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A new fish species from Lake Victoria named in honor of the author of Darwin's Dreampond

January 2, 2013
Pensoft Publishers
A newly described cichlid species from Lake Victoria is named in honor of Tijs Goldschmidt, author of the book Darwin's Dreampond. The species was discovered by him and colleagues in 1985. It is described together with a closely related species that had disappeared for many years, but is now occasionally caught again. Success of recovery may depend on the possibility to adapt to the new conditions in the lake.

This image shows males in breeding dress of the new species Haplochromis argens (top) and H. goldschmidti (bottom) in the Emin Pasha Gulf. Note the difference in color and size of the egg spots.
Credit: Dr. Frans Witte, CC-BY 3.0

Two new species of cichlid fish from Lake Victoria are described by biologists from Naturalis Biodiversity Center (Research Department Marine Zoology) and the Institute of Biology Leiden (Section Integrative Zoology), the Netherlands. One of these species is named in honour of Tijs Goldschmidt, author of Darwin's Dreampond. This book, published in nine languages, describes the dramatic extinction of hundreds of cichlid species in Lake Victoria in the 1980s due to the introduced Nile perch and other human induced environmental changes.

In 1985, Leiden biologists made a survey in the Tanzanian part of the lake, with an old ferry as floating lab, to establish the status of the rapidly declining cichlids. During this expedition Tijs studied the egg spots on the anal fin of cichlids for their possible role in the rapid speciation of these fish. In the Emin Pasha Gulf, among a species nicknamed Haplochromis "argens," individuals were found with aberrant egg dummies and lacking red in the fins. Just the kind of example Tijs was looking for to test his theory of speciation by sexual selection. The aberrant individuals were provisionally named H. "dusky argens."

Both "species" play a part in Tijs' PhD thesis and in other studies. However, a taxonomic description was never made and whether H. "dusky argens" was a separate species or a colour morph remained unclear. In 1987, most cichlid species from the offshore waters of the lake had disappeared, and with them the urge of taxonomic descriptions.

Now, 25 years later, about a quarter of the cichlid species have recovered in the "Nile perch desert," some of them became even more abundant than in the past, but the former common H. "argens" is still extremely rare. The status of H. "dusky-argens" is unknown as it was only caught in the remote Emin Pasha Gulf, which is not sampled nowadays. Research on successfully resurgent species shows that they were able to adapt morphologically to the new environmental conditions. Their body shape, for instance, changed, so that burst swimming to escape predators improved. Preliminary results suggest that such a response is not found in H. "argens."

The above observations triggered the present taxonomic study as a baseline for further research. It shows that several taxonomic characters differ more between the co-occurring populations of H. "argens" and H. "dusky argens" in the Emin Pasha Gulf, than between populations from different locations. This suggests that they are indeed two species, which are morphologically driven apart at places where they co-occur. In case of H. "argens" the nickname was upgraded to the formal name, while H. "dusky-argens" is now named H. goldschmidti.

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Journal Reference:

  1. Marnix de Zeeuw, Irene Westbroek, Martien van Oijen, Frans Witte. Two new species of zooplanktivorous haplochromine cichlids from Lake Victoria, Tanzania. ZooKeys, 2013; 256 (0): 1 DOI: 10.3897/zookeys.256.3871

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