Study of fishes

Ichthyologists identifying fish specimens in the field.The study of fishes is known as Ichthyology. Most museum ichthyologists work on taxonomy (classification and the description of new species) and biogeography (patterns of distribution). Museums house large reference collections of preserved specimens to aid in this research, and as a permanent resource for current and future generations.

Fish are classified by comparing various proportional measurements and by examining the arrangement of features such as counts of fin spines, scales, teeth, and gill rakers. Colouration is important, and males, females and juveniles often exhibit different colour patterns. Variation in colouration may also occur between individuals living in different habitats, or across the species’ geographic range.

Increasingly, genetics plays an important role in fish taxonomy, with DNA of the study animal being compared to DNA of related species and geographic populations of the same species. For this purpose, frozen samples of muscle tissue, or fin clips are retained in addition to the preserved specimen.

A thorough knowledge of fish diversity, distributions, habitat requirements and life histories is essential to the management of fisheries, and conservation of species and the aquatic environment. However, many fish groups are still to be worked on and many areas have not yet been adequately surveyed. The larval stages of many fishes have not been studied and are poorly understood. There are still numerous fish species that remain undescribed. In 1989, it was estimated that there were 3,600 species of fishes in Australia, but by 2006 this figure had grown to 4,500. Scientists currently recognise another 300 species that remain unnamed. Future surveys, especially those exploring the fauna of deep seamounts and the continental slope, will undoubtedly yield many new and exciting fish discoveries.

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