Tag Archives: Africa

That Africke evermore bringeth forth some new and strange thing or other

Caius Plinius secundus. Image from Wikipedia, public domain

Ex Africa semper aliquid novi, “From Africa always something new”, is a well-known expression, applied whenever something is discovered in Africa. It is usually attributed to Caius Plinius secundus (23-79), in his Natural History (Naturalis Historiæ).

In my copy of Plinius (1536-1538), the proverb is in Book VIII, chapter XVI, about lions, where he remarks on the diversity of animals in Africa: “Unde etia vulgare Græciæ dictum, Semper aliquid novi Africam affirre.” (Approximately: “Hence there is a common proverb in Greece, that there is certainly Always something new of Africa”). There are many printed editions of Plinius, and apparently variations in the divisions of the text and the exact wording. In the index of my copy one finds: Africa semper aliquid novi affert, i.e. Africa always brings something new. Personally, I prefer this variant above the others,  both in Latin and English.  In another edition Plinius is cited as: “unde etiam vulgare Græciæ dictum semper aliquid novi Africam adferre“. In an early translation the proverb is cited as “That Africke evermore bringeth forth some new and strange thing or other” (Holland, 1601). In a later translation (Bostock & Riley, 1855), Plinius is cited “Hence arose the saying, which was common in Greece even, that ‘Africa is always producing something new.'”

Since Africa wasn’t known by that name to the ancient Greek, and Plinius drew heavily from earlier authors, not least Aristoteles Stagirites (384-322 BCE), it may not be surprising that the proverb seems to come straight from the Greek and from Aristoteles’s Historia Animalium ( Περὶ Τὰ Ζῷα Ἱστορίαι), Book 8, part 28: Ἀɛὶ Λίβύη ϕέρɛί ṯί καίνόν. Thompson (1907) translates the relevant text as: “As a general rule, wild animals are at their wildest in Asia, at their boldest in Europe, and most diverse in form in Libya; in fact, there is an old saying, ‘Always something fresh in Libya.'” Aristoteles did not mean the present-day country of Libya, but Libya at the time should here be understood as northern Africa excluding Egypt.

When it comes to biodiversity we know better now, as tropical Asia and even more tropical South America are better places for searching animal diversity, but the world of Aristoteles and Plinius was essentially restricted to the Mediterranean and immediate neighbourhood. True, though, is that the assortment of large-sized vertebrates is much more conspicuous in Africa. And, certainly, new organisms are still being discovered also in Africa.

When I first became interested in fishes, African cichlids dominated the aquarium world. This was in the late 60s early 70s and I lived in a small town far away in the north of Sweden. With some other fanatics I imported Malawi cichlids from Germany and made occasional visits to Stockholm, capital of Sweden, to watch more expensive Tanganyika cichlids. Those are memories for some other time, but the consequence of the devotion was that I spent considerable time copying and deciphering the French in the monumental work of Poll (1956), Exploration Hydrobiologique du lac Tanganika. Poissons Cichlidae; and published some articles on African cichlids in Buntbarsche Bulletin as well as in the journal of the Nordic Cichlid Association (Nordiska ciklidsällskapet).Eventially, I shifted attention to South American cichlids, but in 1990 there was a golden opportunity to make a collection trip all over Zambia, targeting tilapias, but also preserving everything else with fins. Together with my friend Erkki Schwank, it was a long trip by car across the country, to Lakes Mweru, Mweru wantipa, Bangweulu, and Tanganyika. We didn’t stay long on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, but in a couple of days at Nsumbu we obtained a sizable collection of shore and deep water cichlids. Along with collections from an earlier trip by Gunnar Berglund to Kigoma, the Swedish Museum of Natural History now had a useful representation of Tanganyika cichlids, which was further added to by Tyson Roberts and Erkki, who stayed in Zambia.

Much later I was happy to meet underwater photographers and exporters Mikael and Magnus Karlsson who lived by and in the lake for many years and we teamed up to publish their observations on some of the lesser known species in Lake Tanganyika. The first paper is a description of a Lepidiolamprologus from the coast of Tanzania. Lepidiolamprologus includes a core number of species that are relatively elongate and marked by dark stripes or rows of blotches. Strong canine teeth emerging out of the lips and the somewhat oval pupil give them the look of a fierce predator. And predatory they are, and some definitely prey on babies of other cichlid species. These core species are L. elongatus, L. mimicus, L. kendalli, L. profundicola, and maybe L. nkambae. Lepidiolamprologus elongatus is distributed along the entire lake coastline, and L. profundicola may also be widespread. The remainder, and our new species, L. kamambae, are from the south of the lake. The status of L. nkambae and L. kendalli is uncertain, as no distinguishing characters are known. Lepidiolamprologus kendalli was described first, by Max Poll and Donald Stewart (1977), based on two specimens. They reported scales on the cheek and illustrated the holotype with a line drawing. Lepidiolamprologus nkambae was described by Wolfgang Staeck the following year, based on a single specimen from close to the type locality of L. kendalli. It was also illustraded with a line drawing. Staeck compared with the description of L. kendalli and concluded that they were different. Among distinguishing characters L. nkambae was said not have any scales on the cheek. Both names have since appeared in the aquarium literature but neither aquarists nor scientists have really been able to conclude about the validity of L. nkambae. Synonym of L. kendalli or distinct species? Only after our description of L. kamambae was I able to examine the holotype of L. nkambae and the paratype of L. kendalli. The L. nkambae specimen is very well preserved, and agrees with the description. The paratype of L. kendalli, on the other hand, is in a very poor state of preservation, something that was not mentioned in the original description. Scales are lost and the colour is washed out. I will not tell you my decision here on the validity of L. nkambae here, it will be something for a forthcoming paper, but I agree on one of the two alternative conclusions already presented ….

The material of L. kamambae that Mikael and Magnus had, is excellently preserved. Colours are fine, all scales are in place, the body is straight and the fins naturally spread, with no signs of decomposition anywhere, some mouths are a bit open but that makes counting teeth convenient. I like. Lepidiolamprologus kamambae shares most of its features with L. kendalli, in particular the beautiful contrasting light and dark markings on the top of the head, distinguishing the two from all other lamprologins. The body coloration, however, is very different. Lepidiolamprologus kamambae is more similar there to L. elongatus and L. mimicus, with rows of blotches along the back and flanks where L. kendalli instead has broad bands. One may guess that the blotch pattern is the plesiomorphic version in this group of fishes. There is probably not much more to say about this fish here, because the description is available as Open Access from Zootaxa.

Reflections may be in place, however. Lake Tanganyika is the oldest of the three Great Lakes of East Africa.  More than 200 endemic cichlid species have been described from the lake, and estimates suggest a total of 300. Unlike in Lakes Malawi and Victoria, dominated almost exclusively by mouthbrooders of the ‘haplochromine’ group, the distantly related lamprologins, of several genera, all substrate brooders, are a large unit in Lake Tanganyika, with over 70 valid species known so far. Several recent studies have investigated their phylogenetic relationships, and relations to the half dozen species of Lamprologus that only occur in the fluviatile environment of the Congo River (e.g., Schelly et al. 2006).  The latter are obviously a group on their own, but within-lake relationships still offer much to be investigated. I am curious how things will develop, and it is interesting to work with fishes offering this kind of perspective. When it comes to African cichlids, in particular those of the Great Lakes, systematics has investigated them from many different angles, but still is way off from a coherent and credible evolutionary history. There are papers on dried out lakes, explosive radiation, lake level fluctuations, depth segregation, sympatric speciation, not to mention hybridisation. Academic analyses are enough to fill volumes, and it is engaging and important that this unique fauna, evolutionary hotspots with dense concentrations of phylogenetically close, but morphologically often far apart species, will continue to receive attention. Even so, and connecting back to Plinius and friends, the following passage, from the chapter of the famous proverb seem like they may be pertinent, and of course inspired by Aristoteles, in light of some of the ideas about African cichlid evolution, or perhaps not ideas but frustration, read cichlid for lion:

The noble appearance of the lion is more especially to be seen in that species which has the neck and shoulders covered with a mane, which is always acquired at the proper age by those produced from a lion; while, on the other hand, those that are the offspring of the pard, are always without this distinction. The female also has no mane. The sexual passions of these animals are very violent, and render the male quite furious. This is especially the case in Africa, where, in consequence of the great scarcity of water, the wild beasts assemble in great numbers on the banks of a few rivers. This is also the reason why so many curious varieties of animals are produced there, the males and females of various species coupling promiscuously with each other.3 Hence arose the saying, which was common in Greece even, that “Africa is always producing something new.” (Plinius, Naturalis Historiae; translation by Bostock & Riley, 1855)

From this we obviously learn that at any point in time we shall know less than at a later time (especially if we don’t investigate the facts ourselves), and that everything has been thought of before.


Bostock, J., & H. T. Riley (eds.) 1855, Pliny the Elder, The Natural History. Taylor & Francis, London.

Holland, P. (translator), 1601. The Historie of the world. Commonly called, The Naturall Historie of C. Plinius secundus. London.

Kullander, S. O., M. Karlsson & M. Karlsson. 2012. Lepidiolamprologus kamambae, a new species of cichlid fish (Teleostei: Cichlidae) from Lake Tanganyika. Zootaxa, 3492: 30-48. Open Access PDF from Zootaxa

Kullander, S. O. & T. R. Roberts. 2011. Out of Lake Tanganyika: endemic lake fishes inhabit rapids of the Lukuga River. Ichthyological Exploration of Freshwaters, 22: 355-376. Open Access PDF

Plinius Secundus, C. 1536-1538. Naturalis Historiae. Aldus, Venetia.

Poll, M. 1956. Poissons Cichlidae . Exploration Hydrobiologique du Lac Tanganika (1946-1947). Résultats scientifiques, III (5B): 1-619.

Poll, M. & D. J. Stewart. 1977. Un nouveau Lamprologus du sud du Lac Tanganika (Zambia). Revue de Zoologie africaine, 91: 1047-1056.

Schelly, R., W. Salzburger, S. Koblmüller, N. Duftner and C. Sturmbauer. 2006. Phylogenetic relationships of the lamprologine cichlid genus Lepidiolamprologus (Teleostei: Perciformes) based on mitochondrial and nuclear sequences, suggesting introgressive hybridization. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, 38: 426-438.

Staeck, W. 1978. Ein neuer Cichlideaus dem südlichen Tanganjikasee: Lamprologus nkambae n. sp. (Pisces, Cichlidae). Revue de Zoologie africaine, 92: 436-441.

Thompson, D. W (translator). 1907. The history of animals. John Bell, London.

Photo of Holotype of Lepidiolamprologus kamambae

Holotype of Lepidiolamprologus kamambae. Photo Sven Kullander

Mosioatunga, the true story

Dr Livingstone I presume is the archetype of  an explorer for most of us. The helmeted man at the head of the line of bearers fearlessly plunging into thick jungles to discover the world untouched by man.  That is the way they write their histories, and that makes for the books that sell. Of course, most of us now realize that wherever Livingstone and his likes went, there was already a human population. In East Africa at the time, there was both the native population, and considerable numbers of Arabian businessmen to show the way to all the discoveries the British needed. And help finding lost explorers from time to time.  The fact is probably  that the major contribution of western explorers was the mapping of the continents. During the 18th and 19th Centuries maps were drawn like never before, and it was new maps, not one more round of Europe encircled by the edge of the world.

Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls Photo John Walker, Public domain

The Center for the History of Science at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences is the guardian of enormous archives of objects, maps, drawings, and manuscripts that will eventually help toward understanding how our knowledge of the world gradually developed over the last few Centuries. The Center is highlighting some of its material as “object of the month”, since a few months back. One of these objects is a map sent to the Academy by Charles Andersson in 1852. It is a map made by Oswell and Livingstone  based on interviews with local informants. Interestingly, this map  of southern Africa from 1852 shows the Victoria Falls. The falls that, legend has it, Livingstone discovered in 1855. Not, he already had a map. The local name of the falls is now rendered as Mosi-oa-Tunya, on the old map they appear as Mosioatunga.

Portrait of Charles AnderssonAnd who was Charles Andersson, by the way? Some may be familiar with Oreochromis andersonii. That is the fish named after him, but somehow, the author, Castelnau, misspelt the name by dropping one of the ses in Andersson. Karl Johan Andersson, Swedish,born 1827 in the county of Värmland, was the son of the English hunter and writer Llewellyn Lloyd and a Swedish girl, Caisa Andersdotter. Lloyd spent most of his adult life in Värmland hunting bears and writing about it. Karl studied Zoology at Lund University and learned taxidermy at the natural history museum in Göteborg. He somehow got the idea of going to the Africa, and stranded already in London he became a friend of a distant relative, Francis Galton, yes the very one who discovered the fingerprinting technique. Galton and Andersson went to Africa, and Andersson spent the rest of his life as a trader, hunter, collector and more in what is now Namibia and South Africa, and much of that time in the field. Andersson was not an ichthyologist. He did collect a lot of birds. Not less than 2523 bird specimens from him are in museum collections (Dean, Sandwidth & Milton, 2006). He sent 200 or more specimens to the Gothenburg museum in 1864, but the curator there didn’t bother to open the boxes. Andersson wrote a classical travel book, Lake Ngami, published 1856, based on travels including to Lake Ngami (already ‘discovered’ by Livingstone). His second travel book, Okavango River, from 1861, relates his own major discovery, the river of the same name. Or … did he discover it?

Andersson’s zoological magnum opus, Notes on the birds of Damaraland, was published posthumously by  John Henry Guerney in 1872. Andersson died of dysentery and physical wounds in 1867 on his way back from a failed expedition to the Cunene River on the border between Angola and Namibia. Andersson’s life is full of misery, hardships, diseases, fights with employees and local chiefs, and the one drawback after the other. The most disappointing must have been the search for Lake Ngami, only to find it already found. It is a miracle he survived so long. His companion Axel W. Eriksson (1846-1901),  also Swedish, carried on the zoological collection and brought a huge collection of southern African birds to to Vänersborgs Museum in Western Sweden (available in an online database with images, all in Swedish).

The consensus (remember the map above) must be that there is (and was) nothing to discover on this planet, really. That is why science is not so much about discovery. It is about exploration and communication. Showing what the world is like, drawing the maps and fitting the pieces together. Also, life can be much easier than that of Karl Johan Andersson.


Bjelfvenstam, B. 1994. Charles John Andersson. Upptäckare Jägare Krigare. Carlssons Bokförlag, Stockholm, 253 pp.

Went fishing wrote book

Among the most tragic of events in this world and our times are the deforestation and destruction of the world’s tropical rain forests, along with the conversion of the entire Amazon basin into temporary cattle ranching and soy bean plantations, South East Asia into margarine palms to tickle the well-being of health fanatics. And along with that cultures, languages, animals, and plants of immense significance for humanity and the well-being of the planet. It is an unbelievable erosion of capital, and a straight road to future devastation for the concerned countries. Just like we now also experience the demise of the oceans, and the loss of most natural biodiversity rich habitats already happened in North America, Europe, northern Asia, and much of Africa.

Fortunately, we have the stories of those who were there, and the future will be able to sense from their writings the irrational passion of fish collection and jungle exploration, and at the same time the close encounter with the meaning of life.

Iténez – River of Hope (English edition 2009) is the story of Amanda Bleher (1910-1991), a middle age, newly divorced woman in Frankfurt/Main, in the 1950s, running a pet business, earning her considerable reputation not least for importing snakes and crocodiles, a female Indiana Jones as e-jardim has it. The story focuses on her travel to Brazil in search of the discus fish (Symphysodon). Attempting to bring an American car from Germany, laden with four kids, pets, and all sorts of belongings, not least cosmetics, it is a road story with a lesser local vehicle of considerable inconvenience. Of course, there are no discus where she goes, heading for the Rio Iténez (Guaporé) on the border between Brazil and Bolivia. Love, trust, money, belongings, and belief in humanity evaporate along the way. Reaching the old Jesuit mission Vila Bela da Santíssima Trindade on the Iténez (Guaporé) River, there is considerable suffering in the tropical paradise, and with no money left, kids ill, and dubious friends failing, the dream of the Iténez has to be put back for realities for a while. Amanda eventually established a home and company near Rio, and travelled extensively afterwards, but this is the story you will want to read.

To a rational mind planning a field trip, these 277 pages of continuous impulsive re-planning on the way may be frustrating. Why is she taking the kids? Why this amount of cosmetics in the interior of Mato Grosso? Why not check out the taxonomic literature for Symphysodon localities (Amazon mainstream)? Why follow the one after the other jungle whacko so desperately? Nonetheless, this is a fascinating story of travelling in the rain forest in those days when there was forest in Mato Grosso. It is a woman’s story, and thus different from male itineraries. It does not obviously have a hero (or heroine), and it is very truthful of all those things that go wrong, all those decisions that were not so smart it turns out, that the other stories never tell. It is also a rare verdict of passion, for the animals, plants, the rain forest itself, and the search for a new existence far away from war-stricken Germany. Was Amanda Bleher a spy sent by the Germans to check out the almost-deserted Vila Bela as Brazilians at times seemed to think? Is this book her coded report back? Besides the elusive discus, Amanda Bleher was mainly interested in getting water plants for aquariums, and this book gives a vivid insight into the early days of exploration of the Amazon for aquarium fishes and plants.

Most of the history of exploration and travel is written by men. My bookshelves are laden with volumes by men discovering, exploring, and doing everything right. When I travel, it is never like that, it is always chaotic and frustrating all the time. The classical volumes of Ferreira, Humboldt and Bonpland, Castelnau, and Spix and von Martius, to mention the well-known, are faithful diaries, and there is much fact and information therein. But as literature they are boring.

There is one exceptional exception — Gordon MacCreagh’s (1886-1953) White Waters and Black (1926). It details about the Mulford Expedition 1921-1922, of six inexperienced scientists (Nathan E Pearson the ichthyologist) travelling from the highlands of Bolivia to Manaus and up the Rio Negro, with eight tons of luggage and no very clear mission. Well, the expeditioners as well as the luggage are reduced as the group proceeds, over two years’ time, and the bare truth and everything ridiculous and tragic is retold by the guide, MacCreagh, working under premises like this and worse:

The Minister of the Interior lays before me all his maps — wonderful charts showing a Yungas dotted with prosperous little towns. The Department of the Yungas, by the way, is the transandine sub-tropical and tropical jungle which, with the Department of the Beni, stretches away off to the far borders of Brazil.
“Who lives in these towns?” I ask the minister.
He is delightfully naïve about his ignorance. “Quien sabe? Perhaps Indians, perhaps fugitives from justice. At all events, they are people who pay no taxes.”
How, then, does he know that the towns are there?
He doesn’t. He shrugs with comical disgust and laughs.
“But, my good friend, I am not a maker of maps!”

I would not consider bringing 50 kg of oatmeal in glass jars on trail and river from La Paz to Manaus. But perhaps cooking pots, lanterns, if I bring an outboard motor I would make sure there were gasoline for it, and of course scientific equipment. In White Waters and Black, you can read more about what to take and not to take.

Women rarely go on expeditions, or they don’t write. Elizabeth Cabot Cary Agassiz (1822-1907) was an early exception, documenting the Thayer expedition to the Amazon (186-1867) led by her husband Louis Agassiz, but it is also a relatively dry itinerary interspersed with exclamative footnotes by Louis Agassiz, A Journey in Brazil (1868).

Much more I appreciated Lady with a Spear (1951) by Eugenie Clark, an autobiography full of passion for collecting fish, part of the story of the post war atom bomb testing in the Marianas, and also testimony to the importance of having an aquarium in every home with children.

A remarkable early explorer, the British Mary Kingsley (1862-1900), made two trips to West Africa in the late 19th Century, at a time when Europeans had less chances of surviving the diseases there. She came back to England, and came back with fishes as well, and wrote a book. In the introduction to Travels in West Africa (1897) she wrote:

To Dr. Günther, of the British Museum, I am deeply grateful for the kindness and interest he has always shown regarding all the specimens of natural history that I have been able to lay before him; the majority of which must have had very old tales to tell him. Yet his courtesy and attention gave me the thing a worker in any work most wants — the sense that the work was worth doing — and sent me back to work again with the knowledge that if these things interested a man like him, it was a more than sufficient reason for me to go on collecting them.

That is a very kind acknowledgment, and Mary must have been a very nice person, who also made headlines when defending Africans and African cultures against Christan demonisation. Mary collected fish in the Ogowe River, and has some species named after her in recognition of her contribution to ichthyology. She worked all alone and on her own expense. I find that remarkable, given the obvious hardships, the absence of cars, roads, airplanes, air-condition, and bottled water that present-day explorers make good use of. Travels in West Africa is old enough to be in the public domain and can be downloaded from various sources such as Google Books.

If you do not write down your story, it never happened.

All books here are available from Amazon and other Internet books shops, except Iténez – River of Hope, to be ordered from AquaPress. Image Sven Kullander, CC-BY-NC.