History of the Study of the Fish Fauna of Iraq


Laith A. Jawad1




1 Marine Science and Fisheries Centre, Ministry of Fisheries Wealth, Sultanate   of Oman, P.O. Box 427, Postal Code 100 Muscat; e-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it



The history of the fish fauna (both freshwater and marine) of Iraq and the literature over the last 168 years has been reviewed and the data derived from such review were analyzed for fish biodiversity study. Primarily, this study reviews the taxonomic, species and faunal lists. There are only five papers devoted entirely to freshwater species and two to marine species. The remaining 12 contain several of mixed species. The number of published Iraqi scientific authors is low as only 15 have authored 13 publications, beginning with Khalaf (1961). Only 30 new species (two marine and 28 freshwater) were described in the period 1843-2011.

Keywords: Iraq, Mesopotamia, Tigris-Euphrates Rivers, history, fish fauna, marine species, freshwater species



The history of the study of the fish fauna of Iraq goes back to the time of Sumer, Babylon and Assyria (Saggs, 1962). Ancient Mesopotamians succeeded in identifying and naming several freshwater and marine species, which were recorded on clay tablets (Landsberger, 1962). However, no further records are available until the 19th century, when Heckel (1843) described 17 freshwater fish species from the Tigris River at Mosul City, northern Iraq. The work of Heckel (1843) marks the real start of taxonomic work on the fish fauna of Iraq. Previous to that date, the works of Hasselquit (1722-1752) and Russell (1742-1753) on different parts of the Middle East were considered the early works on fish taxonomy of this part of the world. The authors of these works did not collect the specimens from Iraqi waters in spite of the fact that the species they described were actually present in Iraq later on, thus they are considered to be out of the scope of this study. During the 168 years since the publication of Heckel (1843), a large number of publications dealt with several aspects of Iraqi fish taxonomy, such as descriptions of new species, range extensions and checklists of both freshwater and marine species.

The present work reviews the history of the fish fauna of Iraq from the taxonomical point of view, based on published works that recorded new species from Iraqi waters or reported on range extension that includes Iraqi waters. The Iraqi marine territory has a limited extent which restricts the marine fauna to relatively few species; that is why much of the text of the present study covers freshwater fish species.


Materials and Methods

Literature about the fish fauna of Iraq was collected, surveyed for the freshwater and marine fish species composition, and reviewed. The period of literature search was between 1843 and 2011. Data analysis was performed on freshwater and marine species separately and included in appropriate tables. The literature review was divided into the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.



Results and Discussion

Review of the history of the study of the fish fauna of Iraq

The 19th century

The 19th century saw the birth of real fish taxonomic studies in Iraq, although only five works were published: Heckel (1843), Günther (1868, 1874, 1879) and Sauvage (1882). These authors described new fish species from different parts of Iraq and reported on new records of other species present in the Tigris River. Although the species descriptions given in these scientific works during this short period of time were not adequate, they are considered very important from a taxonomic point of view. The description of Barbus faoensis (=Barbus sharpeyi) by Günther (1896) is considered to be the first record of a principal freshwater species to be obtained from the marine environment in the modern ichthyological history of Iraq. It is not clear from the work of Günther (1896) whether the specimen of B. faoensis was collected from the marine environment or obtained from a fish market.

The 20th century

The first half of the 20th century saw the publication of eight taxonomic works that dealt with the fish fauna of Iraq (Pietschmann, 1912, 1913; Light, 1917; Bagnall, 1917; Berg, 1931; Kennedy, 1937; Hora and Misra, 1943; Misra, 1947). Although this is a relatively small number of publications, they were a good starting point for the Iraqi fish fauna to make its first appearance in worldwide taxonomical records. Papers published up to 1931 contained descriptions of new species from the Shatt al-Arab River at Basra and the Tigris River at Mosul (Pietschmann, 1912, 1913; Berg, 1931), and included records of large cyprinid specimens from the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, which were not identified to the species level (Light, 1917; Bagnall, 1919).

In the period from 1937 to 1947, the first review papers on the history of Iraq's fish species appeared. Kennedy (1937), Hora and Misra (1943) and Misra (1947) all published lists of freshwater and marine species. Kennedy's (1937) list was significant in recording the presence of shark species Carcharias lamia Risso (could be misidentified for bull shark Carcharhinus leucas) in the Tigris River just north of Baghdad, and the teleost Acanthopagrus berda Forskall in the vicinity of Baghdad. These records are considered the first of any marine/euryhaline species to be present in such a northward locality. In addition to the list of species they provided, Hora and Misra (1943) described Petrus belayewi (=Acanthopagrus berda) as a new species. In the list of Misra (1947), a number of marine species were recorded from Al-Hammar Marsh, most of which had never previously been recorded in a marsh area. Misra (1947) provided a high quality illustration of the teleost Aspius vorax and male and female individuals of Barbus xanthopterus, which can be used in taxonomical studies to this day.

During the 1950s, only three publications appeared: Trewavas (1955), Fowler and Steinitz (1956), and Menon (1956). Trewavas (1955) and Menon (1956) were both significant contributions to the understanding of the fish fauna of Iraq. The former author described for the first time the blind fish Typhlogarra widdowssoni from caves near Haditha (Romero and Paulson, 2001). This species is listed in the CITES Appendix I (IUCN, 2001). Menon (1956) presented a checklist of marine and freshwater species, which is considered the first comprehensive list published on Iraqi fish fauna. In this list, freshwater fish were mostly cyprinid species and Barbus belayewi (=Capoeta damascina) was described from the Tigris at Baghdad for the first time. In addition, he recorded four more marine species in the freshwater system of Iraq, such as at Lake Habbaniyah, Al-Hammar Marsh, and the Shatt al-Arab and Euphrates rivers. The work of Fowler and Steinitz (1956) is partially related to the Iraqi fish fauna; two marine specimens were recorded in the Euphrates and Shatt al-Arab rivers.

The 1960s were the time of appearance of faunistic works written by Iraqi naturalists. The works of Khalaf (1961) and Mahdi (1962) were a characteristic feature of this period, and they produced the first guides to the marine and freshwater fishes of Iraq. Although their works were preliminary and came up with a large number of synonyms, rejected taxa and uncertainties, they have been used as a baseline in further taxonomic studies. The weaknesses in Khalaf (1961) and Mahdi (1962) led future Iraqi authors to make the same taxonomical mistakes. These works did not rise to present-day taxonomic expectations for several reasons. For example, they did not examine fish specimens from localities outside the vicinity of Baghdad; instead, they relied on previous published works on the fish fauna of Iraq to list the species in their guides and they were not aware of the problems associated with synonyms and rejected taxa.

In the 1960s, a comprehensive check list of vertebrates was published by Mahdi and George (1969), the first of its type and also the first checklist to be co-authored by an Iraqi naturalist. This publication was welcomed worldwide due to the need for literature on Iraqi fish fauna, which was sparse and scattered. This checklist, as in previous works, came full of synonyms and rejected taxa; it also included species from outside Iraq's territorial waters (the Arabian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz).

Kafuku (1969) attempted to differentiate morphologically between the two species of the genus Cyprinion, C. macrostomus and C. kais. He succeeded in locating six morphological characters that can separate these species of Cyprinion and provided well-documented information to aid in their identification.