Freshwater Reviews, Vol 3, No 1 (2010)

An historical review of African freshwater ichthyology

Didier Paugy
DOI: 10.1608/FRJ-3.1.1 | Pages: 1-32


The history of ichthyology in Africa is reviewed.  From the time of the Ancient Egyptians to the present, more than 3200 species have been discovered, drawn and described.  Michel Adanson initiated the first material collections during the 18th century.  During the 19th century, the work of travelling scientists (Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Andrew Smith) and explorers (including Mungo Park, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza and Henry Morton Stanley) added substantially to developing zoological collections from their field trips. At that time, many species descriptions were based on fish preserved in these collections.  Towards the end of the 19th and into the early part of the 20th century, knowledge of African fishes was greatly enhanced, especially through the work of Georges A. Boulenger, Albert C.L.G. Günther and Franz Steindachner, who, respectively, described 640, 119 and 53 species.  The majority of the naturalists working in Africa during the middle and later parts of the 20th century tended to specialise in particular groups.  In addition to conventional systematic studies, there was a steady rise in the numbers of contributions invoking genetics, specific parasites, and electrophysiology, amplifying fish identification using criteria other than morphology.  These methods have proved helpful in finding explanations for the radiation of cichlids in the Rift Valley Lakes of East Africa, one of the most rapid and extensive involving vertebrates.  Blending all these methods, descriptions of hitherto unknown species continue to be published.  Whereas, until the mid-20th century, descriptions of new species and inventories of existing ones were the principal objectives of ichthyology, interests during the last 50 years have moved much more to the ecology of fish and to its application in aquaculture and aquariology: it is only during this period that most of the publications dealing with the biology and ecology of freshwater fishes and the science of fish culture have appeared.  Brief biographies of the modern ichthyologists are presented, together with outlines of their main contributions.