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The Biology of Fishes

Course Outline

Course Logistics:

Time: check here

Place: Learning Lab, Education Dept. New England Aquarium (NEAq)



Instructor: Rae Barnhisel, Ph.D., Marine Studies Consortium, Phone/Fax: 603-878-3671; Email: drbfishes at

Office hours: By appt. before and after class.

Teaching Assistants: NEAq Aquarists,

Course Texts:
Required 1. Fishes: An Introduction to Ichthyology, by P.B. Moyle and J.J Cech, Jr., 2004, 5th ed., Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ


Recommended 2. Encyclopedia of Fishes, edited by J.R. Paxton and W.N. Eschmeyer, 1998, 2nd ed., Academic Press, San Diego, CA.

Administrator: Roger Stern, Exec. Director., Marine Studies Consortium; Phone: 781-444-3643; Email: rstern at

For Possible Cancellations (due to inclement weather):
check Weather Alert. Cancellations will also be aired on WCVB Channel 5 and announced by voice message at 781-444-3643

Course Description

Biology of Fishes is designed for upper-level undergraduates well versed in biological and chemical principles. The 300-level course builds on the student's knowledge of vertebrate biology in order to explore and appreciate the differences and diversity among fishes. The course combines traditional ichthyology such as systematics, taxonomy, anatomy, and distribution with fish ecology including species interactions, adaptations, behavior, and conservation. It emphasizes the phylogenetic relationships among fishes and the use of systematics as an organizational tool.

Each week, we focus on a particular group or groups of fishes, starting with those that have the longest evolutionary history to those that we think have most recently evolved. While other fish courses focus on systematics as a separate lecture topic, this course spends every week examining both systematics and phylogeny in terms of anatomy, physiology, behavior, and ecology.

We first focus on ancestral fishes and analyze the link between anatomy and phylogeny and the importance of viewing fishes as an early vertebrate rather than as a distinct paraphyletic group. Second, we focus on more derived fish groups and look at physiology and sensory capabilities. Third, we shift attention to fishes that are the most derived and look at reproduction, life history strategies, and evolutionary adaptations. We conclude with conservation and management issues and problem solving. Students learn to use phylogeny and systematics to develop coherent hypotheses addressing vertebrate evolution and conservation.

The Biology of Fishes course has been taught since 1997 and is one of few university-level courses taught at a major aquarium.

Course Mechanics
The course meets once a week on Tuesday evenings for 15 weeks. Class will include a lecture on a relevant topic and often a related activity. Most class meetings will consist of a tour through the aquarium to view and sketch specific fishes. Students are asked to provide their own clipboard and colored pencils for sketching live fish.

Grades are calculated according to a 1000 point scheme based on a student's best scores on three of four exams, a written report evaluating a current issue involving a fish or fishery; aquarium and laboratory activities, an interpretive tour of the NEAq's fishes, and meeting deadlines and participation expectations.

Grading Scheme Points
Examinations 300
Aquarium/Laboratory Activities 300
Written Report 200
Interpretive Tour 150
Attendance/Timeliness/Notification 50
Total 1000

Exams are short-answer and designed to assess how a student integrates, relates, and synthesizes information. The written report provides students with an opportunity to conduct independent inquiry on a self-chosen topic and gain experience in writing.

Aquarium and laboratory activities provide weekly opportunities for developing observational skills and interacting with peers and aquarists. The interpretive tour asks students to highlight a single character or habitat that encompasses a wide range of phylogenetically diverse fish and develop a virtual tour of those fishes using the New England Aquarium. This summary assignment tests students on their understanding of phylogenetic systematic tools and terminology and how to apply them to a collection of fishes.

Course Logistics
Low-cost texts can be obtained through the Internet. The most current edition is preferable but past editions are sufficient. Each student will receive a NEAq entry badge that allows entry into the main building during normal aquarium hours for the duration of the semester. Students are asked to return the badges at the end of the course. Student fees are collected to cover overhead costs of materials, equipment, adjunct personnel, and the field trip. Parking at the New England Aquarium (NEAq) is expensive and limited. Public transportation is the best option for arriving on time.

There will be a field trip to Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology Fishes Collection in Cambridge, MA, on a Sunday morning in April. The trip is highly recommended and strongly encouraged. Students will have access to collections and resources not available to the general public.

Course Expectations:
Students are asked to learn basic and advanced terminology. The course emphasizes both a precise and concise use of words and concepts. Students are expected to be on time for class and attend every class meeting.

The course requires adherence to all academic standards of conduct. In all verbal and writing assignments, you may use another person's ideas or words ONLY if you credit that person. Using another person's ideas or words without crediting or referencing that person is plagiarism and punishable by law as well as by your academic institution.

A wonderful part of this course is that it is held at one of the leading aquaria in the US. This gives us access to its spectacular collection of fishes, which is cared for by devoted aquarists. Most ichthyology courses rely mostly on preserved specimens that have lost their color, form, and behavior.

At the NEAq we can see thousands of fish in full color of health. We can observe their behavior, and literally see their diversity. We can focus on one or two taxonomic groups at a time each week and observe live representatives. We can go behind the scenes to see how the fish are maintained, raised, and conserved.

However, NEAq has other obligations besides education and so functions differently than the average college or university department. Special money-making events that are essential to the NEAq's financial health are often organized at the last minute. Room schedule changes and conflicts can occur, sometimes with little communication among NEAq staff.

As a result, the Biology of Fishes course must be flexible and often spontaneous in the order of things. Restricted access to the main building may result in changes to our schedule and plans.

NOTE: If a student is unable to meet an expectation, they must contact the professor as far in advance as possible to discuss alternatives. If this is not done beforehand, formal documentation of the sickness, accident, emergency, etc., must be submited to avoid penalties. This syllabus represents a contract of expectations between student and professor.

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COURSE SCHEDULE (course description above)


Lecture Topics

Assignments Due

Assingments Returned
Activities/Exams Fishes in the Aquarium
Week 1

Course Overview
Diversity of Fishes
Aquarium Overview Early Fishes:
fossil fish and lamprey
Week 2

Dissection I
*Early Osteichthyes:
lungfish and sturgeon
Week 3

Physiolgy I
Topic Outline Due
Dissection II *Chondrichthyes:
sharks & rays
Week 4

Slide Review
Topic Outline Returned
Exam 1
Early Teleosts:
bonytongues, eels & herring
Week 5

Physiology II
Exam 1 returned
minnows, characins & catfish
Week 6

Sensory Systems
Written Report Draft Due
pike, smelt, salmon
Week 7

Reproduction Early Neoteleosts:
cods & anglerfish
Week 8

Slide Review
Written Report Draft Returned
Exam 2 Atherinomorphs:
silversides & killifish
Week 9

Life History Strategies
Exam Returned
Go to Fishes of Focus Early Percomorphs:
sculpins & sticklebacks
Week 10

Adaptations and Behavior
Final Report Due
Go to Fishes of Focus Percoidei:
perch, groupers, butterflyfish, and angelfish
Week 11

Habitat Diversity
Go to Fishes of Focus
cichlids, damselfish & wrasses
Week 12

Slide Review
Final Report Returned
Exam 3 ?Other?-oidei: wolfish, gobies,
tunas, and billfish
Week 13

Conservation/Management Issues
Interpretive Tour Due
Exam Returned
Discussion on conservation issues Pleuronectiformes, Tetraodontiformes:
flatfish, puffers & mola
Week 14

Slide Review & Wrap-up
Interpretive Tour Returned
Final Exam
Course Evaluation

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