Fish Frontiersman: Exploring Fish Evolution in South and Central America

ROM Magazine, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Fish Frontiersman: Exploring Fish Evolution in South and Central America


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Early in 2008, he travelled by dugout canoe along the remote rivers of Guyana, at times forced to push the boat through rapids to reach his destination. In 2007, he hiked four hours into the jungles of Chiapas, Mexico, to a tiny unknown lagoon. But he's no tourist seeking adventure. Hernan Lopez-Fernandez is a curator of freshwater fishes at the ROM, and for him, traversing wild and remote lands is all in a day's fieldwork.

Even before joining the ROM in February, Lopez-Fernandez had been studying the fish fauna of South and Central America, which at an estimated 6,000 species is the most diverse in the world. He has visited Brazil, the US, and West Africa, as well as his native Venezuela seeking his target group of fish, the cichlids--popular aquarium fish that resemble sunfish. Catching them with nets, hooks and lines, or even purchasing them from local markets, he is expanding the ROM's collection of neotropical fish. Though diverse, the group of some 600 South and Central American cichlid species is also little known. From his Guyana trip alone, 25 of the 31 species collected were previously unknown to science.

Lopez-Fernandez ultimately aims to discover how such diversity came about, and to understand the natural mechanisms that drive it. But large theories begin with unglamourous documentation: the describing and naming of each species. "This sounds like an old-fashioned thing that museum people do," says the Texas A&M graduate. "But without knowing what's what, you can't do the systematics work that can give us insight into how the species are related." Good taxonomy is also essential to conservation work. …

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