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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Department of Vertebrate Zoology

Division of Fishes

Mirapinnidae, the group of fishes
that contains tapetails and hairyfishes
Sandra Raredon
© Smithsonian Institution

An Ichthyological Family Reunion

Meet the Family Members

Solving the Puzzle

Read the Scientific ArticleBiology Letters, 5(2): 235-239

You thought your family was strange!

The tapetail, the bignose and the whalefish. These were the names given to three very different fishes over the course of a century. The names stem from their unique morphological features that distinguish them from one another and from other fishes, but these three unique fishes share a concealed common bond – they are all members of the same family.

This secret was recently uncovered by the collaborative efforts of a global team of researchers headed up by Smithsonian ichthyologist Dave Johnson of the Department of Vertebrate Zoology. The discovery by Johnson and his collaborators is one for the science books, and the history books as well. The foundation of their breakthrough can be traced back to 1895, when Smithsonian colleagues G. Brown Goode and Tarleton H. Bean first described the whalefishes.

These three fishes are vastly different in anatomy but seem to share one common theme – they all appeared by collection analysis to be missing developing stages and members of the opposite sex.

Tapetails (top), the bignose(middle), and the whalefish(bottom)
Three fishes—the tapetail (top), the bignose (middle), and the whalefish (bottom)— have been reunited thanks to the collaborative efforts of a global team of scientists, led by Smithsonian ichthyologist Dave Johnson.
Photo credit: Chris Kenaley, Dave Johnson, Bruce Robison
Three fishes—the tapetail (top), the bignose (middle), and the whalefish (bottom)— have been reunited thanks to the collaborative efforts of a global team of scientists, led by Smithsonian ichthyologist Dave Johnson.

During their characterizations, other explanations were made for the missing members of each type of fish. Perhaps a female whalefish may have simply been the only type to be easily caught. Maybe the immature or male whalefish eluded capture in the vastness of the ocean for behavioral reasons.

The theme of missing members may now seem like an important clue that links them together, but these three fishes all look physically so different from each other that the connection between them was difficult to fathom.

Johnson explains, "The conundrum surrounding these three groups was that we could see they must be closely related evolutionarily based on a number of uniquely shared skeletal similarities. At the same time, their anatomical differences are so drastic that the possibility that they could represent different developmental stages or sexes of the same species was almost unbelievable."

Meet the Whalefish >>

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