Common Name (Neon Tetra)
By: Lovel Tippit
Captured and noted in the lost pages of aquarium history is the chronicle of the Neon Tetra. This distinguished story is maybe the finest tale the aquarium has to tell. This record has all the elements of a block buster movie. “The Great Depression” “Nazi Germany” “jungle adventure” and of course the famed Zeppelin Hindenburg! The burden of such a story is to find the beginning, and our narrative starts in France.
Inspite of living such a colorful life Auguste Rabaut’s name is not well known. Yet this intrepid man has benefited the present-day aqua-market more than most. Aquarium fish are named after him, and many of the trade staples were discovered by him.
So why don’t we know more about the man? The puzzle really is not that hard to solve. Auguste Rabaut was a collector of any jungle gem that the market would buy. This was before people started relying on airplanes to bring wild stock to the market. So what does that have to do with the reason that more information is not known about Rabaut? It’s simple, a fishermen never divulges his fishing hole. Men like Rabaut, Remsperger (Collector of the Pearl Gourami) and a handful of others were the adventurers who fed the market through transhippers like Paramount Aquarium in NY city. So they were catching fish in small numbers and therefore it was in their best interest to keep the details secret. That way other collector’s could not easily find their fishing hole. That is also the reason why during the “Great Depression” you could rent a house for $18.00 a month, but at the same time offers on Neon Tetras were as high as $100.00 a pair. The cost reflected the man power and transportation it took to bring tiny fishes half way around the world in small volumes.
By the mid 1930’s Auguste Rabaut was a skilled adventurer. During these years he was hired by the American government to track down electric eels used in studys, he worked for at least one pharmaceutical company , he mined rare gems, and even skinned alligators. He learned the language of the jungle which included cigarettes. A pack of smokes in the right hands sealed deals. While out in the field he discovered something that would change his life forever. Below is a small quote from the man himself, Auguste Rabaut:
“Still more difficult was satisfying the insatiable appetite of those that desired to have certain tropical fish and plants known only to this region, that of the Amazon. It was during this time that I ventured into the regions best suited for what I was after based on the specific needs of the fancier. The areas to which I traveled were not known by white men. They were unmapped, remote, and only known to the indigenous people that inhabited them. I often traveled weeks without encountering another human being, surrounded only by vast jungles, wild creatures, and insects.
It was here, deep within the forest, within the majesty of the waters, where I first discovered a beautiful little fish, the Neon Tetra; named as such so as not to give away the area in which I found them. I brought back with me my discovery to Paris to which I brought them to specific tropical fish fanciers that I knew to see if they were interested in them. I soon came to realize that these little fishes were a big hit and that these fish fanciers would like them in their aquariums both in Europe and in America. I was asked to return to the Amazon for the purpose of collecting these fish. This I did. The journeys were difficult, some worse than others, where it would take many months to travel the vast land to the place where I would collect them, prepare them then for their journey out of the jungle, then travel to port for which the fishes would make their way to their final destination.”Auguste Rabaut….. as printed in The Travels of August Rabaut 2016
Once Rabaut arrived back in Paris he brought 13 neons to M. Lepant, from his hands a few found their way to Hamberg Aquarium Germany. J. S. Neel in Paris is who invented the name ‘Neon ﬁsh’.
In Nazi Germany a few of the fish were spawned. Hitler had come to power as chancellor of Germany in 1933. By the middle of the decade the swastika could be seen on the tails of German zeppelins such as the largest of all, the Hindenburg. At this time the U.S. was becoming defensive in regards to Nazi Germany. So the U.S. world supplier of helium at that time restricted export of the gas to Germany. Therefore, airships filled their bellows with highly explosive hydrogen. None-the-less, in the spring of 1936 the infamous zeppelin Hindenburg sailed from Germany to Lakehurst NY with neons on board. While in transit the ship became cold and many of the fish died. Once in New York they were put on an airplane and sent to Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. In 1936, thousands of visitors lined up to see Lindy, the first neon tetra ever displayed!
Before the end of that year August Rabaut and his wife Yvonne were back in the Amazon securing a new shipment. They started back from France and spent one month enroute to Manaos, the sea port of the Amazon. From there he spent 15 days on boat braving the interior. Then he took a canoe up the Putumayo only to return three months later. The fish were carried out on the backs of natives, no doubt smoking cigarettes.
By late fall in 1936 Paramount was announcing it’s new shipment of Neon Tetras. After a brief rest the Rabaut’s were on their way back. On May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg blew up. Of the 97 people on board 36 were killed.