Flying fish

Flying fish in the Science Museum, Coimbra

I took a photo of this flying fish in the Science Museum of the university of Coimbra. It is perhaps not the most impressive animal on display, but it caught my eye because I have a weak spot for animals that swim through the air. (Of course a flying fish can not swim through the air, it just looks like it could.) Since the only information about the fish was the label, I decided to do a little digging.

The first thing to do is to absorb the information that is there. If we enlarge the label under the fish we get:

Or:

FAM. EXOCOETIDAE Cypselurus lineatus (Cuv. & Val.) PEIXE-VOADOR 74 b) Nazeré, 20 de Junho de 1893

Most of these lines are easy to interpret. Exocoetidae is the family of the Flying fish, PEIXE-VOADOR simply means ‘Flying fish’, and since Nazaré is a coastal town in Portugal, we can reasonably assume that the last line specifies the place and date when the fish was caught. What ’74 b)’ means is not clear, but presumably it is relevant to the adminstration of this individual. This leaves one line to interpret, but this one requires quite a lot of explaining.

‘Cypselurus lineatus’ is the binomial name of the species, the systematic name that is intended to uniquely identify the species. Such names are grammatically correct Latin names, although the name may refer to modern concepts or persons. The first part of the name is the a genus, in this case Cypselurus, the second part of the name is a given name. There is a complication, though: as biology progresses, sometimes the genus of a species is updated. This requires an update to the genus part of the binomial name, and in some cases also to the given name, for example because the new genus already has a species with the given name, or because Latin grammar requires a modification of the name. In other cases biology decides that two species are in fact one, and chooses one name. Typically the `losing’ name is not accepted as official any more, although in some cases it is maintained as an accepted synonym.

‘(Cuv. & Val.)’ specifies the names of the persons that first described the species. Since the names are in brackets, the name given by the authors of the first description was no longer the accepted systematic name when the label was printed. Wikipedia gives a handy list of such authors. Using this list we can find that in this case the fish was first described by George Cuvier and Achille Valenciennes. This makes sense, because Cuvier and Valenciennes worked together on Histoire naturelle des poissons, a 22-volume book on fishes. Presumably the first description of this species of fish is in this book.

The next thing to do is to search for Cypselurus lineatus. At least for me, the first Google hit is an entry in the World Register of Marine Species. This entry shows that the name Cypselurus lineatus is known, but is not an accepted name, and that instead the name Cheilopogon pinnatibarbatus pinnatibarbatus (Bennett, 1831) should be used. From the entry for Cheilopogon pinnatibarbatus pinnatibarbatus we can learn a lot:

  1. Cuvier and Valenciennes originally named the species Exocoetus lineatus. We already knew the species name had changed, but now we know what the original name was. This is an example of a change genus that we mentioned above.
  2. Cuvier and Valenciennes also described a second species, Exocoetus orbigniatus, that is nowadays considered the same as `our’ species.
  3. The original name that Bennett gave to the species, Exocoetus pinnatibarbatus, is also there. Again we can see that the genus of Bennett’s name has changed, but the given species name remains the same. Also note that the two original describers did not pick the same genus for this species.
  4. The current name consists of three parts, which indicates that the species is actually a subspecies of Cheilopogon pinnatibarbatus.

Finally, let’s see what happens if we search for Cheilopogon pinnatibarbatus pinnatibarbatus:

  1. The IUCN Red List of Threathened species says of the entire species that “There are no known major threats for this broadly distributed spe[ci]es”.
  2. The same list mentions “Bennett’s Flyingfish” as a common name.
  3. Fishbase gives as description of the species: “Found in near-shore waters. Tends to occur near land or islands in cooler waters. Capable of leaping out of the water and gliding for long distances above the surface. Feeds on zooplankton and small fishes. Eggs with filaments over entire surface”, and as distribution of the entire species: “Eastern Atlantic: Cape Finisterre, Spain to Senegal, one record from Liberia, also Azores, Canary, Cape Verde, Ascension and St. Helena Islands. Reported from São Tomé Island. Western Atlantic: off Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Western Indian Ocean: Madagascar. There are subspecies in most subtropical seas.”
  4. Last but not least, Wikipedia has a minimal entry for the japonicus subspecies that has a photo. Presumably our subspecies looks very similar.

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