Caleb at some Mayan ruins in Yaxhá.
From February 28th
to March 12th
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).
Guatemala Fishing Team, from left to right, Diego Elias, Yasmin Quintana,
Prosanta Chakrabarty, Caleb McMahan and Christian Barrientos.
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.
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
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.
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
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).
and Prosanta and their makeshift back-of-the-truck fish laboratory.
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