Friday, March 22, 2013

Ichthyological Adventures in Central America Part 2: Collecting Fishes in Guatemala

Caleb at some Mayan ruins in Yaxhá.
           From February 28th to March 12th my 3rd yr PhD student Caleb McMahan and I traveled to Guatemala to collect and study fishes for the museum. This trip was particularly exciting because we had worked on obtaining permits from Guatemala for over three years. It was only through the networking of Caleb and my former postdoc Dr. Wilfredo Matamoros at the Congreso Nacional de Ictiología conference in Chiapas, Mexico (2012) that we were able to finally get some contacts that could help us. The trip was also very exciting for me because with these collections it meant that my lab had been to every Central American country. We’ve sampled Costa Rica (2011), El Salvador (2011), Panama (2011), Nicaragua (2011) and Honduras (4 times since 2010). I traveled to Belize as part of my dissertation work in 2004. Guatemala would be a real prize because no outside ichthyologists have intensively sampled the native freshwater fishes since Donn Rosen and Reeve Bailey in 1974. Both of those gentlemen are my heroes. Rosen was a former curator at the American Museum of Natural History and was instrumental in founding the field of historical biogeography. Bailey was a curator of fishes at the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology and was collecting into his mid 90s while I was a there as a grad student (he passed away at age 100 a few years ago).
The Guatemala Fishing Team, from left to right, Diego Elias, Yasmin Quintana,
Prosanta Chakrabarty, Caleb McMahan and Christian Barrientos.
            In Guatemala, we were aided by Christian Barrientos who is currently a PhD student at the University of Florida and a Guatemalan native. A-soon-to-be finished undergraduate, Diego Elias, and a Guatemalan environmental agent, Yasmin Quintana, also joined us to complete the collecting team.
Thorichthys pasionis
            Guatemala has a notable geological history as well as a biological one. The northern portion of the country is part of the Yucatan Peninsula (the Maya Block that is the southern portion of geologic North America) that is primarily in southern Mexico and parts of Belize. The more southern portion of the country is part of the Chortis Block that includes El Salvador, Honduras and parts of Nicaragua; this block is geologically on the Caribbean tectonic plate. The North American and Caribbean plates are separated by the Motagua fault that runs through Guatemala. You can see the difference as you drive along the central highway passing from the mountainous, limestone-rich Yucatan to the flatter more earthy Chortis Block.  We spent most of our time sampling within the Yucatan portion (Peten) where cenotes, caves and other primary limestone habitats were abundant. The karstic landscape gives a notable blue green tint to much of the freshwaters in the Yucatan region so that you could get fooled into thinking you are collecting in the tropical ocean if were not for the fact that you were surrounded by lush green inland forests.
Early morning casting in Lago de Peten.
            We began our trip, as we often do, landing in the capital city airport, Guatemala City in this case – and, as is typically the case – site seeing was restricted to what could be viewed from the car window on the way out to the countryside.  Luckily, the rich Mayan history of Guatemala has left much behind and we even sampled in the shadows of some giant ruins in Yaxhá (where the reality show Survivor was filmed in 2005). The perpetual frightening growl of the otherwise adorable Howler monkey also seemed to add to the sense that we were in a mythical, prehistoric land. Among our primary targets were the cichlid fishes of the region - about 23 species. Many of these are very important to our continued studies of Central American fishes and their biogeographic history. We sampled first along the Caribbean Slope in Lago Izabal, waking each morning before dawn and sampling until dusk. It was exhausting but well worth it. We typically collected from a boat that took us along to various sites that were otherwise inaccessible by foot. Using castnets and seines we collected the black-belt cichlid, Vieja maculicauda and several other beautiful species of cichlids I had only seen as colorless specimens in jars or from aquarist photos. One of the species we were collecting was Paraneetroplus melanurus that Caleb had studied and synonymized with another popular species (i.e., he found that the two species were in fact just one - much to the chagrin of the cichlid aquarists).
A nice "blanco"
            One of my favorite sites was Lago de Peten. Ever since I started working with cichlids as a graduate student I always wanted to catch “blancos,” Petenia splendida from Lake Peten. Not only did we collect them, we had enough to eat (it’s always good when your study animal is as delicious as it is phylogenetically important). Our local hosts are doing several ecological studies on the fishes in these lakes and they were surprised to see us catch several species they had not seen before in that area. I told them that it was all based on Caleb’s fishing skills. Caleb has quickly become one of the best-known ichthyologists studying Central America. He worked there for his Master’s degree at Southeastern Louisiana University but his reputation has grown greatly in the past few years, and deservedly so. I would put his knowledge of the fishes of these regions up against anyone alive today. He was recently rewarded for his efforts in studying the region with a National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Grant. Caleb also won the prestigious Stoye Award at the Annual Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, this award is the highest prize a fish student can get as a graduate student.
Mouth of the Coban, flowing out of a cave.
            One of our last field sites was in Coban, an area we were eager to sample because it is a very different system than the Río Usumacinta system we had sampled most of the trip. Unfortunately, our first Coban site smelled like a sewer. After retrieving my first castnet throw all I managed to pull out of the water was some weird white filmy material. As a faux-Cajan I cast by putting one end of the net in my teeth: this technique has its drawbacks. Just as I put the cast in my teeth for the next throw I was informed that the white filmy material was toilet paper: a clear sign that this water was full of untreated sewage. After washing my mouth out thoroughly we decided to move on. Luckily we were able to get much better sites downstream where gringo tourists were happily inner tubing. Some of our best collections were actually from local kids that were snorkeling and spearing the fish with makeshift spear guns. I envied their skill and was glad they happily exchanged their haul for a few quetzales (the local currency, named after the national bird - a type of trogon).
Caleb and Prosanta and their makeshift back-of-the-truck fish laboratory.
            Overall the trip was a success. We collected over 59 species, nearly 600 tissue samples and about 2000 specimens. There is much of Guatemala left unexplored because permission has to be granted by local native communities who can be weary of outsiders (which include local non-native peoples). Despite my desire to go to those areas I’m glad they are protected by people who care about their land and freshwaters. Yasmin and Diego are set to work up our collection at LSU in May and we look forward to figuring out if we have any new species. We most certainly made collections that other Neotropical ichthyologists will be quite envious of.