Early Australian Ichthyology

Can you remember what it was like trying to identify fish from a dive before digital cameras and the internet? If you were like me, you probably took underwater photos on a film camera with a maximum of 36 shots, waited days for them to be developed (only a few ever turned out), then went searching in books from your own collection or the local library. Tough eh?

old-wifeImagine what it would have been like before cameras, or even before libraries and affordable books. In the early days of Australian exploration and colonisation, scientific discovery and description of species involved hand drawings, preservation of specimens in spirits and the drying of skins. These would then be transported back to England and Europe, where they could take years to be studied and described with a scientific name.

The first description of fishes from Australia was made in John White’s Journal of a Voyage to NSW (1790) 1 . White was Surgeon-General to the First Fleet, and kept a detailed record of his daily experiences. The journal contains 65 hand-drawn and coloured images of “animals, birds, lizards, serpents, curious cones of trees and others”. These included “the pungent chaetodon” (old wife), “granulated balistes” (rough leatherjacket), “tobacco pipefish” (cornetfish) and “Hippocampus” (White’s seahorse, which today bears his name).

Many voyages of that era included one or more natural historians, and the trickle of specimens continued back to England and France 2 . The famous Charles Darwin visited Western Australia on the voyage of the Beagle in the 1830s. He collected many specimens, which culminated in his conclusions on natural selection in On the Origin of Species (1859).

red-indian-fishGeorges Cuvier and Achille Valenciennes published the authoritative Histoire Naturelle des Poissons comprising 22 volumes (1828-1849). The work contained 30 new specimens from Australia including the bluespotted goatfish, crested weedfish and blue weed whiting 3 .

Another prolific publisher of ichthyological papers was Albert Gunther at the British Museum. He published over 170 papers on fishes, a dozen of which related to Australia. Most of the specimens were provided for classification by our own Australian Museum. Amongst Gunther’s noted works are descriptions of the black cod, silver drummer and leafy seadragon.

Whilst cataloguing and scientific descriptions took place in England and Europe, specimens were collected and prepared by many locals in Australia. These included the first “Colonial zoologist” William Holmes, the first zoologist at the Australian Museum, George Bennett, and Johann Krefft also of the Australian Museum.

eastern-blue-devilOther notable ichthyologists of the time were John Gray at the British Museum and John Richardson, who published many specimens through the Zoological Society of London. These included the red indian fish, goblin fish and tassel-snout flathead, based on drawings and dried skins.

A final mention must be made of Pieter Bleeker, the Dutchman who has been described as “probably the world’s greatest ichthyologist” 4 . Bleeker published his Atlas of Fishes of the Dutch East Indies comprising nine volumes. Today, fish that bear his name include a damselfish, parrotfish, lionfish, cichlid and of course Bleeker’s devil fish, which we know as the Eastern blue devil.


1. http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks03/0301531h.html
2. Saunders, B. (2012) Discovery of Australian Fishes, A History of Australian Ichthyology to 1930. CSIRO
3. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/collections/histoire-naturelle- des-poissons#/?tab=about
4. Gilbert Whitley (1964), in Discovery of Australian Fishes p 85.