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A fishy tale

We're probably all aware that, when the first specimen of a platypus arrived in Europe, some scientists were skeptical and believed it may have been a hoax, stitched together from unrelated species. Some may have heard about the mummified 'Feejee mermaid' exhibited in the US in P.T. Barnum's American Museum in New York in 1842, which had been made by stitching the front half of a monkey to the back half of a fish.

Have you heard though about Ompax spatuloides, perhaps one of the longest-lasting of all taxonomic hoaxes?

The remarkable Ompax spatuloides, as sketched by the Road Inspector at Gayndah in 1872. Source: Wikipedia

This remarkable fish was served up to Carl Theodore Staiger, director of the Brisbane Museum, for breakfast in August 1872 at a station property at Gayndah, Queensland. Staiger, clearly taken with the idea of an unusual new species for science, but clearly also hungry, had the specimen sketched - then ate it!

It was later described and named as a new genus and species, based solely on the sketch, by ichthyologist Francois Louis Nompar de Caumont LaPorte. It's never been seen since, but was still recorded in McCulloch's Checklist of Fishes and Fish-like Animals of New South Wales as late as 1929. Sadly, Ompax spatuloides was outed as a hoax in the Bulletin in 1930. These are not the most admirable incidents in the history of Australian taxonomy.

This delightful piece in Quadrant Online tells the story very well.

Thanks to retired ichthyologist Barry Russell at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, for bringing this story to my attention.

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