Can aquarists and scientists collectively form a better scientific community?

The reason I started this blog is two-fold. First, there are a lot of aquarists who care for minnows, suckers, and loaches. When I say alot, I mean A LOT. It is highly likely that many of these aquarists have abundant information about the natural history, behavior, or diet that isn’t in the scientific literature or is extremely difficult to find in the literature. Second, there is a lot of information in the scientific literature that may of value or interest to aquarists who otherwise would not have access to it. By starting this blog, my goal was to begin building (or extending) the bridge between aquarists and scientists.

Yesterday, I went by a local pet store in Norman and saw three loach species: clown loaches (Chromobotia macracanthus), dojo loaches (Botia almorhae), and zebra loaches (Botia striata). In addition to these loaches, there were an abundance of minnows, probably 6-8 species realistically.

Clown loaches, dojo loach, and zebra loaches from a local pet shop.

Clown loaches, dojo loach, and zebra loaches from a local pet shop.

 

Of these, I was particularly interested in the zebra loach. So, when I arrived home, I searched for zebra loaches just to learn a little about them. Where are they native to? What habitat do they live in? Standard stuff, I suppose. Of course, when you search loaches, some of the top hits are in fact, not scientific articles (in the sense of published literature), but aquarists websites. To me, this is interesting because it suggests that in fact, this species is abundant in the aquarium trade. This isn’t surprising because this species is beautiful and apparently, somewhat hardy for a loach. I searched additional sites and found that this species is listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature:

“Botia striata is assessed as Endangered because the species is a habitat specialist and is inferred to have an area of less than 400 km2. Further the species is known from only four fragmented locations. The habitat of the species is severely threatened because of deforestation leading to siltation, recreational activities on the mountain tops and pollution of the hill streams.”

So, this species is listed as endangered because it has a very small distribution (approximately 1/10th the size of Rhode Island) and is threatened by future human activities. So, how does it end up in the aquarium trade? This is at least partially due to a lack of enforcement of local laws and regulations (Raghavan et al. 2013) and until this changes, it is difficult to think that much will be done to prevent sale of threatened and endangered species — it is important to note that the problem with the sale of endangered species is that they are removed from their native habitat thereby reducing already small population sizes (we also can’t full resolve the taxonomy and systematics of these fishes if we don’t know what species are where or how many species there are). 

Given that these endangered fishes – B. striata is not the only one, but I am simply using it as an example – are already in the aquarium trade, can we turn a negative into a positive? I think so and let me suggest a few ways this can be done.

  1. Any information you have on these fishes can easily be published online for free (for example, Google Sites). How big is your fish? Where does it hang out in the tank? What is your tank setup? What do you feed him/her? Did he/she reproduce? If so, did you notice any difference between the male and female? How does the fish behave? Did he/she produce sounds that you could hear outside the tank? These things sound so trivial, I know, but believe me, they are invaluable. If you don’t publish these things online, then the reality is we may never know these things about some species. It’s not easy to get all of these data when you are snorkeling and watching a fish in the field.
  2. If your fish breed, take note of EVERYTHING you can. What were the conditions in the tank? pH? temperature? What were you feeding the fish? What time of day did they spawn? At what point in the year did this occur? Did they perform any courtship behaviors prior to spawning? Did they defend the nest? What other fish were in the tank? Did they eat the eggs? For a species such as Botia striata, little to none of this information is known. It would be even better to have a video that can readily be uploaded to YouTube to supplement this information, but obviously it is difficult to catch fish in the act! Wouldn’t it be nice to know how to breed these fish in the event that a captive breeding program needs to be started? Of course, it would.
  3. When the fish dies, save it. What? Ridiculous, I know. But for many species, we do not not have museum voucher specimens or tissue samples. By preserving these fish, we can collect invaluable information and in some cases, determine if it is a new species. Now, preserving fish is tricky (if you don’t preserve it, your house will smell like hog-heaven and the specimen will ultimately be worthless). Traditionally, ichthyologists preserve fish in formaldehyde, but this is not readily available to most people. The cheapest and easiest method may be to throw the specimen in a plastic bag and into the freezer. By throwing them in the freezer, a tissue can still be collected and most diagnostic characters can still be used to identify the fish. This is probably the best method available to most people. Of course, follow this up by collecting an ichthyologist (such as myself) that would be interested in the specimen and using it for scientific purposes. 

I just touched on a few ways here that I think any information from the aquarists could be useful to the scientific community. It’s too easy to share information globally to not share it with others who may find it extremely useful. As a quick aside, please do not take this post as my support to purchase threatened or endangered species. I don’t. Publishing information for any captive fish, especially those that are threatened or endangered and still in the aquarium trade, however, is extremely useful and may contribute significantly to the scientific community.

References:

Raghavan R, N Dahanukar, MF Tlusty, AL Rhyne, KK Kumar, S Molur, and AM Rosser. 2013. Uncovering an obscure trade: Threatened freshwater fishes and the aquarium pet markets. Biological Conservation 164:158-169.

 

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About James C. Cureton II

I am a PhD candidate at the University of Oklahoma interested in the ecology and evolution of fishes, most notably Cypriniformes! Check out my personal website (https://sites.google.com/site/jamesccuretonii/) or follow me on Twitter (@Cureton2J) to stay up-to-date with the blog and other information! I am interested in teaching others about this diverse group of fishes and learning about them from others who are more informed! I started this blog to synthesize common and scientific knowledge of this group in a way that will reveal just how spectacular this group of fishes is! I am also interested in learning from others so if you have some useful information, please share it in the comments section!
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