In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Donald Stewart of the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry explains why he went looking for a new species of fish in a library.
Donald Stewart is a professor of environmental and forest biology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York. His research interests include the ecology, conservation, and management of freshwater fishes and tropical aquatic systems. His current project is focused on the conservation and management of the Arapaima, a highly sought-after food species of tropical South America.
Dr. Donald Stewart – New Fish Species Discovered
This is a story about a fish that was hiding in plain sight for nearly a century and a half. My students and I have been studying the conservation of Arapaima in both Brazil and Guyana. These are fishes that can grow as much as ten feet long and weigh over 400 pounds.
For 145 years, biologists have thought that Arapaima consisted of a single species but we have rediscovered a second species. We did not make the discovery by examining a freshly caught fishes in the Amazon River, but by locating a monograph written about the fish in 1829.
We were lead to the monograph because we needed to be clear about the taxonomy of Arapaima. So I reviewed the taxonomic literature from the early 1800s. The fish described in the monograph had been collected in the Brazilian Amazon about 1819. In the 1860s, though, it was discounted as not being distinct and subsequently forgotten by the scientific community.
The specimen ended up in Munich, Germany, as a dried skeleton. A bomb in World War Two destroyed the skeleton and the museum housing it but the very detailed technical drawings in the monograph from 1829 provided the proof needed that a second species of Arapaima did indeed exist. To this day, we do not know the precise locality where this fish was collected because the German scientist who found it died before saying where, and nobody has found a second specimen. The mystery surrounding the recently discovered fish’s status is not surprising. There are still vast areas of the Amazon basin where no Arapaima have been collected for study.