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Collecting Cichlids in Mexico

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Collecting in Mexico
by Eddie Martin

Water Water resources Nature Natural landscape Fluvial landforms of streams

The drive to Mexico was a 31-hour endurance test for the four gringos from LouisvilleCarl Barker, Rusty Wessel, Scott McLaughlin and me, Eddie Martin. The journey from Kentuckys largest city began on July 14, 2005. Our means of transportation was Carls four-seat extended cab Chevrolet 2500 4x4, which has an extended bed and a hydraulic lift tailgate. It was customized for Carls commercial gas business. The truck became the workhorse of the trip, earning it the name Ole Blanco! Ole Blancos extra long wheel base, four-wheel-drive capabilities, and overall heavy duty capacities made it indispensable, as well as legendary in some areas of Mexico.

One example was navigating the large vehicle around the border town of Reynosa. The main bypass was under construction, and we were detoured through a congested Mexican ghetto. There, in the chaos and with the help of hand motions from a bystander, the custom steel lift gate of Ole Blanco came in contact with a local residents truck grill. In the on slot of locals streaming out of their shacks while screaming words of encouragement in Spanish, Ole Blanco and I speed out of there.

We hastily traversed those dusty, bumpy streets of that third world shanty town until we found an access ramp. We exited, not looking back for details. It didnt seem like a good place to exchange insurance information. Besides, bending traffic rules, quick getaways, passing on speed bumps and occasionally trespassing on unsupervised property are all part of the driving arrangements in Mexico.

Our first destination was Tampico, a large city of 300,000 with a lively nightlife and great restaurants. The tacos at a local watering hole were a welcome treat after the marathon drive. We had stopped only for gasoline and one breakfast at Dennys somewhere in south Texas. Maybe it was surviving on filling station food for most of two days, but those were the best tacos ever. I cant wait to try that place againunder normal conditions, to see if the tacos really are the culinary triumph that they seemed that night.

Water Water resources Nature Natural landscape Fluvial landforms of streams
Water Water resources Plant Nature Fluvial landforms of streams
Cave and waterfall at Taninul SpringsRio Choy/Florido

We started the next day late, after an expected and well deserved sleep. The first collecting site was Taninul Springs, a beautiful area at the foot of the Sierra Madres mountain range. It was a 45 minute hike from the road. Fortunately, it was not a hot day, at least by Central Mexico standards. And a paved path made the hike bearable.

The site is the location of a failed effort of the Mexican Park System, and was purchased by an individual who left it abandoned. The area has a paved road to the head waters, and waterfall of Rio Choy/Florido. There you see unattended concrete picnic tables and gazeboes of passed development efforts. The water is aqua blue/turquoise and clear to 40-foot depths.

Rusty was able to video and photograph Herichthys labridens sp. Blue spawning before interrupting them to capture some of their fry. Being very conscientious of the environmental impact of over collecting, we took only one-third or less of the fry from individual spawns, thus allowing the pair to raise the rest of the fry. It also leaves the adults to continue to produce. There are instances of over collecting in the hobby that has compromised the populations; usually due to collecting adults. In addition to the blue labridens, a beautiful swordtail, Xiphophorus nigrensis, was caught.

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Water Fluid Font Lake Grass
Rusty searching for labridensWater was clear to 40 ft or more

The next day we collected at another site on the Rio Coy. It was one of the more eerie looking, yet strikingly beautiful scenes I had ever seen. The river ran deep and clear, with a turquoise-shade of blue water that Id never before seen in a fresh water habitat. And it was crystal clear. Ancient looking cypress trees emerged from the clear depths of the majestic river, shading it from direct sunlight. It looked like a scene from The Lord of the Rings.

The water of the Rio Coy dropped steeply from the bank to over-the-head depths within a couple of feet from the bank. The river was deep and swift, making it as dangerous as it was beautiful. Rusty skillfully swam about, much like the quarry he was seeking. We swam between the trunks of the cypress trees as he collected Xiphophorus multilineatus. In an attempt to help, I swam behind with a collecting bucket. That was until I became entangled in the roots of a cypress tree. As I struggle to free myself, the open end of the bucket caught the swift current and started pulling me downstream. Choosing not to drown, I relinquished the bucketand the fish it containedto free myself. I desperately grabbed hold of a nearby tree limb only to find it a variety of a thorn tree. Now minus my bucket, and with a swollen ankle and numb hand, I hobbled along the bank with a plastic bag for Rusty to secure his catch. Meanwhile, Carl and Scott focused their efforts on Poecillia mexicana and some fresh water shrimp. Later, Rusty told me the area is noted for its healthy population of freshwater crocodiles.

Water Shorts Water resources Nature Fluvial landforms of streams
Water Plant Nature Tree Natural landscape
Carl Barker netting some livebearersCypress Trees at Rio Coy

Later that day we checked into Hotel Taninul, a spa hotel famous for its sulfur springs. The sulfur springs were a welcome relief for battered ankle and swollen hand. All of us enjoyed the springs at the end of the long day, but the smell of sulfur (much like rotten eggs) took some getting use to.

The third day of collecting was the most successful in the number of species we encountered. Five species, Herichthys labridens sp. White, Xiphophorus montezumae, Poecillia mexicana sp. Tamasopoensis, Herichthys tamasopoensis, and an undescribed gambusia from Tamasopo, were found and collected from a Rio Tamasopo. That is a beautiful area is where locals come to enjoy the waterfalls and swim in the refreshing water.

Scott caught a nice five-inch white labridens in a nearby creek using a hand net. Scott and Carl collected small white labridens while Rusty hiked on ahead for more photo opportunities. Later, Carl Scott and I hiked up a steep hill with collecting gear and coolers. We crossed a cow pasture, guarded by a sizeable bull, to find Xiphophorus montezumae. With every pull of the 20x6-foot seine we harvested more white labridens then we needed. The large montezumae swords were feeding on the bottom of the Rio, far below the reach of our net. It took the four of us to heard and net some of the smaller specimens available in shallow water. The large montezumae do not ship well, so it was probably best that we caught what we did. Rusty, with the aid of scuba gear, was able to get pictures of them feeding.

Fish Marine biology Fin Ray-finned fish Bony-fish
Water Water resources Lake Leisure Adaptation
Herichthys labridens sp. WhiteRusy and Eddie bagging nigrensis

Our final day of collecting was at the resort area of Media Luna Springs, a beautiful fresh water lagoon supporting one of the dwindling populations of yellow labridens. Media Luna and the connecting canals form part of an ecological disaster for cichlids. The Mexicans constructed an elaborate network of canals to connect Media Luna lagoon to the Rio Verde in an effort to provide irrigation for the local agriculture business. The canals, however, enabled Herichthys carpintis to meet with the yellow labridens. Though some species of labridens share territory with the carpintis in the wild, for some reason the yellow labridens began to hybridize in the canal. As time passes, they and their fertile hybrid offspring are rapidly interbreeding with the yellow labridens in both the canal and lagoon.

Rusty was able to identify the true purebreds by observing them feed. The labridens feed as one stirs up the substrate and changes colors to signal others of its kind for a group feeding frenzy. Herichthys carpintis is a solo feeder. Rusty, with the advantage of scuba gear and a keen eye, was able to identify some nice specimens of the yellow labridens before our long trip to Fort Worth, Texas, where we would share our experiences with friends at the annual ACA (American Cichlid Association) convention.

Water Fin Underwater Organism Fish
Water Plant Nature Natural landscape Grass
Herichthys carpinteCollecting montezumaes at Tampospo

Our final day was one of rest and recuperation, as well as preparation for the long trip back. The amount of work to keep fish alive in a hotel room is extraordinary. We used breathable bags and ploy filters, as well as daily water changes and frequent checks for the dead.

We had been traveling around and away from hurricane Emily for the whole time, but knew the next day would be our opportunity to meet her for the first time. Fortunately, we followed in her wake. Cities, including Victoria, were devastated with power outages and debris everywhere. The desert was filled with water, and many times we drove through standing water with little idea how deep it was and what we were facing on the road ahead.

Rusty was in the lead, following a large bus with the hopes that the driver could see what the road ahead was offering. Ole Blanco sits up high and masters all the conditions put to it much better than Rustys Infiniti coup.

The desert often looked like an ocean in the moonlight with water as far as you could see on both sides of the road. The cactus and giant aloe plants stuck out of the water reminding us we were driving though a desert. Sometimes we drove though water while unable to see the lights of towns on the horizon. In areas where we had dry roads, downed power lines caused us to drive in the oncoming lane. Since there was little traffic in the evacuated area, the flexibility of the road was useful, though I wondered in the event of car trouble who would be there to help out. I doubted that AAA would be an option!

Cloud Sky Plant Nature Mountain

In the areas where the road wasnt covered in water it was covered with toads. This species of toad (spade foot) lives in the desert under the sand by day, thus avoiding the heat. It comes out at night to feed. In the rare incidence of rain, sometimes every three or four years, the toad breeds in the temporary puddles the precipitation creates. The sounds of the toads were deafening! I was reminded of the story in the Bible when God send the frogs to Pharaoh to punish him for not letting Moses and the slaves return to their homeland. The frogs would have been enough for me, no need to send the locusts.

We crossed the border at 3:00 a.m. to a short waiting line. Apparently not many people are on the road at that time at day with a pending hurricane. The paperwork and inspection for the import was smoother that expected and we were on our way.

Arriving at the Radisson in Fort Worth was the light at the end of the tunnel. The first thing Carl did was order room service. After only one nights rest while reminiscing the adventure with friends, we were ready to go back. This was my fourth collecting trip, and most certainly will not be my last. I would encourage anybody in the hobby to consider going on one of these adventures. No matter what your interests in the hobbyAfrican cichlids, discus, saltwater, or livebearersthe sight of fish in the wild and the adventures that precede an actual catch, are memories you will cherish for life.

I think those who collect in the wild have a different perspective on the hobby as a whole. I have learned to appreciate the livebearers on my past collecting trips, and I believe I am richer for that experience. For some, an excursion may be a chance to see a country theyve never seen. For many, it would an opportunity to experience fish theyve never kept. For most, it would be an experience theyll never forget. For a few, it will become a way of life.
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