It all started with an aquarium his father bought for the family home in Venezuela. The fish swam and ate and created an environment that captivated the watchful eye of then-10-year-old Hernan Lopez-Fernandez.
"One of the first fish of my own was called a Texas Cichlid," Lopez-Fernandez said. "I was hooked on fish."
Little did the young South American boy realize the role Texas would play in his life. Now a doctoral student in Texas A&M University's wildlife and fisheries science department, Lopez-Fernandez's research into the fish of his homeland recently resulted in the discovery of three new species. One of them he named after his favorite Texas fish scientist Dr. Kirk O. Winemiller.
The discovery of the three new species – Geophagus abalios, G. dicrozoster and G. winemilleri – was published recently in the journal Zootaxa with co-author Donald Taphorn of the University of the Llanos in Venezuela. The descriptions of the new species, part of the Cichlidae family, are helpful to those who study ecology and how to protect the environment.
"Geophagus winemilleri is a beautiful tropical fish that can be found in both the ornamental fish trade and the fish markets of Brazil," said Winemiller, the fish's namesake and ecology and evolutionary biologist for the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station.
"I advise students who work on taxonomy that it is not a good practice to name new species after people. Instead, designated Latin names ought to describe some morphological, ecological, or geographic aspect associated with the species," Winemiller noted. "Perhaps it is fortunate that my students don't listen to me, and we can make an exception in this case."
Lopez-Fernandez grins when told about his mentor's response. "It can be appropriate to name a species after a person," he said. "He's a really important researcher internationally in this area, and he has organized most of the expeditions in the area where specimens of his species were collected."
In fact, Lopez-Fernandez discovered the new species while examining the contents of museum samples gathered from South American rivers in years past. Ironically, a previous Winemiller expedition had collected the fish without realizing the rare find because several similar fish were kept in a common specimen jar.
Lopez-Fernandez was looking at the individuals in each jar of a 400-jar collection at the Venezuelan Museo de Ciencias Naturales de Guanare museum as part of his doctoral research on the evolutionary ecology of feeding behavior of cichlid fishes in South America. He had heard that two new species of Geophagus existed in Venezuela but that they had never been described in scientific papers.
During detailed examination of thousands of fish, the two new species were found. He named them G. abalios (which means without spot) and G. dicrozoster (which means forked belt and refers to the position of its stripes) And then the surprise.
"I was pleased to have located the two new species," he said. "But when a third new species was found in that jar, well, finding and getting to name a new species is one of the most directly satisfying things you can do as a researcher."
Geophagus fish can be small and suited for an experience aquarium handler or can grow to be about 12 inches in length. The different species have some type of dark spot on their sides and many species have a mark on the space between their cheeks and gill covers and/or faint stripes along their bodies. They are colored in variations of iridescent olive green, blue and red.
Lopez-Fernandez said the discovery of the new species, which adds to his overall study of cichlid fish, is important as scientists worldwide try to piece together and maintain stable ecosystems.
South America is especially ripe for that kind of work on its rivers' fish. According to "Checklist of Freshwater Fishes in South and Central America," published in 2003, some 4,475 species have been named, but researchers estimate about 1,550 have yet to be found and described.
"I'm very concerned about biodiversity," Lopez-Fernandez said. "It's easier to preserve a species if you know it's there. It's very hard to attach a value on something until you know what it is."
One of the most endearing features Lopez-Fernandez realized about the Geophagus fish in his research is that the parent fish take care of their eggs in their mouths.
"Just describing a species doesn't mean you know all about its biology," he said. "And yet the more you know about their ecological role, the better you are able to know in detail what makes up an ecosystem."
Geophagus, for example, may be vital to their ecosystem because they constantly stir the river bottoms, scooping up and sifting sand in their mouths to find invertebrates to eat.
"By constantly sifting the bottom, they may have an effect on the invertebrate community and therefore what lives in the area," he explained.
Lopez-Fernandez plans to continue similar research of cichlid fish and their impact on environments worldwide. □