The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Mullet

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MULLET, the name of several distinct kinds of fishes having external similarities. (1) The red mullets or surmullets are a group of elongate marine fishes of moderate size, renowned for the delicacy of their flesh, and the esteem in which they were held by the ancients. They with the goat fishes (Upeneus) and others form a family Mullidæ with five genera and about 40 species, found in all tropical seas, and some species straying northward. Jordan, who classifies them in the suborder Berycoidei, remarks: “The family is a very natural one and not closely related to any other.” It resembles the barracudas (Polymixiidæ) in having two long unbranched erectile barbels at the throat, which are of service in exploring the muddy bottom along which these fishes creep and search for animal food, mainly small crustaceans. The best-known species is that of the Mediterranean (Mullus barbatus), which is a small fish, rarely exceeding six inches in length, and is carmine red on the upper parts and silvery white on the lower surface. This is the fish held in so high esteem by Roman epicures, and reared in ponds where they were attended and caressed by their owners, and taught to come to be fed at the sound of the voice or bell of the keeper. Specimens were sometimes sold for their weight in silver. Pliny instances a case in which the sum of about £60 sterling was paid for a single fish; and an extraordinary expenditure of time was lavished and wasted upon these slow-learning pets. Juvenal and other satirists descanted upon the height to which the pursuit of this luxury was carried as a type of foolish extravagance. Hortensius, the rival of Cicero, we are told, had a canal of water constructed below the festive table, in which the mullets were allowed to swim, and from which they might be carried to table, and thence to the fire to be cooked and dressed. Apicius invented a mode of drowning or suffocating these fishes in a certain sauce or pickle, which process was said to add highly to their flavor. A similar fashion prevailed of old in England with regard to lampreys, which were drowned in wine previously to being cooked and eaten. This mullet is still esteemed as an article of food, the flesh being white, fat and nutritious. They are caught mainly in nets and are hawked about the streets of Italian cities, not under the old Latin name “mugli,” but by one from the Greek, “trigle.” The roes are preserved as condiment called botargo and resembling caviare.

A closely related fish, the striped red mullet or surmullet (M. cephalus), is caught abundantly about the British Islands and along the continental coast, and is seen sparingly in the local markets. By some naturalists these mullets are thought to be only the females of the Mediterranean species. A smaller form of the same species is frequently taken on the eastern coast of the United States. Another genus (Mullolides) is represented in the Gulf of California by a single species.

(2) The gray mullets are a group of spiny-rayed marine fishes forming a family (Mugilidæ) of the suborder Percesoces, allied to the silversides and barracudas. They are oblong fishes of moderate size, without a lateral line, very numerous in species common in all warm parts of the world, and often appearing in vast schools, so that they may be captured by wholesale in large nets. Though the flesh is not so good as that of the red mullets it is nutritions, and many species are economically important. These mullets arc short-finned, small-mouthed, bottom-feeding fishes, subsisting chiefly upon the little animals or organic matter found in sand and mud; and they have a special straining apparatus in the pharynx for the purpose of preventing objects of too large size from entering the stomach, or foreign substances getting into the gill-chamber; after grinding a mouthful between the pharyngeal bones (for teeth are absent or feeble) the mineral matter is rejected. Another peculiarity of the mullets is to be found in the structure of the œsophagus and stomach, the former being lined with long thread-like papillæ, while the latter has its second portion furnished with muscular walls like the gizzard of a bird, but not divided. The common species is the striped or liza (Mugil cephalus) which seems to be almost cosmopolitan, as it is known not only on both Atlantic shores but abundantly from California to Chile. It is one to two feet long, dark bluish above, sides silvery, with conspicuous dark stripes along each row of scales. A smaller, more thoroughly marine species, dark olive and without streaks, is the white mullet or liza blanca (M. Curema), numerous on both American coasts. Several other species are taken in the Gulf of Mexico and southward, one of which (M. gyrans) has the curious habit of swimming round and round at the surface in schools, and is called whirligig mullet.

(3) In the Mississippi Valley, several suckers (q.v.) of the family Catostomidæ are called mullets in reference to their mullet-like appearance and behavior.

Consult Günther, ‘Study of Fishes’ (1880); Goode, ‘Fishery Industries,’ sec. 1 (1883); ‘American Fishes’ (1888); Jordan and Evermann, ‘American Food and Game Fishes’ (1902).