Fish scientists find on average about one species per week previously unknown from Australian waters, yet there is still so much we don’t know, says Museum ichthyologist Dr Jeff Leis.

According to a recent paper published in the international journal Zootaxa, the Australian Museum holds the fourth largest collection of marine fish type specimens in the world.

The Museum’s 1122 primary type specimens – the original specimens from which a species is first described – are the standard by which other specimens are identified.

Only the Smithsonian (USA), Natural History Museum (London) and Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle (Paris) have larger collections.

The Zootaxa paper traces the history of knowledge about marine fish diversity, which is placed at ‘about’ 16,764 species worldwide. New species are being described each year, and in this Australia has led the world for the last four decades, with 240 new species alone described in the 10 years to 2009.

The Museum’s fish collection dates back to 1858, but really took off under Gilbert Whitley, the fish curator from 1925 to 1964, who described almost 390 fish genera and doubled the size of the fish collection during his tenure. It presently holds more than 1.6 million specimens.

Does this mean that the Museum can rest on its laurels? No, says Dr Jeff Leis, a senior principal research scientist at the Museum.

‘Clearly, the era of discovering fishes in Australia is far from over. We are still finding about one fish species per week that was previously unknown in Australia, a rate that hasn't changed in decades', Jeff said.

‘Not only are there lots of new Aussie fish to be discovered, but we also have major knowledge gaps to fill, even for common, commercial species’, he said.

‘Life histories, habitat requirements and responses to climate change...the demand on ichthyologists at the Museum and in universities has never been greater.’

Further reading

Eschmeyer WN et al. 2010. Marine fish diversity: history of knowledge and discovery. Zootaxa 2525: 19–50.