facts from everywhere and in such a numerous manner, that they were a knowledge base for centuries. Alexander the Great is said to have given Aristotle a very large amount of money to spent for material on his Historia animalium. His genius cannot be fully estimated here. A short citation of his work will proof his outstanding position: "They [fishes] lack a neck, their tail is continuous with their body, except in the rays (raies), where it is long and slender; they do not have hands, or feet, or scrotum, or virile member, or teats. One must distinguish them from the marine animals that produce living young, such as the dolphin, which has teats hidden in the folds near its vulva. The special character of true fishes is found in the gills and fins: most have four fins [two pairs]; but those with an elongated frorm, such as freshwater eels (anguilles), have only two. Some like the moray eel (murène), lack [paired] fins altogether. Rays (raies) swim with their whole wide body. Gills are sometimes supplied with an opercle, but sometimes not, as in the case with the cartilaginous fishes: the gills of some are simple while those of other are double."1 The reader agree that this record is in his analytic driving force far beyond all other before mentioned records. Furthermore, Aristotle knew and named as many as 117 species, and he wrote about their ways of life, their spawning time, their egg laying and other astonishing details. Again, the reader will agree with the world judgement, considering Arstitotle to be the founder of ichthyology. It will take hundreds of years to produce a finer and a more systematic account on fishes. The limits of his accounts and analytic method are to be found in an inexact nomenclatura, an idea which is a product of modern times science and which needed so many men/errors to be consistent.

The Channa lovers below you dear readers might think "Well ... what's the fuzz about the ancient Greeks!?" It is as early as Theophrastus (born 371 B.C.), the favourite pupil of Aristotle, that Channa were recorded the first time in ichthyological history. He wrote a treatise called On Fishes That Live on Dry Land in which he mentioned Channa as such a fish found in India! (Admittedly not under this name). 2

Other pupils or relatives of Aristotle have also written books about fishes. They carried further the Aristotelian thinking. So were: Clearchus, Dorion. But in Roman times, this tradition drowned. We Channa lovers can thank God we do not live in those times! Lucius Apuleius (around 100 A.D.) from Madaura in Numidia was accused of magic. One of the main arguments used against him was that he engaged in the study of rare and strange fishes.


Roman Ichthyology and the Silence of the Middle Ages

The Romans were better in fighting wars and leading a luxury life style than in carrying on scientific thoughts. At the time of Cicero and Augustus freshwater fishponds were common and the rich also had built seawater fishponds. A man called Gaius Hirrius once lent Caesar 2000 moray eels (murènes) from his own ponds. Not only local fish was consumed but also fish from different parts of the Mediterranian Sea.
Roman Mosaic 100 A. D.A Roman floor mosaic found near Naples around 100 A.D. It is the time of Pliny. It proofs that fishes were not only known but very naturalistic 'drawn', though not for scientific reasons (what kind of heavy record this would have been ...) but for decorative reasons.

In respect to ichthyology, Gaius Plinis Secundus, known under the name Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) modeled the Roman ichthyology. He has left an immense work which consisted of assembling all what was written until then: authors of the Aristotelian School, other Greeks, and recent Roman travellers and historians.3

Authors of natural history after Pliny the Elder were Oppian, Athenaeus, Aelianus. Their works' only scientific merit is that they have preserved passages from the works of authors and travelers now lost. In substance, the Romans named about 150 species of fishes, nearly all edible species of the Mediterranean Sea; but they did not precisely establish their characteristics and did not even dream of methodically classifying them, so they themselves were constantly confused in their nomenclature. As for the organization of the class of fishes in general, no one after Aristotle had dealt with it.

As common in the Middle Ages, whatever was left from ancient scientific spirit, was caught in the court gardens and the libraries of the monasteries. Observations were hardly done outside the monasteries' gardens, thinking was hardly done outside the religious ideas, and the few ancient Greek works only survived by the copyists hand but which had to be retranslated from Arabic to Latin first. The scientific outcome was nearly nothing, except adding confusion to the inherited works.


The sixteenth and seventeenth Century Revival

With the Renaissance the strengthening of the humanistic, inquiring, and explorative spirit has returned to western culture. Several decades passed with commenting Pliny's books until in the middle of the 16th century modern ichthyology could get founded by men who examined the fishes which they were describing themselves. The names of the founders are: Hyppolyte Salviani (Citta di Castello, 1514-72), Guillaume Rondelet (Montpellier, born 1507), and Pierre Belon (Maine, born 1517).4 But yet, too faithful to the spirit of their time, they applied themselves more to finding names of these fishes in antiquity and composing their natural history from fragments takes from the authors where they believed they had found these names than to describing the fishes in a clear and complete manner. But, and this is the new, they added drawings to their descriptions. The drawings were ruled by their first hand observations, so that, as final judgement, accuracy and characteristic details weighed out the textual fuzzyness. Their observations were so correct, that the grouping of the fishes anticipated a sense of genera which was later helpful for Willughby, Artedi, and Linnaeus.

An important contribution to the new foundation of ichthyology were the observations on anatomy which had its origin in Italy, the birth-place of the Renaissance. This flourished in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. With the spreading of the new ideas, observations on the anatomy found its way to all over Europe, so that numerous works on fish anatomy were published, too numerous to be listed in this summary.
table of Lorenzini's OsservazioniA table of Stefano Lorenzini's Osservazioni intorno alle Torpedini fatte da Stefano Lorenzine, e dedicate al serenissimo Ferdinando III, Principe di Toscana. In Firenze per l' Onofri, 1678. It is the first monograph on the general anatomy of a single fish. It includes also the first mention of red and white muscle.

Two men have the honor of being the first to have written an ichthyology in which the fishes were clearly described according to nature, and classified based on characteristics drawn only from their structure, and in which their natural history was finally rid of all passages from ancient writings. The names of these men are John Ray (born in Black Notley, 1627-1705), an English theologian, and Francis Willughby (1635-1672).5 The name of their work is De historia piscium. For this they travelled several years through Europe. What Aristotle started to described as do not have a neck, do not have hands was now dissected firstly and arranged after classes and families, based first on the cartilaginous or bony nature of the skeleton, and then on the general shape, the teeth, the presence or absence of pelvic fins, the type of fin rays, soft or spiny, and finally the number of dorsal fins. After nearly 2000 years a system was found which was solely based on the inductive methodology of observation and arranging after commonalities. Though the author's shortcomings concerning the arrangements into classes and families, one still finds snakeheads described/identified after the number of dorsal and anal rays , and their arrangement into families (Ophicephalus, Channa) was long time after done according to the presence or absence of pelvic rays. 6

Due to the explorations of new continents along with their unholy colonization, collections of exoctic fishes made up by people of different backgrounds. During the second half of the seventeenth century, fishes from the West and East Indies, China, Japan, the Dutch colonies in South East Asia found entrance to the ichthyological knowledge of that time.
Renard's tableLouis Renard's Poissons, Ecrevisses et Crabes de diverses couleurs et figures extraordinaires, que l'on trouve autour des Isles Moluques, et sur les côtes des Terres Australes: Peints d'après nature durant la Regence de Messieurs Van Oudshoorn, Van Hoorn, Van Ribeek & Van Zwoll, successivement Gouverneurs-Généraux des Indes Orientales pour la Compagnie de Hollande. First edition of the most beautiful and rarest of all illustrated fish books, with stunning, brilliantly coloured, and often bizarrely depicted images of tropical fish, crabs, and lobsters.This is the first fish book illustrated with colour plates, published in an edition of 100 copies only, of which only fourteen copies are recorded today. 'The first edition . . . published in 1719 by Renard himself, is quite rare. Of the 100 copies originally printed, only fourteen are known, all but two held in European libraries' (Pietsch).


The Foundations of Modern Classification: Linnaeus, Bloch, and Others

The full range of modern ichthyology was not established until the first third of the eigthteenth century. Ray and Willughby failed concerning the establishment of genera, their designation with fixed and convenient names, and the assignment of short and comparable characters based on their structure to the species. The Swede Peter Artedi (born in Anundsjö 1705, died 1735) filled this lacuna of science. 7 In his posthumous work Ichthyologia, sive Opera omnia de piscibus he analyzed all the interior and exterior parts of a fish, created a precise terminology for the different forms its parts may take, drew up for himself some rules for the nomenclatura of the genera and species, and finally, and subdivided the class more accurately than Willughby and Ray had done. Artedi's orders are based solely on the consistency of the skeleton, the opercula of the gills, and the nature of the rays of the fins, disregarding habitat and anything else foreign to structure. Some of the orders are still valid today. So are most of his 43 generas he drew up. Even in the 20th century it is said that the study of the book is "essential" (Wheeler). Concerning the nomenclatura, he defined for each genus an invariable substantive name and positive, clear-cut characters, based in general on the number of rays in the membrane of the gills, on the parts of the mouth where the teenth are situated, on the structure of the scales. In his listings of fishes he was very exact with many detailed descriptions, including drawings as well Greek and Latin names. In its composition, this work was superior to all other works before written. As mentioned before, the book was published posthumously because Artedi drowned in a canal of Amsterdam, which is a definite example for irony in history: a man best in ichthyology cannot swim.
title page of Artedi's IchthyologiaThe title page of Artedi's Ichthyologia. The first printings can be bought on the Internet for several thousands of dollars. This page for free, can you believe it?

The advantageous one of this twist of history was Carolus Linnaeus (born in Roeshult 1707, died 1778 Uppsala), who was a close friend of Artedi.8 He has obtained the manuscripts of Artedi which he published in 1738. But as early as 1735 he used them for his own Systema naturae . In the following thirty-three years until 1768 there were twelve editions of his work changing perpetually. Those changes are too numerous to be listed here, as well as all his additions and contributions of others. The one addition we want to list here is because of our channa loving view onto the history of ichthyology. Linnaeus was the first in ichthyology who described a snakeheads species. It was Channa asiatica in his tenth edition 1758. Linnaeus had listed it under the name Gymnotus asiaticus . And, one contributor's name must be mentioned. It is Laurens Theodore Gronovius (born in Hamburg 1730, died 1777) who was member of a naturalists family and a friend of Linnaeus who was actively involved in the distribution of Linnaeus' work. 9 His work Zoophylacium Gronovianum introduces the today's valid species name Channa for snakeheads.10 In the twelfth edition Linnaeus takes over several additional species of Gronovius' work. Channa does not belong to the species taken over. This might be due to Gronovius listing of Channa as a Genera without a species mentioned. In total, Linnaeus' work contained 477 number of species. His preeminency in natural history is due to the convenience of a terminology which consists of the binary nomenclature introduced into ichthyology as in all the rest of the system of nature.

Before heading on to the next giant in ichthyology, we have to revoke a thread earlier mentioned. In the eighteenth century, the exploration of the world and its colonization still was under full strength. But, for those maritime expeditions still sent off, the goal was increasingly a scientific one. Naturalists and artists acted as spearheads of western knowledge gathering in the exotic parts of the world. Famous captains like James Cook and Louis Antoine comte de Bougainville had made this possible with their circumnavigations. Philibert Commerson (born in Châtillon-les-Dombes 1727, died 1773 on Mauritius) 11 had embarked with Bougainville. His collection of exotic fishes has found entrance in the later collection of Lacepède (see below). One of Linnean's best pupils, Daniel Solander (1736-1782), as well as the two Forsters, had accompanied James Cook on his travels around the world. Their collection contributed later the one of Bloch, making it the most complete survey of that time (see below). Many other names are neglected here, but this only due to my restriction to be a summary.

title pictureThe introducory print of Bloch´s Ausländische Fische, Berlin 1793.

The second preeminent name in ichthyology of the eighteenth century is the Jewish surgeon Marcus Elieser Bloch (born in Ansbach 1723, died 1799).12 His work, which he started in the age of 56, consists of two essentially distinct parts: the economic natural history of the fishes on Germany, and the natural history of foreign fishes. As Channa lovers, we have read so many times his name when it was about Channa punctatus and about Channa striata. In the seventh volume of his Naturgeschichte der ausländischen Fische, we can read their descriptions. Furthermore, the species name Ophicephalus was introduced by him. Ophi == snake, cephalus == head. Thus the colloquial name snakehead was introduced and remained, though the scientific name is not valid anymore. The species the author possessed in a natural state, either dried, or in a preservative, are often well drawn and well described, except for the colors, which are almost always misleading in subtle ways because there is no art that can preserve colors after death. Their natural history is fairly exact when details have been given him along with the fishes by known explorers such as the Missionary John13, who was one of the most useful to him, as it was the cases with the snakeheads. Bloch was not very well versed in the anatomy of fishes what seems surprising for a skilled surgeon. Bloch followed the Linnean system with modifications. He found some genera founded on good characters and real analogies. He had also taken over some genera of Gronovius, so that the work's general constitution was dependable. The real worth of it was its completeness in the number of known fishes of that time which was due to his editor Schneider who made important contributions. The number of genera is 113, and that of species roughly 1500.

Besides these merits for the Channa ichthyology, another description of a snakehead had been decided to be a first description. The mouth brooder Channa orientalis had been described in another work of Bloch. Bloch had died before it was actually published. Johann Gotthold Schneider has influenced this work greatly. They both worked together on it, but Schneider finally published it alone. This work is written fully in Latin. Its name is Systema Ichthyologiae iconibus cx illustratum. Post obitum auctoris opus inchoatum absolvit, correxit, interpolavit Jo. Gottlob Schneider. The first description of Channa orientalis goes here.

Finally, the eighteenth century has produced a large amount of anatomical results on fishes as well as the introduction of physiology to ichthyology. By the end of the century as good as every organ of a fish had been investigated.
Monroe's tableMONRO, A.: The Structure and Physiology of Fishes explained, and compared with those of man and other animals. Edinburgh, Charles Elliot, 1785. A treatise of much value (founded on actual dissections) considering the time in which it was written. It was the first important Edinburgh textbook on comparative anatomy, a subject that had been recently introduced to their London students by the Hunters.


Quick Rush Works honored: Lacépède, Russel, Hamilton

We jump over some (excuse me shallow) waters of the nineteenth century ichthyology. Only some stepstones get listed here. 14 There are several works which have a stand on their own, not because so much of their exactness, their reasonable classification and little the number of errors, but for the large amount of fishes (and because of their value for channa lovers). Besides the work of Bloch, there is the work of Lacepède. His Histoire naturelle des poissons was a general reference for the works in the following nineteenth century. He, with his full name Bernard Germain Etiennne de la Ville, comte de Lacepède, was curator of the French king's cabinet as well as professor at the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle. His history lists 1463 fishes, but of which 200 are duplications. He as an author has made the same errors as the others before him. Too often, trust in the others (errors) had led him to such a large number. We like him, because of his description of Channa marulius, published in the year 1801.

The natural history of the fishes of Vizagapatam (what a lovely name ... Vizagapatam) in Descriptions and Figures of twohundred fishes collected at Vizagapatam on the Coast of Coromandel by Patrick Russel of the year 1803 is a praised work not so much because of its exactness in classification but because of its importance on fishes in the oriental seas. Its drawings are accurately done by an country's artist and well engraved in England. The description of the fishes contain interesting facts of life history.

The real work concerning oriental fishes for channa lovers is the work of Hamilton-Buchanan (he called himself Hamilton formerly Buchanan 15. His account in the Channa hall of fame is due to the first descriptions of Channa barca, Channa gachua, and Channa marulia.
Buchanan's table of C. MaruliaHamilton-Buchanan's table for the first description of Channa marulia. Mostly he had drawn a fish in a juvenile, adult state as well as a schematic version from top view.


Quick Rush People honored: Kuhl, van Hasselt

In the mids of the above mentioned waters, two names must not be forgotten. Concerning lifetime, work, and its reception, their destiny resembles that of Artedi. Those names are Heinrich Kuhl and Jaan Coenrad van Hasselt 16. These German and Dutch men went to the Dutch West Indies where they collected a large number of species, documenting them with detailed descriptions and well done drawings. But one year after their arrival, Kuhl died in 1821 at the age of 23. van Hasselt collected another two years, but died also in 1823 at the age of 25. His very many ichthyological contributions went to Leiden where they remained unpublished. Cuvier himself was the advantageous one in this tragedy. A lots of species were described by them in their manuscripts which Cuvier could study. So were the cases with several Channa species which Kuhl and van Hasselt have originally described but which were published by Cuvier first time in his Histoire naturelle des poissons. Channa lucia and Channa micropeltes were such cases. Another giant of ichthyology after Cuvier, Pieter Bleeker 17 uses the species name Ophicephalus lucius K. v.H. in the 1850s. Later, the original descriptions of Kuhn and Van Hasselt had gone lost. Therefore, Cuvier was claimed as the one having described Channa lucia and Channa micropeltes first.
table of P. Bleeker's atlasPieter Bleeker had written 500 ichthyological articels, mostly about Indonesia (Dutch Indies). The description of the species are still in Latin. Starting in the 1860s he produced tables of fish drawings. He died before all volumes had been published. Lately all volumes had been republished.

With this we want to close our summary of Cuvier's account of the history of ichthyology. We will publish more concerning this topic as soon as we find appropriate material. Maybe the dear ready himself can make a contribution or can give a hint. It is warmly welcomed by us.


Footnote References

1 Historia animalium bk. 2, ch. 13; bk. 4, ch. 13. Back

2 Cuvier is most probably refering to: Hamilton, F. [Buchanan]: An account of the fishes found in the river Ganges and its branches. Edinburgh & London. 1822; i-vii + 1-405, Pls. 1-39. Back

3 The work we refer to is called Historia naturalis. Pliny spent large part of his life gathering materials for it with an unimaginable ardor and perserverance. It is composed of excerpts from more than two thousand volumes written by authors of whom we possess only about forty volumes. Back

4 For more information on these men, see: Gudger, E.W.: The five great naturalists of the sixteenth century, Belon, Rondelet, Salviani, Gesner and Aldrovandi: A chapter in history of ichthyology. Isis 22(1): 21-40 Back

5 For more information on these men, see: Raven, C.E.: John Ray: Naturalist. Cambridge University Press. Reprint of 2nd ed. (1950). Back

6 The merging of the two families Ophicephalus and Channa invalidating the name Ophicephalus and keeping the name Channa was done in the year 1931 by: Myers, G.S.; Shapovalov, Leo: On the identity of Ophicephalus and Channa, two genera of labyrinth Fishes. PEKING NATURAL HISTORY BULLETIN.; Vol.6.; Part.2.; pp.33-37. Back

7 For more information on this man, see: Merriman, D.: Peter Artedi - systematist and ichthyologist. Copeia 1938(1): 33-41; dito: A rare manuscript adding to our knowledge of the work of Peter Artedi. Copeia 1941(2): 64-69; Furthermore, Wheeler, A. C.: The life and Work of Peter Artedi (1705 - 1735): available online Back

8 For more information on this man, see: Frängsmyr, T.: Linnaeus, the man and his work. University of California Press, 1983. Back

9 For more information on this man, see: Wheeler, Alwyne C.: The Zoophylacium of Laurens Theodore Gronovius. J. Soc. Bibliogr. Nat. Hist. 3(3) 152-157; dito: The Gronovius fish collection: A catalogue and historical account. Bull. Brit. Mus. (Nat. Hist.) Hist. Ser., 1(5) 185-249; plts 26-34. For more information on the genealogy of this family and L. Th. Gronovius go to: Back

10 This is true and not true. True is, the "invention" of the word Channa for a fish species is by Gronovius. In 1777, a man called Scopoli had taken over the Gronovian system and had published as Introductio ad historiam naturalem, sistens genera lapidum, plantarum et animalium hactenus detecta, caracteribus essentialibus donata, in tribus divisa, subinde ad leges naturae. . The international Nomenclatura decided not to take Gronovius as "inventor" of the name Channa, but Scopoli. Back

11 For more information on this man, see: Oliver, S.P.: The life of Philibert Commerson, D.M., naturaliste du roi: An old-world story of French travel and science in the days of Linnaeus. Ed. G.F.S. Elliot. London 1909. Back

12 For more information on this man, see: Karrer, C.: Marcus Elieser Bloch (1723-1799), sein Leben und die Geschichte seiner Fischsammlung. Sitzungber. Ges. Naturf. Berlin, 18:129-149, 1978; dito: Marcus Elieser Bloch und seine "Allgemeine Naturgeschichte der Fische". In: Bloch, M.E.: Allgemeine Naturgeschichte der Fische I, Fische Deutschlands, eine Auswahl. 1:171-201. Dortmund 1980. Back

13 Missionary John was a Danish missionary priest at Tranquebar on the coast of Coromandel (Indonesia). For more see: M. E. Blochs "Allgemeine Naturgeschichte der Fische" A study. In: History in the service of systematics, ed. A. C. Wheeler and J. H. Price. Papers from the conference to celebrate the centenary of the British Museum (Natural History) 13-16 April, 1981. Special Publication no. 1. London 1981. Back

14 Here, we openly announce to read some more on the history of ichthyology to fill these gaps. Back

15 The exact title of the work is: Hamilton, F. [Buchanan]: An account of the fishes found in the river Ganges and its branches. Edinburgh & London. 1822; i-vii + 1-405, Pls. 1-39. For more information about the Hamilton, see: Gudger, E. W. 1924 The sources of the material of Hamilton-Buchanan's fishes of the Ganges, the fate of his collections, drawings and notes, and the use made of his data. J. Proc. Asiatic Soc. Bengal., n.s., 29(4): 121-136. Back

16Heinrich Kuhl, born in Hanau am Main in 1797. He was appointed to the Commission for Natural Sciences of the East Indies in 1820. Du to the climate he died in 1821 at Bogor, Java. Jan Coenraad van Hasselt, born in Doesburg Holland in 1797 went with Kuhl and continued collecting in Java after the death of his companion. He did so unitl 1823 when he died of dysentery. See for a closer ichthyological inquiry and scientific estimation: Roberts, T. R.: The freshwater fishes of Java, as observed by Kuhl and van Hasselt in 1820-23. Zoologische Verhandelingen. (Leiden) No. 285: 1-94. Back

17 About 15% of 500 articles published in 20 years of stay in Indonesia mention habitats of different Channa species. He himself described five species for the first time: C. bankanensis, C. marulioides , C. cyanospilos, C. melasoma, C. pleurophthalma . A cool interface for accessing the documents with the finding places is on the run. We also plan to publish a short biography of him. Back

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