The fishes of northern Bengal

G.E. Shaw
E.O. Shebbeare

Table of Contents (ToC)

  1. Introduction
  2. Group XI. The Murrels
  3. Key based mainly on shape
  4. Key based mainly on colour
  5. Ophicephalus amphibius
  6. Ophicephalus gachua
  7. Ophicephalus marulius
  8. Ophicephalus punctatus
  9. Ophicephalus stewartii
  10. Ophicephalus striatus


At intervals during the last fifteen years, 1918 to 1933, we have been collecting the fish of the rivers, streams and ponds in the hills and plains of the Darjeeling District and the adjoining Duars. Having found many more species than were previously known in this area, we have made a list of them and now publish it with notes and keys that may help others to identify them.

Broadly our area extends over the whole of the Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri civil districts, though we have not thoroughly explored the tanks of the southern part nor the highest of the hill-streams. We have included in our list species that we have only found on sale in bazaars, but these we have shown in brackets as many of them are brought by rail and may not occur naturally in the district. We have also included a few fish which we have not ourselves found in the area but which have been reliably recorded from it. We discovered only one new species which we named Glyptothorax horai after Dr. Hora, and the account of which was published in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society (vol. XXXIX, p. 188, 1937).

Names have been checked in all cases by reference to specimens in the Indian Museum and we have to express our gratitude to the staff of the Zoological Survey, especially to Dr. S. L. Hora, and his assistant, the late Mr. Dev Dev Mukerji, for the help they have given us. We have also to thank the staff of the Fish Section of the British Museum of Natural History for permission to examine their collection and especially Mr. J. R. Norman who has helped us with his advice.

Books consulted have been Day's Fishes of India , Day's volumes on fishes in the Fauna of British India series , Records of the Indian Museum and Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal .

The fin-formulae and abbreviations used are Day's. In accordance with the British Museum usage we have called the hinder paired fins pelvics and have substituted this word for ventrals in our quotations from Day, but we have retained the abbreviation V for these fins in the formulae. The only symbol not used by Day that we have introduced are brackets enclosing the scientific names of those, species which we have only obtained in bazaars and may not be indigenous to our area.

The text figures are reproductions from Day's Fishes of India , Records of the Indian Museum , and Journal of Asiatic Society of Bengal ; a few are from our own sketches. We have made use of the best representation known to us of each species. The photographs are our own.

The area is a particularly interesting one. A Bengali proverb says « Where water, there fish » and, as in all warm, wet countries, there is little water that does not hold them. Himalayan torrents, the large rivers, clear, gravelly jungle streams and muddy ponds each have their own fish populations adapting themselves to varied conditions. A hill stream, often only a few isolated rockbasins in the dry season, is one, continuous cataract in the rains, and fish must flatten themselves and stick to the bottom as best they can, or be swept away. Many have adapted themselves beautifully to this end. In the darkness of muddy water feelers are better than eyes and many, the cat-fishes in particular, have turned this to their advantage.

The borrow-pits, from which earth is dug to raise the level of roads, look unlikely enough spots for aquatic life in March, when whatever caked mud may remain at the bottom is covered in powdery wayside dust; nevertheless, within a few days of the burst of the monsoon, they teem with tiny fish, newly hatched offspring, no doubt, of parents that were scooped out, by hordes of muddy children as the pits dried up four or five months earlier. One might expect only muddwellers to inhabit these borrow-pits but the majority of the fish in them are beautiful, even gorgeous, members of such silvery genera as Barbus, Barilius and Danio.

Our collection has been divided between the Indian Museum, Calcutta and the Darjeeling Natural History Museum.

ToC .

Group XI. - The Murrels

This group contains only one Genus in our area - Ophicephalus - the snake-headed fishes, best known to anglers by their one sporting member - the Murrel ( O. marulius ). All species in this genus have cavities in the head which act as a primitive lung and this enables them to live for a long while out of water.

All the six species in our area are very much alike in shape though differing greatly in colour. For this reason any key to the genus based mainly on shape is less likely to be satisfactory than one based mainly on colour. As, however, it may be necessary to identify a specimen preserved in spirit which will have lost most of its colour, we have given a key of each kind. ToC .

Key based mainly on shape

O. marulius O. amphibius O. striatus O. stewartii O. gachua O punctatus
Dorsal rays 45 - 55 51 37 - 45 39 - 40 32 - 37 29 - 32
Anal rays 28 - 36 34 23 - 26 26 21 - 23 21 - 23
Scales from preopercle to orbit 9 - 10 10 9 5 4 - 5 5
Scales from snout to dorsal fin 15 - 16 16 18 -20 13 12 12
Ratio length of pelvics to pectorals over 1/2 2/3 2/3 1/3 2/3 3/4

ToC .

Key based mainly on colour

A. Pectorals plain .

B. Pectorals spotted in zones, darker and lighter patches continuous above and below the lateral line, Chin marbled .

ToC .

Ophicephalus amphibius McClell.

Note : McClelland's O. amphibius is united with O. barca by Day under the latter name. The species here described does not agree with Day's description of Day's description of O. barca but seems to agree, except in colour, with the scanty notes of McClelland's O. amphibius given in Day's Fishes of India . Dr. Hora is inclined to agree with Day in uniting the two species but, seeing that our specimens are all from the type locality of McClelland's O. amphibius and local names and habits agree, while the colours agree better with O. amphibius than with O. barca as described by Day, we have ventured to use McClelland's name.

Mechi : Bora Cheng; Rabha : Borna.

D. 51. P. 17. V. 1/5. A. 34. C. 14. L. 1. 78. Barbels 2-retractile.

In shape almost identical with O. marulius . A pair of short, retractile, rostral barbels which are absent in the latter species.

Colour : A gorgeously coloured fish. The ground-colour is blue when viewed obliquely and iridescent green when viewed at right angles to the surface. On the body this colour is sprinkled with dark spots, uniform in size but irregular in shape. These spots are absent from the belly, sparse below the lateral line and increasingly plentiful towards the back where they coalesce. On the head the spots are larger and rounded, rich brown below the level of the eye and becoming darker and more plentiful towards the top of the head where they coalesce. The brightest blue (green) and richest brown are in the region of the upper lip. Along the body 13-16 more or less irregular vertical bands about equal in width to the interspaces between them and extending from the dorsal to below the lateral line. These are bright orange bordered with brown and merging into brown on the back and are free from dark spots. The dorsal has the basal half brown or orange, the outer half blue (green), darkening outwards but having a narrow pale blue or white edge. Pectoral deep orange. Pelvics blue. Anal iridescent blue (green) with a narrow dark border. Caudal brown at the base, then iridescent blue (green) with dark rays, then blackish with a narrow white or bluish-white border.
C. amphibeusThe first real drawing of Channa amphibeus which shows how beautiful this fish is. It is a real shame that this fish is unknowing to the aquarist world for so long. This is also due to Francis Day who thought this to be a synonyme for C. barca.

Size : Our longest was 18.4 inches.

Habitat : Russell obtained his specimens in the vicinity of the Chel River about 1845 and gave them to McClelland. Our specimens all come from this vicinity but Dent, who obtained these specimens, has subsequently received reports from Rabhas living immediately east of the Torsa which indicate that the species is found there also.

Habits : The young are found, during the rains, in-flooded paddy-fields enclosed by forest. The villagers catch them and put them in their wells to grow. Large fish are found in waterpockets in the beds of dried-up streams in the forest. Russell records that they are found in holes as much as two miles from the river. ToC .

Ophicephalus gachua Ham. F.B.I. No. 1205

Bengali: Cheng Bengali name for C. gachua ; Nepalese: Hili Nepalese name for C. gachua ; Mechi: Naserainiselo ; Rabha: Na-ram ; Hindi (Bihar): Chainga Hindi name for C. gachua ;

A 32-37. P. 15. A. 21-23. C. 12. L. l. 40-45

Shape similar to that of O. marulius , but head scales larger.

Colour : Brown with a series of about eight darker brown bands sloping slightly forward from the vertical between the dorsal ridge and lateral line, sometimes produced below the later. Pectoral fin with three lighter zones alternating with darker. Day gives - «In the young there is often a large ocellus with a light edge on the last five dorsal rays.» We have never found this present.

Size : We have had them up to about 8 inches. Day gives : «grows to at least 13 inches» .

Habitat : Muddy or clear streams and ponds from 2,000 feet downwards. Day gives - «Fresh waters throughout India, Ceylon, Burma and the Andamans, also near Gwadar on the Mekran Coast.» ToC .

Ophicephalus Marulius Ham., F.B.I., No. 1198.

Bengali (local): Sal (local) Bengali name for C. marulia ; (Lower Bengal): Gajari (lower) Bengali name for C. marulia ; Hindi (Bihar): Bhor Hindi (Bihar) name for C. marulia .

D. 45-55. P. 18. A. 28-36. L. l. 60-70. No barbels.

Body sub-cylindrical tapering from the flattened, snake-like head to the rounded caudal.

Colour : Brownish or greenish-grey above, paler beneath. This species is lighter coloured than others in our area. Four or five large ocelli, dark brown with a hinder margin lighter than the ground-colour, on lateral line. These are not present in young fish. A well-marked ocellus, brown surrounded by a ring paler than the ground-colour, on the upper half of the base of caudal. This is not found in some large fish. The pectorals are not spotted or striated. Young fish are shaped like the adults but have a wide, orange-red band down each side.

Size : Day gives - «attaining as much as 4 feet.'» We have seen fish of this size in Siliguri bazaar; those caught on rod and line in our rivers do not ordinarily exceed 1 1/2 feet.

Habitat : Clear rivers of the Terai and Duars especially at their junction with a side stream but always in the neighbourhood of mud or fine sand. Day gives - «Fresh waters, principally rivers, from Ceylon and India to China.»

Habits : Frequently takes a spoon and still more often dead bait. It can be a good fighting fish but frequently settles on the bottom after a preliminary demonstration on the surface. The mother is said to accompany the young which swim in close formation. ToC .

Ophicephalus punctatus Bloch., F.B.I., No. 1206

Bengali (local): Taki (local) Bengali name for C. punctata ; (Lower Bengal): Lata (lower) Bengali name for C. punctata ; Rabha: Na-Taki .

D. 29-32. P. 17. A. 21-23. C. 12. L. l. 37-40.

Shape very similar to that of O. marulius .

Colour : Brown on the back fading to lighter beneath. A series of about eight vertical darker bands above the lateral line alternating with a similar series below it. The last band before the caudal is continuous above and below the lateral line. Pectorals not spotted or striated.

Size : We have had them up to 7 inches long. Day gives - «up to a foot» .

Habitat : Streams in the hills up to 2,000 ft., muddy streams and tanks in the Terai and Duars. Day gives - «Fresh waters generally in the plains of India, stagnant preferred to running» .

Habits : Day, quoting Günther in Ceylon, records that a female was taken in February containing 4,700 large, besides some smaller, ova. ToC .

Ophicephalus stewartii Playfair, F.B.I., No. 1204

Bengali: Dudu-cheng Bengali name for C. stewartii or Tel-cheng Bengali name for C. stewartii ; Rabha: Na-Ram .

Shape similar to O. marulius , but the scales on the head are much larger.

Colour : Dark brown on the back fading to lighter on sides and belly. A series of about eight indistinct darker bands sloping forwards are- generally visible above the lateral line and for a short distance below it. Some scales have a welldefined, circular, black spot. These spots are more plentiful above the lateral line where they roughly follow the darker bands. Below the lateral line they are fewer and more regularly arranged. The dorsal has a deep blue iridescence along its base, during life, and is white or white and orange along its outer edge. The chin is marbled and the pectorals spotted in zones.

Size : We have found them up to 18 inches. Day gives - «growing to about 10 inches» .

Habitat : Clear streams in the forests of the Duars. Day gives - «Cachar and Assam, in both running and standing water» . ToC .

Ophicephalus striatus Bloch., F.B.I., No. 1203

Bengali: Shol Bengali name for C. striata ; Hindi (Bihar): Sowra Hindi (Bihar) name for C. striata .

D. 37-45. A. 23-26. L. l. 50-59.

In shape this fish resembles O. marulius .

Note : Very dark brown above the lateral line, this colour continuing below this line in irregularly-shaped streaks, roughly parallel and a little off the vertical (the upper end in advance of the lower). The rest of the lower half yellow or orange. The pectoral not spotted or striated. The young are orange-red, when 2 or 3 inches long.

Colour : Very dark brown above the lateral line, this colour continuing below this line in irregularly-shaped streaks, roughly parallel and a little off the vertical (the upper end in advance of the lower). The rest of the lower half yellow or orange. The pectoral not spotted or striated. The young are orange-red, when 2 or 3 inches long.

Size : Our longest just over 2 feet. Day gives - «three feet or more» .

Habitat : Muddy rivers and tanks in the Terai and Duars. Day gives - «Fresh waters throughout the plains of India, Ceylon, Burma, China and the Philippines, especially delighting in swamps and grassy tanks» .

Habits : Dent says - «The young, 2 or 3 inches long, are orange-red in colour. On a flooded paddy-field, where the water is 2-3 feet deep, I have seen a mass of probably one or two hundred swimming all herded together like tadpoles. Although I have not actually seen the parent fish myself, all the, local busti-wallahs assure me that the mother is always close by and will protect the young from danger» . Day says - «These fishes take a bait very readily, especially a frog, and are said to rise to a salmon-fly» . ToC .

Acknowledgement and Source(s)

This passage was originally published under the above title in: Journal Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal . Science. 1937; vol. III. pp. 1 - 124.

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