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Fishes have been in existence for more than 450,000,000 years, during which time they have evolved to fit into almost every type of aquatic habitat. In a sense, land vertebrates are simply highly modified fishes, for when fishes colonized the land habitat they became tetrapod (four-legged) land vertebrates.
A variety of cold-blooded vertebrate animals (phylum Chordata) can be found in the fresh and salt waters of the world. Living species range from the primitive, jawless lampreys and hagfishes to the abundant and diverse bony fishes.
The term fish is applied to a variety of vertebrates of several evolutionary lines. It describes a life-form rather than a taxonomic group. As members of the phylum Chordata, fish share certain features with other vertebrates. These features are gill slits at some point in the life cycle, a notochord, or skeletal supporting rod, a dorsal hollow nerve cord, and a tail. Living fishes represent some classes, which are distinct from one another. For example, the jawless fishes (Agnatha) are the only fishes that have a filter-feeding mouth, a feature that makes them dependent on an essentially parasitic way of life. Sharks, skates, and rays are examples of cartilaginous fishes. The bony fishes are by far the largest class. Examples range from the tiny sea horse to the 450-kilogram (1,000-pound) blue marlin, from the flat soles and flounders to the boxy puffers and sunfishes. Unlike those of the cartilaginous fishes, the scales of bony fishes, when present, grow throughout life and are made up of thin, overlapping plates of bone. Bony fishes also have an operculum that covers the gill slits.
The study of fishes, the science of ichthyology, is of broad importance. Fishes are of interest to humans for many reasons, the most important being their relationship with and dependence on the environment. A more obvious reason for interest in fishes is their role as a moderate but important part of the world's food supply. This resource, once thought unlimited, is now realized to be finite and in delicate balance with the biological, chemical, and physical factors of the aquatic environment. Overfishing, pollution, and alteration of the environment are the chief enemies of proper fisheries management, both in fresh waters and in the ocean.
Another practical reason for studying fishes is their use in disease control. As predators on mosquito larvae, they help curb malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases. Fishes are valuable laboratory animals in many aspects of medical and biological research. For example, the readiness of many fishes to acclimate to captivity has allowed biologists to study behaviour, physiology, and even ecology under relatively natural conditions. Fishes have been especially important in the study of animal behaviour, where research on fishes has provided a broad base for the understanding of the more flexible behaviour of the higher vertebrates.
There are aesthetic and recreational reasons for an interest in fishes. Millions of people keep live fishes in home aquariums for the simple pleasure of observing the beauty and behaviour of animals otherwise unfamiliar to them. To many, aquarium fishes provide a personal challenge, allowing them to test their ability to keep a small section of the natural environment in their homes. Sportfishing is another way of enjoying the natural environment, also indulged in by millions of people every year. Interest in aquarium fishes and sportfishing support multimillion-dollar industries throughout the world.
1. Define fish as a living organism.
2. What classes do you know?
3. How do they breathe?
4. How do they reproduce?
5. What do you know about the feeding habits of fish?
6. Why do fish so important for humans?