Fish and Slips, R M McDowall

The Rock Pool Fishes of New Zealand: Te ika aaria o Aotearoa
Chris Paulin and Clive Roberts,
Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa, $49.95

This is a beautiful book. For decades, people interested in rock pool fauna and flora have waited for biologists to resolve problems in identifying and naming our rock pool fishes. Much of this was achieved during the 1980s, providing the raw material for Chris Paulin and Clive Roberts, ichthyologists at the Museum of New Zealand, to produce a book that makes this knowledge accessible to the everyday public. And on the whole they have done a good job of it. I repeat: This is a fine and beautiful book – though with just a little more attention to lots of mostly small details it could have been a really super one. When I think of rock pools around our beautiful coastline, one of the images that develops is of groups of excited children rushing around from one rock pool to another with shouts of glee as they discover the fascinating animals and plants to be found there. Because the coastal rock pool environment is such a physically violent one, species that live there have to be specially adapted, and this leads to all sorts of bizarre and beautiful life forms. Imagine if these children had a book that would illuminate what they find. They almost had one in this book of Paulin and Roberts. Instead they have produced a coffee-table-sized and looking volume – large A4 format, handsome, glossy, wonderful colour photos, beautifully printed and so on. But when you read it, you encounter a book that should have been small, robust, and portable, that could easily have been taken to the sea shore by a school class or a family on a romp, that would easily fit into a day pack without being mangled, or even in a parka pocket. Perhaps it will be taken, but not with the convenience that it might have had, and will be at risk of being quickly knocked. This book seems to have been caught in a struggle for choice of audience. Is it to be primarily useful or primarily beautiful?’ To me it seems primarily beautiful and I think the publishers made the wrong choice. For an organisation like the Museum of New Zealand, with responsibilities for ‘technology transfer’ (to use the modern jargon), I would have thought that it would be ‘no contest’ and we would have got a field guide. However, let’s be thankful for what we have. It’s a really good start.

In this book, we can find summarised in reasonably accessible form, most of the information available on over 80 species of fish that typically live on rocky shores, often between high tide and low tide levels but also extending down into the sub-tidal zone to 5-10 metres depth, and in the seas closely associated with this part of our coasts. Mostly they are small fish, often colourful, often hard to find because they are so exquisitely adapted to match the colours and shapes of the tide pool environment. Once we get past the mandatory chapters on nomenclature, fish identification and preservation, etc, Paulin and Roberts provide some informative and interesting general chapters that look at:

  • the discovery of our fish fauna during the 18‑19th centuries – quite interesting       background;
  • the nature of the coastal environment and the demands it makes on life forms that live

there – good stuff, and ideal for advanced primary schools or secondary schools to use for  examining coastal rock pool ecology and the evolution of adaptation to it by fish;

  • a somewhat academic discussion of the zoo geography of our rock pool fish fauna that I found both satisfying and interesting, though it might be a bit esoteric for more general audiences.
  • Then, there is a key to rock pool fishes: a structured way of helping readers identify fish


The bulk of the book then contains detailed accounts of fishes covered, in two sections: firstly a section on rock pool fishes (in the strict sense), and then a section on surge zone fishes that are found nearby. In each the fishes are listed in the alphabetical order of their familial common names – an unusual way to arrange a book, and for no obvious reason, especially when the familial common names will not be very familiar to most readers. Within each family account the species, if there is more than one, are also listed in alphabetical order by common name. Within each species is a relatively brief account beginning with: ‘Meaning of the scientific name’; then: ‘Discussion’ which includes a paragraph listing the diagnostic characters; ‘Distribution’ telling us where the species has been found, ‘Description’ containing more information on diagnostic characters; and: ‘References’, which lists some useful sources of additional information. There is much useful information here, but I do have some reservations about the order. Why a discussion of the meaning of the scientific name is given pride of place I don’t know, nor why diagnostic characters are split into two separate places. Having begun making somewhat critical comments on some features of this book, let me continue in the hope that these comments will be seen as constructive and lead to an improved second edition, because I have little doubt that this book will be around the shelves of our book shops for many years.

I have lots of minor technical or detail criticisms, none of them fatal on its own, nor even all of them together but I do reiterate that they make the difference between a fine book and a really super one. The book has not been well edited: the introductory chapters rather go round and round and need to be restructured: the most obvious example is on p13, where we are told twice that some rock pool fishes have strong teeth to lever prey off rocks. The authors tell us that some male rock pool fish spawn several times, each time with a different female: I wonder how they know? They say that the sub-tropical convergence – a place in the ocean where warm sub-tropical water meets cool sub-Antarctic water – lies in the southern ocean between the Snares and Auckland islands, at about 49˚S (p13). But in Figure 4 (p16), they show it well north of the Snares, running around the southern South Island and then east into the Pacific at about 44˚S; and they also tell us (p18) that the Chatham Islands lie close to the convergence. That is where I am used to seeing it located.

Though there are keys to the identification of species within families, there is no key to families, and I think this is a silly omission. Placement of all the keys to species within families together, rather than with the family accounts themselves, seems a strange decision. The keys themselves need attention: was unable to actually try them out, but a reading of them exposes problems. Some examples: They describe the crested blenny as having two dorsal fins, but it is shown as having one long one, supported throughout with identical unbranched but segmented fin rays, and with a slight indentation in the middle. But the scorpion fish and redband perch are said to have only one dorsal fin, though in these the fin is shown as dearly divided into an anterior section supported by spines, with a deep indentation which is followed by a second section supported by branched rays. The spotted black groper is described as ‘blotched or mottled, not banded’, but alongside this statement is a drawing of a fish that looks as banded as any I ever saw.

It would have been nice if scientific names had been included in the keys. Some of the common names used are new, as are some of the combinations of scientific names, and an explanation of the changes, or perhaps even just a list of other name combinations commonly in use in the recent past, would have helped those with long familiarity with the fauna but not necessarily the most up-to-date knowledge of the niceties of nomenclature. The spotty, for instance, has been known for decades as Pseudolabrus celidotus, here it is callled Notolabrus celidotus, presumably as a result of Barry Russell’s studies of the parrot fishes. Some of the key characters seem inadequate tome: Trumpeters (Latrididae), for instance, are defined by characters that could lead also to the inclusion of roughies (Trachichthyidae), drummers (Kyphosidae), and damselfishes (Pomacentridae).

The authors clearly have some grammatical difficulties: they frequently use a singular verb for a plural subject: e.g. ‘The distribution and abundance … is a result of their evolutionary history’ (p15), and ‘The food, biology and life history of this species is unknown’ (p40), and so on, often. Similarly, they routinely apply plural verbs to such singular subjects as ‘proportion’, ‘majority’, ‘none’, ‘variety’, ‘total’, ‘number’ and so on. Such grammar is sometimes difficult but a good editor should have tidied up such points. There are extensive areas of waste space – which if eliminated could have been exploited to provide a smaller format!

These points aside, the book is generally well produced – I found only one typographical (?) error – early Dominion Museum ichthyologist, a predecessor of Paulin and Roberts from the 1920s and 1930s, becomes WR rather than WJ Phillipps (p7).

The book is very well illustrated. It publishes a fine collection of new stipple/line drawings by artist Helen Casey (née Kelly). They are a bit ‘flat’ at times, and could do with a bit more detail and depth, especially in the cheeks of these fishes so full of shape and character; and the outlines are sometimes a bit strong, contributing to the flatness. But they are good drawings, the only ones available of some fish and the best available of others. I would encourage Helen Casey to go back to the drawings and develop them a little. There are distribution maps for every species, which are useful, though the maps themselves reproduce poorly and look like weak photocopies. The colour material is first class. There are nearly 150 colour photos of fish, of which only that of the butterfish is a bad failure (Plate 21D); most of them are excellent and would rank well with any book on fish, anywhere.

Overall, then, a fine book, alone in its field, filling a significant gap in our natural history literature, and one that deserves a long and well-supported future on the shelves of New Zealand bookshops. Buy it, enjoy it, learn from it, and gain increased pleasure from our coastal rock pool habitats and the fish that live there.


R M McDowell is an expert in New Zealand freshwater and marine fish, and works for the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research.



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Posted in Natural History, Non-fiction and Review
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