Fish that can be Drowned

1920 Scientific American  
Peculiarities of the Climbing Perch and Other Amphibious Fish M ANY centuries ago a couple of travelers from India's land of miracles related that in the waters -which bathe the shores of that land there dwells a remarka ble fish, which now and then climbs up the bank, strolls over to a cocoanut tree and climbs its stem to enjoy a bit of palm wine, whereupon (whether intoxicated or not remains a se cret!) it returns to its native element. This tflle was by no means too big a "fish story" to be
more » ... "fish story" to be accepted in that day and generation, at which period precious little was known of nat ural history, and there was none too clear an idea of what a fish could do or couldn't do. For that matter even at the beginning of the 18th century a crab was considered a "shell fish" and under that definition the tale will bear the scrutiny of science even today, since as a matter of fact, a certain crab is found upon the islands of the Indian Ocean, the Birgus La,tro, which actually does steal cocoanuts, climbing the tree to get them and opening them very deftly with its claws. If this were all we might dismiss the ancient narrative with the idea that it was based upo,n such a confusion of termR. but early in the 18th century the story bobbed up again, and this time the animal in question was most certainly a fish. The Danish Lieutenant Daldorf reported to the Lin naean Natural History Society of London that he had found a climbing fish in the East Indian coast city, Tranquabar, which had �he revolutionary custom of climbing the stem of a palm tree, hooking itself on with the points of the extended gill .:overs, a t the same time preSSing the tail fins and anal fins 'lgainst the bark and thus managing to clamber higher and higher after the manner of our feathered tree climbers. The object of this exhibition of skill was not evident, since there was no pretense of any wine drinking in this case. The story went on to say that the same fish upon being captured played merrily about in the sand for hours at a time, and this statement was the most distinctive feature of the story rather than the climbing and the taste for palm wine. The members of the London society shook their heads. A fish that so far forgot itself as to leave its proper element and go on picniCS was not only absurd, but it was a lucky thing, too, that such conduct was impossible! Fish, they deClared, breathe by means of gills and are not able to make use of at mospheric air, but only of air dissolved in the water, , .. Hence Daldorf's story was impossible. In the name of sacred system! And yet the truth is that the story of the land-going fish is bv no means a fable. It cli. mbs, to be sure only in very ex c�ptional cases, and then only upon slanting palm trunks 'Translated from Reclam's Universum (Berlin), April 20, 1920. 221 mOTe by chance than as a regular thing, but it is quite true that H regularly climbs out of its pond upon the bank and passes hours in the dry grass with its companions. How can such a thing be possible? 'l'he first to attack the problem boldly was the celebrated French naturalist, Ouvier, in 1831. He eX1amined a pair of Climbing ,fish which had been sent to Europe and found be hind the gill· cavity a singular pocket-like hollow, within which bony laminre wound and twisted like branching bits of coral. Ouvier called this remarkable organ the labyrinth, and rightly believed that it was closely connected with the respiratory organs of its owner. Air breathing did not come into the question in his mind since at that time the singular kinds of fish whi<Jh are intermediate between true fishes and amphibious animals were not yet known to science. He con cluded, therefore, that the Climbing fish was a water breather like its kin, and designated the newly discovered l!lbyrinth a sort of storehouse for liquids. He supposed that before the fish undertook a promenade upon land it filled this organ with LABYRINTH OF THE CLIMBING PERCH wa ter like a sponge, and then pressed the gill covers closely against its sides in order to pre vent evaporation, thus keeping its gills moist and workable. This idea was entirely logical when we con sider the limitations of scientific knowledge at that time. Unfor tunately, however Ouvier did not hit the facts correctly by this in genious surmise. Four years after Ouvier's exami nation of the Climbing fish which he named the Anabas scandens, and two years after his death there were found at almost the same time in the swamps of the river Amazon and in the White Nile, those amphibious fish (Lepidosirus and Protopterus) which tempora rily dispense entirely with water and gill breathing, and, thanks to the possession of a true lung, are capable of breath ing entirely in air. Everybody was amazed at these new creatures, which in two different ways threatened the beauti ful structural system like wicked rebels, but nobody was lucky enough to think of comparing the labyrinth investigation, made by Ouvier with the case of these abnormal double breathers. Investigators for a long time considered the matter settled with regard to the breathing of the Indian Climbing fish. The first man to be attracted by the observations in regard
doi:10.1038/scientificamerican11011920-221supp fatcat:dbxsrxvuofeo3ngmxzihqiglym