Posted by: Rob Viens | August 26, 2012

“When Cooked was Good Eating”

On August 26th the rain was coming down and everybody was fishin’ for dinner. Darwin, of course, could not pass up the chance to put on his naturalist’s hat.  He writes:

“Torrents of rain & the atmosphere was so thick that it was impossible to continue the survey.— We remained therefore at anchor.— The bottom was rocky & in consequence plenty of fish: almost every man in the ship had a line overboard & in a short time a surprising number of fine fish were caught.— I also got some Corallines which were preeminently curious in their structure.— We had to day a beautiful illustration how useful the Barometer is at sea.— During the last three or four fine days it has been slowly falling.— the Captain felt so sure that shortly after it began to rise we should have the wind from the opposite quarter, the South, that when he went to bed he left orders to be called when the Barometer turned.” (Aug 26)

In his Zoological Notebook, Darwin describes some of the fish the crew was reeling in today.  Ever the practical naturalist, he was not beyond commenting on their taste in the same breath that he discussed their other physical characteristics.

All three fish he described belong to the Order Perciforms – the “perch-like” fish.  Perch do belong to this order, but so do 10,000+ (about 40%) of the ray-finned fish.  So it is a big order. All three of these quotes are from Darwin’s Zoological Notebook.

(1) Identified as Percophis brasilianus Quoy & Gaimard 1825 (Family – Percophidae). The common name for this fish is the Brazilian flathead – the largest member of the family.  These fish are commercially harvested today (so Darwin’s assessment of their taste still holds!)

“Above pale, regularly or symmetrically marked with “brownish red” (by the tip of each scale being so coloured).— Beneath silvery white: side with faint coppery tinge: Ventral fins yellowish.— Pupil of eye intense black.— When cooked was good eating.”

Brazilian flathead (from

Brazilian flathead

(2) Identified as – Plectropoma patachonica Jenyns 1840 – now Acanthistius patachonicus Jenyns 1840: (Family – Serranidae). This family of fish commonly go by the name “groupers”

“Many specimens exceeded a foot in length.— Above aureous-coppery; with wavelike lines of dark brown, then often collect into 4 or 5 transverse bands.— fins leaden colour.— beneath obscure: pupil dark blue.— When caught vomited up small fish & a Pilumnus.— Mr Earl states these fish are plentiful at Tristan d Acunha, where it is called the Devil fish, from the bands being supposed the marks of the Devils fingers.— Was tough for eating, but good.— This sort was taken in very great numbers.”

Acanthistius patachonicus (from

Acanthistius sp.

(3) Identified as Pinguipes fasciatus Jenyns 1840 – now Pinguipes brasilianus Cuvier 1829 (Family – Pinguipedidae). This family of fish is commonly known as the sandperch. Darwin doesn’t comment on their taste – maybe he was too full of flathead fillets and grouper stew.

“Above pale “Chesnut brown” so arranged as to form transverse bands on sides: Sides, head, fins, with a black tinge: beneath irregularly white: under lip pink: Eyes, with pupil black, with yellow sclerotica iris.”

Pinguipes brasilianus (from

Pinguipes sp.

All three of these fish were later described in some detail in Volume 4 (Fish) of the Zoology of the Voyage of the HMS Beagle.  This book, ironically, was written by Leonard Jenyns, the man who had been offered the position of naturalist on the Beagle before Darwin, and turned it down.  See How Darwin Almost Stayed Home Part I for details on Jenyns’s refusal and how it opened the door for Darwin to make history. Jenyns’s descriptions were based on (1) Darwin’s notes and (2) specimen’s that Darwin collected, pickled, and sent back to England.

Here is the a sketch of Pinguipes fasciatus from Jenyns’ book:

Pinguipes fasciatus

Where did I find my fish taxonomy you might ask?  Try Fishwise – the Universal Fish Catalog for all your fish taxonomy needs. (RJV)



  1. Looking at these photos makes me think about the adaptations to the water. Look at those streamlined bodies and the fins. And their buoyancy and ability to adapt to either freshwater, marine water or both…Ah yes, once again, evolution at work! It’s not about perfect solutions, just workable ones.

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