Description of four species of Fishes from the Rivers at the foot of the Boutan Mountains

J. M'Clelland.

Several species from the Boutan mountains have been described in the notice of Mr. Griffith's collections, made during the Embassy of Captain Pemberton, &c. in the second volume of this Journal, p. 586.

Mr. A. Campbell, Superintendent of Darjeeling, favoured me with two species from Darjeeling, noticed in the second volume, p. 148.

Mr. D. C. Russell, of the Bengal Civil Service, favoured me with a species from the same quarter, which has been noticed p. 427, vol. 1 .

It remains upon the present occasion to describe three species subsequently received from Mr. A. Campbell, and which would have been noticed earlier, but that I have been waiting in hopes of receiving a regularly selected collection from that quarter, such as might afford materials for a paper on the subject of suitable interest and importance.

Before going further, it is necessary in the first instance to offer a few remarks on Mr. Russell's specimens, of the Ground Fish of Boutan, or, as it has been called, inaccurately I suspect, the bura Chang . This species belongs to the same well known genus, with a small fish known in some parts of Bengal under the native name Lata , in other places called Chang . The Boutan ground fish is so much like The Chang, that ordinary observers would only distinguish it as considerably larger; hence I conceive the term bura Chang to be only a corruption of bura (large) Chang . In my former remarks on the subject, the species was considered to be the same as Ophicephalus barca, Buch . I now consider it to be a distinct species, which may be named and described as follows:

Ophicephalus amphibeus (J.M.) - Bura Chang

In addition to the general characters of the genus, the dark, and the sides marked with twenty-four alternately dark and whitish transverse bars. The length is equal to eight diameters of the body taken at the pectoral fins. The ventral fins are small and soft, the dorsal and anal broad, the former commencing on the back just above the pectorals. The fin rays are

P. 14: D. 48: V. 5: A. 34: C. 13.

When alive, the dark sombre colours are relieved by minute dots of vermillion and smalt blue, dispersed indiscriminately over the upper parts of the body and sides, more particularly about the head.

This species is very nearly allied to Ophicephalus nigricans, Cuv. et Val. from which it differs in containing two rays less in the dorsal fin.

First drawing of C. amphibeusThe first drawing of C. amphibeus. It was first considered to be a specimen of C. barca. After 4 years, it was reconsidered as an own species. Later, it was again considered as a synonyme of C. barca by Francis Day.
When noticing this subject on a former occasion, vol. 1 p. 427 , the circumstance of Buchanan Hamilton having twenty years ago announced the fact of certain species of this genus inhabiting holes in the perpendicular banks of the Bramaputra, near Goalpara, wag pointed out. The holes he says, were those frequented by certain birds, and consequently raised high above the water. Other species of this genus, (says the same author,) are found on the grass after heavy showers of rain, and that too at a distance from water, go as to be reckoned amongst those fishes which the natives of India, together with many Europeans, believe to fall from heaven with rain. See Gangetic Fishes, pp. 67-8 .

As to the species here described, Mr. Russell observes, that it is found in the vicinity of the Chail river, one of the tributaries of the Teesta at the foot of the Boutan mountains; sometimes it id met with as much as two miles from the bank of the river, where it penetrates into holes in the ground... From these it probably emerges when the ground is inundated during heavy rain, like the species of this genus so frequently found on the surface of the earth, as if they had fallen from the clouds.

The natives of Boutan know so well the ground in which to find these fish, that they dig them out from their holes in the following manner: a stick is passed into the suspected hole, and the earth raised sometimes to a depth of nineteen feet. When water makes its appearance the operations are suspended, and a little cow-dung is dropped into the well, this attracts the fish from their hiding place into the well, when they are easily secured. They are said to be usually found in pairs, each fish weighing about 4 lbs., and sometimes as much as two feet in length.

Such is the account given of the habits of this species by Mr. Russell, and I have already adverted to the statements of Buchanan Hamilton on the same subject, together with the popular opinion of the people of the country and of Europeans, forming together a body of evidence not to be questioned.

Dr. A. Campbell, Superintendent of Darjeeling, in a paper, (in the xi. vol. Jour. As. Soc. p. 963,) which I only refer to for the inadvertence with which it is written, without consulting the opinions of others, seems to regard the foregoing account of the habits of the bura Chang , as if it were calculated to excite, (to use his own words,) either « an unenquiring and implicit credence, or wonder, without any lasting impression of the matter narrated, or sceptical disbelief.»

In a recent visit to Boutan, Dr. Campbell states, that he learnt on enquiry, that the bura Chang or, as he names it the bura Chang , is not found on the right bank of the Teesta. 1

It inhabits jheels and slow running streams near the hills, living principally in the banks, into which it penetrates from one foot to six. The tubes leading from the water into the banks, are generally a few inches below the surface of the water, 2 and are consequently filled with water, and terminate in a basin where the fish remains. The usual mode of catching them is by introducing the hand into these recesses under the water, two fish are generally found together, and they lie coiled up horizontally like a wheel. It is not believed that they bore their own holes, but that they occupy the abandoned locations of land crabs. When in the water-pools or streams, they always remain close to the margin, and constantly move out and into their holes. «They never leave the water, nor can they move on grass more than any other fish.»

Under an impression, perhaps, that no fish are formed to live out of water, Dr. Campbell may have thought it necessary to obtain the foregoing information, in order to reconcile with his own views, what appeared to him to be an exception to a general law of nature. But there are eight genera of the same family of fishes to which the bura Chang belongs, all specially formed for an amphibious mode of life. They constitute what Cuvier calls, the family of Labrynthiform Pharangeals , from the circumstance of their pharangeal bones being formed into a kind of honeycomb, for the retention of a supply of water to enable them to live in dry places.

The following is the account of the family in question, as given by the Baron Cuvier in the Histoire Naturelles des Poissons :

«The family of which we are about to afford a history, is remarkable for a peculiar structure, which consists of a division into leaflets of a portion of the pbarangeal bones. This division produces a number of little cells more or less complicated, and calculated to retain a certain quantity of water; they are a good deal like the cells in the stomach of the camel. This apparatus is formed under the arches of the operculum, and being pressed closely against the body when the fish is removed from the water, a sufficient quantity of that fluid is thus retained free from evaporation, and in contact with the gills, to protect them from drought. Hence the fishes of this family, whose habits we have any account of, all seem to be capable of quitting the rivers and tanks in which they ordinarily reside, and frequently make excursions to great distances by jumping along the grassy surface of dry land.»

Hence we see, that Mr. Russell's account of the bura Chang , is only in accordance with the known habits of the family to which it belongs, and however extraordinary it may seem, does not require to be bolstered up by any such explanations as those of Dr. Campbell. Nature herself is the best monitor in such cases. Mr. Pearson incommunicating Mr. Russell's account of the bura Chang to the Asiatic Society, considered it to be of such a novel 3 nature, as to deserve on that account the peculiar attention of that learned body. Now as to the novelty, which the Society took for granted !

«What is most astonishing» , says Baron Cuvier, «and what some naturalists of the present day ought to be ashamed of, these habits were known to the ancients.»

Theophrastus in his Treatise on Fishes which live without water says, that there exist in India certain fishes which leave the rivers for a time, and return to them again; that they resemble those which the Greeks call XXXXXX that is to say, mullets. «There may be some doubt,» says Baron Cuvier, as to whether this refers to our Anabas, or rather perhaps to Ophicephalus, which both have the head broad and ob. tuse, and covered with scales as the mullets.» In another place, Cuvier remarks, when speaking of Ophicephalus , that Theophrastus, as we have already stated, was acquainted with these singular fishes; for it is evident to those who are acquainted with the passage of this philosopher which we have cited, that there are in India certain fishes resembling mullets, which spend a portion of their time in the earth.» Again in another work, (the last edition of the Règne Animal, vol. ii,) the same illustrious author remarks in a note, that the fishes alluded to by Theophrastus, most incontestibly belong to the genus Ophicephalus.

Thus it would appear, that what was communicated to, and received by the Asiatic Society in 1839 as new, and four years after questioned as improbable in the publications of the same Society, was well known to the ancients, and so far from being improbable, is as. I have here. proved by a reference to one of the greatest modern philosophers, to be perfectly consistent with the order of nature.

The history of this species may be useful,- as tending to remind us, how liable we are to retrograde in these things.


1 This, if not depending on some local cause, which ought to have been stated, would be far more incredible than any thing else that has been advanced upon the subject. Back

2 This we should suppose would depend on the season and state of the river, as hill-streams rise and fall so continually, that they never can be said to have any fixed level. Back

3 Journ. AS. Soc. Beng. 1839 vol. viii, p. 551 and Cal. Jour. Nat. Hist. vol. i, p. 427 . Back

Acknowledgement and Source(s)

This text was originally published 1845 in: Calcutta journal of natural history and miscellany of the arts and sciences in India . vol 5 (no. 18), pp. 274-282.

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