Old wife

Enoplosus armatus, commonly referred to as the old wife (plural: old wives), is a species of perciform fish endemic to the temperate coastal waters of Australia.[5] It is the only modern species in the family Enoplosidae.[6]

Enoplosus armatus
Temporal range: Enoplosus 65.5–0 Ma
Enoplosus armatus.jpg
Old wife, Enoplosus armatus
Scientific classification edit
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Actinopterygii
Order: Perciformes
Family: Enoplosidae
T. N. Gill, 1893[3]
Genus: Enoplosus
Lacépède, 1802[2]
E. armatus
Binomial name
Enoplosus armatus
(J. White, 1790)
  • Chaetodon armatus J. White, 1790
Old wives are commonly found in pairs or large schools.[7]

It has a deep and compressed body and concave forehead. These features are characteristic of typical butterflyfishes.[8] However, the old wife is easily distinguished by its silver-and-black, vertical, zebra-striped coloration, and by its two prominent dorsal fins. The second dorsal fin is very long and sickle-shaped. The fish grows up to 50 cm long.

The second dorsal fin is longer and sickle-shaped.

Its dorsal fins have bony, knife-like spines.[9] These have no obvious venom groove nor gland.[10] Nonetheless, the spines are widely considered to inflict a painful venom.[5]

The name "old wife" refers to the sound it makes when caught, caused by it grinding its teeth.[5][11] Other vernacular names have included "bastard dory", "zebra-fish" (also used for Girella zebra), and "double scalare".[12] It has a similar range and appearance to the Moonlighter (Tilodon sexfasciatus).[13]


A 50-million-year-old fossil Enoplosus pygopterus with preservation of zebra markings[14]

The old wife was originally classified in the genus Chaetodon (with the typical butterflyfishes), but it is now classified as the sole modern species of its own family Enoplosidae and genus Enoplosus. Some fossils have also been added to the genus.

The Pungent Chaetodon illustration accompanying the original 1790 description of Chaetodon (now Enoplosus) armatus in John White's voyage journal.[15] Attributed to convict artist Thomas Watling.

The first description of the species, one of the earliest for any Australian fish, was in 1790 by John White in his Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales[11] though some sources give George Shaw (who assisted White in the preparation of his manuscript) as the species authority.[16] White originally named it the long-spined chaetodon (Chætodon armatus) and described it as follows:[15]

Whitish Chaetodon, with seven black stripes on the body. Six spines on the dorsal fin, the third very long. This appears to be a new and very elegant species of the genus Chaetodon. The total length of the specimen was not more than four inches. The colour a silvery white, darker, and of a bluish tinge on the back; the transverse fasciae, or bands, of a deep black; the fins and tail of a pale brown. The third ray or spine of the first dorsal fin is much longer than the rest.

The species was reclassified by Lacépède into its own genus (named from "weapon" in Greek to again reflect the long spines), and was moved by Cuvier from Chaetodontidae into its own separate family within Percoidei.[17]

In 1836, Agassiz identified closely related fossils at Monte Bolca (an important fossil site in Europe) as Enoplosus pygopterus (named for its smaller fins).[17][18] Exceptionally well-preserved fossils show the basic body plan and even the zebra pattern of colouring have not changed significantly over the last 50 million years.[14]


  1. ^ Holleman, W., Fennessy, S. & Russell, B. 2020. Enoplosus armatus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2020: e.T143616007A143616622. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2020-2.RLTS.T143616007A143616622.en. Downloaded on 23 July 2020.
  2. ^ Eschmeyer, W. N.; R. Fricke & R. van der Laan (eds.). "Enoplosus". Catalog of Fishes. California Academy of Sciences. Retrieved 16 May 2020.
  3. ^ Richard van der Laan; William N. Eschmeyer & Ronald Fricke (2014). "Family-group names of Recent fishes". Zootaxa. 3882 (2): 001–230.
  4. ^ Froese, Rainer and Pauly, Daniel, eds. (2019). "Enoplosus armatus" in FishBase. December 2019 version.
  5. ^ a b c Old Wife, The Australian Museum.
  6. ^ J. S. Nelson; T. C. Grande; M. V. H. Wilson (2016). Fishes of the World (5th ed.). Wiley. pp. 442–443. ISBN 978-1-118-34233-6.
  7. ^ Old Wife Archived 2016-03-04 at the Wayback Machine, Reef Watch Victoria. (Divers' monitoring and conservation project.)
  8. ^ "Most [butterflyfish, angelfish and surgeonfish] have thin, oval or disk-shaped bodies. They typically have bright colors and patterns. Butterflyfish are usually round, small and have concave foreheads. They often have long snouts for feeding from crevices." AWARE-Fish Identification, Adventures in Diving Manual, PADI (2010).
  9. ^ Carl Edmonds, Dangerous marine creatures, 1989. "Although it has been described as venomous, this apparently is of a variable nature as many lacerations from the knife-like dorsal spines have been known by this author to be relatively painless. It appears as if the pain and bleeding may be inversely related, ..." p.70
  10. ^ Smith and Wheeler, Venom Evolution Widespread in Fishes, Journal of Heredity v.97 i.3 pp.206-217 (2006).
  11. ^ a b Morrison, Sue; Storrie, Ann (1999). Wonders of Western Waters. Como, Western Australia: Department of Conservation and Land Management. p. 119. ISBN 0-7309-6894-4.
  12. ^ Agustin, Liza Q., et alii (13 July 2007). "Common Names of Enoplosus armatus". Common name summary. FishBase. Retrieved 3 January 2009.
  13. ^ Moonlighter Archived 2012-05-31 at the Wayback Machine, Dive Around. (Guide to marine life.)
  14. ^ a b The 'Lost Language' of Fishes Archived 2012-03-18 at the Wayback Machine (with captioned images Archived 2011-05-13 at the Wayback Machine), Australian Research Council's Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. Colouring patterns demonstrated to have been preserved in fish (especially old wives) from at least 50 mya.
  15. ^ a b White, J. 1790, Journal of a voyage to New South Wales with 65 plates of nondescript animals, birds, lizards, serpents, curious cones of trees and other natural productions.: Pl. 39. transcription at Gutenberg
  16. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2014-03-05. Retrieved 2019-12-09.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  17. ^ a b L. Agassiz. 1836. Recherches Sur Les Poissons Fossiles. Tome IV (livr. 6). Imprimerie de Petitpierre, Neuchatel 53-108 [1]
  18. ^ Pygon+pteron. George Roberts, An etymological and explanatory dictionary of the terms and language of geology

External linksEdit

  Media related to Enoplosus armatus at Wikimedia Commons   Data related to Old wife at Wikispecies