Bond. James Bond.
Those three famous — no, infamous — words of cinematic dialog bring us to the subject of squirrelfishes.
In the latest James Bond movie Spectre, there’s a throwaway line towards the climax where Bond and company hide out in a rare books store, now serving as a safe house. Bill Tanner, M’s chief of staff, remarks that he thought the store had gone out of business.
“Hildebrand & Company – Rarities & Antiquities” read the store’s door placard.
The line is an inside joke referring to one of Ian Fleming’s short stories featuring the James Bond character — “The Hildebrand Rarity” — first published in Playboy magazine in March 1960, and later under the anthology For Your Eyes Only.
The eponymous fish is identified as a squirrelfish by the story’s antagonist, Milton Krest, the vile, wife-beating, ill-mannered millionaire American (naturally) whose yacht Bond reluctantly becomes a guest aboard. Krest — who pillages island nations in the Pacific to collect biological specimens in the name of science, but really as a front to dodge taxes — blurts out a description of his quarry to Bond:
He read out: “‘Hildebrand Rarity. Caught by Professor Hildebrand of the University of Witwatersrand in a net off Chagrin Island in the Seychelles group, April 1925.'” Mr. Krest looked up. “And then there’s a lot of scientific crap. I got them to put it into plain English, and here’s the translation.” He turned back to the paper. “‘This appears to be a unique member of the squirrel-fish family. The only specimen known, named the “Hildebrand Rarity” after its discoverer, is six inches long. The color is a bright pink with black transverse stripes. The anal, ventral, and dorsal fins are pink. The tail fin is black. Eyes, large and dark blue. If found, care should be taken in handling this fish because all fins are even more sharply spiked than is usually with the rest of this family[…]'”
While Bond thoroughly detests everything about Krest — his crass rudeness above all (the literary Bond counts rudeness among his top peeves) — Bond himself is no angel either. For those of you who have never read the original Bond novels, they certainly are a time capsule of Anglo-American masculinity and racial bigotry in 1950’s and 1960’s. They’re also a quirky glimpse into Fleming himself, whose career as a naval officer and adventuring author gave him a certain appreciation for the undersea world — yet his prose nevertheless projected various antiquated, human prejudices against nature.
Case in point: “The Hildebrand Rarity” story itself opens with Bond free-diving on a coral reef in the Seychelles. Fleming — as Bond — rather lovingly and quite accurately describes the natural behavior of parrotfish, squid, and other marine organisms. But sighting a large stingray, his attitude reverses:
[Bond] rarely killed fish except to eat, but there were exceptions — big moray eels and all members of the scorpion-fish family. Now he proposed to kill the sting ray because it looked so extraordinarily evil.
Bond somewhat redeems himself later in the story: he tries to foil Krest’s attempt to collect the Hildebrand Rarity, by scaring one inquisitive fish away from Krest’s rapacious hands (Krest’s collection method: dumping rotenone solution into the sea to kill fish en masse).
Spoiler alert: the little fish doesn’t make it, and winds up in a jar of formaldehyde. But the specimen does figure in the eventual demise of Milton Krest. How it does, I shall leave a mystery.
What isn’t a mystery is that the “Hildebrand Rarity” seems to be a fictional species. There are more than 15 species of squirrelfishes known to cross the waters of the Seychelles, but none really fit the coloration and size mentioned in the passage.
Comprising the Family Holocentridae with their soldierfish relatives, squirrelfish are reddish-colored, sharply spined fish found in tropical oceans around the world. All have large eyes — apparently reminding someone at some point in history of the glossy, black eyes of squirrels. The large eyes help squirrelfish see in the night — their preferred time to feed. During the day, squirrelfish are reclusive, and hole up in crevices and caves with other nocturnally inclined species, such as bigeyes. Another key characteristic of squirrelfish is the prominent, sharp spine on each side of their head, which in some species carry a light venom.
But what of “Professor Hildebrand” of University of Witwatersrand? Fleming had a habit of weaving in names of celebrities and real-life people in his James Bond works. Might there have been a naturalist named Hildebrand at the South African university mentioned?
There doesn’t appear to have been any prominent Hildebrands in the history of that academic institution, but as others have pointed out, Fleming may have drawn inspiration from a real-life American ichthyologist: Samuel Frederick Hildebrand.
Born some 25 years earlier than Fleming, Samuel F. Hildebrand was a government agent in his own way: Hildebrand had a four-decade career working as a scientist and administrator for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries (Higgins 1950, Schultz 1950). Over the course of its history, the Bureau of Fisheries counted many prominent names among its staff, including the celebrated scientist and conservation writer Rachel Carson. In 1940, the Bureau of Fisheries was combined with the Bureau of Biological Survey to form a new federal agency — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — responsible today for monitoring the status of wildlife species and inland fishes in the United States, and enforcing the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
Hildebrand’s research career spanned the fishes of Panama and the Mississippi, but his career achievement was his appointment as the director of the U.S. Fisheries Biological Station in Beaufort, North Carolina, first in 1914 and again in 1926 (Manooch and Manooch 1988). Marine scientists know this facility today as the Beaufort Laboratory of the NOAA Southeast Fisheries Science Center, which shares the quaint, picturesque Pivers Island with the Duke University Marine Lab (where I personally have fond memories of).
Another of Hildebrand’s scientific legacies is his research on mosquitofish (Gambusia spp.) for mosquito larvae control. From 1920 to 1924, Hildebrand also worked for the U.S. Public Health Service, at that time nested within the Department of Treasury. The 1921 Annual Report of the Surgeon General commends Hildebrand:
The Bureau of Fisheries continued its cooperation in the investigation of fish in relation to mosquito control by again detailing Ichthyologist Samuel F. Hildebrand to continue his observations and studies, particularly of Gambusia affinis. The cooperation of the Bureau of Fisheries and Mr. Hildebrand has been most valuable. The conditions under which Gambusia affinis can be effectively employed in reducing mosquito production are being more clearly defined and their field of usefulness for this purpose considerably extended[…]
The introduction of mosquitofish in waterways around the world has had significant impact for public health, but also resulted in them becoming nuisance and invasive species in some ecosystems.
It is utterly fascinating to find out how different threads in the world connect. When I set out to pen this post as an April Fool’s Day joke, I hardly expected to unravel such an interesting mix of biology, biography, and history — that taking a peek at an obscure, fictional fish — albeit one with such a glamorous literary and cinematic pedigree — would somehow tie into the history of fisheries science and public health research. The “Hildebrand Rarity” may have been a figment of a writer’s imagination, but all the marvelous ways that fish and the study of fish intertwine with human history is very real indeed.
Sargocentron sp. nov.
The Hildebrand Rarity
(Note: Fleming never lists a technical name for the Rarity in the story, but given its petite size, we’ll offer it as a potentially new species of this genus.)
FishBase Page: Maybe someday!
— Ben Young Landis
Ian Fleming Publications Ltd (UK) owns and administers the literary copyright in Ian Fleming’s fiction and non-fiction books. Excerpts from “The Hildebrand Rarity” reproduced here for educational purposes only.
“Spectre” and “James Bond 007” are the properties of Danjaq, LLC (USA).