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Fish Out Of Water
by [?]

Strolling one day in what is euphemistically termed, in equatorial latitudes, ‘the cool of the evening,’ along a tangled tropical American field-path, through a low region of lagoons and watercourses, my attention happened to be momentarily attracted from the monotonous pursuit of the nimble mosquito by a small animal scuttling along irregularly before me, as if in a great hurry to get out of my way before I could turn him into an excellent specimen. At first sight I took the little hopper, in the grey dusk, for one of the common, small green lizards, and wasn’t much disposed to pay it any distinguished share either of personal or scientific attention. But as I walked on a little further through the dense underbrush, more and more of these shuffling and scurrying little creatures kept crossing the path, hastily, all in one direction, and all, as it were, in a formed body or marching phalanx. Looking closer, to my great surprise, I found they were actually fish out of water, going on a walking tour, for change of air, to a new residence–genuine fish, a couple of inches long each, not eel-shaped or serpentine in outline, but closely resembling a red mullet in miniature, though much more beautifully and delicately coloured, and with fins and tails of the most orthodox spiny and prickly description. They were travelling across country in a bee-line, thousands of them together, not at all like the helpless fish out of water of popular imagination, but as unconcernedly and naturally as if they had been accustomed to the overland route for their whole lifetimes, and were walking now on the king’s highway without let or hindrance.

I took one up in my hand and examined it more carefully; though the catching it wasn’t by any means so easy as it sounds on paper, for these perambulatory fish are thoroughly inured to the dangers and difficulties of dry land, and can get out of your way when you try to capture them with a rapidity and dexterity which are truly surprising. The little creatures are very pretty, well-formed catfish, with bright, intelligent eyes, and a body armed all over, like the armadillo’s, with a continuous coat of hard and horny mail. This coat is not formed of scales, as in most fish, but of toughened skin, as in crocodiles and alligators, arranged in two overlapping rows of imbricated shields, exactly like the round tiles so common on the roofs of Italian cottages. The fish walks, or rather shambles along ungracefully, by the shuffling movement of a pair of stiff spines placed close behind his head, aided by the steering action of his tail, and a constant snake-like wriggling motion of his entire body. Leg spines of somewhat the same sort are found in the common English gurnard, and in this age of Aquariums and Fisheries Exhibitions, most adult persons above the age of twenty-one years must have observed the gurnards themselves crawling along suspiciously by their aid at the bottom of a tank at the Crystal Palace or the polyonymous South Kensington building. But while the European gurnard only uses his substitutes for legs on the bed of the ocean, my itinerant tropical acquaintance (his name, I regret to say, is Callichthys) uses them boldly for terrestrial locomotion across the dry lowlands of his native country. And while the gurnard has no less than six of these pro-legs, the American land fish has only a single pair with which to accomplish his arduous journeys. If this be considered as a point of inferiority in the armour-plated American species, we must remember that while beetles and grasshoppers have as many as six legs apiece, man, the head and crown of things, is content to scramble through life ungracefully with no more than two.

There are a great many tropical American pond-fish which share these adventurous gipsy habits of the pretty little Callichthys. Though they belong to two distinct groups, otherwise unconnected, the circumstances of the country they inhabit have induced in both families this queer fashion of waddling out courageously on dry land, and going on voyages of exploration in search of fresh ponds and shallows new, somewhere in the neighbourhood of their late residence. One kind in particular, the Brazilian Doras, takes land journeys of such surprising length, that he often spends several nights on the way, and the Indians who meet the wandering bands during their migrations fill several baskets full of the prey thus dropped upon them, as it were, from the kindly clouds.