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Australian Museum fish specimens collected in the late 1800s by Dr Francis Day proved to be a vital resource used in an important paper published on 13 July.

The small South-Asian carps of the genus Puntius have for long been among the world’s most popular aquarium fishes. Their bright colours have made them a favourite with freshwater aquarists, and the ease with which most species can be bred and their hardiness have combined to give them an important place in the ornamental-fish trade.

Ichthyologists have for many decades suspected that ‘Puntius’ is a conglomerate genus of fishes that are only distantly related. In their recently published paper Rohan Pethiyagoda (a Research Associate of the Australian Museum) and colleagues at the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka, show that Puntius as previously understood comprises at least six genera, three of which are new.

The new genera have been christened Dawkinsia (after Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist), Dravidia (after a region of southern India) and Pethia (the local name in Sri Lanka for small carps). The existing genera that have been given new identities through the study are Puntius, Systomus and Barbodes.

In an interview with the BBC, Dawkins said he was honoured and delighted to have a whole genus of fishes named for him, especially given that an aquarium he helps maintain in an old-people’s home contains a pair of Dawkinsia filamentosa. According to Rohan, he and his colleagues chose to name this group of fishes for Dawkins because they show several characters that illustrate aspects of evolution. For example, male Dawkinsia have long filaments that trail from their dorsal fins, a character that makes them more attractive to females but which could make them also more conspicuous to predators, rather like the peacock’s tail. All nine species of the genus also share a barred colour pattern as juveniles (demonstrative of their common ancestry), the bars disappearing when they become sexually mature.