On the Parts of Animals

Author: Aristotle  | Date: 350 BC


Thus then are fashioned the parts of birds. But in fishes a still further stunting has occurred in the external parts. For here, for reasons already given, there are neither legs nor hands nor wings, the whole body from head to tail presenting one unbroken surface. This tail differs in different fishes, in some approximating in character to the fins, while in others, namely in some of the flat kinds, it is spinous and elongated, because the material which should have gone to the tail has been diverted thence and used to increase the breadth of the body. Such, for instance, is the case with the Torpedos, the Trygons, and whatever other Selachia there may be of like nature. In such fishes, then, the tail is spinous and long; while in some others it is short and fleshy, for the same reason which makes it spinous and long in the Torpedo. For to be short and fleshy comes to the same thing as to be long and less amply furnished with flesh.

What has occurred in the Fishing-frog is the reverse of what has occurred in the other instances just given. For here the anterior and broad part of the body is not of a fleshy character, and so all the fleshy substance which has been thence diverted has been placed by nature in the tail and hinder portion of the body.

In fishes there are no limbs attached to the body. For in accordance with their essential constitution they are swimming animals; and nature never makes anything superfluous or void of use. Now inasmuch as fishes are made swimming they have fins, and as they are not made for walking they are without feet; for feet are attached to the body that they may be of use in progression on land. Moreover, fishes cannot have feet, or any other similar limbs, as well as four fins; for they are essentially sanguineous animals. The Cordylus, though it has gills, has feet, for it has no fins but merely has its tail flattened out and loose in texture.

Fishes, unless, like the Batos and the Trygon, they are broad and flat, have four fins, two on the upper and two on the under side of the body; and no fish ever has more than these. For, if it had, it would be a bloodless animal.

The upper pair of fins is present in nearly all fishes, but not so the under pair; for these are wanting in some of those fishes that have long thick bodies, such as the eel, the conger, and a certain kind of Cestreus that is found in the lake at Siphae. When the body is still more elongated, and resembles that of a serpent rather than that of a fish, as is the case in the Smuraena, there are absolutely no fins at all; and locomotion is effected by the flexures of the body, the water being put to the same use by these fishes as is the ground by serpents. For serpents swim in water exactly in the same way as they glide on the ground. The reason for these serpent-like fishes being without fins is the same as that which causes serpents to be without feet; and what this is has been already stated in the dissertations on the Progression and the Motion of Animals. The reason was this. If the points of motion were four, motion would be effected under difficulties; for either the two pairs of fins would be close to each other, in which case motion would scarcely be possible, or they would be at a very considerable distance apart, in which case the long interval between them would be just as great an evil. On the other hand, to have more than four such motor points would convert the fishes into bloodless animals. A similar explanation applies to the case of those fishes that have only two fins. For here again the body is of great length and like that of a serpent, and its undulations do the office of the two missing fins. It is owing to this that such fishes can even crawl on dry ground, and can live there for a considerable time; and do not begin to gasp until they have been for a considerable time out of the water, while others, whose nature is akin to that of land-animals, do not even do as much as that. In such fishes as have but two fins it is the upper pair (pectorals) that is present, excepting when the flat broad shape of the body prevents this. The fins in such cases are placed at the head, because in this region there is no elongation, which might serve in the absence of fins as a means of locomotion; whereas in the direction of the tail there is a considerable lengthening out in fishes of this conformation. As for the Bati and the like, they use the marginal part of their flattened bodies in place of fins for swimming.

In the Torpedo and the Fishing-frog the breadth of the anterior part of the body is not so great as to render locomotion by fins impossible, but in consequence of it the upper pair (pectorals) are placed further back and the under pair (ventrals) are placed close to the head, while to compensate for this advancement they are reduced in size so as to be smaller than the upper ones. In the Torpedo the two upper fins (pectorals) are placed on the tail, and the fish uses the broad expansion of its body to supply their place, each lateral half of its circumference serving the office of a fin.

The head, with its several parts, as also the organs of sense, have already come under consideration.

There is one peculiarity which distinguishes fishes from all other sanguineous animals, namely, the possession of gills. Why they have these organs has been set forth in the treatise on Respiration. These gills are in most fishes covered by opercula, but in the Selachia, owing to the skeleton being cartilaginous, there are no such coverings. For an operculum requires fish-spine for its formation, and in other fishes the skeleton is made of this substance, whereas in the Selachia it is invariably formed of cartilage. Again, while the motions of spinous fishes are rapid, those of the Selachia are sluggish, inasmuch as they have neither fish-spine nor sinew; but an operculum requires rapidity of motion, seeing that the office of the gills is to minister as it were to expiration. For this reason in Selachia the branchial orifices themselves effect their own closure, and thus there is no need for an operculum to ensure its taking place with due rapidity. In some fishes the gills are numerous, in others few in number; in some again they are double, in others single. The last gill in most cases is single. For a detailed account of all this, reference must be made to the treatises on Anatomy, and to the book of Researches concerning Animals.

It is the abundance or the deficiency of the cardiac heat which determines the numerical abundance or deficiency of the gills. For, the greater an animal’s heat, the more rapid and the more forcible does it require the branchial movement to be; and numerous and double gills act with more force and rapidity than such as are few and single. Thus, too, it is that some fishes that have but few gills, and those of comparatively small efficacy, can live out of water for a considerable time; for in them there is no great demand for refrigeration. Such, for example, are the eel and all other fishes of serpent-like form.

Fishes also present diversities as regards the mouth. For in some this is placed in front, at the very extremity of the body, while in others, as the dolphin and the Selachia, it is placed on the under surface; so that these fishes turn on the back in order to take their food. The purpose of Nature in this was apparently not merely to provide a means of salvation for other animals, by allowing them opportunity of escape during the time lost in the act of turning-for all the fishes with this kind of mouth prey on living animals-but also to prevent these fishes from giving way too much to their gluttonous ravening after food. For had they been able to seize their prey more easily than they do, they would soon have perished from over-repletion. An additional reason is that the projecting extremity of the head in these fishes is round and small, and therefore cannot admit of a wide opening.

Again, even when the mouth is not placed on the under surface, there are differences in the extent to which it can open. For in some cases it can gape widely, while in others it is set at the point of a small tapering snout; the former being the case in carnivorous fishes, such as those with sharp interfitting teeth, whose strength lies in their mouth, while the latter is its form in all such as are not carnivorous.

The skin is in some fishes covered with scales (the scale of a fish is a thin and shiny film, and therefore easily becomes detached from the surface of the body). In others it is rough, as for instance in the Rhine, the Batos, and the like. Fewest of all are those whose skin is smooth. The Selachia have no scales, but a rough skin. This is explained by their cartilaginous skeleton. For the earthy material which has been thence diverted is expended by nature upon the skin.

No fish has testicles either externally or internally; as indeed have no apodous animals, among which of course are included the serpents. One and the same orifice serves both for the excrement and for the generative secretions, as is the case also in all other oviparous animals, whether two-footed or four-footed, inasmuch as they have no urinary bladder and form no fluid excretion.

Such then are the characters which distinguish fishes from all other animals. But dolphins and whales and all such Cetacea are without gills; and, having a lung, are provided with a blow-hole; for this serves them to discharge the sea-water which has been taken into the mouth. For, feeding as they do in the water, they cannot but let this fluid enter into their mouth, and, having let it in, they must of necessity let it out again. The use of gills, however, as has been explained in the treatise on Respiration, is limited to such animals as do not breathe; for no animal can possibly possess gills and at the same time be a respiratory animal. In order, therefore, that these Cetacea may discharge the water, they are provided with a blow-hole. This is placed in front of the brain; for otherwise it would have cut off the brain from the spine. The reason for these animals having a lung and breathing, is that animals of large size require an excess of heat, to facilitate their motion. A lung, therefore, is placed within their body, and is fully supplied with blood-heat. These creatures are after a fashion land and water animals in one. For so far as they are inhalers of air they resemble land-animals, while they resemble water-animals in having no feet and in deriving their food from the sea. So also seals lie halfway between land and water animals, and bats half-way between animals that live on the ground and animals that fly; and so belong to both kinds or to neither. For seals, if looked on as water-animals, are yet found to have feet; and, if looked on as land-animals, are yet found to have fins. For their hind feet are exactly like the fins of fishes; and their teeth also are sharp and interfitting as in fishes. Bats again, if regarded as winged animals, have feet; and, if regarded as quadrupeds, are without them. So also they have neither the tail of a quadruped nor the tail of a bird; no quadruped’s tail, because they are winted animals; no bird’s tail, because they are terrestrial. This absence of tail is the result of necessity. For bats fly by means of a membrane, but no animal, unless it has barbed feathers, has the tail of a bird; for a bird’s tail is composed of such feathers. As for a quadruped’s tail, it would be an actual impediment, if present among the feathers.


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Chicago: Aristotle, "13," On the Parts of Animals, trans. William Ogle Original Sources, accessed March 29, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DDJTGCL5GC13PM7.

MLA: Aristotle. "13." On the Parts of Animals, translted by William Ogle, Original Sources. 29 Mar. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DDJTGCL5GC13PM7.

Harvard: Aristotle, '13' in On the Parts of Animals, trans. . Original Sources, retrieved 29 March 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DDJTGCL5GC13PM7.