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Azurine - the fish that never was

Strange though it is to think of it, there are species of fish that you can’t catch any more - not because they have become extinct, but because they never existed. These pseudo-species began their careers in the early nineteenth century and most were officially retired only a few decades later, but not before a sizable clutch had managed to get themselves quoted in a number of well-respected books. To give some idea of the extent of the problem, at the height of the craze for identifying new fish, there were considered to be no less than eight different species of trout in Britain. Books having such long shelf-lives, it took a quite a time before anglers collectively realised that these species were spurious and some of the names have even managed to stagger on into modern speech, ‘ferox’ trout being the best example.

Azurine illustrated by CouchA convenient starting point for this outbreak of fantasy fish is the moment William Yarrell V.P.Z.S., F.L.S., published his much anticipated British Fishes in 1836, in the introduction to which he paid homage to every notable ichthyologist of the day, among them Bewick, Couch and Jardine. The plate of the Azurine by Couch is shown alongside.

Yarrell noted that Bewick had done the preliminary sketches for a work on fishes and that any hopes for publication had come to an end with Bewick’s death in 1828; it is hard to escape the feeling that Yarrell saw his two volume treatise (a supplement came later) as the spiritual successor of Bewick’s enterprise. In practice his was merely the first of a flush of increasingly flamboyant works on British fish that served the feed the hunger of the British public for works on natural history. Both Couch and Jardine would publish their own takes on the situation within a few years of Yarrell, but while their works were spectacular, they were outdone by the Reverend Houghton, who trumped them all with a massive folio edition, packed with illustrations that look impressive even now. Various other writers jumped on the bandwagon and wrote less effusive works, among them Pennell and Buckland, if anything by Buckland can be considered not to be effusive. And finally, there was Sir Herbert Maxwell, who, being possessed of a calmer head than most, wrote a book which, if lacking in pizazz, was certainly more accurate than anything that had gone before. By the beginning of the First War, the era of the ichthyologies was over, a casualty of the a general change in tastes, angling was several shades paler and not a few species had quite simply, disappeared.

The one author to whom Yarrell significantly failed to pay homage in his introduction was Pennant, whose British Zoology had appeared in 1766 and made a catastrophic loss in its first edition by virtue of being fifty years too early to surf the wave of popular taste. To be sure, Pennant was decidedly old fashioned by the 1830s, but in some respects his book on fishes is more accurate than Yarrell’s, although it too, contains species which have been deleted, such as the graining. In his bid to write the definitive work, Yarrell pretty much threw caution to the winds and included several species that would have been strangers to Pennant and are most certainly strangers to us, all of them being suffering the ignominious fate of being purged from the classification when the era of the amateurs drew to a close at the end of the nineteenth century.

It is sad really, to think that the ferox is nothing more special than a common or garden cannibal brown, but when the great ichthyologies were being published, the excitement was so great that even sensible folk like Couch temporarily lost their heads - anything seemed possible. Even as their kin built great factories to pollute the air, even as the effluent from cities and the waste from mines poisoned the rivers, the realisation was dawning that the world was an incredibly diverse place and the race was on to capture its breadth in scientific journals; because to name a new species was to clutch at immortality.

Azurine illustrated by Yarrell

The Azurine was introduced with a flourish by Yarrell on page 365 of British Fishes (as shown above). He wrote:

At the time I was favoured by Lord Derby with specimens of the Graining, which has already been noticed, his lordship also sent me example of another fish, known provincially by the name of the Blue Roach, which is not only new to our British catalogue, but which like the Graining, is not described, as far as I have been able to ascertain, in any of the different works of European ichthyologists. M. Agassiz, however, assured me that this fish, like the Graining, is an inhabitant of some of the Swiss lakes, and will be described in his forthcoming work already referred to.

All of which must have sounded pretty conclusive at the time, especially if the great Agassiz was about to include it in his list, so Yarrell catalogued his prize as Leuciscus cæruleus. The reason the Azurine hadn’t been noticed before was, according to Yarrell, that it had an extremely limited distribution ‘within the township of Knowsley’, but even if it wasn’t prone to wandering, it was said to be extremely tenacious of life, the flesh being firm, of good flavour and tasting like perch. A slightly more enquiring mind might have wondered what Knowsley and the Swiss lakes had got that everywhere else in between hadn’t, but I guess stranger things have happened. Anyway, after describing the species according to the custom of the day, Yarrell gave the engraving above - together with his cut of the rudd, shown below..

Rudd illustrated by Yarrell

The problem facing Yarrell was that here he was with this new species to describe and illustrate, called by some the Blue Roach - but by some exasperating chance, the specimens he had in front of him happened to look quite like rudd. Fortunately, as an experienced ichthyologist, Yarrell knew that the carp family were quite variable and given that the last idea he wanted to leave his readers with was the impression that this excitingly new and rare fish resembled a very common species, he made sure that his drawing and painting highlighted the differences, rather than the similarities. Much the same is done with ornithology books nowadays, even when photographs are readily available, because one idealised painting is a better guide to essential characteristics than any number of accurate photos of individuals.

Just to give an idea of the challenges Yarrell faced, here is his cut of the roach - compare this with his image of the Rudd above and the Azurine two above and you will begin to appreciate the creative challenge he faced.

Roach illustrated by Yarrell

Of course we know that the reason the Azurine hadn’t been described before was because it didn’t exist, but in those days the idea of what constituted a species wasn’t anywhere as nearly clear cut as it is now. Descriptive biology was still pretty much neck and neck with the anatomical approach and the realisation had yet to dawn that some species are much more variable than others, fish being among the worst offenders in this respect. Nowadays, a great battery of tests are brought to bear on any candidate for a new species, including DNA analysis, and even then it can be hard to be sure before many years of research have been done. But in the white heat of early nineteenth century ichthyology, all of this lay in the future, and the fact that Agassiz was persuaded was enough to tip Yarrell into action and so the Azurine was born. Perhaps he knew he was taking a risk, but Yarrell’s motivation was surely that someone else would bag the fish if he didn’t get it into print, so down went the new species in the Transactions of the Linnaean Society. A glittering, if short, career lay ahead for it.

In 1863, Harry Cholmondeley-Pennell published a description of the Azurine on page 165 of The Angler-Naturalist. Yarrell was dead by then and Pennell’s publisher, John Van Voorst, put the plates from  British Fishes at his disposal, which must have been a sore temptation to the normally conscientious Pennell, who had a lot of species to cover and settled for more or less regurgitating Yarrell’s account, right down to the fact that the Azurine was a denizen of Knowsley. Given that Pennell’s work was cheap and very popular, it was widely read and was still in use late in the nineteenth century, which meant that there must have been many anglers who were unwittingly introduced to the Azurine by Pennell long after it had been officially proclaimed to have been a fishment of the imagination.

The Azurine reached the zenith of its career in 1877, when Jonathan Couch published his spectacular four volume A History of the Fishes of the British Islands, in the process making Yarrell look like a bit of an underachiever. If you ever get a chance to look at a copy of the original, please do, because lush is a poor way of describing it and the plates are to die for. On page 61 of volume IV, Couch launched into a short description of Yarrell’s new fish, mentioning in passing that he was sure he ‘...obtained it from some other river of England besides that which is mentioned by Mr. Yarrell,’ but that he had forgotten to note which (this illustration is featured at the top of this article).

At the same time a slight element of doubt must have been creeping in, because Couch remarks in passing that while the shape of the body and the dorsal fin were the same as those of the fish in Yarrell’s figure, the rays of the fin on his specimen did not correspond. After much thought about the problem, Couch decided to use a coloured drawing by Yarrell as the base for his illustration, which made for one of the most attractive plates of freshwater fish in the entire book, and it is up against some stiff competition, because even the dullest specimens of Couch’s artwork are spectacular. Couch ended up filling in two pages on this rare and fascinating little fish, which was said to have habits much like a chub, although he could not prevent himself mentioning that it did resemble a rudd, if you looked at it a bit slitty-eyed.

Azurine, Dobule and Rudd illustrated by Houghton

Barely two years later, the Azurine made what was to be more or less its last appearance in the Reverend Houghton’s British Fresh-Water Fishes. Lest the coffee-table elegance of this stunning work lead you to other conclusions, its author was a very thorough man and Houghton went to the considerable trouble of examining a collection of Azurine in the Liverpool Museum. Even allowing for the loss of colour after many years in preservative, he wasn’t persuaded that it wasn’t a common or garden rudd.

The position of the dorsal fin relative to the ventral, the narrow oblique mouth, and above all the serrated throat-teeth, which in no respect differ from those of the Rudd, all point to the conclusion that the Azurine is a variety of the Rudd or Red-eye.

Houghton went on to put the nails in its coffin by adding that whether it was a rudd or not, the Azurine was no longer found in the Knowsley ponds and so its career was officially over barely forty years after it had begun. As far as I am aware, the ponds are part of a safari park these days, so my vote is we pass on the idea of a spot of speculative float fishing for fear of ending up inside a tiger. But the mere fact that the Azurine didn’t exist didn’t get in the way of Houghton giving his readers the most beautiful illustration of the species - and just to add spice to the mix, he painted another species that didn't exist, the Dobule. And you know something? I completely understand why he did it, because even I want to believe in this attractive little fish. If fishing is about dreaming, then surely the Azurine is a better dream than most. I am sure I must have caught a few, if only I could remember in which life and on which way to heaven.