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Notes on soapfishes (Serranidae: Grammistinae), with a pictorial review of the genus Pogonoperca.


The soapfishes are named for their ability to produce excessive mucus when they are handled or threatened. In the older literature, these fishes were regarded as a subfamily Grammistinae of the family Serranidae. Gosline (1960) suggested that they be regarded as a family and gave qualifying characters.

The first author determined the toxicity of the soapfish mucus in an unusual way while scuba-diving in the Florida Keys at a depth of 30 m in 1958. He speared an adult of the Great Soapfish (Rypticus saponaceus). Instead of swimming to the surface with one small fish, he placed it inside the front of his bathing trunks. He very quickly became aware that it is a powerful urethral irritant. Later he was informed by Puerto Rican fishermen that they could not put a soapfish with other live fishes in a limited volume of seawater without causing the death of the other fishes.

In a large paper on the food habits of West Indian reef fishes, Randall (1967) reported that no soapfishes of the genus Rypticus were found in the stomachs of piscivorous fishes. He suggested that the toxic slime is repelling to predators.

Maretski & Del Castillo (1967) found that guppies and small reef fishes died within three to five minutes when immersed in water with a strong concentration of the mucus of Rypticus saponaceus. Intraperitoneal injection of the mucus into mice resulted in death.

While trying to catch an elusive Sixline Soapfish (Grammistes sexlineatus) in an aquarium for several minutes, the first author noted that the water took on an opalescent hue, and the bubbles from the aerator accumulated on the surface. When the fish was finally captured, the other fishes in the tank showed distress and died.

When a small live individual of Grammistes sexlineatus was offered to a captive Turkeyfish (Pterois volitans), it was taken into the mouth, but quickly expelled. The soapfish mucus was tasted by the first author and found to be extremely bitter.

Hashimoto & Kamiya (1969) investigated the toxic substance in the skin of the Spotted Soapfish (Pogonoperca punctata). Skin extracts in capsules were force-fed to cats, resulting in ciguatera-like symptoms, followed by paralysis of the limbs and coma within a few days. Intraperitoneal injection of as little as 70 mg raw skin into mice caused death within 24 to 48 hours.

Randall et al. (1971) reported on the chemical properties of the skin toxin, termed grammistin, the histology of the glands that produce it, and its presence in species of the following genera of serranid fishes: Aulacocephalus, Diploprion, Grammistes, Grammistops, Pogonoperca, and Rypticus. These six genera were reclassified in the serranid subfamily Grammistinae.

Randall et al. (1971) noted a difference in the color pattern of specimens of Pogonoperca punctata (Valenciennes) from the Pacific (Fig. 1), compared to those identified as this species from the western Indian Ocean (Fig. 2). The fins of the latter are covered with close-set pale spots. They added that more specimens would be needed to determine if the name P. ocellata Gunther should be used for the Indian Ocean population. Although Gunther indicated that the locality for his type specimen was unknown, James Maclaine (pers. comm.) noted that "Mauritius" was in the original register entry for this species in the British Museum.



Anderson et al. (1998) concluded that P. ocellata should be regarded as a valid western Indian Ocean species. Allen & Adrim (2003: 32) extended the range east to northern Sumatra.

Randall et al. (1980) added Belonoperca chabanaudi to the subfamily, after an initial taste of the bitter mucus and subsequent study, and Baldwin & Smith (1998) described a second species of the genus, B. pylei, from the Cook Islands.

Baldwin & Johnson (1993) published a classification of the soapfishes from a cladistic analysis of larval and adult morphology. They placed Grammistes, Pogonoperca, Rypticus, and Grammistops with Pseudogramma and three related genera that do not produce grammistin in the tribe Grammistini. Diploprion, Belonoperca and Aulacocephalus were separated as the tribe Diploprionini.

On the validity of Pogonopeca ocellata and Aulacocephalus temminickii

Gunther (1859: 169) described Pogonoperca ocellata from a dried stuffed specimen 12 inches in total length, for which he gave the following color description: "Brownish, covered all over with small round white dots; three or four large brown blotches on the back." This color description could apply as well to P. punctata. In fact, it sounds more like the color of P. punctata, because the white spots are referred to as dots. Gunther's description indicated that the holotype was illustrated by Plate XIV, fig. A. However, there are no plates in the volume. John Edward Gray wrote in the preface, "The Plates referred to and executed by Mr. Ford, will be published as a separate volume." No such volume was printed, and James Maclaine (pers. comm.) was unable to find any of Ford's drawings in the Natural History Museum in London. A photograph of the holotype of Pogonoperca ocellata is provided here as Fig. 3. It represents the species as intended by Gunther because the pale spots on the body are smaller and much more closely spaced, and the dense pale spotting may be seen on the fins. We confirm the decision of Anderson et al. (1998) to treat P. ocellata as a valid Indian Ocean species.


Boulenger (1895: 345) placed "?Grammistes compressus Lienard, 1833: 117" at the head of his synonymy of Pogonoperca ocellata Gunther, 1859, with no explanation. Randall et al. (1971: 174) found an anonymous report in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London (1833: pt. 1, p. 117), which included the statement, "M. Lienard, sen., has described a new species of Grammistes, Cuv., distinguishable from the two previously known by its compressed form, on which account it has been designated Gramm. compressus: its first dorsal fin has nine rays." They added, "We have been unable to find any publication by Lienard in which Grammistes compressus has been formally described. If nine rays can be construed as meaning nine dorsal spines, there is a possibility that compressus could be A. temminckii, since it is the only known grammistid with nine dorsal spines." They concluded, and we agree, that the name Grammistes compressus should be suppressed.

In a checklist of the fishes of the Mascarene Islands, Fricke (1999: 210) listed Grammistes compressus Lienard, 1833, at the head of the synonymy of Pogonoperca ocellata, but added that the reference was not seen.

Marie Louise Bauchot, formerly of the Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris, was asked if she could find the elusive publication of Lienard (1833). She did not, but she obtained a copy of the Troisieme Rapport Annuel sur Les Travaux de la Societe d'Histoire Naturelle de l'ile Maurice, 24 August 1832, by the secretary Julien Desjardins, which states on p. 100 that Lienard has provisionally given the name of Grammiste comprime to a species with the fin-ray counts: dorsal rays 9.12, anal rays 3.9, pectoral rays 15. The color description includes a yellow longitudinal band from the eye to the tail, and yellow on the maxilla. These characters are clearly diagnostic for Aulacocephalus temminckii Bleeker (1854), type locality Nagasaki, Japan, a species known from Mauritius. She also found that Monod (1976: 19), following Michel (1972), reached the same conclusion. We could find no publication by Lienard (1833) in which he described Grammistes compressus, and we believe it was never published as intended. The Bleeker species name A. temminckii is therefore no longer threatened. We present a color photograph of a specimen from Japan (Fig. 4) and an underwater photograph from Norfolk Island (Fig. 5).



Juvelines of Pogonoperca punctata

Shen (1993: pl. 77, fig. 1) illustrated a juvenile of Pogonoperca punctata, 13 mm in standard length (SL), collected at Lanyu (Orchid Island), Taiwan on 24 June 1979, from a photograph taken by Dr. Sin-Che Lee. We reproduce the photograph here as Fig. 6 (with reflections removed), as we are not aware of any published record of the color of the juvenile of Pogonoperca ocellata. The specimen measures 13 mm SL, and is deposited at the Institute of Zoology, Academia Sinica, Taipei, Taiwan as ASIZP 55312.


The second author photographed a 50-mm juvenile of a species that he suspected was Pogonoperca punctata in an aquarium fish store in Alzenau/Wasserlos, Germany on 10 November 2008 (Fig. 7). He estimated the total length (TL) as 50 mm. It was imported from Manila, Philippines. He photographed the same fish (Fig. 8) on 1 October 2009, now estimated at 110 mm in total length. It is clearly P. punctata, but not yet in full adult coloration. We are not aware of any published record of the color of the juvenile Pogonoperca ocellata.



A third species of Pogonoperca

The second author photographed a soapfish at the Wilhelma Zoo-Aquarium in Stuttgart (Fig. 9) that he estimated to be between 150 and 175 mm total length. The fish lived in the aquarium from 1990-1995. It was not retained as a specimen. No record is available of the country of origin. We believe this fish represents an undescribed species of Pogonoperca. It is clearly distinct from the two known species of the genus by having a slightly rounded caudal fin, compared to strongly rounded fin, and most of the fins are opaque dark brown. The membranes of the fins of P. punctata are largely transparent, except for the spinous dorsal, and the fins of P. ocellata are densely white-spotted.


Our motive for publishing this photograph is to alert the aquarium fish industry of the need for specimens to determine the identity of this fish.


We thank Kwang-Tsao Shao for providing details of the 13 mm juvenile specimen of Pogonoperca punctata from Taiwan, and Sin-Che Lee for its photograph. We are also grateful to Matthias Reising from Meeresaquaristik Reising for allowing the second author to photograph an individual of P. punctatus in his care, James Maclaine and Harry Taylor of the Natural History Museum in London for information and the photograph of the holotype of Pogonoperca ocellata, and Marie Louise Bauchot, Christine Carrau and Ronald Fricke for their assistance with literature.

Received: 18 October 2009 - Accepted: 16 December 2009


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John E. Randall (1) and Erwin Schraml (2)

(1) Bishop Museum, 1525 Bernice St., Honolulu, HI 96817-2704, USA. E-mail:

(2) Haferstrasse 18C, D-86179 Augsburg, Germany. E-mail:
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Author:Randall, John E.; Schraml, Erwin
Publication:aqua: International Journal of Ichthyology
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:0INDI
Date:Jan 20, 2010
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