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    18. Fish Out Of Water

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    Chapter 19
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    Strolling one day in what is euphemistically termed, in equatorial
    latitudes, 'the cool of the evening,' along a tangled tropical American
    field-path, through a low region of lagoons and watercourses, my
    attention happened to be momentarily attracted from the monotonous
    pursuit of the nimble mosquito by a small animal scuttling along
    irregularly before me, as if in a great hurry to get out of my way
    before I could turn him into an excellent specimen. At first sight I
    took the little hopper, in the grey dusk, for one of the common, small
    green lizards, and wasn't much disposed to pay it any distinguished
    share either of personal or scientific attention. But as I walked on a
    little further through the dense underbrush, more and more of these
    shuffling and scurrying little creatures kept crossing the path,
    hastily, all in one direction, and all, as it were, in a formed body or
    marching phalanx. Looking closer, to my great surprise, I found they
    were actually fish out of water, going on a walking tour, for change of
    air, to a new residence--genuine fish, a couple of inches long each, not
    eel-shaped or serpentine in outline, but closely resembling a red mullet
    in miniature, though much more beautifully and delicately coloured, and
    with fins and tails of the most orthodox spiny and prickly description.
    They were travelling across country in a bee-line, thousands of them
    together, not at all like the helpless fish out of water of popular
    imagination, but as unconcernedly and naturally as if they had been
    accustomed to the overland route for their whole lifetimes, and were
    walking now on the king's highway without let or hindrance.

    I took one up in my hand and examined it more carefully; though the
    catching it wasn't by any means so easy as it sounds on paper, for these
    perambulatory fish are thoroughly inured to the dangers and difficulties
    of dry land, and can get out of your way when you try to capture them
    with a rapidity and dexterity which are truly surprising. The little
    creatures are very pretty, well-formed catfish, with bright, intelligent
    eyes, and a body armed all over, like the armadillo's, with a continuous
    coat of hard and horny mail. This coat is not formed of scales, as in
    most fish, but of toughened skin, as in crocodiles and alligators,
    arranged in two overlapping rows of imbricated shields, exactly like the
    round tiles so common on the roofs of Italian cottages. The fish walks,
    or rather shambles along ungracefully, by the shuffling movement of a
    pair of stiff spines placed close behind his head, aided by the steering
    action of his tail, and a constant snake-like wriggling motion of his
    entire body. Leg spines of somewhat the same sort are found in the
    common English gurnard, and in this age of Aquariums and Fisheries
    Exhibitions, most adult persons above the age of twenty-one years must
    have observed the gurnards themselves crawling along suspiciously by
    their aid at the bottom of a tank at the Crystal Palace or the
    polyonymous South Kensington building. But while the European gurnard
    only uses his substitutes for legs on the bed of the ocean, my itinerant
    tropical acquaintance (his name, I regret to say, is Callichthys) uses
    them boldly for terrestrial locomotion across the dry lowlands of his
    native country. And while the gurnard has no less than six of these
    pro-legs, the American land fish has only a single pair with which to
    accomplish his arduous journeys. If this be considered as a point of
    inferiority in the armour-plated American species, we must remember that
    while beetles and grasshoppers have as many as six legs apiece, man, the
    head and crown of things, is content to scramble through life
    ungracefully with no more than two.

    There are a great many tropical American pond-fish which share these
    adventurous gipsy habits of the pretty little Callichthys. Though they
    belong to two distinct groups, otherwise unconnected, the circumstances
    of the country they inhabit have induced in both families this queer
    fashion of waddling out courageously on dry land, and going on voyages
    of exploration in search of fresh ponds and shallows new, somewhere in
    the neighbourhood of their late residence. One kind in particular, the
    Brazilian Doras, takes land journeys of such surprising length, that he
    often spends several nights on the way, and the Indians who meet the
    wandering bands during their migrations fill several baskets full of the
    prey thus dropped upon them, as it were, from the kindly clouds.

    Both Doras and Callichthys, too, are well provided with means of defence
    against the enemies they may chance to meet during their terrestrial
    excursions; for in both kinds there are the same bony shields along the
    sides, securing the little travellers, as far as possible, from attack
    on the part of hungry piscivorous animals. Doras further utilises its
    powers of living out of water by going ashore to fetch dry leaves, with
    which it builds itself a regular nest, like a bird's, at the beginning
    of the rainy season. In this nest the affectionate parents carefully
    cover up their eggs, the hope of the race, and watch over them with the
    utmost attention. Many other fish build nests in the water, of
    materials naturally found at the bottom; but Doras, I believe, is the
    only one that builds them on the beach, of materials sought for on the
    dry land.

    Such amphibious habits on the part of certain tropical fish are easy
    enough to explain by the fashionable clue of 'adaptation to
    environment.' Ponds are always very likely to dry up, and so the animals
    that frequent ponds are usually capable of bearing a very long
    deprivation of water. Indeed, our evolutionists generally hold that land
    animals have in every case sprung from pond animals which have gradually
    adapted themselves to do without water altogether. Life, according to
    this theory, began in the ocean, spread up the estuaries into the
    greater rivers, thence extended to the brooks and lakes, and finally
    migrated to the ponds, puddles, swamps and marshes, whence it took at
    last, by tentative degrees, to the solid shore, the plains, and the
    mountains. Certainly the tenacity of life shown by pond animals is very
    remarkable. Our own English carp bury themselves deeply in the mud in
    winter, and there remain in a dormant condition many months entirely
    without food. During this long hibernating period, they can be preserved
    alive for a considerable time out of water, especially if their gills
    are, from time to time, slightly moistened. They may then be sent to any
    address by parcels post, packed in wet moss, without serious damage to
    their constitution; though, according to Dr. Günther, these dissipated
    products of civilisation prefer to have a piece of bread steeped in
    brandy put into their mouths to sustain them beforehand. In Holland,
    where the carp are not so sophisticated, they are often kept the whole
    winter through, hung up in a net to keep them from freezing. At first
    they require to be slightly wetted from time to time, just to
    acclimatise them gradually to so dry an existence; but after a while
    they adapt themselves cheerfully to their altered circumstances, and
    feed on an occasional frugal meal of bread and milk with Christian

    Of all land-frequenting fish, however, by far the most famous is the
    so-called climbing perch of India, which not only walks bodily out of
    the water, but even climbs trees by means of special spines, near the
    head and tail, so arranged as to stick into the bark and enable it to
    wriggle its way up awkwardly, something after the same fashion as the
    'looping' of caterpillars. The tree-climber is a small scaly fish,
    seldom more than seven inches long; but it has developed a special
    breathing apparatus to enable it to keep up the stock of oxygen on its
    terrestrial excursions, which may be regarded as to some extent the
    exact converse of the means employed by divers to supply themselves with
    air under water. Just above the gills, which form of course its natural
    hereditary breathing apparatus, the climbing perch has invented a new
    and wholly original water chamber, containing within it a frilled bony
    organ, which enables it to extract oxygen from the stored-up water
    during the course of its aërial peregrinations. While on shore it picks
    up small insects, worms, and grubs; but it also has vegetarian tastes of
    its own, and does not despise fruits and berries. The Indian jugglers
    tame the climbing perches and carry them about with them as part of
    their stock in trade; their ability to live for a long time out of water
    makes them useful confederates in many small tricks which seem very
    wonderful to people accustomed to believe that fish die almost at once
    when taken out of their native element.

    The Indian snakehead is a closely allied species, common in the shallow
    ponds and fresh-water tanks of India, where holy Brahmans bathe and
    drink and die and are buried, and most of which dry up entirely during
    the dry season. The snakehead, therefore, has similarly accommodated
    himself to this annual peculiarity in his local habitation by acquiring
    a special chamber for retaining water to moisten his gills throughout
    his long deprivation of that prime necessary. He lives composedly in
    semi-fluid mud, or lies torpid in the hard baked clay at the bottom of
    the dry tank from which all the water has utterly evaporated in the
    drought of summer. As long as the mud remains soft enough to allow the
    fish to rise slowly through it, they come to the surface every now and
    then to take in a good hearty gulp of air, exactly as gold fish do in
    England when confined with thoughtless or ignorant cruelty in a glass
    globe too small to provide sufficient oxygen for their respiration. But
    when the mud hardens entirely they hibernate or rather æstivate, in a
    dormant condition, until the bursting of the monsoon fills the ponds
    once more with the welcome water. Even in the perfectly dry state,
    however, they probably manage to get a little air every now and again
    through the numerous chinks and fissures in the sun-baked mud. Our Aryan
    brother then goes a-fishing playfully with a spade and bucket, and digs
    the snakehead in this mean fashion out of his comfortable lair, with an
    ultimate view to the manufacture of pillau. In Burmah, indeed, while the
    mud is still soft, the ingenious Burmese catch the helpless creatures by
    a still meaner and more unsportsmanlike device. They spread a large
    cloth over the slimy ooze where the snakeheads lie buried, and so cut
    off entirely for the moment their supply of oxygen. The poor fish,
    half-asphyxiated by this unkind treatment, come up gasping to the
    surface under the cloth in search of fresh air, and are then easily
    caught with the hand and tossed into baskets by the degenerate

    Old Anglo-Indians even say that some of these mud haunting Oriental
    fish will survive for many years in a state of suspended animation, and
    that when ponds or jhíls which are known to have been dry for several
    successive seasons are suddenly filled by heavy rains, they are found to
    be swarming at once with full-grown snakeheads released in a moment from
    what I may venture to call their living tomb in the hardened bottom.
    Whether such statements are absolutely true or not the present deponent
    would be loth to decide dogmatically; but, if we were implicitly to
    swallow everything that the old Anglo-Indian in his simplicity assures
    us he has seen--well, the clergy would have no further cause any longer
    to deplore the growing scepticism and unbelief of these latter
    unfaithful ages.

    This habit of lying in the mud and there becoming torpid may be looked
    upon as a natural alternative to the habit of migrating across country,
    when your pond dries up, in search of larger and more permanent sheets
    of water. Some fish solve the problem how to get through the dry season
    in one of these two alternative fashions and some in the other. In flat
    countries where small ponds and tanks alone exist, the burying plan is
    almost universal; in plains traversed by large rivers or containing
    considerable scattered lakes, the migratory system finds greater favour
    with the piscine population.

    One tropical species which adopts the tactics of hiding itself in the
    hard clay, the African mud-fish, is specially interesting to us human
    beings on two accounts--first, because, unlike almost all other kinds of
    fish, it possesses lungs as well as gills; and, secondly, because it
    forms an intermediate link between the true fish and the frogs or
    amphibians, and therefore stands in all probability in the direct line
    of human descent, being the living representative of one among our own
    remote and early ancestors. Scientific interest and filial piety ought
    alike to secure our attention for the African mud-fish. It lives its
    amphibious life among the rice-fields on the Nile, the Zambesi, and the
    Gambia, and is so greatly given to a terrestrial existence that its
    swim-bladder has become porous and cellular, so as to be modified into a
    pair of true and serviceable lungs. In fact, the lungs themselves in all
    the higher animals are merely the swim-bladders of fish, slightly
    altered so as to perform a new but closely allied office. The mud-fish
    is common enough in all the larger English aquariums, owing to a
    convenient habit in which it indulges, and which permits it to be
    readily conveyed to all parts of the globe on the same principle as the
    vans for furniture. When the dry season comes on and the rice-fields are
    reduced to banks of baking mud, the mud-fish retire to the bottom of
    their pools, where they form for themselves a sort of cocoon of hardened
    clay, lined with mucus, and with a hole at each end to admit the air;
    and in this snug retreat they remain torpid till the return of wet
    weather. As the fish usually reach a length of three or four feet, the
    cocoons are of course by no means easy to transport entire. Nevertheless
    the natives manage to dig them up whole, fish and all; and if the
    capsules are not broken, the unconscious inmates can be sent across by
    steamer to Europe with perfect safety. Their astonishment when they
    finally wake up after their long slumber, and find themselves inspecting
    the British public, as introduced to them by Mr. Farini, through a sheet
    of plate-glass, must be profound and interesting.

    In England itself, on the other hand, we have at least one kind of fish
    which exemplifies the opposite or migratory solution of the dry pond
    problem, and that is our familiar friend the common eel. The ways of
    eels are indeed mysterious, for nobody has ever yet succeeded in
    discovering where, when, or how they manage to spawn; nobody has ever
    yet seen an eel's egg, or caught a female eel in the spawning condition,
    or even observed a really adult male or female specimen of perfect
    development. All the eels ever found in fresh water are immature and
    undeveloped creatures. But eels do certainly spawn somewhere or other in
    the deep sea, and every year, in the course of the summer, flocks of
    young ones, known as elvers, ascend the rivers in enormous quantities,
    like a vast army under numberless leaders. At each tributary or
    affluent, be it river, brook, stream, or ditch, a proportionate
    detachment of the main body is given off to explore the various
    branches, while the central force wriggles its way up the chief channel,
    regardless of obstacles, with undiminished vigour. When the young elvers
    come to a weir, a wall, a floodgate, or a lasher, they simply squirm
    their way up the perpendicular barrier with indescribable wrigglings, as
    if they were wholly unacquainted, physically as well as mentally, with
    Newton's magnificent discovery of gravitation. Nothing stops them; they
    go wherever water is to be found; and though millions perish hopelessly
    in the attempt, millions more survive in the end to attain their goal in
    the upper reaches. They even seem to scent ponds or lakes mysteriously,
    at a distance, and will strike boldly straight across country, to sheets
    of water wholly cut off from communication with the river which forms
    their chief highway.

    The full-grown eels are also given to journeying across country in a
    more sober, sedate, and dignified manner, as becomes fish which have
    fully arrived at years, or rather months, of discretion. When the ponds
    in which they live dry up in summer, they make in a bee-line for the
    nearest sheet of fresh water, whose direction and distance they appear
    to know intuitively, through some strange instinctive geographical
    faculty. On their way across country, they do not despise the succulent
    rat, whom they swallow whole when caught with great gusto. To keep their
    gills wet during these excursions, eels have the power of distending the
    skin on each side of the neck, just below the head, so as to form a big
    pouch or swelling. This pouch they fill with water, to carry a good
    supply along with them, until they reach the ponds for which they are
    making. It is the pouch alone that enables eels to live so long out of
    water under all circumstances, and so incidentally exposes them to the
    disagreeable experience of getting skinned alive, which it is to be
    feared still forms the fate of most of those that fall into the clutches
    of the human species.

    A far more singular walking fish than any of these is the odd creature
    that rejoices (unfortunately) in the very classical surname of
    Periophthalmus, which is, being interpreted, Stare-about. (If he had a
    recognised English name of his own, I would gladly give it; but as he
    hasn't, and as it is clearly necessary to call him something, I fear we
    must stick to the somewhat alarming scientific nomenclature.)
    Periophthalmus, then, is an odd fish of the tropical Pacific shores,
    with a pair of very distinct forelegs (theoretically described as
    modified pectoral fins), and with two goggle eyes, which he can protrude
    at pleasure right outside the sockets, so as to look in whatever
    direction he chooses, without even taking the trouble to turn his head
    to left or right, backward or forward. At ebb tide this singular
    peripatetic goby literally walks straight out of the water, and
    promenades the bare beach erect on two legs, in search of small crabs
    and other stray marine animals left behind by the receding waters. If
    you try to catch him, he hops away briskly much like a frog, and stares
    back at you grimly over his left shoulder, with his squinting optics.
    So completely adapted is he for this amphibious long-shore existence,
    that his big eyes, unlike those of most other fish, are formed for
    seeing in the air as well as in the water. Nothing can be more ludicrous
    than to watch him suddenly thrusting these very movable orbs right out
    of their sockets like a pair of telescopes, and twisting them round in
    all directions so as to see in front, behind, on top, and below, in one
    delightful circular sweep.

    There is also a certain curious tropical American carp which, though it
    hardly deserves to be considered in the strictest sense as a fish out of
    water, yet manages to fall nearly half-way under that peculiar category,
    for it always swims with its head partly above the surface and partly
    below. But the funniest thing in this queer arrangement is the fact that
    one half of each eye is out in the air and the other half is beneath in
    the water. Accordingly, the eye is divided horizontally by a dark strip
    into two distinct and unlike portions, the upper one of which has a
    pupil adapted to vision in the air alone, while the lower is adapted to
    seeing in the water only. The fish, in fact, always swims with its eye
    half out of the water, and it can see as well on dry land as in its
    native ocean. Its name is Anableps, but in all probability it does not
    wish the fact to be generally known.

    The flying fish are fish out of water in a somewhat different and more
    transitory sense. Their aërial excursions are brief and rapid; they can
    only fly a very little way, and have soon to take once more for safety
    to their own more natural and permanent element. More than forty kinds
    of the family are known, in appearance very much like English herrings,
    but with the front fins expanded and modified into veritable wings. It
    is fashionable nowadays among naturalists to assert that the flying fish
    don't fly; that they merely jump horizontally out of the water with a
    powerful impulse, and fall again as soon as the force of the first
    impetus is entirely spent. When men endeavour to persuade you to such
    folly, believe them not. For my own part, I have _seen_ the flying fish
    fly--deliberately fly, and flutter, and rise again, and change the
    direction of their flight in mid-air, exactly after the fashion of a big
    dragonfly. If the other people who have watched them haven't succeeded
    in seeing them fly, that is their own fault, or at least their own
    misfortune; perhaps their eyes weren't quick enough to catch the rapid,
    though to me perfectly recognisable, hovering and fluttering of the
    gauze-like wings; but I have seen them myself, and I maintain that on
    such a question one piece of positive evidence is a great deal better
    than a hundred negative. The testimony of all the witnesses who didn't
    see the murder committed is as nothing compared with the single
    testimony of the one man who really did see it. And in this case I have
    met with many other quick observers who fully agreed with me, against
    the weight of scientific opinion, that they have seen the flying fish
    really fly with their own eyes, and no mistake about it. The German
    professors, indeed, all think otherwise; but then the German professors
    all wear green spectacles, which are the outward and visible sign of
    'blinded eyesight poring over miserable books.' The unsophisticated
    vision of the noble British seaman is unanimously with me on the matter
    of the reality of the fishes' flight.

    Another group of very interesting fish out of water are the flying
    gurnards, common enough in the Mediterranean and the tropical Atlantic.
    They are much heavier and bigger creatures than the true flying fish of
    the herring type, being often a foot and a half long, and their wings
    are much larger in proportion, though not, I think, really so powerful
    as those of their pretty little silvery rivals. All the flying fish fly
    only of necessity, not from choice. They leave the water when pursued
    by their enemies, or when frightened by the rapid approach of a big
    steamer. So swiftly do they fly, however, that they can far outstrip a
    ship going at the rate of ten knots an hour; and I have often watched
    one keep ahead of a great Pacific liner under full steam for many
    minutes together in quick successive flights of three or four hundred
    feet each. Oddly enough, they can fly further against the wind than
    before it--a fact acknowledged even by the spectacled Germans
    themselves, and very hard indeed to reconcile with the orthodox belief
    that they are not flying at all, but only jumping. I don't know whether
    the flying gurnards are good eating or not; but the silvery flying fish
    are caught for market (sad desecration of the poetry of nature!) in the
    Windward Islands, and when nicely fried in egg and bread-crumb are
    really quite as good for practical purposes as smelts or whiting or any
    other prosaic European substitute.

    On the whole, it will be clear, I think, to the impartial reader from
    this rapid survey that the helplessness and awkwardness of a fish out of
    water has been much exaggerated by the thoughtless generalisation of
    unscientific humanity. Granting, for argument's sake, that most fish
    prefer the water, as a matter of abstract predilection, to the dry land,
    it must be admitted _per contra_ that many fish cut a much better figure
    on terra firma than most of their critics themselves would cut in
    mid-ocean. There are fish that wriggle across country intrepidly with
    the dexterity and agility of the most accomplished snakes; there are
    fish that walk about on open sand-banks, semi-erect on two legs, as
    easily as lizards; there are fish that hop and skip on tail and fins in
    a manner that the celebrated jumping frog himself might have observed
    with envy; and there are fish that fly through the air of heaven with a
    grace and swiftness that would put to shame innumerable species among
    their feathered competitors. Nay, there are even fish, like some kinds
    of eels and the African mud-fish, that scarcely live in the water at
    all, but merely frequent wet and marshy places, where they lie snugly in
    the soft ooze and damp earth that line the bottom. If I have only
    succeeded, therefore, in relieving the mind of one sensitive and
    retiring fish from the absurd obloquy cast upon its appearance when it
    ventures away for awhile from its proper element, then, in the pathetic
    and prophetic words borrowed from a thousand uncut prefaces, this work
    will not, I trust, have been written in vain.
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