Quick Identification

Identification of fish is only a side aspect of FishBase. We still cannot imagine fieldworkers and laypersons carrying around notebook computers to identify their catch, although with the advent of Internet enabled cellular phones that time might come soon. For now, thumbing through a well illustrated, handy field guide such as Humann (1994) or Lieske and Myers (1994) is still the fastest and most comfortable way to find information on the more common and well-distinguished species. Identifications that have to stand scientific scrutiny require an altogether different approach: they must be carried out in a laboratory with special equipment and by well-trained personnel.

We use pictograms to let the eye quickly compare the specimen in questions with generalized drawings of major fish groups

On the other hand, relational databases are well suited for identification purposes when large numbers of species are involved (Froese 1989, 1990; Froese and Papasissi 1990; Froese et al. 1989, 1990). With relatively few and simple entries, FishBase can guide the user to a short list of possible species with pictures, morphological features, and pointers to the relevant literature. Similar to many field guides, we use pictograms to let the eye quickly compare the specimen in question with generalized drawings of major fish groups. For the many typically fish-shaped species the approach we have chosen is inspired by the fin formula key to bony fishes presented in Smith and Heemstra (1986). The key is based on the fact that in most species of bony fish, counts of dorsal and anal fin rays are relatively stable and easy to obtain. Together with the geographic area, habitat (freshwater, brackish or saltwater), the size and a broad taxonomic classification (order or family) this forms a search pattern that quickly reduces the number of possible species (see also the section on the ‘MORPHOLOGY table’, this vol.).

Geographic area, size and taxonomic group quickly reduce the number of possible species

After clicking on the Quick Identification button, you have the option to specify the Continent or Ocean, and Depth range where you collected your specimen(s). This information is used to narrow the number of possible species. You can leave these fields blank if you do not have that information. If you already know the Order, Family, or Genus then click on the Taxa button, which allows you to enter such information and start the search.

If you are not familiar with the taxonomic classification of your specimen(s) clicking on the Pictures button brings up pictograms of easily recognized fish families (see Fig. 3). After you identified a group, you can still add fin ray counts or select a genus.

Fin ray counts provide a quick entry to identification

Clicking on the Fin rays button lets you enter fin ray counts for the dorsal and anal fin. Note that the resulting list will be drawn from those species for which we have entered such counts, unless you specify also the order or the family. FishBase 2000 contains fin ray counts for over 8,000 species of bony fish and is complete for, e.g., British Columbia, Japan and South Africa. We plan to cover all Western Pacific teleosts to have this routine complete for a larger area. We have started to make a few basic measurements on drawings or photos of adult fish to be used for identification. We also intend to create a similarly simple identification procedure for cartilaginous fishes. Suggestions or offers to collaborate on this are highly welcome.

How to get there

You get to the identification procedure by clicking on the Species button of the Main Menu window and clicking on the Quick Identification button in the SEARCH BY … window.


We plan to provide a similar Quick Identification service on the Internet in early 2001.

Fig. 3. FishBase 2000 screen for quick identification. Note that the bottom line provides a short description of main characters for the active button, here, the lamprey.


Froese, R. 1989. Computer-aided approaches to identification. II. Numerical taxonomy. Fishbyte 7(3):25-28.

Froese, R. 1990. Moderne Methoden zur Bestimmung von Fischlarven. Universität Hamburg. Doctoral thesis. 260 p.

Froese, R. and C. Papasissi. 1990. The use of modern relational databases for identification of fish larvae. J. Appl. Ichthyol. 6:37-45.

Froese, R., W. Schöfer, A. Röpke and D. Schnack. 1989. Computer-aided approaches to identification of aquatic organisms: the use of Expert Systems. Fishbyte 7(2):18-19.

Froese, R., I. Achenbach and C. Papasissi. 1990. Computer-aided approaches to identification. III. (Conclusion). Modern databases. Fishbyte 8(2):25-27.

Humann, P. 1994. Reef fish identification, Florida, Caribbean, Bahamas. New World Publication, Jacksonville, Florida. 426 p.

Lieske, E. and R.A. Myers. 1994. Collins pocket guide. Coral reef fishes. Indo-Pacific & Caribbean including the Red Sea. Harper Collins Publishers, Italy. 400 p.

Smith, M.M. and P.C. Heemstra, Editors. 1986. Smith’s sea fishes. Springer Verlag, Berlin. 1047 p.

Rainer Froese and Rodolfo B. Reyes, Jr.