Dragon Fish legendary beginnings
Suddenly, its powerhouse of a body tenses. It flexes itself into a shallow “S” and, with a lightning-fast flick of its large, paddle-like tail, it launches itself into the air. Two seconds later, it returns with an almighty splash, having plucked an unsuspecting cricket from an overhanging branch more than a meter above the water surface.
This ‘lethal weapon’ of a mouth can, in total contrast, and with incredible tenderness, act as the gentlest and safest of nurseries for up to 90 or so babies. Over a period lasting as long as two months, this perfectly honed predator can go without food, dedicating its every second towards the protection and survival of its young.
This no ordinary fish. This is the legendary Dragon Fish.
In the forests of central Sumatra, a legend is told of a Fishing Eagle that swooped down from the sky into the foaming waters of a stream and mated with a large fish. All folklore is based, however tenuously, on fact and, in this case, what may have happened is that a Fishing Eagle was seen to swoop down on an intended victim (a Dragon Fish). As he struck, many of splashing and flapping is generated as an eagle repeatedly tried to sink its talons into the “shield” of fish. Then, having failed in its attempts to capture the fish, the eagle flew away empty handed (or empty taloned), leaving the Dragon Fish behind. The human bystander saw the commotion and that the Dragon Fish survived, and translated this into a mating story. Later, when young Dragon Fish were seen attached to large, bird-like yolks, the story seemed to have been proved.
Whether or not one belief in legends is immaterial; the inescapable fact is that the Dragon Fish is a unique fish indeed. One could even call it bewitching- in the nicest sense of the word.
For a start, there are few fish that can look a human straight in the eye quite like a Dragon Fish. Move close to the front of an aquarium housing a large Dragon Fish, and the chances are that it will respond by gracefully doing likewise so that the only thing separating fish and human is the aquarium glass itself. Next, move slowly down the length of the tank, and the Dragon Fish will follow, its large, deep eyes fixed on yours in a most unfishlike manner. Little wonder, then, that over the years so many people have fallen under the magical spell of these powerful, magnificent, mysterious dragons.
Dragon Fish(Arowana) Searching for Origins
Although various names are used in connection with this species, by far the most evocative and intriguing, and one which has undoubted mythical undertones, is Dragon Fish.
Tracing the actual origins of the name is not an easy task, but a brief look at the dragons of Chinese legend may offer us some clues, even if they do not, and perhaps cannot, provide the complete answer.
Dragons, whether benevolent or malevolent, have been with us for several thousand years. All the world’s great cultures have their complement of such legendary, magical creatures, some breathing fire and wreaking havoc and destruction at every opportunity, others having more favorable dispositions. Others oscillate between the two states, depending on their mood, or as a consequence of the actions or beliefs of humans.
Chinese dragons made their first appearance in about 2000 BC and are generally of the benevolent kind, rarely coming into conflict with heroes, as they do in other cultures or gods. Indeed, any conflict that did occur usually was accidental rather than planned. The earliest Chinese dragons had an elongated body, no wings, and clawed feet, and looked something like a hybrid between a snake and a crocodile. The Dragon Fish does not have clawed feet, but it does have an elongated body which it moves as gracefully and sinuously as some serpents, and it -* – does have an enormous mouth (as do crocodiles).
Also, the bodies of many dragons are covered in a large scales, just as the Dragon Fish is. Then there are the large eyes and, very importantly, the two long tendrils that emerge from the area between the nostrils and the eyes in dragons which may have their counterparts in the two chin barbels possessed by the Dragon Fish.
There are also numerous links between dragons and water. The Long Wang, or Dragon Kings, for example, were patron divinities of rivers, lakes, and seas, and lived in underwater palaces. However, the connection between dragons and Dragon Fish may have more to do with the origins of some of the former, rather than where they lived, and the qualities they could bestow on humans and their lives.
In Chinese lore, we are told that some dragons were created through the transformation of other creatures, including fish, while others hatched from eggs. In contrast, the fish/dragon or animal/dragon association could also go the other way, with dragons able to disguise themselves as fish, snakes, rats, cats, dogs, cows and even humans. However, dragons disguised as fish could be detected easily because they emitted a five-colored light, or spoke with a human voice while they were being cooked!
Dragons could be white, green, blue, black, red or gold, each type arising from the 1000-year-old gold of the appropriate color, with golden dragons deemed superior to all the others. Today, Red Dragon Fish are considered to be superior, but Golden Dragon Fish are still precious. We also have Green and so-called White and Black Dragon Fish from certain areas of Indonesia but, alas, no Blue Dragon Fish – at least, not that we know of.
Knowing your dragons was crucial in ancient China because a long and propitious life might well depend on this knowledge. In a similar vein, Ch’i-lin, an ancient, noble dragon, represented peace, prosperity, and happiness. These desirable qualities are also attributed today to the owning of a Dragon Fish so here we have yet another link with the past and, perhaps, further clues as to the origins of the name. The connections are many and varied, but none give us a definitive answer as to how or when the name arose. Perhaps this is how it should be.A little mystery, mystique, and uncertainty seem an entirely appropriate combination of qualities with which to endow the rare fish that we have come to know and love as Long Yu, the Dragon Fish.
Dragon Fish(Arowana) and their Nearest Relatives
With the possible exception of Goldfish and Koi few, if any, fish are steeped in the legend to the extent that the Dragon Fish is. However, once we go beyond these mythical stories and qualities, we find that Dragons are straightforward, though nonetheless powerful, biological entities, with their circle of relatives with which they share some essential characteristics. In addition to sharing a number of skull and other skeletal features, Dragon Fish and their wider assortment of relations are distinguished from most other so-called Bony Fishes in that, unusually, their intestine (lower gut) passes to the left of the esophagus (gullet) and stomach on its way down the body. The Cyprinidae, which includes Goldfish and Koi, also possess this left-handed characteristic, but their combination of skull and other features is entirely different and separates them very firmly from the order to which the Dragon Fish belongs, the Osteoglossiformes. Within the Osteoglossiformes, the Dragon Fish and its now considerably tighter unit of closer relatives possess some jaws, swim bladder, pelvic fin and lateral line features that place them within the suborder Osteoglossoidei, such as having six pelvic fin rays and 21-55 lateral line scales.
Taking matters a stage further, some members of this suborder have the characteristic “bony (toothed) tongue that distinguishes them as members of the family Osteoglossidae. By this juncture, we are now down to just seven or eight different fish, having started off with approximately 217. Two or three of these, the Pirarucu or Arapaima (Arapaima Gigas), Heterotis Niloticus and Clupisudis (considered by some authors to be a synonym of Heterotis, hence the doubt about the numbers), have no mandibular (lower jaw) barbels and are therefore grouped within the subfamily Heterotidinae. The remaining five all have distinct barbels on the mandible and constitute the subfamily Osteoglossinae. Members of this subfamily are divided into two genera (singular: genus) Osteoglossum and Scleropages. There are two species of Osteoglossum: O. bicirrhosum, referred to as the Silver Arowana/Arowana/Aruana/Arowhana, and the Black Arowana, O. ferreirai.Scleropages contains the three remaining members of the family: S. jardinii, variously referred to as the Jardini, Gulf Saratoga or Northern Spotted Barramundi, S. leichardti, the Saratoga or Spotted Barramundi, and the Dragon Fish itself, <S. formosus.
Telling Osteoglossum from Scleropages is very easy, even for the budding aquarist. In Osteoglossum, the dorsal (back) and anal (belly) fins are very broad-based. The dorsal, for example, contains anything from 42 to 57 fin rays. In Scleropages, on the other hand, there are only around 20 dorsal fin rays. In addition, the caudal (tail) fin in Osteoglossum is quite small, whereas, in Scleropages, it is broad and powerful.
Arowana, Dragon Fish, Saratoga or Barramundi?
Arowana, Dragon Fish, Saratoga or Barramundi?
The term Arowana has always been used when referring to the two South American species in the subfamily, the Silver and Black Arowanas (Osteoglossum bicirrhosum and O. ferreirai, respectively). It has also been (and still is) used often when referring to Scleropages formosus, the Dragon Fish, under the name Asian Arowana. No doubt, the fact that both Dragon Fish and Arowanas have elongated bodies clothed in large, robust scales, possess barbels and cavernous mouths, and exhibit similar behaviour traits, such as mouthbrooding and jumping out of the water to catch their prey, has contributed to this name sharing. Interestingly, however, the two predominantly Australian species (one is also found in Papua New Guinea and Irian Jaya) are hardly ever referred to as Arowanas. Instead they are known as Saratogas or Barramundis, the latter name also being used in at least one book, Dr. Axelrod s Atlas of Freshwater Tropical Fishes, 8th edition (TFH 1995), when referring to Scleropages formosus. The name Barramundi is also used for the Australian Giant Perch (Lates calcarifer), a member of the Snook family (Centropomidae).
The story doesn’t t end there. The Dragon Fish, as well as being known as the Asian Arowana, has a battery of other common English-language names: Red Arowana, Green Arowana, Golden Arowana, Orange Arowana, Silver Arowana (each of these being used when applied to a specific colour variety, although Green and Silver are often interchanged), Asian Bonytongue, Malayan Bonytongue and even Emperor Fish. More locally, Scleropages formosus is known as either Cherek Kelesa or Ikan Arowana in Malaysia, and Long Yu (Dragon Fish) in Chinese¬ speaking countries. In Spanish, it is referred to as Pez Lenguihueso Malayo; in French, it is the Scleropage d’Asie; in German, it is known as Malaiischer Knochenzungler and in Italian as Scleropage Asiatico. As can be seen from the above, a considerable degree of confusion can arise from the use of common names. It is for this reason that the scientific community often frowns upon the use of such names, preferring instead to stick to scientific nomenclature, under whose strict rules only one valid name exists for a species at any one time.This does not eliminate all problems, especially when names are being reviewed, but it does make identification of what fish is being referred to considerably less ambiguous. Having said this, the Gulf Saratoga appears as both Scleropages jardinii and S. jardini in aquatic literature!
To avoid confusing matters even further about common names, and in an attempt to bring a little more uniformity to the current somewhat ad-hoc state of affairs, we would suggest the following arrangement:
Common English Name
Within this overall framework, as the Dragon Fish is found in a number of colour forms, we suggest that these varieties be identified by the primary colours as follows: Green Dragon Fish, Golden Dragon Fish and Red Dragon Fish, with any other descriptive terms being added as necessary as in, for example, the Sumatran Red Dragon Fish.
Arowana drifting in Time
Before proceeding to a discussion of the individual species, it is worth taking a brief look at a possible explanation for their present-day fragmented geographical distribution.
There can be no doubt that the two Osteoglossum species, both of which occur in South America, are more closely related to each other than they are to the three Scleropages. Equally, the two predominantly Australian Saratoga species are more similar to each other than they are to the Dragon Fish, whose natural distribution is limited strictly to southeast Asia. Taking this observation one step up through the classification hierarchy, all five species are more closely related to each other than they are to other Bonytongues such as the South American Arapaima and the African Heterotis.
For all their similarities, the various subgroups or individual species are physically separated from each other by hundreds or thousands of kilometers. At first sight, this may seem a somewhat puzzling situation. After all, how can a South American fish like the Silver Arowana be so similar to an Australian Saratoga whose native home is over half a world away? The most likely answer is that they shared a common ancestor at some stage in the distant past. But, if this were so, how is the distance factor accounted for? By definition, offspring from a common ancestor would be the boom at least in the same region, but not in separate continents. It is this, of course, that provides the vital clue.
The argument goes something along the following lines. If all the descendants of a postulated common ancestor were once found within a single landmass and then this landmass began to split up and drift apart, each subgroup could subsequently evolve in total isolation from all the others, eventually giving rise to a range of genera and species. Countless links of this type exist between currently isolated species of plants and animals the world over and such examples have long been accepted as evidence of the existence of a single ancient supercontinent named Pangaea. It is believed that Pangaea split up and that its fragments began drifting apart somewhere around the Upper Carboniferous Epoch of the Carboniferous Period, some 270 million years ago. This process called Continental Drift, is still in progress today.
Viewed in this way, the current distribution of the Bonytongues begins to make a little more sense. It is not difficult to see how, as the various landmasses began to drift apart, populations of ancient Bonytongues and their descendants became isolated from each other and were thus unable to interbreed. Add to this other important factors such as differing environmental and habitat conditions, chance mutations and all those other myriad influential elements that together constitute natural selection, and changes become inevitable, with some types becoming extinct and others evolving into new forms.
Eventually, two main types of ancestral Arowanas appear to have developed from their hypothetical common ancestor. One type is drawn up with broad-based dorsal and anal fins and a relatively small caudal fin (Osteoglossum), while the other evolved into a form possessing narrower based dorsal and anal fins, but a more powerful and larger tail (Scleropages). Having got this far, further changes of a more minor nature could have resulted relatively quickly in the evolution of the two South American Osteoglossum species from their common ancestor and (probably) two Scleropages species, one of these subsequently evolving into the different natural colour forms of Dragon Fish of south-east Asia, and the other into the two predominantly Australian Saratoga.
Although we do not possess unequivocal fossil evidence that the above was indeed the case, such a sequence of events would help to explain the distribution pattern that exists today for the Dragon Fish and its four most closely-related species.