Thursday, February 26, 2009

Learning to Identify and Classify the Fishes

Over the next three months I am certain that you will learn more fishes than you have known in your lifetime. In addition to the preserved specimens that you will study in lab, we will supplement our teaching materials with high quality photographs - those with sufficient resolution to see key characteristics. The photo at the left is the central stoneroller Campostoma anomalum captured by Ichthyology students in 2007. Many museums have digitized photographs of holotypes of species that you will need to learn. The Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology is one of the best. Go to their website and you can search their collections for specimens with images.

We have many thousands of preserved specimens and many thousands of color photographs or detailed drawings to assist your learning the fishes. The more you look at the more you will build the confidence to identify orders, then families, and finally genera and species.

In 2006, Nelson reported that there were 27,977 valid species of fishes and there is a net increase in species show every year as new species are described and classifications change. The living fishes represent 62 orders and you will learn most of these. There are 515 families, too many to master in one semester. The families with the most species are Cyprinidae, Gobiidae, Cichlidae, Characidae, Loricariidae, Ballitoridae, Serranidae, Labridae, and Scorpaenidae -- you should know these families. We will learn more.

At the end of the semester I will ask you to reflect on your progress toward learning to identify and classify the fishes. Keep track of how many fish you know today, keep accurate notecards of new specimens you describe and learn, learn to sketch and take good quality photographs of fish and key characteristics.

Finally, share your discoveries with the rest of us. When you encounter an interesting and accurate image of a fish species that is new to you, post the photo on the blog and write what you have learned. The more you learn the better, especially if you share this with other students.

I continue to learn new fishes all the time. It is not just in the unexplored parts of the world where new species are discovered. Dr. Richard Mayden discovered a new species of darter, the Chickasaw darter Etheostoma cervus, in a stream just an hour and half from Memphis. If I live to be 100 years old and learn one new fish each day I just might be able to keep up with the new fishes described each year.

Fish are fascinating and learning about fish is fun!

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