Marine Fishes

The South African Museum’s comprehensive holdings comprise about 3,159 species of identified bony and cartilaginous fish.

Marine vertebrates have a vertebral column, i.e. a spine and are by comparison to their invertebrate counter parts small in number, constituting only 4% of the sea’s animal kingdom. They are nonetheless considered among the most structurally complex organisms. They are also varied, ranging from fish and seabirds to marine reptiles and marine mammals. As a result, the fish collections dedicated to this group of animals at the Iziko South African Museum are equally diverse.

The South African Museum’s comprehensive holdings comprise about 3,159 species of identified bony and cartilaginous fish. These fish hail mostly from Cape waters, but also as far afield as Angola, Mozambique and the Southern, Indian and Atlantic Oceans. Among the leading contributors to these collections was the aptly third-named John Dow Fisher (JDF) Gilchrist, who can be regarded as the father of South African ichthyology. Hailed as “the recognised authority for many genera and species of fish”, he at one stage worked at the South African Museum. Another leading figure in the Iziko collections is Keppel (KH) Barnard, who correlated all the information that had been published about South African fishes and later published two volumes of The Marine Fishes of South Africa.

The fish collection is made up of numerous collections.

The Mesopelagic Fish Collection comprises of fish that live between 100 and 1,000 m below the surface. Mesopelagic fish constitutes 95% of the world’s fish biomass. The comprehensive collection at Iziko was assembled primarily by Dr Percy Alexander Hulley, thanks to a German, French and South African collaboration. It includes a significant Myctophid collection, which is one of the best in the world. The Prince Edward Islands Collection is a growing collection, and is mostly made up of specimens collected from research on Southern Ocean fisheries and the activities of commercial companies. The Prince Edward Islands are two small islands (Marion Island and Prince Edward Island) in the sub-Antarctic Indian Ocean. The two islands are both part of South Africa. These islands have been declared Special Nature Reserves. The Melville Ridge Collection was compiled during research cruises of Marine and Coastal Management now called the Department of Environmental Affairs and Department of Forestry and Fisheries – over the Melville Ridge southwest of Madagascar. The Fish Osteology Collection is a small collection of comparative fish skeletal specimens. In turn, the Cartilaginous Fish Collection contains fish specimens from across the globe. It includes numerous representatives of eight of the shark groups, most representatives of the Batoids and Chimaeras, and includes rare species. This material comes (primarily) from the research peformed by Dr Leonard Compagno  and Dr Percival Hulley over a number of years of working at the Iziko South African Museum. Significant material is acquired from fisheries research, as well as from long-lining and the by-catch of fishing companies. And finally, the Cartilaginous Fish Skeletal Element Collection is considered one of the best in the world, and includes a wide range of wet and dry material. Among its most prized holdings is a sub-collection of dermal denticles, which are the tiny flat V-shaped scales that cover shark skin.

Keywords (Keyword Search)

  • Cartilaginous fish: Fish belonging to the Class Chondrichthyes, and distinguished by its skeleton, made up of cartilage (flexible tissue) rather than bones.
  • Ichthyology: The branch of zoology devoted to the study of fish.
  • Genera: Plural for genus, a major ranking in the classification of organisms.
  • Biomass: The total mass, aka weight, of organisms in a given area or volume.
  • Myctophid: Aka lantern fish, so called because of they are bioluminescent, i.e organisms that emit light. 
  • Osteology: The study of the bones of an organism.
  • Batoids: Or batoidea, a group of cartilaginous fish commonly known as rays and skates.
  • Chimaeras: Or Chimaeroids, shark-like fishes characterised by large heads and elongated (long) bodies that taper into a thin, whip-like tail.
  • Long-lining: a commercial fishing technique involving the use of a long heavy line with numerous baited hooks.
  • By-catches: The unwanted fish and other marine creatures, other than the targeted species, caught during commercial fishing.
  • Dry material: Or dry specimens are not preserved in chemicals.

Wet material: Or wet specimens, aka specimens preserved in chemicals


Exhibitions & Events

Inside Iziko

Iziko Museums



Dear Visitor,
Kindly note that the Iziko Bertram House, Iziko Koopmans-de Wet House and Iziko Rust en Vreugd on Friday, 7 April 2023 will be closed to the public.
We apologise for any inconvenience.
Iziko Management


Iziko Museums of South Africa will increase entry fees to all Iziko Museums for the first time in a decade, effective 1 April 2023. The new fees schedule was developed after undertaking a benchmarking assessment of local, regional, and national cultural/heritage attractions. The new entrance fees take our communities and visitors into consideration and remains a unique value-for money cultural and edutainment offering in Cape Town.