On the fishes of Cochin, on the Malabar coast of India

Francis Day

Table of Contents (ToC)

  1. Ophiocephalus striatus, Bloch
  2. Ophiocephalus gachua, Buch. Ham.
  3. Ophiocephalus marulius, Buch. Ham.
  4. Ophiocephalus diplogramma, Day, sp. nov.

During a few years' residence at Cochin, on the Malabar or western coast of India, whilst inquiring into the fauna, I made a collection of fresh- and salt-water fish, a short account of which I beg to offer for the consideration of this Society. My catalogue (for it is scarcely more) will only contain such species as I have been able to bring with safety to this country; for many specimens, I regret to say, have been either mislaid or destroyed.

As my purpose is simply to enumerate fishes of Cochin, the periods of the year at which they arrive, and the uses or abuses to which they are put , I shall take Dr. Günther's most valuable catalogue as my text-book, adhere to his arrangement, and as closely as possible make use of the names he has appropriated to each species. I shall describe not only every new fish which I have obtained, but also those whose existence has been declared very doubtful , but of which I have been so fortunate as to obtain specimens. In the descriptions I shall adhere as nearly as possible to one formulary, and give the exact and comparative proportions of the various parts of the body, bead, and fins. The vernacular names will be recorded, when such were ascertained beyond a doubt; but they vary greatly in different localities. The native Christians do not give the same .appellations to species as obtain amongst the Mahomedans, which again differ from those employed by the Hindus and even by differen t castes of the Hindu races. In short, various designations are found for the same fish, according to the locality it inhabits and the race of natives conversing.

The classes who fish along the sea-coast and in the backwaters are the native Christians, the Mahomedans, and the Arrian caste of Hindus-, whilst the inland pieces of water are left to the Perdana Kanakas, the most degraded of a degraded race of slaves, who are only able to follow this pursuit in the early mornings or late in the evenings, when not required for agricultural labour. Nominally rna~umitted, but in reality compelled to work for a certain amount of rice (at least, when in health; for since their freedom they obtain nothing when ill), it is fortunate for them that fish forms no portion of their masters' diet.

The manner of fishing varies according to the season of the year, and whether employed in the sea, backwater, rivers, or tanks. Wall, cast, stake, and Chinese nets are all used. The last, situated on the banks of the river, are about 16 feet square, suspended by bamboos attached to each corner, and let down like buckets into the water, and, after remaining there a few minutes, pulled up again. As this mode of fishing is continued all through the year, it affords an excellent criterion of the families and species present, even when seafishing is suspended.

Besides the foregoing, fishing with a bait is employed at all times, both from the shore and small canoes. Trolling at the river's mouth, chiefly for the Polynemus tetradactylus , mostly takes place in the cold months. Likewise shooting with a Chittagong bow, or bows and arrows, capturing by means of bamboo labyrinths, and poisoning the water by nux vomica, cocculus indicus, Croton-oil seeds, or other deleterious substances, are all common; also damming up and lading out streams, purse-nets in small water-courses, especially in ricefields, catching by the band, or by means of wicker baskets somewhat resembling the eel-traps in this country.

The coast is low, without rocks, but with several mud-banks, to which many fish appear to come for the purpose of depositing tbeir spawn. A low narrow slip of sandy soil divides the backwater from the sea, with which it runs parallel for several hundred miles. Some large rivers, which take their rise in the Western Ghauts, pass downwards through this backwater into the sea. The Cochin River is 800 yards in width.

During the south-west monsoon, which lasts from the commencement of June until the middle of August, an immense amount of fresh water finds its exit by these rivers; and it is said that the sea, for sometimes as much as two miles from the shore, is comparatively saltless., Of course, at this period, whole tribes of fish migrate, whilst others take their place.

The exact amount of salt fish exported from British and Native Cochin I have been unable to ascertain; but in the neighbouring state of Travancore the average yearly exports by land and sea are a little above 44,000 bundles, of 'about the declared value of J63150. Ceylon is the chief market for salt fish; and, off British Cochin, Ceylonese boats may frequently be perceived scudding along, their occupants capturing the fish, which, after having salted, they carry back to their own country. A heavy salt-tax renders the outlay necessary for the purchase of any quantity of this condiment almost an impossibility to the poor fishermen of the coast; it is consequently only the moneyed man who can engage in the curing of fish. But large taxes on its sea export, duties on its transit along the backwater, vexatious scrutinies and detentions at the various Custom Houses do not conduce to the success of this trade.

The Mackerel, Saw-fish, Rays, Sharks, and the Chirocentrus dorab are those most commonly salted; whilst the Sardines, which sometimes appear in enormous numbers, are turned into fish-oil, although the manufacturer of this article is not very particular as to the exact species which finds its way into his boiling-pot. These fisheries, which might be made extensively available for increasing the amount of human food, have been applied to quite another use, although one which is very profitable to Europe. As the market for fish has increased, the supply has kept pace with the demand; and the greater part of those not consumed when fresh are manufactured into oil, as the following figures of the exports and imports of British Cochin will demonstrate
Fish-oil Imported cwt. Exported cwt.
In five years ending 1845, 1846 36 66
In five years ending 1850, 1851 912 3.586
In five years ending 1855, 1856 31.196 91.077
In five years ending 1860, 1861 24.142 98.151

The livers of the Sharks and Rays also afford excellent oil, which is used in the Government hospitals as a substitute for cod-liver oil. This was formerly manufactured in British Cochin; but for the last few years has been so at Calicut. Two species of fish-roes are extensively sold, those most esteemed when fresh being the small ones of the Hemiramphus , whilst the largest are taken from the Mullets these last are often dried and even exported. I was unable to ascertain that isinglass had ever been made in Cochin; but-remarks on the uses to which the various fish are put will. be placed with the respective species.

In Europe, from very early ages, fisheries have been protected by legislative enactment; but in India they have not yet met with the attention they deserve. Along the Malabar coast, since fish have obtained such a ready market, the number of fishermen has greatly increased, and instead of there being, as formerly, competition for tl;e post of panlanquin -bearers, they are procured with the greatest difficulty, which no doubt is partly owing to the augmented profits of the fishermeft.

The Western Gbauts are gradually becoming studded with coffeeplantations, and the coolies employed on them are glad to purchase all the salt fish they can obtain. Probably, at no distant date, the coffee-planter will unite with the philanthropist in desiring that the western-coast fisheries may be turned to greater advantage for the supply of human food. The first step towards this desirable result must be some diminution or alteration in the salt-tax, or rather in the price of salt, which is now a monopoly of the British and native governments. But this is a subject for the politician and financier, not for the naturalist, to solve; but such a result would undoubtedly prove to Malabar humane, beneficial, and politic.


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Ophiocephalus striatus, Bloch

Verarl or Wrahl (Mal.).

B. v. D. 37-40. P. 17. V. 6. A. 23-26.C. 13. L.l. 51. L. tr. (5-7)/(9-7).

Length of specimens from 5 ( 5/10) to 15 1/10 inches.

These fish, known over most of lndia as the Morrul (Hind.), are said to attain to the length of 3 feet; they inhabit all stagnant pools of,water and rivers, whilst the young may be found in every paddyfield. It is extraordinary in what small pieces of water they will live and thrive, owing to the immensity of animal life in the fresh waters of Malabar.

They have obtained their common appellation of «Walking-fish» from being able to progress some distance over moist places, and thus change their localities, which they do either when the pond in which they live is becoming dried up, or when the monsoon fills every place with water. Possessing a cavity (like the rest of the genus) above the gills which enables them to carry water, they are capable of keeping their respiratory organs moist so long as the fluid lasts, and can consequently breathe for some time after leaving their native element. They are not able to erect their fins, gill-covers, and scales like the Anabas scandens , but otherwise progress in the same manner. It is often asserted that these fish can exist in the dried mud of tanks; but though frequently promised by natives that they would discover them in such places, they invariably failed. Perhaps this idea may have originated because it is at the commencement of the monsoon, when the rains begin to render all the previously dried-up tanks first mud and then water, these fish may be seen migrating. It may be that as they were known to exist there at a prior time when there was water, were not apparent when the tank was dry, but were again seen as the exsiccated mud became moist 1 , the natives believe they have arrived out of it. It can scarcely be supposed these fish could retain vitality in dried mud, where they would be unable to breathe, to move, or to feed. Europeans have frequently seen them migrating; and that they are capable of walking, personal observation can attest.


Ophiocephalus gachua, Buch. Ham.

Kuravu (Mal.).

B. v. D. 32-33. P. 13. V. 6. A. 21 C. 11. L.l. 40. L. tr. 4/7.

Length of specimens from 5 to 5 3/10 inches.

Said not to grow upwards of 8 inches in length. Very common, and found in almost every piece of fresh water, even in many wells. ElIten by. the natives. Takes a bait freely.


Ophiocephalus marulius, Buch. Ham.

Chaaree Verarl (Mal.).

B. v. D. 50. P. 18. V. 6. A. 32 .C. 14. L.l. 59. L. tr. (6-9)/(9-6).

Length of specimen 20 4/10 inches.

Its coloration varies considerably: in the specimen in my collection the back was dark grey, which colour passed downwards in five or six digitations to below the lateral line. Abdomen bright orange, with a few dusky markings at the base of the scales. Dorsal, caudal, pectoral, and anal grey; ventrals orange. On the posterior third of the body, of the dorsal and anal fins, and over the whole of the caudal were round pearl-like spots.

These are considered the best of the genus for the table; they do not appear to frequent stagnant waters or pools.

The O. grandinosus, C. & V., appears to be this species. The colours of many Indian specimens are nearly as vivid as represented by the Chinese painter. Likewise 0. leucopunctatus, Sykes, seems to be merely the O. marulius.


Ophiocephalus diplogramma, Day, sp. nov.

B. v. D. 43. P. 15. V. 6. A. 27. C. 15. L.l. 84. L. tr. (7-8)/(13-12).

Length of Size (in inches) Size (in total length)
specimen from 39/10
Head 11/10 or about two-sevenths
Pectoral 4/10 or about one-tenth
Base of dorsal 18/10 or about one-half of total length
Base of anal 11/10 or about two-sevenths
Caudal 6/10 or about one-seventh

Diameter of eye 2/10 inch, or 2/11 of length of head; 2/10 inch from end of snout, nearly 3/1o apart.

Body subcylindrical in front; head depressed and flat superiorly, rather compressed laterally. Orbit oval and close to profile.

Cleft of mouth lateral, wide; lower jaw the longest; superior maxillary extends behind to below posterior third of orbit. Thirteen rows of scales between orbit and angle of praeopereulum. Interorbital space flat, slightly wider than the length of the snout; plates irregularly round, with raised margins, and smaller than those on the back of the head. About six series of scales between the orbits, the centre ones of which are the largest. Nostrils rather wide apart, the anterior of which is superior and the largest. A sharp spinous process exists on either side of the back of the head, above the operculum.

Teeth . Several rows of sharp teeth in the lower jaw, with an irregular internal row of larger ones. Several bands of sharp teeth in the upper jaw, vomer, and palate, in these two last places interspersed with larger ones.

Fins . Ventral reaches nearly as far as the commencement of anal. Fin-rays all weak. Pectoral rounded. Caudal slightly rounded. Scales comparatively small, lineated, and raised at their margins. Lateral line makes. a curve from the seventh to the eighth row of scales.

Colours . Back greyish; sides scarlet; abdomen white. A broad black band passes through the eye direct to the upper half of caudal fin; a second commences at the angle of the mouth, and proceeds to lower half of caudal. Dorsal fin grey; caudal scarlet, with two black longitudinal lines; pectoral, ventral, and, anal yellowish, with a dark grey base.

Rare; only one specimen obtained, in October 1863.


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1 In one south-west monsoon, the grassland in front of the house I lived ill, and formerly part of the esplanade, became one day a sheet of water. As that evaVorated and soaked into the earth I could perceive fish swimming about. Having sent out persons to capture them, several species were brought me, viz. a Saccobranchus singio , and Ambassis , and some Barbels or Systomi . I could never account for how they arrived; for the remnants of the ramparts precluded their entrance except by the drains, but the only one which opened there took a circuitous route to the sea-face of the river, whilst all captured were freshwater species. Back

Acknowledgement and Source(s)

This text was originally published under the above mentioned title in: Proceedings of the scientific meetings of the Zoological Society of London . 1864, pp. 2-40.

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