Water Life Magazine 1936-1958: Part 4. The Editor and the Cardinal Tetra

I have a bound volume 13 of Fishkeeping and Water Life, the final successor to Water Life. It comprises 14 monthly issues, from November 1957 to December 1958. The Editor was Leslie W. Ashdown. He gave a talk on BBC radio on 18 March in a programme entitled, Breeding Tropical Fishes.


This is the only photograph I have found of L.W. Ashdown (Water Life, February 1954)

Ashdown asked for a ruling from the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature on the scientific name of the Cardinal Tetra, now a common aquarium fish but then a newly-imported species. In his letter of 14 May 1956 he explained that there were two names for the species and it was a question of which one had priority: Cheirodon axelrodi Schultz 1956 or Hyphessobrycon cardinalis Myers and Weitzman 1956. He also stated that the issue of Tropical Fish Hobbyist in which the former was described was marked April 1956 but was dated 20 February while the latter was described in Stanford Ichthyological Bulletin was dated 21 February. He concluded, The fish is likely to become widely used by aquarists, and it is important therefore that the scientific name to be used for it should be determined without delay

The story from there is well described in a book review by Scott A Schaefer of the American Museum of Natural History in Copeia in 2003:

 In addition to the socioeconomics of the ornamental fishery, the history of the discovery and controversy surrounding the original description of the cardinal tetra are almost as colorful as the fish itself. Although not detailed herein, the literature indicates that a small characin similar in color to the neon tetra (Paracheirodon innesi) had been discussed by German biologists and aquarists as early as 1952 (Weitzman, 1956; Geisler and Annibal, 1986). In 1956, specimens were sent independently to L. P. Schultz by Axelrod, who originally acknowledged (Axelrod, 1956) that the specimens had been received from a New Jersey fish dealer on 10—11 February 1956, and to G. S. Myers and S. H. Weitzman by W. T. Innes and Paramount Aquarium (Myers and Weitzman, 1956). Both Schultz (1956) and Myers and Weitzman (1956) published a description of the species in February 1956, and, after a contentious debate and split vote, the International Commission (ICZN) ruled on the priority of the name Cheirodon axelrodi Schultz (ICZN, 1957; Opinion 485). So that the commercial interests of the exporters were protected, these authors were not provided with precise locality information on the specimens provided to them, with Axelrod (1956) contending that they had come from Porto Velho (Rio Madeira), Brazil, and Myers contending that they had come from Manaus.

One has only to read the letters concerning this case to have grave doubts whether the fish should have been named after H.R. Axelrod. As Denys Tucker of the British Natural History Museum noted in a submission to the Commission:

     …I can add nothing further to this aspect of the problem, except the expression of a certain curiosity as to why Vol. 4, No. 4 of the Tropical Fish Hobbyist should carry the precise date 20 February 1956, and the succeeding one reverts to the similar form May-June 1956. I feel that the Commission should carefully weigh all the possible implications of this phenomenon.
     A factor that I would emphasize in favour of Hyphessobrycon cardinalis Myers & Weitzman is that this name was clearly published as a voluntary act of publication by these authors and in a journal normally serving as a vehicle of taxonomic publication. Cheirodon axelrodi Schultz, on the other hand, does not appear to have been deliberately published by its author.
     Dr. Schultz sent a personal letter to Mr. H.R. Axelrod which the latter apparently published on his own responsibility in the Tropical Fish Hobbyist…a lay journal…

The general feeling to this day is that the ICZN had been duped. Some journalists have been more explicit in their accusations. The question is: did Ashdown know the story and deliberately try to expose what had gone on? Axelrod’s Tropical Fish Hobbyist magazine and books were, after all, making inroads into the British market at the time and British aquarists in the know must have been aware of what had happened to W.T. Innes and his successful lawsuit against Axelrod.

Updated 23 April 2016


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