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Historical Account

bloch, eggs, fish, gaff-topsail and catfish


The brief historical account herein contained will be confined to the gaff-topsail.

The first scientific man who seems to have had knowledge of this curious habit of the gaff-topsail was S. C. Clarke. In the American Angler for December 15, 1883, he says of the gaff-topsail in Florida: "The eggs of this species are golden yellow, and of the size of grapes, which they much resemble, in bunches of ten or twelve. The fisher men say that this catfish carries its young, when hatched, in its mouth." The following year this statement was republished in "Fishes of the East Atlantic Coast" by Van Doren and Clarke.

In 1883, and again in 1887, John A. Ryder makes brief mention of the fact that male catfish of the genus Aelurichthys (an old synonym for Felichthys) carry the large eggs (0.75 to 0.875 inch in diameter) in the hinder part of their mouth-cavities until the young are hatched. Unfortunately he gives no clue to the locality from which the eggs in his possession came.

Last of all comes Holder's (1904) brief mention of this habit in his delightful book of fishing stories entitled "The Boy Anglers." On page 175 is the following interesting statement: "Tom . . . secured . . . a gaff-topsail catfish . . . . As the boatman attempted to unhook it, he showed the boys its eggs packed on the inside of its mouth, where they are carried until they hatch; and even the young fish are protected in this way until they can care for themselves." In 1908 I read a paper on this habit of this fish before the North Carolina Academy of Science, but not being ready to give out my observations, the title only was reported in the proceedings. In 1912, in the Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for 1911, Section F, I published a short abstract giving the essential facts as to this habit, size of mouth-cavity, size, number of eggs, etc. Later I published the 1916 paper.

There is now to be given an account about which there is some doubt, but it seems best to insert it. Bloch (1794) figures (plate 365) a catfish from American waters which he calls Silurus bagre. This fish the Eigenmanns (1890) identify with Felichthys felis. In a former paper (Gudger, 1916) the question of identity has been discussed and there seems to be little reason to doubt that this identification is correct However, the point of interest just here is that on this same plate (365) Bloch has figured a little catfish sitting on a large yolk with its tail bent upward at a sharp angle, but without anywhere referring to it, though in the adjacent text he has been discussing oral gestation in Si urus militaria, which he figures without barbels. However, some seven years after Bloch's death, Schneider, in editing the Sys tema Ichthyologice (1801) of his predecessor, says in a footnote to Saurus bagre (p. 378): "I have observed the eggs of this fish about to be hatched in the mouth." The larval form as figured by Bloch on plate 365 has 6 barbels and lacks the filament to the dorsal fin. Whether these are errors chargeable to the artist can not, of course, be determined. Possibly this little fish is the young of some other silu roid described by Bloch in the context. At any rate it may be noted here that Bloch is the first to describe oral gestation in siluroid fishes. The whole matter is very obscure, but the data are given here that the reader may draw his own conclusions. It is interesting, however, to note that, immediately after bursting the tough eggshell, the little gaff-topsail has the same high-waving tail as that figured by Bloch. (See fig. 10, plate iv.)