History of Ichthyology at the Academy

The following excerpts are taken from the section on the history of the department first published in the ANSP Fish Type Catalog Böhlke, 1984). See also Smith-Vaniz & Peck (1991: Proc. Acad. Nat. Sci. 143:173-191). The ANSP fish collection started with small donations and contributions from members and friends and later from expeditions undertaken specifically to obtain specimens for scientific study. From 1812 to 1897 there was no person specifically designated as “curator” in charge of the fishes and only moderate activity in the identification of specimens or in research activity based on the Academy’s collection.

Historical Overview

The greatest number of specimens received before 1900 came from Edward Drinker Cope, who is considered one of the greatest naturalists of all time, although remembered more as a paleontologist and herpetologist rather than ichthyologist. However, Cope described over 300 species of fishes between 1862 and 1894. His entire personal collection of fishes, reptiles and amphibians was bequeathed to the Academy in 1898. Most of Cope’s type specimens are in the Academy’s collection, with others in the USNM.

Henry Weed Fowler became the first full-time curator of the newly-formed Department of Ichthyology and Herpetology shortly before the turn of the century. He described the collection at that time as follows:

"My first acquantaince with the Academy’s collection of fishes began in 1894 when I entered the institution, like many of my predecessors, as a Jessup student. At that time most of the fishes, as well as the amphibians and reptiles, were staked in wall cases in the original Race Street building. Unfortunately, many had been marked with outside labels, written in ink and tied about the neck of the jar by a strong cord. As the cases were often damp and with poor light, many of the labels moulded or became illegible. A hundred or more dried specimens were placed in flat cases, often before the windows."

Fowler’s task was to sort, label, and catalog Cope’s collection. Fowler stated his intejntion to study and publish on all specimens in the collection, and to illustrate those species which had not previously been illustrated. He continued these studies to 1930. Fowler succeeded in locating many of the old types, but often adopted poor cataloging and curatorial proceedures. As the years passed, he received more and ever larger collections, and resorted to cataloging and labelling only the types. Remaining specimens were accorded only pencilled labels, often on flimsy paper, wrapped in small bundles of cheescloth, tied with string and closely packed in large brown crocks filled to capacity, never to been seen again or studied by Fowler. Nevertheless, Fowler studied and published on a remarkable number of new collections in addition to most of the older material. Over a span of 80 years of research activity, Fowler described some 1,408 nominal species of fishes in 674 publications.

In 1954 James E. Böhlke arrived at the Academy to begin work on a new project to study the fishes of the Bahamas and began the difficult task of reorganizing and improving an overcrowded and rapidly growing collection. He supervised the modernization of the department and move of offices, laboratories, and the entire collection into a new building completed in 1978. From the early 1950’s to his death in 1982, he published over 120 papers on diverse groups of fishes and topics (characids, gobiids, blennioids, dactyloscopids, ophidioids, siluroids, and anguilloids), many of considerable breadth and impact, such as The Fishes of the Bahamas.

Major Aquisitions

A complete listing of the sources of fishes now housed in the Academy collection (180,000 cataloged lots and 2.5 million specimens as of 1985) would be far too long to include here. A summary of some of the acquisitions of historical interest follows, part of it condensed from Fowler's accounts.

Since its beginning, the collection has been world-wide in scope. Earliest acquistions were donated by Academy members and friends, and included fishes from Surinam obtained by Dr. Constantine Hering in 1830, specimens from the "Sandwich Islands" [= Hawaiian Islands] and Oceania collected by Dr. John H. Townsend in 1835, collections made in Rio de Janeiro in 1854 and at Panama City in 1857 by Dr. W. S. W. Ruschenberger, and marine fishes from St. Martin's Island in the West Indies received from Dr. H. E. von Rijgersma in 1869. Many of our collections have been built through field trips and expeditions by Academy scientists. Some of the most famous have been the Vanderbilt expeditions to Africa, the South Pacific and Sumatra (1934, 1937, 1936-1939), the Third de Schauensee expedition to Thailand (1932-1936), and the Catherwood-Chaplin expedition to the West Indies (1948). North American freshwater fishes were obtained from expeditions and explorations of the western and southwestern states conducted by the U.S. Government. Cope's collections received in 1898 added large series of fishes from Michigan, from the "southern states" (from the Hoiston, Kanawha, Roanoke, and Clinch rivers), from Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Texas, and Florida, and collections made in South America.

The Bonaparte collection, bequeathed to the Academy in 1872, consists of over 2,000 specimens from the Mediterranean Sea collected by the nephew of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Another famous collection is the Hyrtl collection of 580 skeletons purchased by E.D. Cope in 1870. Perhaps the best known contributor to our collections is Ernest Hemingway, an avid fisherman who provided specimens from his various fishing expeditions.

Starting in 1898, Fowler endeavored to increase the Academy's holdings of fishes. He distributed instructions on the collection and preparation of specimens to fellow-scientists, friends and acquaintances, boat captains, and anyone who might obtain specimens for his study, and he routinely and promptly published on new accessions, usually during the same year or that succeeding their receipt. Indeed, his bibliography virtually constitutes a list of the acquisitions throughout the first half of the twentieth century.

Fowler's earliest reports were on small lots of fishes from Jamaica, Zanzibar, Nicaragua, China, and southern Florida. Larger collections were received from China and Mongolia (Dr. A. Donaldson Smith and the Farnum Brothers in 1897), from Sarawak, British North Borneo, and from Sumatra (Mr. Alfred C. Harrison, Jr. and Dr. H. M. Hiller in 1898 and 1901). South American fishes received over the years came from the Orinoco in Venezuela (Frank Bond in 191 1), the Rupununi River in British Guiana (J. Ogilvie in 1911-1912), western Ecuador (Samuel N. Rhoads), the Matto Grosso area of Brazil (E. R. Fenimore Johnson in 1932), the Rio Madeira (Edgar Smith in 1912 and 1913), Bolivia (M. A. Carriker in 1936 and 1937), the Ucayali River in Peru (William C. Morrow in 1937), eastern Brazil (Dr. Rodolpho von Ihering in 1937) and Chili (D. S. Bullock, 1910 throughout 1940). African fishes were obtained from South Africa (H. W. Bell Marley and Romer Robinson of the Natal Fisheries Department at Durban between 1922 and 1935), Equatorial Africa (Prentiss N. Gray in 1929), and throughout central Africa (William K. Carpenter in 1946 and 1948). Fishes from the Indo-Pacific were received over the years; in 1918 the Commercial Museums of Philadelphia donated specimens from the Philippines, in 1922 and 1923 Fowler visited the Hawaiian Islands to study the collections at the B. P. Bishop Museum and obtained many specimens in exchange with that museum; in 1929 he obtained fishes in the markets of China and Japan, and in 1945 fishes were collected in the Riu Kiu Islands by Capt. Ernest R. Tinkham.

Several historically important collections were purchased for the Academy. Foremost is the collection assembled by Prince Charles Lucien Bonaparte early in the nineteenth century and purchased by Dr. Thomas B. Wilson and presented to the Academy in 1872. It consisted for the most part of Italian fishes which formed the basis for the fish section of Bonaparte's compre- hensive study "Fauna Italics." It was said to contain all of the fishes described and illustrated in that study, including typespecimens of 40 new species. A second important collection is that of the fish skeletons prepared and exhibited by Joseph Hyrti of Vienna in the early 1800's. It was purchased by Cope during a trip to Europe in the early 1870's and brought to his home in Philadelphia, and was bequeathed by him to the University of Pennsylvania. It remained largely unstudied until Fowler, working at the University of Pennsylvania during 1944-1945, illustrated the specimens in preparation for his epic catalog. Fowler indicated manuscript names for eight new species, but only one description was ever published. The collection was presented to the Academy in 1954 and has been cataloged into the collection. Also of interest is a series of paratypes of African fresh-water species described by Boulenger which was purchased from the British Museum in 1912. In addition, some of the smaller collections reported on by Fowler were purchased.

Many specimens were collected during expeditions sponsored by members and friends of the Academy. Over 18,000 marine and freshwater fishes from Siam [ = Thailand] were acquired during repeated trips by Rodolphe M. deSchauensee during 1932 to 1936. Major collecting trips were sponsored by George Vanderbilt to Africa in 1934, to the South Pacific in 1937, to Oahu in 1940, and to the Caribbean, Bahamas, Galapagos, and western Mexico in 1941. The Catherwood Foundation sponsored expeditions to the West Indies in 1948 and to Peru in 1955.

A major program of study of the fishes of the Bahama Islands was initiated in 1954 through the interest and support of Mr. and Mrs. C. C. G. Chaplin, at which time J. E. Böhlke joined the staff to undertake field work and research for the project. During the following 14 years, extensive collections were made in the Bahamas, and comparative material was acquired from throughout the Caribbean Islands, the southern and gulf coasts of the United States, Central America, and northern South America. Many new species were found during the new era of exploration of the underwater frontier made possible by the combined use of SCUBA gear and ichthyocides, and in 1968 the "Fishes of Bahamas and adjacent tropical waters" was published, the first comprehensive faunal study of fishes of that area.

Specific studies and interests of curators in the department have resulted in additions to the collection in recent years. South American freshwater fishes were obtained during repeated trips to Colombia and Venezuela by Böhlke, and major collections of Anguilliformes from throughout the world were received for study from the Smithsonian Oceanographic Sorting Center (SOSC) and from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1964 a large collection of Indian Ocean shore- fishes was obtained during a three-month expedition to the Seychelles Islands, led by Böhlke and sponsored by the International Indian Ocean Expedition. During the ten years (1962-1972) that James C. Tyler was on the staff, collections of plectognath fishes were received from SOSC and deposited at the Academy. He also made collections in the Caribbean, participated in the Seychelles program, and later led the Academy's expedition to the Great Barrier Reef of Australia in 1969, sponsored by Virgil Kaufman and Alfred L. Wolf (in addition to the fishes collected during that trip, the cannons jettisoned on the reef by Captain James Cook in 1770 were located and recovered). Field work by William F. Smith-Vaniz, who joined the department in 1972, has added material from Bermuda, Puerto Rico, and Grand Cayman Islands in the Atlantic, from the Cocos-Keeling Islands in the Indian Ocean, and from various tropical Indo-Pacific Islands. Major acquisitions of certain families (Carangidae and Opistognathidae) recently added to the collections reflect his current research interests.

The exchange of specimens with other institutions and individuals throughout the years has added valuable material to the collection, including many paratypes. One of the largest exchanges involving type material was with the Smithsonian Institution in 1860, which resulted in the addition of paratypes of Cyprinidae and Catostomidae described by Girard and others. Studies of South American freshwater fishes by Cope, Fowler, and Böhlke have resulted in the acquisition of paratypes of species described by Eigenmann, Géry, and others. Small exchanges and gifts of one or more specimens have been received throughout the years, much of the material obtained for comparative purposes in specific studies. This exchange has been and continues to be encouraged; paratypes are now routinely deposited in other institutions when practical, and the Academy type collection contains an increasing amount of material so obtained.

Former Curators and Collection Managers

  • Edward Drinker Cope (1840-1897)
  • Henry Weed Fowler (1878-1965): Curator of Fishes from 1902-1965
  • James E. Böhlke (1930-1982): Curator of Fishes from 1954-1982
  • James C. Tyler: Curator of Fishes from 1962-1972
  • William G. Saul: Collection Manager of Fishes from 1972-1999
  • William F. Smith-Vaniz: Curator of Fishes from 1976-1991
  • Barry Chernoff: Curator of Fishes from 1983-1987
  • Scott A. Schaefer: Curator of Fishes from 1988-1996
  • Dominique Didier Dagit: Curator of Fishes from 1993-2004

Former Postdoctoral Fellows

  • Stuart Poss: Noyes Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow 1981-82