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A Book Review & Pop Quiz:

Fishes of the World

Third Edition, 1994

Joseph. S. Nelson

John Wiley & Sons, N.Y.

600 pages, @ $80.00

Bob Fenner  

When it comes to different aspects to aquaristics; hobby, engineering, business, science... it seems "never the twain shall meet". This is a real shame, and loss to all. The various fields do indeed have so much to offer each other; insights, knowledge and inspiration.

One such "bridge" work/reference tool is the long awaited (for me) third edition of Nelson's Fishes of the World. As in the first (1976) and second (1984) versions, it's stated purpose is "...to present a modern introductory systematic treatment of all major fish groups" has been achieved admirably. All "higher" taxonomic divisions of living and extinct forms are detailed with a listing of principal genera, and a count of these and their extant species. All larger taxa, families, orders, etc. are presented with numerous notes on their structural characteristics, distribution and interesting natural history.

For Whom the Fish Tolls:

Fisheries biologists, serious aquarists, folks interested in zoology will find the bulk of the text's systematic review a valuable ichthyological orientation. Pet fish hobbyists may benefit most from reading the book's introduction (to fishes) chapter and use of it's extensive (seventy-four pages) of references. For those who have heard whines of "there's nothing written ...", or more honestly, "How can I go about finding ...about such or such fishes", a beginning might be the species or group's references associated with their classification in this book. At a large library you can search these out, and in turn look up their citations.

The Good, the Bad and the Ambivalent:

What's not to be liked in this work? Style-wise it's pretty much a dry reference tome. For writers, researchers and advanced aquarists knowing the taxonomic relations of fishes is a necessary to powerful tool. Related types have similar needs and habits; e.g. habitat preference.

I like the increased number of useful line drawings, the updated tabular count of valid species, up to 24,618 now, and the stated maximum size of largest family members. The Introduction to Fishes chapter is great. It's neat to note that most fishes are more closely related to mammals than to (certain) other (sic) fish and that there are more recognized species of living fishes that all the other vertebrates (amphibians, reptiles, birds & mammals) combined.

Here's that promised quiz; are you ready? What are the eight largest families of fishes? No peeking.

1) Cyprinidae; minnows: the barbs, 'sharks', danios, rasboras, goldfish, carps, some over 2 meters in length, one over 3 M!, @ 2,010 species.

2) Gobiidae: gobies, mudskippers. @ 1,875 species.

3) Cichlidae: cichlids. About 1,300 species; more than twice the number Nelson admitted in the 2nd edition. Largest? Boulengerochromis natch, @ 80cm. named in honor of George Albert...

4) Characidae: tetras and their relatives. 885 plus species.

5) Loricariidae: 'plecos' and other armored sucker-mouth catfishes from Panama on down through South America. @550 species

6) Labridae: the wrasses, @500 species. The largest? the Napoleon, Cheilinus at more than 2.5 meters; now that's a wrasse!

7) Balitoridae: the river loaches; but don't include the popular aquarium loaches in the seperate family Cobitidae. @ 590 species.

8) Serranidae: basses, groupers, basslets... 449 species.

How many did you get? Sort of like 'Cosmo', eh? More than four, you're a super-star of rent-a-car; less than two, "you a fool", time to get back in (the fish) school.

Other areas in this Introduction section touch on the importance of fish to people (including the home aquarist, thanks Joe), biodiversity, habitat and structural diversity, classification and systematics, distribution and biogeography. All the best fishy trivia and Nelson has written it well. Read it over and impress your friends, aquarist types or not.

Technically the book is the usual high standard production of John Wiley & Sons. Sturdy, perfectly bound, this edition comes with a nice gold embossed cover and bonus frontispiece charting. Thanks.


The inconsistent use of "fish" (e.g. pp 1, 2) where it would have served better to use fishes plural for more than one species; a few other typos (valulable on p. xii) are minor aggravations.

Nelson is drifting to the speculative "splitter" (versus "lumper") leaning in this edition. The many sub-, super-, infra-, etc. splicing and dicing of the various taxa should be ignored by most readers. The author's picking and choosing through many new unpublished references does little to add to the usability or credence of the work.

"Come See, Come Saw":

I sort of miss the family distribution maps in the Appendix of the first and second editions. If you're into the same you may well be able to pick up a used copy of an earlier edition (not mine) or check for Tim Berra's work (see references) for the freshwater families.

The index is very good; complete with nice font differences for common, generic and higher taxonomic names, making for easier reading. A technical glossary would be welcome for servicing the breadth of actual users of this source.


The higher classification of fishes is in a dynamic state. Nelson's History of Fishes is the most useful, relevant synthesis and reference for those who deal with interests above the genera and family levels; ichthyologists, fish systematists and advanced hobbyists.


I got mine at the local university (UCSD) book store. You might check the phone directory in your town for a technical book store, or advertisers in the back of this magazine. All book outlets can order from the publisher (Wiley) for you.

References/Further Reading:

Berra, Tim M.. 1981. An Atlas of Distribution of Freshwater Fish Families of the World. Univ. of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.

Finley, Lee. 1989. (A review of) Fishes of the World, 2nd Ed. (1984). Aquarium Fish Magazine, Sept./Oct. 89.


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