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Instructor Class Description

Time Schedule:

Theodore W Pietsch
FISH 311
Seattle Campus

Biology of Fishes

Covers morphological, physiological, behavioral, and ecological diversity of fishes of the world; designed to provide a basic foundation for advanced courses in all areas of aquatic sciences. 3-credit option does not include laboratory. Recommended: 10 credits biological science. Offered: jointly with BIOL 311; W.

Class description


Learn about the half-billion year-old history of fishes, from ancient jawless forms to modern-day inhabitants of tropical coral reefs.

Discuss the realities of declining biodiversity among aquatic vertebrates and debate issues of conservation of watery biotas

Participate in laboratory exercises and demonstrations of strange feeding structures, unique modes of locomotion, and bizarre reproductive strategies.

The purpose of the course is to provide an overview of the wonderful world of fishes, their kinds and ways: discussion, demonstration, and hands-on examination of the biology and diversity of living fishes of the world--from ancient bottom-living hagfishes and lampreys to modern-day sharks, rays, and bony fishes; from the freshwaters of Amazonia and the Congo Basin to mangrove swamps and coral reefs; and from shallow-water lakes and streams to the deepest parts of the world oceans.


Introduction: organization and scope of the course; definitions; major themes: form, function, and biodiversity; major groups of fishes.

External anatomy; body shape and size; fins, spines, and scales; evolutionary trends in body form.

Numbers and kinds of fishes; diversity through time; taxonomy, systematics, and classification; major groups of fishes.

Locomotory mechanisms; anguilliform versus carangiform swimming; energetics and thermoregulation

Origin and kinds of bone; evolution of skeletal systems; functional units of the fish skeleton; swimbladder structure.

Airbladders and buoyancy; air-breathing fishes; sensory functions and sound production.

Jawless fishes; sharks and their allies; evolutionary successes and failures.

Feeding modes and mechanisms; biomechanical considerations; upper jaw mobility and evolutionary success.

Feeding modes and mechanisms continued: how fishes get their mouths open and closed; feeding in a lie-and-wait predator.

Respiration and feeding.

Primitive bony fishes and the rise of modern teleosts.

Trends in teleost evolution; primitive teleosts and the rise of euteleostean fishes.

Reproductive anatomy and modes; behavior: strategies and tactics.

Reproduction continued: unique strategies and adaptations; male parental care; fecundity and energetics.

Primitive euteleosteans and the rise of acanthomorph fishes.

Growth and aging: the determination of age and growth; factors affecting growth and growth patterns.

Percomorph fishes and derivative orders; morphology, ecology, and co-evolution.

Sensory perception: smell and taste; hearing and the acoustico-lateralis system.

Sarcopterygian fishes; the story of Latimeria; tetrapod ancestry.

Sensory perception continued: vision.

Behavior and communication; proximate and ultimate causes of schooling behavior.

Sensory perception continued: electroreception.

Deep-sea fishes; the 1934 National Geographic Society Deep-Sea Expedition of William Beebe.

Conservation biology: zoogeography of North American freshwater fishes.

Conservation biology: patterns and causes of genetic differentiation across populations of North American freshwater fishes and causal factors in their decline.

Conservation biology: endangered Species Act; approaches to species restoration. Course Evaluation.


Organization and purpose of the laboratory portion of the course. Introductory video on the "Fish." The University of Washington Fish Collection: current activities, plans for the future, and tour of the facility. Hierachy in scientific nomenclature and the use of Latinized scientific names in fisheries science.

External and internal anatomy: definitions; body form; fin structure and placement; rays, spines, and spinous rays; caudal fin design and terminology. Demonstration of trends in body form.

Dissection of locomotory musculature: epaxial and hypaxial body musculature; musculature of fins and fin supports. Comparison of red and white body musculature. Demonstration of swimming types.

Examination of integumentary structures of fishes: scales and their derivatives. Microscopic demonstration of vertebrate skeletal tissues: cartilage, bone, notochord, dermal and epidermal derivatives. Techniques for preparing skeletons. Begin clearing and staining.

Examination and comparison of skeletal systems of major fish taxa continued. Continue clearing and staining. Dissection and comparison of swimbladders in physostomous and physoclistous fishes.

Fish biodiversity I: myxinids, petromyzontids, and chondrichthyan fishes; lecture and slide presentation; examination of extant jawless fishes (i.e., hagfishes and lampreys) and representative taxa of sharks, rays, and holocephalans.

Dissection of rockfish heads to reveal the musculature and dual biomechanical coupling responsible for the feeding and respiratory movements of the head, jaws, and pectoral girdle. Demonstration of feeding structures and adaptations in the major extant taxa of fishes. Gill arch evolution relative to respiration and feeding: dissection of gills of Squalus acanthias to convey concepts of gill arch derivatives in higher vertebrates. Functional shifts in visceral arch derivatives in fishes and higher vertebrates; dissection of demonstration of pharyngeal jaws of teleosts.

Fish biodiversity II: primitive bony fishes; lecture and slide presentation; examination of : chondrosteans, ginglymods, and halecomorphs (Polypterus, Calamoichthys, Acipenser, Polyodon, Lepisosteus, and Amia). Demonstration of living bichirs and reedfish. Review of laboratory activities in preparation for lab exam.

Dissection of the reproductive system of a gravid female Squalus acanthias; dissection of surfperch (Embiotocidae) to demonstrate viviparity in fishes. Demonstration of the diversity of reproductive structures and behavioral strategies in fishes, e.g., internal fertilization and adaptations for parental care; sex determination, gonad indices, and fecundity analysis.

Age and growth: methods of age determination in fishes; scales, vertebrae, and otoliths; counting scale annuli; dissection of otoliths and examination of annual growth rings; daily growth rings.

Morphological and meristic measurements: vertebral counts in cleared and stained specimens; allometric growth and population differentiation: gill-raker counts, gill-raker length, mouth size and eye size in sympatric populations of anadromous (sockeye) and non-anadromous (kokanee) Oncorhynchus nerka.

Examination of early life history stages of various teleost species: eggs, larvae, and juveniles; stages of development and terminology; demonstration of various specialized and unique stages; methods of identification; methods of preservation and long-term storage of eggs and larvae; the significance of early life history stages to systematic studies of fishes.

Fish biodiversity III: pre-acanthomorph teleosts; lecture and slide presentation; examination of osteoglossomorphs, elopomorphs, and clupeomorphs (Osteoglossum, Elops, and Clupea); Ostariophysi, Salmoniformes, Stomiiformes, Scopelomorpha, and Paracanthopterygii.

Fish biodiversity IV: acanthopterygian fishes; lecture and slide presentation; examination of Atherinomorpha, Lampriformes, Beryciformes, Zeiformes, Gasterosteiformes, Synbranchiformes, and Scorpaeniformes.

Fish biodiversity V: acanthopterygian fishes continued; lecture and slide presentation; examination of orders Perciformes, Pleuronectiformes, and Tetraodontiformes. Use of dichotomous keys for identifying fishes; keying families of local marine fishes.

Fish biodiversity VI: sarcopterygian fishes; lecture and slide presentation; examination of lungfishes. Demonstration of diversity of electric fishes; electrical production in living elephantfishes (Mormyridae). Review of entire labratory part of the course in preparation for final lab exam.

Student learning goals

General method of instruction

Three lectures a week, plus two three-hour laboratory sessions. There is no required text book, but a complete set of notes is provided.

Recommended preparation

For those of you who want to get ahead, it wouldn't hurt to read the recommended text for the course:

Peter B. Moyle and Joseph J. Cech, Jr. 1999. Fishes: An Introduction to Ichthyology. 4th Edition. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.

Class assignments and grading

Two one-hour lecture exams worth 150 points each, two lab exams worth 150 points each, a 50-point lab quizz, a 50-point lab notebook assignment, and a 300-point comprehensive final exam, for a total of 1000 points.

The information above is intended to be helpful in choosing courses. Because the instructor may further develop his/her plans for this course, its characteristics are subject to change without notice. In most cases, the official course syllabus will be distributed on the first day of class.
Last Update by Theodore W Pietsch
Date: 11/02/1999