200 Years. 200 Stories. Story 156: “Demon Guitarfish ”

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photo of the modified guitarfish
Hollingsworth’s photograph of the altered guitarfish. Academy Coll. no. 220.

Demon Guitarfish

While doing research in the Academy’s Archives, Ichthyology Collection Manager Dr. Mark Sabaj Pérez came across an interesting photo that was sent to former Academy Curator of Ichthyology Henry W. Fowler in 1960. A seashell importer and dealer named Herman W. Hollingsworth came across the specimen shown above in Seffner, Florida, and sent the image to Fowler in hopes the ichthyologist could identify it. (The specimen was taken from around the Galapagos Islands.) Fowler responded to Hollingsworth, identifying the fish as a skate and its manipulation as “a very clever attempt to portray this lowly creature as a lady!”

Dr. Sabaj Pérez more precisely identifies the specimen as a guitarfish (genus Rhinobatos) that has been carefully carved to look like a lady or winged demon of sorts. Guitarfish are in the same order, Rajiformes, as skates and more distantly related to stingrays in the superorder Batoidea.

Dr. Sabaj Pérez notes, “I have seen similar batoid demon sculptures from the Rio Amazonas where they substitute freshwater river rays, family Potamotrygonidae. The dead rays are presumably carved by fisherman artists to impress or scare casual observers, or perhaps to inspire local folklore. One of my Peruvian friends told me a story that when a demon ray is captured, all of the fish in the net are blackened and burned.

Further research indicates that similar “sculptures” date back to 1558 and are commonly referred to as “Jenny Hanivers.”

Learn more about ichthyology at the Academy.

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