Friday, December 29, 2023

Kiwi Fishes: LSU Ichthyology in New Zealand

Prosanta and Dave Boyd representing LSU.

Late in November of 2023, my collections manager David Boyd and I travelled to New Zealand for a little bit of collecting and to give presentations at the 11th Indo-Pacific Fish Conference in Auckland. This conference typically takes place every four years but was pushed back twice because of COVID. (Embarrassingly, I nearly bought tickets in 2022 for this conference before the organizer reminded me that we had another year to go.) The delays were actually somewhat fruitful for me, because my colleagues and I were able to gather enough data from my 2019 Thailand trip focusing on the genomics and functional mechanics of the “Waterfall climbing cave angel fish” (Cryptotora thamicola) that was the focus of my presentation. I was excited to talk about that project that was a large part of our “Understanding Rules of Life” NSF grant that looked at the convergence between our walking cavefish and some of the first fishes that walked on land in the Devonian (like the 400-million-year-old “fishapod” Tiktaalik). Our work included a UCE phylogeny put together by my former student Pam Hart (now a PI herself at the University of Alabama), and whole genome sequencing led by my LSU colleague Brant Faircloth. The kinematic work was by Brooke Flammang’s lab at the New Jersey Institute of Technology largely led by her then grad student Callie Crawford (now a PI at Coastal Carolina University; see two papers on this subject here 1, 2); and all of the CT scanning/anatomy work was done by Larry Page’s lab at the University of Florida (with the work being led by Zach Randall). I’m excited to tell you more about the unusual “hip” morphology of Cryptotora and its hillstream loach (Balitoridae) relatives but I’ll focus this post on our New Zealand trip.
At the IPFC, me left representing the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, April Croxton, President of the American Fisheries Society and Gretchen Grammer, President of the Australian Society of Fish Biology.    

We were hosted by one of the main conference organizers, Tom Trinski, who is Head of Natural Sciences at the Auckland Museum. (A 1st rate museum with wonderful research space that we got to use briefly
when we came back from the field with our collections.) The day after we arrived, jetlagged and confused, we were met by Tom and several of his colleagues, as well as Kevin Conway, my brilliant ichthyology colleague from Texas A&M. Tom and Kevin are also two of the funniest people I’ve ever met so I always enjoy hanging with them. It was also my first time in the field with David Boyd since he joined the LSU MNS as the herp and fish Collections Manager in 2021. I actually met Dave in the field in Thailand when he was doing his Master’s with Larry Page at the University of Florida. Dave typically does freshwater collecting in streams in Thailand and the Southeast US. For this trip I was asking Dave to prepare for a marine collecting-trip that involved diving in the ocean (or so we thought). Dave got his certification for diving just before this trip in preparation, but we ended up only snorkeling above divers who had a higher certification level than Dave or I have (rescue diver status). I must admit I was not completely disappointed to not go diving when I saw the choppy cold waters of our first field site. Tom and his crew would be using rotenone – a fish poison discovered by indigenous people in Amazonia3. Using rotenone is banned in many countries because commercial fisherman often use it indiscriminately or carelessly as a fish poison for commercial purposes. That was not the case with Tom and his crew of careful and caring naturalists. They were using small amounts that dissipated quickly and so as he released it while diving beneath; the fishes that were in contact with the rotenone would float up drugged and dazed towards us snorkelers above (if not already captured below). It took about 30 minutes or so to swim off from shore to where the divers were, and it was not an easy swim in cold and choppy waters (16C or about 60F). The visibility was very low so I was glad to be floating at the top of the water rather than beneath the waves. Every so often (but not very often) a drunk fish would pop up from below and we would scoop it up in our nets; after about an hour we were cold and tired and the bobbing up and down in the waves which left us a little green. We headed back to shore with a pretty good haul of big-eyed purple sweepers (Pempheridae), as well as blennies and gobies, and Kevin’s specialty, clingfishes.

We were still freezing when we headed to lunch but recuperated enough to get some more gobies (there are over 2000 species in the Gobiidae so every sweep of the net seemed to give us something new) and other critters on a large tidal mudflat. I was glad to have my tight-fitting dive booties and trusty metal dipnet for this messy excursion which reminded me of all the little fishes we often overlook when the water is more than ankle deep. In these shallows live many small creatures that live in that temporary zone between land and the open ocean in the intertidal. Once cleaning off and organizing our collections at the Auckland Museum (in an attempt to not track mud everywhere while inside Dave went barefoot), we headed back to our hotel to sort, ID, photograph, and preserve our haul. We made a “toilet room fish lab” which was what we turned our AirBNB bathroom into so it could house our preserved fish for the rest of the trip.

The next morning, we headed to “Sanford and Son’s Fish Mongers.” I am old enough to have watched reruns of a popular TV program called “Sanford and Son” starring the Comedian Redd Foxx, and I also love the term “Fish Monger” because there are only two things people ever monger – fish and war: so the name of this store attracted me immediately. The store front had rows and rows of beautiful fish displayed on ice, we were there as soon as it opened so we had our pick of the litter, unfortunately, many of the fish were way too large for us to bring home so I talked to the owner about our scientific goals (i.e., get lots of diversity of these market fish, within a certain size range) to see what smaller sizes were available. By the end she was keen to help us and even gave us just the heads of some of the larger species - and for free to boot. There were also imported fish like salmon that people seem to like everywhere but we were after natives and we were lucky to get some galaxiids and members of the Latridae (a group that one of my former students, Bill Ludt worked on for his PhD). One of my favorite interactions was me texting Bill that morning, as we was also at the conference, and after a picture of a fish we just brought and calling it a “Morwong” he reminded me that he and I (as a senior author) had changed the name of that group. I simply replied “like I’m supposed to remember that.” Despite my ignorance of my own work, I was happy to get these and other creatures that were new to our collections.

Dave and I were also able to do a little excursion to the Waitomo region famous for their glowworm caves. I study bioluminescence, and I study caves, but really the only places where those converge is in a few caves in New Zealand. There are no bioluminescent cavefish that we know of, but I’m always on the hunt for them. I actually got the idea to look for them from some text linked to me in my AAAS award which stated that I won the award for “focusing on the bioluminescent systems and historical biogeography of freshwater fishes” – which makes it sound like I’ve been studying these non-existent bioluminescent freshwater fishes. But I was keen on seeing these glowing caves, fish or no fish. 

Due to unexpected traffic, Dave and I arrived too late for the last cave tour of the day, dejected we were about to head back from the closed front gate when I noticed the gift shop was still open. In a move that brought me back to my days being a bratty kid growing up in Queens and sneaking into places I didn’t belong, I walked straight through the shop into the path that leads to the back of the cave, passing two signs that said, “Do not Enter.” Dave followed close behind and he and I got a glimpse of the cave exit. It looked glorious but also beyond our reach on foot, so unless we swam in, we weren’t going any further. Crestfallen, we once again started walking towards the exit when I ran into a young guide and explained our situation in the most folksy aww-shucks I-wish-there-was-something-we-could-do way. Luckily, the young man was agreeable (as many Kiwis are) he went for it and brought us through the cave in the boat that the last tour of the day just alighted. Dave and I were treated to a private and very beautiful sight of thousands and thousands of green-blue glowworms hanging from the ceiling of the cave. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. The kid giving us a tour, who was a university student, got a hardy tip and it was well worth it. 

The remainder of the trip was the IndoPacific Fish Conference (IPFC) which I always find delightful. My regular annual conference is the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists which meets as part of the Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, and I (as the current ASIH President) brought up the possibility that IPFC meet with ASIH as part of that Joint Meeting – but in the end it turned out that Taipei, Taiwan would host the next meeting in 2026. Both my talk and Dave’s went well, and I met a number of old and new collaborators and colleagues who I can’t wait to talk to again. I’m actually thinking ahead to the next IPFC, not sure what I’ll talk about but perhaps some of the collections we made during this trip, currently pickled in the LSU Museum of Natural Science will be part of the talk.

As a happy accident, the last night of the conference and closing party coincided with the start of my 45th birthday. I stayed up as late as I could for that closing party (about 1:30 am) on my birthday, with the party still in full swing. I treated myself to a late-night veggie burger at the “White Lady” and headed to bed. Next morning, Dave and I went to a cute little farmer’s market where I picked up some souvenirs. We headed to the airport and after a fifteen-and-a-half-hour flight (in one which Dave did not stand or get up once, luckily, I was in the aisle seat) from Auckland to Dallas we arrived earlier in the day than when we left (we left Auckland at 1:30pm and arrived at 8am the same day, November 25th). We were in Dallas long enough to watch the beginning of a very exciting Michigan versus Ohio State football game (both teams were undefeated and I went to UM for grad school #GoBlue), by the time the game was ending with a Michigan victory I was listening to it in Baton Rouge on the way to dropping off Dave at his house. I was even home in time to enjoy a birthday party with my family. It was an epic 43-hour birthday, and one that started in beautiful New Zealand. The barrel of fishes Dave and I brought back did the journey with us and seeing them in the collections will always be a reminder of that great birthday and awesome trip to Te Waipounamu (the Māori-language name for the North Island of New Zealand).

1 Crawford, Callie H., Zachary S. Randall, Pamela B. Hart, Lawrence M. Page, Prosanta Chakrabarty, Apinun Suvarnaraksha, and Brooke E. Flammang. "Skeletal and muscular pelvic morphology of hillstream loaches (Cypriniformes: Balitoridae)." Journal of Morphology 281, no. 10 (2020): 1280-1295.

2 Crawford, Callie H., Amani Webber-Schultz, Pamela B. Hart, Zachary S. Randall, Cristian Cerrato-Morales, Audrey B. Kellogg, Haley E. Amplo et al. "They like to move it (move it): walking kinematics of balitorid loaches of Thailand." Journal of Experimental Biology 225, no. 6 (2022): jeb242906.

3 Prance, G., 1999. The poisons and narcotics of the Amazonian Indians. Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of London, 33(4), p.368.

Many thanks to my 12-year old Chaya Nöel for editing this blogpost, all remaining grammatical errors are her fault.

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

The rediscovery of Darwin’s Large Ground Finch, Geospiza magnirostris, on Floreana island?

A Large Ground Finch or a
large Medium Ground Finch?

Sorry, that title was just to get the attention of the ornithologists. We didn’t rediscover anything on my latest adventure on the Galapagos, no ivory billed woodpecker, thylacine, or the mysterious Large Ground Finch which was collected by Darwin on the Galapagos but then apparently extirpated from where it may have been first collected: the strange and wonderful Galapagos Island of Floreana.

If you read my blogpost, you know that I took a class to the Galapagos last year to teach evolution. My colleague Dan Holstein from the LSU College of the Coast & Environment and I again teamed up to teach our LSU study abroad course. I also once again took my family, combining work and pleasure as much as I could and probably not doing either well. 

 We did many of the same field expeditions from last year and added some new places including Floreana, and I want to begin on the island first in this article even though that was the last island we visited this year. I described Floreana as “strange” in the first paragraph because it is - but not because of its marine iguanas (which are an odd reddish color instead of the lava rock black you see on the other islands) or because of the odd hybrid tortoises (they were extirpated from before Darwin’s time and reintroduced more recently). No, I call Floreana strange because of the earliest human settlers - who were Germans. Although Polynesians and surely other peoples (particularly “pirates”) discovered these islands, there appears to be few signs of these early visitors establishing any long-term settlements there – probably because of the paucity of freshwater. However, once the Spanish found the Galapagos Islands again in modern times and Ecuador incorporated them (strangely on Darwin’s birthday February 12, 1932, but by sheer coincidence three years before Darwin visited there, and well before he was famous -- part of the many incidental connections between the Galapagos and Darwin that make it seem like they were meant for each other). In the turn of the 20th century the islands of San Cristobal and Santa Cruz were quickly becoming populated, but not Floreana. An eccentric German couple looking for an uninhabited paradise found their perfect rustic-vegetarian retreat there. They were soon followed by another German couple who learned of the first couple’s exploits and wanted in. The two couples got along begrudgingly but were mainly distant with one another. The second family, the Wittmers, were pregnant and the first Floreana Galapagueño was born in an artificial cave carved out of lava stone. Pirates were frequent visitors here for many years and left behind large carved faces, artwork, and hiding spots in the soft lava rocks where they also hid their stolen loot and booty. Soon after the Wittmers, a woman who claimed to be a rich baroness, along with her two lovers, came to Floreana; she wanted to be empress of the island and claimed ownership over the lone freshwater supply. She also expressed a desire to open ‘Hotel Paradiso’ for tourists to visit the island. This did not sit well with the others, within a few years four of the people I just mentioned would be dead or go missing without a trace - including the Baroness. We stayed in Hotel Wittmer, run by the living descendants of the first family to ‘survive’ that early period on the islands. 

The Baroness and friend.


Now with that historical backdrop you should know that when Darwin collected finches and other animals on the Galapagos, he was pretty sloppy about labeling even what island the species was from; it wasn’t until he was back in England that ornithologist Jon Gould helped sort them out. Darwin didn’t even know the birds he collected were even finches: we now know them as “Darwin’s finches” (although they are in fact tanagers). 


One of the new species Darwin discovered for Western Science was Geospiza magnirostris, the Large Ground Finch, a species that is presumed extirpated from the island. When we visited the Charles Darwin Research Station in Santa Cruz, the Principle Coordinator of the Research Collections, Miguel Pinto, showed us specimens of Large Ground Finches with enormous beaks, and also subfossils collected by David Steadman (Curator of Birds, University of Florida) that he dug up from a cave in Floreana; these bones were likely proof that the species existed after Darwin traveled there. There is some question whether the subfossils are the same species as the Large Ground Finch we know from other islands today – so some DNA testing of these is a cool future project for some intrepid graduate student. When our LSU study abroad class did our hike across Floreana we were with ornithologist Jaime Chavez, and when he and our local guide heard an odd bird call we all stopped in our tracks. Jaime recorded the call and played it back and a large finch flew overhead but we couldn’t tell which species. Among the finches we saw near us was a very large-sized Medium Ground Finch, Geospiza fortis, but it was not quite large enough to be a Large Ground Finch according to Jaime. Oh well. Because that individual didn’t make a call while it was near us, it wasn’t clear if it was the same bird we heard earlier. On that same hike we also entered the sea cave where David Steadman had found the bones we saw at the Darwin Research Station. The cave was larger than I expected, but because I love caves and always expect to be lost and stranded on a hike, I happened to have a powerful flashlight that was much better than all of us using our phone lights (which was apparently the norm among visitors to the cave). It was a delightful cave with a long pool of cool sea water that many of the students couldn’t help entering because our hike had been so very long and hot (we walked about 6 miles over lava rocks and up ridges). Along that walk we saw the ruins of the Baronesses’ home as well as the famous Post Office Bay. This beautiful overlook had clear aquamarine colored water and a “post office”, which was an old barrel full of postcards where we are meant to leave our mail (without postage) and take other postcards from past visitors to deliver (or at least post) once we get back home. We only saw one postcard from someone from Louisiana, but I took a card from someone in Ottawa where I lived during my sabbatical a few years ago. 


Some of the carvings (left) and foot paths (top center) on Floreana, along with the "Post Office" (top right) and Post Office Bay (bottom right)

Besides our many nature hikes and snorkels where students got experience doing everything from working directly with finches (via Jaime’s expertise and permits) to doing ecological surveys of the many beautiful marine fishes that we saw; they also got evolution and ecology lectures each night and had group projects and presentations. But fret not! - they were outside in nature most of the time we were learning. I’m thankful for the chance to teach LSU undergrads evolution in situ and on the islands made famous by Charles Darwin and on the islands that made him and his theories of evolution famous. It was a reciprocal deal after all. Although Floreana was new and special to me. I was equally glad to take my students and my family to what remains my favorite island, Isabella. Isabella is the youngest and largest of the Galapagos islands and it has large active volcanos (which we climbed – great way to learn about uniformitarianism and catastrophism) and swam with blacktip sharks and giant sea turtles among a plethora of colorful marine species.

Chaya and Anjali, and a blacktip. 

A bonus was that my shark obsessed daughter, Anjali, was in the water with us in Los Tuneles when a group of blacktips swimming a few feet from us intersected with a school of more than a dozen golden rays. It was magical and my heart swelled as a teacher, and a scientist - but mostly as a dad. When we were back on the boat from our swim we did see something the ornithologists reading this will be jealous of: No not a Large Ground Finch but a hoard (or a “waddle” as is the technical term I think) of 63 Galapagos Penguins. This number is apparently the largest congregation of Galapagos Penguins ever seen (as Jaime relayed to us) representing more than 1/3 of the breeding pairs know of this rare equatorial penguin species.

Although I greatly enjoyed my time on these islands, I will be taking a break from teaching evolution there as part of a study abroad, but I did make good contacts there over the last two years that I hope to parlay into more opportunities to do natural history fieldwork.

Monday, July 4, 2022

The ghost of Darwin is everywhere here: LSU in the Galápagos




From June 7th to the 24th this year, I was able to travel to Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands as an instructor for two LSU Study Abroad classes, including
Evolution. I have wanted to teach evolution in the Galápagos for some time, in fact this Study Abroad course was first planned for 2020 but cancelled twice due to COVID. It was therefore quite the relief to finally get to go this summer; and it was an absolute delight. This was the thirty-sixth country that I’ve visited (most of them for research) and the Galápagos Islands will be among my favorites for many reasons that I will get to shortly. I’m grateful that Dr. Dan Holstein, from the LSU College of the Coast & Environment, who has worked there several times, was there to show me the ropes. Dan and I brought seven LSU undergraduate students with us, and as an added bonus - my family joined us for the first part of the trip in San Cristóbal.

            Dan is a marine biologist, and an incredible swimmer, so many of the activities he arranged were snorkeling fish surveys – something right up my alley. Despite their tropical location, the Galápagos Islands actually have rather cool marine waters surrounding it, something Dan studies for his research; we learned from him how the many continuingly changing currents impact the marine life. That includes the famous Humboldt Current bringing cold Southern Ocean waters up to equatorial South America. The Galápagos are of course famous for Darwin’s time there on his Voyage of the Beagle, but Dan who taught his Ecology course here also benefitted from Alexander Von Humboldt’s legacy in this region too. Humboldt, was the most famous person besides Napoleon in early19th century Europe (read ‘The Invention of Nature’ by Andrea Wulf), and is often credited with founding the discipline of ecology. We were not all that far from Chimborazo, the great mountain in the Ecuadorean Andes that Humboldt made famous by being the first European to climb it and to study how its fauna and flora changes with increasing elevation. That mountain reaching just above 20,000 feet was thought at the time of Humboldt to be the tallest in the world and is about 200km south of Ecuador’s capital Quito which itself can reach over 10,000 feet in parts. All of us on the trip, as Louisianans, are used to living below sea level, so we felt the altitude of Quito. It was my first time experiencing the impacts of high altitude; I had hoped I had inherited more genes from my extinct Denisovan ancestors who apparently provide Nepalese and Indian sherpas on the Himalaya with adaptations for living and working in high altitudes (Simonson et al. 20151).

            After a few days in Quito visiting our host institute, the beautiful Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ), the class headed to the Galápagos Islands. We would visit eight of these islands that can be found 600 miles off the coast of mainland South America. Their famous remoteness, and value for evolution research from Charles Darwin to Peter and Rosemary Grant, was never lost on us. Dan I would lecture every afternoon and it was amazing to infuse our lessons with the observations we had made out in the field (or vice versa). There was one day where I discussed the adaptations of hawk moths to block predatory bat sonar with their genitalia (see Barber et al. 2022 for more) and the very next day a curator at the Darwin Research Station in Santa Cruz was showing us these very moths and slides of their funky genitalia.

            We began our Galápagos adventures in Isla de San Cristóbal, one of the few inhabited islands, which together have a total population of only about 20,000 people, all concentrated in just a few urban centers; 97% of the islands are reserved within national parks. You can do little outside of these population centers without a guide, so local park rangers escorted us on all of our excursions. We were glad to have these knowledgeable and friendly locals with us. We spent a week in San Cristóbal, which gave the students a great perspective on the variation that exists even within one island. This island on the edge of the Galápagos undersea volcanic hotspot that created these landmasses, is one of the oldest of the islands at 4 million years old; but it also has sections that are much younger – and you can see the transition clearly as you move from soil rich highlands which also has a large freshwater lake - (El Junco; which is devoid of fish, sadly for me), to white sand beaches formed from the poop of parrotfishes and other coral munching critters (who chewed ancient reefs that don’t even exist anymore). The youngest part of the island (near Cerro Brujo) in the northwestern section and it is full of lava rocks and a few short stubby plants and lichen. Much of the highlands on these islands include farmland, and the oldest established farms in all of the islands are in San Cristóbal. This farmed area is called ‘El Progresso’ and was founded in the late 1800s. Despite clear evidence of human impacts, including converted natural land like these farms and pastures, the Galápagos islands are one the cleanest most eco-conscious places I’ve ever been. We would visit places I would call absolute paradise, with long stretches of soft sand and a view of a perfect turquoise ocean where we had only the ever-present Galápagos sea lions as our company. These spots had no bar, no bathroom, no infrastructure whatsoever reminding you of the impact of humans. Still even in these pristine areas, if you dig a little bit, you will see our legacy on the planet. Dan had students doing microplastic surveys using sieves and regular spaced plot areas, and just below the top layer of sand they found enough plastic (mostly objects carried by the currents from elsewhere) in a few short minutes to fill a small garbage bag. The Galapagueños all seemed to be on board with keeping the ecotourism model a relatively small operation; leaving most of the islands uninhabited and untouched (although also somewhat vulnerable to illegal foreign fishing vessels and other poachers – see Bonaccorso et al. 2021). We were in Ecuador during a period of unrest particularly in Quito. Indigenous mainlanders and others were fighting for their rights in the mainland, and even the Galápagos fishers were protesting expanded no-fishing seasons meant to protect the wildlife. Dan and I asked the students to come up with ways they would try to explain to the local fishers, whose livelihoods were at stake, how they would approach discussing these added restrictions. I was proud that these students recognized their privilege but also came up with some brilliant ways of discussing long term sustainability as discussion points for explaining the need for shorter fishing seasons (with an understanding that in the end the fishers may be right).

(Top Row) Green Sea Turtle, San Cristóbal Giant-Tortoise, Bravo Clinid, (Bottom Row) Waved Albatross, Marine Iguana, The author with a Galapagos Penguin 


The nearly daily snorkels could be exhausting. As part of earning research credits students would do multiple surveys (in cool, if not frigid, water) identifying and counting the local fish fauna. We saw pufferfish, sharks, damselfish, wrasses, eels, mullet, sea horses, giant mobula rays and much more. The sea lions which were typically lazily lying around the shore line and sometimes the sidewalks and park benches, were playful underwater often circling us like curious puppies. The sea turtles too paid us no mind as we approached (minding the 6-foot limits imposed by the national parks). And that was one of the oddest things about the Galápagos, the animals often ignore you or even come up to you. On Española island I was shocked to be so close to albatross nests and blue-footed boobies and the many thousands of marine iguanas that you sometimes had to almost step over in order to continue on the trail. The mockingbirds (that Darwin studied intently) and the famous Darwin’s finches (which Darwin hardly mentions in any of his books) would land on your feet. The finches, mockingbirds, lava lizards, and of course giant tortoises varied enough by islands that even the students noticed without much prompting that they were distinct species. It was easy to see how Darwin could come here (he visited five islands over five weeks) and come to his conclusions about natural selection and the common origin of life on Earth. For me the lava lizards were the most conspicuously different on the various islands we visited. The marine fauna on the other hand was beautiful and abundant but not as diverse as you might expect – we saw about 35 species on our surveys, far fewer than we would see in some place like Indonesia or many other tropical island regions. This unique but depauperate assemblage was a frequent topic in our ecology and evolution classes.

            Española island had perhaps my favorite Galápagos species on it, you may be surprised to learn that this ichthyologist was enamored with a bird, the Waved Albatross (Phoebastria irrorata). Its strong features, dark eyes set on snow white feathers and yellow bill was simply stunning, that such a creature exists makes me wonder about all of life on Earth. On Española we saw several nesting pairs ready to continue their long-term (sometimes decades long) partnerships rearing the next generation.

We visited several areas with Galápagos tortoises and these giants too left us in awe. There tank like frames, varied shell shapes (the islands are named after the saddle shape of the tortoises’ carapace). They also make hilarious noises (although not as belch-y and comical as the female sea lions which sounded like a raucous slumber party every night). We went to a rearing facility – La Galapaguera that had newly hatched tortoises too. One of my favorite moments at this hatchery was the entire LSU class cheering on one baby tortoise that had fallen onto its back, it righting itself after a few long minutes made us cheer like we had just seen Joe Burrow had throw a touchdown pass against Alabama. The ‘Baby Yoda’ like slow growth meant that you would see individuals not much larger than the box turtles you encounter in the woods in Louisiana except that they would be only six years old. The giants of the giants were closer to one hundred or more. In our snorkels we’d run into sea turtles that seemed as big or even bigger than the tortoises on land. It is no wonder why whalers and other early travelers would come here to refuel and take away these giants for food and profit. There are estimates that over 200,000 such giants were taken from land, and perhaps even more from the seas.  

We also stayed on the more heavily populated Santa Cruz and the young but massive Isla Isabela which still has an active volcano which we climbed (Sierra Negra). We swam through channels on other islands like Kicker Rock, which I think is named that because of how much you have to kick to get through the rocks. I didn’t like Kicker Rock as much as some of our easier snorkels but we did see massive porcupinefish and a surgeonfish, Prionurus laticlavius, which my former PhD student, Dr. Bill Ludt (now Curator at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum) studied for his dissertation. He studied that species and another that was thought to be a different species but for which he did some very good ecological, genomic and natural history sleuthing to discover that they were indeed the same. The one place Bill had trouble getting samples of this species from was the Galápagos, so it was nice to see that the characters he described were indeed mixed and variable in these islands as he predicted. My biggest disappointment was not being able to collect any samples from the islands as my permits did not come in on time. I did leave some tissuing tools behind in case they do become available soon. Perhaps unsurprisingly, collecting permits in the Galápagos are not easy to obtain. We were pleasantly surprised to be able to work on some finch research being done by the lab of Jaime Chavez (an Ecuadorian researcher who is based at San Francisco St. University in California). Using mistnets we caught finches near population centers and weighed and measured them for the Chavez lab’s long term impact study. Apparently, these finches that were famously adapted for different seed sizes, and other specific niches, are learning that they like French fries too. We passed the island of Daphne Major a few times, which was made famous by Peter and Rosemary Grant in one of the greatest natural history evolution experiments of all time. They have studied every individual finch on that island for decades to see how the changing role of climate impacts survival of the different morphs/species that live there (read the Pulitzer Prize winning ‘Beak of the Finch’ by Jonathan Weiner for more). Luckily the island remains uninhabited or we might get French Fry Finches there too (read Kurt Vonnegat’s ‘Galápagos’ if you want to see what might really happen in isolation, even to humans).

Isabela truly was otherworldly – not just because of the volcanic landscape, but surely the best snorkel of the more than a dozen we did was in Los Tunnels where we swam thorough rocky natural archways and with baby Blacktip Reef Sharks (Carcharhinus melanopterus)

in mangroves and saw adult Oceanic Whitetips (Carcharhinus longimanus) resting in their undersea caverns. In spots the water was as clear as a swimming pool, in others there were areas so dense with salps it seemed the entire ocean must be filled with them. 

 Perhaps like Darwin the greatest insights about the Galápagos will come to the students once they return home. Several of them had never traveled abroad before and for their final group project one said, ‘every moment has been a learning experience.’ Who could ask for a better summary of a trip than that?



Barber, J.R., Plotkin, D., Rubin, J.J., Homziak, N.T., Leavell, B.C., Houlihan, P.R., Miner, K.A., Breinholt, J.W., Quirk-Royal, B., Padrón, P.S. and Nunez, M., 2022. Anti-bat ultrasound production in moths is globally and phylogenetically widespread. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 119(25), p.e2117485119.


Bonaccorso, E., Ordóñez-Garza, N., Pazmiño, D.A. et al. International fisheries threaten globally endangered sharks in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean: the case of the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 reefer vessel seized within the Galápagos Marine Reserve. Sci Rep 11, 14959 (2021).


Simonson, T.S., Huff, C.D., Witherspoon, D.J., Prchal, J.T. and Jorde, L.B., 2015. Adaptive genetic changes related to haemoglobin concentration in native high‐altitude Tibetans. Experimental Physiology, 100(11), pp.1263-1268.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Following the path of walking fishes in Thailand

A Mon Temple in Sangkhlaburi
            From January 21-31st PhD student Pam Hart, undergraduate Valencia Henderson, and I went to Thailand to study freshwater fishes along with the labs of Brooke Flammang (NJIT, Rutgers), Larry Page (University of Florida) and local Thai collaborators from multiple universities. This work is part of the goals of our National Science Foundation, Understanding Rules of Life Grant that was funded this year (2020). The goals of that grant include studying fishes in the family Balitoridae (Hillstream Loaches) with our LSU side providing genome-level analyses. The grant also includes robotics and biomechanics (led by Rutgers/NJIT) and CT scanning work (led by UF).
The mug of Garra fuliginosa
            I have been to Thailand before but was mostly in Bangkok and the island of Phuket targeting marine species. This time around we focused on tadpole-sized freshwater loaches that live under rocks in mostly shallow streams. This trip marked my 15th to Asia but each time feels new, this was Valencia and Pam's first trip across the Pacific and there would be lots of new sites, smells and sounds for them. Along with the balitorids we got other fishes that live in similar habitats like spiny eels (Mastacembelidae), catfishes (various families) and snakeheads (Channidae). Perhaps the oddest thing we got was Garra fuliginosa, a strange little minnow with a long proboscis covered in tooth-like tubercles. Some species in the U.S. have similar tubercles, like the fathead minnow (Pimephales), but nothing like the gnarly forehead these guys have. At each site we had Zach Randall (UF) taking excellent photographs for a book he and Dr. Page are publishing on the fishes of the region. We also had Brooke's lab filming videos of the loaches walking – and boy can they walk (see video below). Brooke’s lab had an amazing set up of glass boxes, electronics, batteries, Legos and even a Steve Irwin doll – all for the sake of science.  
            I was shocked at how much convergence there was with some North American stream fishes - there are look-a-likes of our darters, minnows and sunfishes that are in distantly related Asian families. I had to sometimes ask the UF crew - are you sure that isn't Cyprinella venusta the spot-tail shiner that is ubiquitous in Louisiana rivers? Ironically, the “Rule of Life” we are studying for our grant was evolutionary convergence, but not between American and Asian stream fishes - but between the first fishes that came onto land in the Devonian 400 million years ago (and gave rise to all land dwelling vertebrates  i.e., tetrapods like birds and other reptiles, amphibians, and mammals) and these walking loaches that are the only other fishes to have developed strong bony connections between the vertebral column and the pelvic girdle as a convergently remodeled "hip." Throughout the trip Brooke's lab would come up with "Silly fishes hips are for kids" type of puns, which a bad dad-joke teller like me eats up like sugary breakfast cereal.
            Although we spent many beautiful afternoons walking through shallow streams in absolutely perfect weather (it was sunny in the low to mid-80s) the highlight of the trip was certainly our very first site. The day after we landed in Bangkok we got onto another plane (one not much bigger than a puddle jumper), this one took us near the Myanmar border in Northern Thailand to the subterranean home of the cave angel, Cryptotora thamicola. This species is actually the one that inspired Pam to become a cavefish biologist before she started graduate school.

Pam (an expert caver) and me (not an expert caver, but one that delights in them) and I have been thinking about this site for months. Information on this cave and species is sparse and we were given conflicting information. Nevertheless, we were excited to get to the site. With Zach and a number of our Thai colleagues we spent more than five hours crawling, bouldering and slipping in Maelana Cave. It was a beautiful place with lots of gorgeous formations, most spectacular was perhaps the waterfall where Cryptotora live. Seeing these fish in their natural habitat is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, but I must admit hearing Pam gushing over seeing these fish that have been her muse for so many years was even better. We would see a number of individuals in the fast-flowing water where they were all concentrated, and although we could not see over the waterfall there are presumably more below. Zach took videos that we will use to study how they “walk” and swim. Later when watching the videos, we learned that GoPro will add sound to them automatically; the techo-trance beat for one of the videos became the soundtrack of the fieldtrip.
Our 10-day trip was a success and the UF, NJIT, and LSU teams are all now back safe stateside getting geared up to collect data for our NSF Grant. Stay tuned as we learn more.

NSF uRoL:FELS:RAISE: A Phylogenomically-Based Bioinspired Robotic Model Approach to Addressing the Evolution of Terrestrial Locomotion


Friday, September 13, 2019

(Finally) Collecting fishes in Haiti

In August (of 2019) my PhD student Diego Elias and I traveled to Haiti; a place I’ve been trying to collect from since my first fish expedition trip 15 years ago. Back in 2004 I was a PhD student, and I was in the Dominican Republic, the country on the other side of the island of Hispaniola. Back then I was greener than a Louisiana lawn in Spring, I learned a lot the hard way that first trip. Never-the-less it was a fruitful trip that taught me that there is no substitute for studying your research animals in the field. What I was studying then was a supposedly endemic Dominican cichlid species that was supposedly different from the one on the Haitian side. I would end up synonymizing those two species into one based on some additional Haitian samples that I was loaned, but I always regretted not having gone over the Central mountain range to the Haitian side. Haiti seemed close, but still very far, if not physically than culturally. The biggest barrier would be safety, I was told by my Dominican colleagues that we would need to rent a helicopter and have armed guards to collect on the other side. I didn’t know it would take me 15 years to get to the western side of Hispaniola and that very little of what I heard about this country would turn out to be true.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
-T.S. Eliot
This trip was part of the last leg of my National Science Foundation grant ‘Not So Fast: Historical biogeography of freshwater fishes in Central America and the Greater Antilles.” The freshwater fishes of Haiti are special; this country has one of the largest freshwater lakes in the Caribbean and some of the most unique fauna in the Neotropics. That largest freshwater lake, Lake Miragoâne, is said to have an endemic radiation of fishes in the genus Limia, a group of poecilids (also called mollies or livebearers because they have live young). Some have called this endemic radiation of Limia a miniature version of the famous cichlid radiation in the Rift Lakes of East Africa. For a country that is only 10,000 square miles, it has almost a dozen endemics; in contrast the entire island of Puerto Rico has zero endemic freshwater fishes. Another reason it is special is that Hispaniola is a composite island made up of several other islands smooshed together, we would spend much of our time on the “south Paleo island” around the capital Port-au-Prince which appears to have remained somewhat isolated from the other geological portions of the island.
Limia from Lake Miragoâne
            Unfortunately, despite all their freshwater, Haiti has no practicing ichthyologists. There are plenty of people working in agriculture and business and many people are living off their land. We are often presented with the narrative of how this country is the poorest in the West, but that is only if you measure wealth in GDP; many people here are far from poverty, they have nice homes, many goats, some farmland – they lack debt and many would be better off than most of us if we suddenly lost our jobs. Whenever Haiti is mentioned in the news of a Western website we are fed images of a downtrodden country with open sewers and earthquake- and hurricane-ravaged people. Civil unrest did thwart our attempts to travel there several times, as Haiti was under a Level 4: “Do Not Travel” State Department advisory for much of 2019. Finally heading over there in August (at a manageable Level 3: “Reconsider Travel”) I was expecting to be documenting extinction and counting all the introduced tilapia I would collect instead of natives. Instead what we found is a vibrant country with many pristine natural areas with remarkable, resilient and industrious people.
            We were hosted by Martin Reith a botanist working as the curator of the Jardin Botanique des Cayes. Martin is a German who grew up with a strong interest in aquarium fishes and was eager to help us. Dr. Debra Baker from Kansas put us in contact with her student, Wilnise Louise, who is doing her Master’s in agriculture in the north “Le Cap” part of the island. I did not want to collect in another country without locals so I insisted we bring a local student along, and I’m very glad we did – Wilnise was a wonderful contributor to our efforts. We also needed a driver and someone who knew the roads. Martin is relatively new to Haiti, having lived there for less than a year, although you wouldn’t know it from his impeccable Creole. He lived in the Dominican Republic in the five years previous to his move, so he did know the island, but he did not yet feel comfortable driving around Haiti. We hired a truck and a driver, Simain Dimmension, and he would also be an integral part of the “L’Equippe Poisson.”
L’Equippe Poisson
            Our trip did not start out well, we turned out of the airport and picked up some bottled waters that had the strong taste of salt. As we would be relying on bottled water during the trip, this saltiness was not a good sign. In most countries I visit I take my chances and drink the water from the tap if the locals do that – the locals in Haiti were all drinking bottled or bagged water. After getting our first taste of cold salt water, we turned right from the airport and were excited to be headed towards our first field site when we got stuck in traffic – for three hours!!! Apparently, the major road we needed to take was flooded; we were not moving at all and ultimately had to turn around and find a place in Port-au-Prince to stay. After a long day of travel (we had left Baton Rouge at 5am), the ‘Prestige’ beers and even the fried tilapia tasted great, although I grew concerned that we would see no other species of fish during our trip.
            Mercifully we were able to leave Port-au-Prince without incident the next morning. Our first destination was Lake Miragoâne, where I had dreamed of collecting for so long. After some minor sampling along the way we ended up at a little bathing area where people were drinking and partying around the huge lake. It appeared to be the only easily accessible entry for some distance. We were a curiosity to the crowd at first, and I am used to that, foreigners coming in with big fancy fishing nets often draw a crowd, but I noticed the space between the revelers and our crew was shrinking. We were doing our best to explain what we were doing to the people closest to us, but there were lots of people and not everyone got the full story. Most of the people around us were men and they were, let’s say - not at all sober.
            Despite there being bathers nearby we could see that there were lots of small fish in the water. A little secret about the cichlids and mollies is that they like dirty water, the additional nutrients from the soap and grime in the water is like junk food to them. The water wasn’t that dirty really, just with some added soapy nutrients, but we knew it would be a good site for collecting some of the endemics from this lake. We explained to a few people around us what we were doing and why, but word did not spread. We entered the water and the crowd around us closed in, the water was very muddy were we entered, which is why there were no bathers in that section. With Diego and I half submerged pulling a large seine the crowd descended and the mood changed quickly from a party atmosphere to more of a skeptical mob - people started picking out our fish and some were helping us put them into containers, others were yelling. Before I knew it four drunk guys were walking off with our seine. It was chaotic, people going in multiple directions with our gear, it turns out that some inebriated guys thought they were going to get paid for collecting fish for us. Although I’m happy to help people out there was no way I could start handing out bills in the mess that was going on. In the end we were able to get our gear back and hop back in our truck, but some of locals were not happy that we were leaving. A few of the men were demanding money ‘for their trouble’ – it was clear something had to be done. Diego passed them a bottle of rum and that did the trick. That was some quick thinking on his part, and it saved us from a rather sticky situation.
Our sampling sites in Haiti. (Created by Regina Champagne.)
            That event reminded me that we did look like an odd cast of characters, with our fancy nets and foreign faces - the locals should mistrust us. Who were we to collect their fish? Although we did explain to some of the people there, not enough of them were around us to hear. The rest were thinking we were coming in gangbusters doing some strange stuff in their water. I don’t blame anyone there for the misunderstanding, I’m just sorry that we didn’t have time to explain to everyone why we were there. We were there to document what of the local fish fauna remains so that we can help protect these freshwaters.
            We did get a nice collection of fish even from that one spot on Miragoâne. We ended up driving down the road a bit and finding a spot that seemed relatively quiet to process the fish, but even here we were quickly crowded by a group of a dozen or so people, but this time they were a curious and sober bunch, and I was able to use my limited French to explain what was happening. We also had Wilnise and Simain participating in processing the samples. What we were doing must have looked rather strange: taking parts of fish and putting them into small laboratory vials, then tagging fish with plastic labels. Diego had a photobox and was taking some really nice images, which the crowd took great interest in; these images are important because these tiny poecilids are very hard to tell apart. I took the opportunity to explain how to differentiate the introduced species from the natives to the locals. Tilapia, which has been here since the 1950s – introduced by the United Nations to increase protein availability – is not easy to distinguish from the native cichlid, Nandopsis haitiensis, and many locals did not know that tilapia was introduced from Africa. Likewise, the poecilids, which are not a food fish, was not a species most of the locals pay much attention to. It was a proud moment when I heard Wilnise explaining the scientific goals of our trip in Creole to the locals. This was the start of her training: I wanted her to become an expert on Haitian fishes in a country that lacked such an expert.
            We sampled in various parts of Lake Miragoâne over the next few days, driving around looking for areas we could conveniently, and somewhat quietly, enter. The lake is only 10 square miles but remarkably has seven endemic fish species, partly due to the variable habitat. On one memorable trip we went down to a spot where water taxi’s (wood or metal canoes) take people to different areas around the lake. The spot was actually between Lake Miragoâne proper and what was being called Petite Miragoâne, which were connected by a shallow waterway that must unite the lakes into one during periods of flooding. We went by canoe through a mass of thick reeds and water lilies, with jacanas, dragonflies and other wildlife. I was very happy; especially as the channel opened up to the bigger lake. The area was pristine and gorgeous; the big flat lake with dark green water was surrounded by lush mountains on all sides. We were catching plenty of the native Limia that we were after; unfortunately, we were also catching Asian carp that we did not expect to see. This species grows very fast and can reach 30 pounds making it easily the biggest freshwater fish in Haiti, these fish can also alter the environment by removing native vegetation.
             After Miragoâne we went west to Les Cayes where Martin lives and works as curator. Les Cayes is the world's largest supplier of vetiver, a fragrant bunch-grass from India that is used in perfumes, cosmetics and aromatherapy. You could smell the vetiver rather strongly as you entered the town. It was also interesting seeing breadfruit growing and being eaten. Having gone to Tahiti last year, where breadfruit originates, I couldn’t help to think of Captain’s Bligh whose men famously mutinied on his ship the HMS Bounty in 1789; the mission of that ship was to bring breadfruit to Haiti and other parts of the West Indies (there are five movie versions of ‘Mutiny of the Bounty’ the most famous one being with Marlon Brando).

Dormitator maculatus
            Les Cayes is in one of the most southern stretches of Haiti, and almost at its Western edge. In spots near the coastline I was reminded of Tahiti, with aqua blue waters and the surrounding mountains. But there is also an awful tide of sargassam drifting in from further out in the Atlantic that is currently sullying the coastline. Luckily, we were not after Caribbean fishes, we were focusing on freshwaters. In Les Cayes, we collected some sleepers (Eleotridae) and gobies that are associated with more brackish habitat. One of my favorites is the fat sleeper Dormitator maculatus that has a large bright blue spot behind the head – they look a bit ridiculous but they’ve managed a pretty wide range. We hope to one day look at the population genetics of this beast that can be found throughout a wide part of the Neotropics and supposedly as far north as North Carolina. We sampled in the lovely Botanical Gardens where we saw lots of amazing plants and saw white necked crows and other neat fauna. Although this site was lovely I couldn’t help but notice the many fishes we would see in the ditches around town, after ignoring them for a few days – it is always best to look away from the open sewers in the city center– I decided I would go down into one.

From five feet above I could see there was a good bit of fish diversity and I kept seeing some flashes of color I didn’t recognize. Throwing on a cheap pair of plastic waders and covering my mouth I dropped into the ditch with two dipnets and scooped up all the fish I could get while trying not to smell the poop smells I was kicking up. It was gross but it was worth it – we collected some species we didn’t get elsewhere and one – Poecilia reticulata, that is introduced and not yet fully documented in the scientific literature – it is also a species that I collected from a much cleaner ditch in Tahiti. I will be sending these to a colleague who studies this species for its endoparasites and population genetics. The ones from Haiti should have a lot, as we sampled the fish we noticed their guts were full of horrible smelling black ‘crap’ – most likely literal ‘crap.’ When you eat junk food you need a lot of it to get any nutrients. After I was done sampling I threw my waders into a garbage bag and we headed up to a mountain stream that was the complete opposite of that ditch site.
            The Mountain stream ‘Riviere Glace’ was perhaps the most beautiful of the trip. It was also a relief. The water was refreshingly cool, and as the weather had been hot and humid and we were sweaty and gross it was a wonderful relief to be submerged in the cool clean water. We were not the only people who noticed how lovely the water was, there were people working on the minerals and rocks from the surrounding mountains and these men with white powder covering their faces came down like ghosts into the water, it was startling at first but also fascinating to see them transform from these pale powdered sickly forms to their natural youthful state as they washed clean in the river. As Diego cast-netted I used a trusty dipnet along the rocky banks to catch a few small fish. I was not sure what they were but they looked a little different than the poecilids we had collected at lower elevations. These had a blueish tint, but they were not very big. Diego and I tried to pull a seine across the river but the bottom was so rocky that we had trouble, at the other side of the bank I told him just to hold it up against the banks with me and I asked a man who was sitting nearby to slowly walk towards us in a shallow pool. When he approached he scarred the fish that were in the pool into our net, we didn’t notice them until we pulled up the net and we saw there were easily 300 robust sized poecilids in it. We didn’t see that coming – and that’s the magic of seining – you never know what you’re gonna get. We took a portion of them, releasing the majority as they all appeared to be the same species – albeit a potentially new one. We collected many large ones and at that size you could really see the light blue coloration, these certainly appeared to be something we had not seen and not a species we knew about from the literature. It is perhaps new to science but stay tuned. The environment can cause morphological variation in populations that can trick you into thinking you have something new but it is just variation.
            In Les Cayes we stayed where Martin lived in a wonderful historic home where he rented a room. The house was a maze of artwork, including a lovely portrait of a women with a turkey on her head at the front entrance, later on the street I would see a women with a live turkey on her head in exactly the same fashion. The house was quite a relief as the hotel rooms we had been staying in had limited water access and often no electricity, it often felt like we were staying in hot dark concrete boxes. The old home also gave us access to some privacy where we could sample our fishes at night which is a nice privilege when you can actually take your time and have a good look at what you collected. When you need to prep the samples in the field it can be a bit rushed and you don’t get the images or a chance to look over the fresh specimens before their live colors begin to fade. Diego and I sometimes stayed up past midnight so that I could help him take better quality images of some of the fish using his photobox. I also noticed that he was being quite fastidious with the preparation of the specimens. Most of the fishes we were collecting were finger sized or smaller, so we stopped our old sampling method of tagging the fish with a tagging gun (the same one used to tag your clothes with price tags), instead we were using fishing line to more gently make a loop around the mouth and gills with a tissue tag number. This took more time but made for better specimens. In my 15th year of collecting fishes I was still learning things thanks to Diego and I was proud of his efforts and diligence. I had seen it before when we met five years ago in Guatemala where he is from, but now I saw how his skill set transferred over to his PhD work and it was nice to be able to see it all come together for him.
With some students from Université Providence d'Haiti

 We would end our ten-day trip staying at the Université Providence d'Haiti, a small new private college on the shores of Lake Azuéi in Ganthier. We were greeted with the loud chirping of African weaver birds and I was worried that the lake would be full of introduced fish too. This lake was notable to me because the eastern shore is in the Dominican Republic side, so you could cross the lake to get to that country. But this lake was 65 square miles so much bigger than Lake Miragoâne but the latter is strictly freshwater and this lake is considered brackish. We would get freshwater fish here but also things you would expect in the oceans like large needlefish. Fifteen years earlier I had been on the other side of the mountains in the Dominican side looking at the sister lake adjacent to this one called Lago Enriquillo. Side by side they sit with some of the most unique fauna in the Caribbean. Here there are crocodiles and flamingos, and it feels different than the rest of the areas we visited. The water is calm and flat and there is something about the white flat sands around it that always makes it seem a little hazy, a little more otherworldly. On the Dominican side I remember getting strange pupfish, and we were hoping to get some on this Haitian lake too - we did. These pupfish are resilient little things. They are members of the family Cyprinodontidae, that pop up in some odd places including Death Valley where some pupfish species are known from single localities that are smaller than your average college classroom (Devil’s Hole pupfish being the most famous), they are also known from some hypersaline locations. In Louisiana the Sheepshead minnow, Cyprinodon variegatus, is the most common pupfish we would encounter. They are called pupfish because of their tendency to wiggle like happy puppies. We would seine in the lake and surrounding region several times bringing with us local students to show them what we were doing. I also gave a lecture about our trip, and although my French is passable it was suggested that I have a student translate my talk in Creole. I had not realized until then how different the languages were, Creole is what most people spoke although much of the business and political matters were done in French. Unfortunately, that creates a bit of a class system and confusion too. I would learn a lot about Haiti from the students and profs at the school. Our understanding of this country is based on the trama of poverty, earthquakes and hurricanes but we forget that this country had a successful slave revolt 200 years ago that freed this country from the French, and even though Haiti paid the equivalent of billions to the French at the time, the French still claim this small island nation owes them debt.  That financial debt significantly handcuffs Haiti’s own independent economic success, as does the lack of support from other French speaking countries. But back to the fish.
Nandopsis haitiensis
            We would sample in and around the lake and we got massive cichlids here as well with the aid of some fisherman who were collecting in the interior portions of the lake. I had studied Nandopsis haitiensis and the other cichlids from Hispaniola and Cuba for my PhD dissertation, I even raised one of these from a thumb nailed size thing to a hand sized adult. We had been collecting smaller sized cichlids throughout our trip so getting big ones, about as big as they get even in aquariums, was amazing. Some males even had big fleshy humps on their heads when they were in a breeding phase. Upon seeing them Diego said ‘these are some proper specimens’ and they were. I was glad to see that the lake was still able to produce such healthy individuals and I told the students it was their duty to protect these waters and the fishes which they seemed keen to do. I also told them about the tilapia that we also found in large sizes in the lake and told them to eat those rather than the native Nandopsis. Diego and I are working with an undergrad now to put together a pamphlet and poster to send to the students we met there and to give to locals like Wilnise to train others. I still get messages from Wilnise showing me some fishes that she is continuing to collect - nothing could make me prouder. We plan to collaborate on a paper about our collections.
            There are so many things about Haiti that surprised and delighted me. I love the packs of kids that were roaming around and following us everywhere, even deep into the wilderness. They were growing up educated by nature as much as by books. At the same time the local knowledge of introduced versus native fishes was lower than I expected and it seemed as though tilapia was the most common fish on the plate and in the freshwaters. Marine species were given much more attention. I had expected to be documenting a freshwater disaster, with little habitat remaining for freshwater animals – instead Diego and I found a forgotten paradise that just lacks scientific infrastructure but certainly not human capacity. I can’t wait to help build that infrastructure as we send back the data and information about our collections to our new friends and colleagues.

Lake Azuéi