The Found Fishes of the Lost World: How a ROM-Led Team Stumbled onto the Strangest Fishes of South America

By Lopez-Fernandez, Hernan | ROM Magazine, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

The Found Fishes of the Lost World: How a ROM-Led Team Stumbled onto the Strangest Fishes of South America


Lopez-Fernandez, Hernan, ROM Magazine


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An Unexpected Phone Call with an Unexpected Outcome

I had been in Toronto for a couple of months and was still shocked by the cold. I was so new at the ROM I still got lost on the way from my office to the coffee shop. When the phone rang it was my former professor and friend Don Taphorn, with a message from professor Calvin Bernard at the University of Guyana: "Do you want to go fish in the upper Mazaruni?" I couldn't believe it! He had gotten us permits to go. One Latin name came to my mind as if etched in my brain: Mazarunia mazarunii ... the one cichlid fish--the group I do most of my research with--that I had given up on studying because it might as well have come from another planet. While we talked, my head was already making a list of what we would need: boats, planes, nets, cameras, and a million other things.

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It may be hard to understand that the name of a river and a fish could send anyone into such a state. But it wasn't just any fish, it was that proverbial "one that got away," because almost nobody has had any chance to study it. The upper portion of the Mazaruni River is so remote that by February 2008, when I received the call from Don, no formal ichthyologic expedition had ever explored it. Mazarunia was known from two specimens originally collected with a handful of other fishes by a biologist who was evaluating the viability of a hydroelectric dam project in the '70s. Just about all we knew of the river's fishes in 2008 came from some of those specimens that made their way to European museums. Mazarunia was described in 1991 by Sven Kullander from the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm. He described the two specimens as a new genus and species: Mazarunia mazarunii. Looking at its internal anatomy or studying its DNA was simply out of the question with something so rare. The very name of the fish reflects that the species occurs only in the Mazaruni: it is "endemic" to that river basin. Two other fishes described from that collection, Skiotocharaxmeizon and Derhamiahoffmanorum, were also endemic, meriting their own genus and species.

Everything else we knew about these fishes came from the aquarium community: sometime after the description of Mazarunia, German aquarists had gone to the upper Mazaruni and brought back a few live specimens of the fish. Among them was another cichlid they called "red patwa," a Guyanese Amerindian name meaning "red cichlid." Altogether, these fishes prompted more questions than answers: why were they in the highlands and how were they related to lowland forms? How did they become so rare? The questions lingered for years, unanswered until Don called me in the middle of winter.

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Into the Lost World

Calling Georgetown, Guyana's capital, picturesque would be an understatement. Beyond the 40 degree change in temperature between winter and the tropics, the 100 percent humidity hits you like a brick wall, followed by an assault of colours, sounds, and smells. Then you get busy: getting permits for everything imaginable, buying food, arranging planes, making sure the gear doesn't weigh so much that the charter plane can't take off safely. All this in mad traffic that makes you cross your fingers not to run over the children, cyclists, and all sorts of vending kiosks that crowd the streets. A week later, the rackety Cessna heads into the wall of clouds, rain coming through the windows, soaking clothes and camera, and you are unsure why you came.

But then the clouds break and you remember. The 500-metre wall of rock appears out of nowhere and the thick rainforest--Guyana has some of the largest intact patches of rainforest anywhere in the world--is suddenly so close under the plane that you can distinguish individual trees. Deep canyons are carved into the flat top, dripping with waterfalls hundreds of metres high. …

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