Tag Archives: Myanmar

Danio year 2009: Danio quagga

In March last year, our PhD student Te Yu Liao and I were able to collect along the Myanmar border with India, in tributaries to the Chindwin River. Our intended stops were Kalaymyo and Tamu, but we also tried stopping at streams along the road. It was very dry at the time, and even large rivers reduced to small streams.

Stopping by one of these streams, in the heart of a large village, we seined a pool with some vegetation. And in there was a zebrafish! Zebrafish in Myanmar, in the Ayeyarwaddy drainage. No way. It had to be something new, and as we have learned from Meinken, all danios are striped anyway. The fish went into formalin, and the chase for the next specimen commenced.

The stream

After one more hour, still not one more specimen of this schooling species, but hundreds of Danio albolineatus, and we were called to inspection by the local authorities, so we had to move on. Indeed, we were in a hurry between Kalaymyo and Tamu to arrive at our destination before dark, not only because of likely shortage of accommodation in Tamu, but also because we were given only one day of permanence in Tamu and would need to spend time with local authorities to explain our presence. But hand on heart, you can’t leave a new species like that? Well, we moved on convinced we would find more specimens in some other place. Unfortunately it did not turn out so. We left Tamu with four more specimens from the market, where they hid in heaps of plenty of other little fish, dead to the bone, and with the total of five we eventually left Myanmar. Myanmar markets have large fish, but also large quantities of very small ones, used to prepare a special fish paste, ngapi. In the early morning there is thus plenty of fresh fish in the market and saves on collecting in the wild, with the caveat that fresh fish from the stream preserve better.

So, we were back with only formalin preserved specimens, and in the present times that is bad, because DNA sequencing is in the vogue, and generally a useful tool to check on phylogenetic relationships, and because formalin denatures DNA. Some of us can still do systematics without DNA, however, and that we did. The striped danio turned out not very similar to zebrafish at all, except in the general colour pattern. It is rather related to the spotted species, Danio kyathit from the neighbouring upper Ayeyarwaddy drainage and with one specimen recorded from the uppermost Chindwin.

The mammal: Equus quagga.

We named our striped danio Danio quagga. Quagga is the species or subspecies epithet of one of the zebras, so that within the genus of the zebrafish there should be at least one species with a name associating to zebras. We didn’t call it Danio zebra just not to confuse things for the zebrafish people (and perhaps, in the end, ourselves). (But wouldn’t it have been fun?)

The fish: Danio quagga, holotype.

See above what it looks like, now that the holotype has been dead for a while. Exciting as it was to encounter another zebrafish in the wild, I am not convinced that this will become an ornamental fish hit. Our comparisons suggest that it is most close to Danio kyathit, which hasn’t outcompeted the leopard danio in the hobby. It is also somewhat larger than a normal Danio rerio, requiring more swimming space (the holotype was the only one in 50 m of stream …). And, of course, why would we need another striped danio in our tanks. Seems we have exhausted danios as ornamental fish? But there is of course more to a fish than populating an aquarium. We are gradually building a phylogenetic history of danios, and then it is just great to find a sister-species pair, a split branch on the tree, rather than having single branches of uniques. Now we will move on to connect D. quagga and D. kyathit to the rest of the tree.
If you want to read the original description, you can download an Open Access copy, which you can share with families and friends as much as you like. Just click on the reference below. It’s magic!

Kullander, S.O., T.Y. Liao & F. Fang. 2009. Danio quagga, a new species of striped danio from western Myanmar (Teleostei: Cyprinidae). Ichthyological Exploration of Freshwaters, 20: 193-199. Open Access PDF

Image credits:
Map from the NRM Ichthyology Collection online database, using Google Maps
Danio quagga and stream: Sven O kullander, CC-BY-NC

Equus quagga: Muhammad Mahdi Karim, from Wikimedia Commons, GNU FDL 1.2

Danio year 2009: Danio tinwini

The year is isn’t over, and the snow did not fall over Stockholm yet, so it may be a bit early to summarise the year. But it might be better to start early, not to end up in december 2010 summarizing 2009, and then it has to be piece by piece. Writing this, I am reminded of one of the most famous aquarium books, Aquarienfische in Wort und Bild, which was issued over a period of 30 years in instalments of a smaller number of sheets, and the authors were indeed writing continuously on it between 1932 and 1962. In the 1950s there were similar initiatives elsewhere in Europe, e.g., the Belgian Vissentlas, but I have not kept track of them. Also TFH publications tried, much later, to publish a loose-leaf edition of Exotic Tropical Fishes, and the German cichlid society sent out species descriptions with their journal supposed to be collected by the subscribers. Of course, this is in most cases an awkward way of publishing where the customer is the big loser. The following scenarios are possible:
  • Publication terminates after a smaller number of pages. You end up with a quarter or half of a book.
  • Publication goes on indefinitely, with or without revisions of outdated pages. You end up with a book containing almost duplicate pages, and a span of many years between the earliest and the latest information (could be blurred b/w photos mixed with excellent digital colour photos. Half the book will be outdated.
  • You stop subscription and end up with a half book
  • Everything completes but in the meantime you already had to buy some complete books, just not to stay ignorant about everything from H to Z.

Die Aquarienfische in Wort und Bild (there is also the corresponding Aquarienpflanzen) is an exception among the bad examples because it (1) terminated a long time ago, so all you can buy now is the complete book (€70-150 on eBay), and (2) it was actually quite complete in coverage, and especially the species descriptions were more detailed than anything in other contemporary aquarium books. I am actually not quite sure when it was published, but it seems it started in 1932, and went on till 1962, with Hermann Meinken (1896-1976) as the sole author after co-authors Maximilian Holly (*-*) and Arthur Rachow (1884-1960) long before had retired from writing. Die Aquarienfische in Wort und Bild was a highly influential work, the mother of all other European aquarium books.

That it wasn’t published after 1962 seems likely because the description of Brachydanio frankei, described by Meinken in 1963, is missing. Every other fish imported to Germany up till the late 1950s/early 1960s are there, and Meinken had a particular interest in danios.

Now we are getting to the point: Brachydanio frankei was, at that time, known only from aquarium specimens. It is still not known from the wild, as already pointed out in an earlier post about fish from nowhere. Meinken lists the following species of danios:

Danio devario
Danio malabaricus
Brachydanio kerri
Brachydanio albolineatus
Brachydanio nigrofasciatus
Brachydanio  rerio

That is a very short list. (And by the way, Brachydanio is presently considered a junior synonym of Danio, and Meinken’s Danio are now in Devario; but they are all danios.) A much larger number of species of Rasbora are described in the same book. At present it looks to me that there are more danios than rasboras in the shops, but I may may be biased.

Danio rerio, aquarel by Curt Bessiger, used in Die Aquarienfische in Wort und Bild.

The most characteristic about Danio frankei is the colour pattern, which is golden with small brown or black spots. At the time that was quite remarkable because all known danios (listed above) were striped (except that the stripe in Devario devario is not so prominent, and Danio nigrofasciatus has spots on the abdomen. Over the time, no wild specimens of D. frankei appeared, and it has turned out rather certain that it is a colour mutation of the zebrafish, Danio rerio.

In the original description of Danio frankei, Meinken wrote (my translation from the German):

Shortly before the end of the year 1962, through my old friend Heinrich Grauel from “Vivarium-Bremerhaven”, my friend Diplom-Biologe Hanns-Joachim Franke in Gera/Thüringen, gave me  six captive bred specimens of a very handsome Brachydanio novelty with the request that I study the specimens, if possible identify them and give them a name. According to the information from Mr Grauel, at that time Mr Franke already had bred several hundred specimens of this species in his breeding tanks. Unfortunately the novelty was lacking a name.

Upon my immediate checkback concerning details about the importation and my notice that — in case the animals would represent a scientifically still unknown and undescribed novelty — a determination based on captive bred specimens would be unreliable because that could lead to mistakes, Mr Franke then most friendly told me that he had obtained the import specimens from the familiar and active Diplom-Biologe Stanislav Frank in Prague. Unfortunately, the place of capture was unknown also to Mr Frank. That the animals came from India was only a very weak consolation, because first all Danio and Brachydanio species come from India and the Indo-Malayan area, and second India is large, about several times larger than the previously undivided Germany. Mr. Franke, however, made the great sacrifice in the interest of science and nomenclature, killing four of his import specimens and sent them to me for examination.

Meinken then went on with a very detailed description, a lamentation of the lack of locality data, and finally, a long discussion about relationships. According to Meinken, D. frankei would be most closely related to B. tweediei (from Malaysia), a nominal species currently synonymized with D. albolineatus.

Leopard danio. Preserved aquarium specimen from Taiwan.

That did not stop other leopard danios from coming in. The first was Danio kyathit, described by Fang in 1998. The second was just described by me and Fang based on a large series collected by U Tin Win in the same region as D. kyathit, and we named it Danio tinwini.

Danio tinwini, female paratype.

Danio tinwini is spotted and the spot pattern is quite similar to that of D. kyathit, but not so much to that of the leopard danio. It is a much smaller species than either D. kyathit or the leopard danio, however, and external morphological characters suggest that it is more related to D. nigrofasciatus or D. aesculapii. It is indeed a remarkably small species. The largest wild male examined was 21.7 mm in standard length, the largest female 25.6 mm. That is almost as small as the smallest Danio species (D. margaritatus, 21.3 mm).  What provokes most thought, however, is the fact that the only two spotted danios, D. kyathit and D. tinwini occur in the same general area (but not syntopic), and are not closely related. Would we be surprised if D. frankei were found in northern Myanmar one day as well?

Danio tinwini lives together with a much more famous fish, Danionella dracula, the Vampire or Dracula fish. Much more we do not know about the natural habitat och accompanying species. You can read all the technical details about Danio tinwini in the Open Access original description.

Holly, M., H. Meinken & A. Rachow. 1932-1962. Die Aquarienfische in Wort und Bild. Kernen, Stuttgart, Loose-leaf publication, 1328 pp.

Kullander, S.O. & F. Fang. 2009. Danio tinwini, a new species of spotted danio from northern Myanmar (Teleostei: Cyprinidae). Ichthyological Exploration of Freshwaters, 20: 223-228. [errata:  p. 227, col 2, para 2, line 10: “1” should be “4”; p. 228, col. 1, line 3: “19.3” should be “21.2”]

Meinken, H. 1963. Mitteilungen der Fischbestimmungsstelle des VDA XLII: Brachydanio frankei spec. nov., der Leopard-Danio. Monatsschrift für Ornithologie und Vivarienkunde. Ausgabe B. Aquarien und Terrarien, 10:75-79.

*-* I cannot find any information about Maximilian Holly. I don’t even know where to start…?

Photo credits:
Top image: living Danio tinwini,Sven O Kullander, CC-BY-NC
Leopard danio and Danio tinwini, Sven O Kullander, CC-BY-NC
Danio rerio aquarel, public domain.

Nostalgic Geography

One thing that ichthyology and biodiversity informatics have in common is an interest in and need for ephemeral names of places. Names that change from one map to another, names spelt differently on different maps, and names that come an go in history. For us working with Asian, African and South American freshwater fish it more of an adventure than any non-ichthyologist can imagine.

In the case of Myanmar and Burma, it is just not the name of the nation, but I still cannot figure out what became of the Irrawaddy River — is it now Ayeyarwaddy or Ayeyarwady; maps and official websites leave me unassisted. Sandoway has become Thandwe, Tenasserim is Thanintharyi, the Salween River is now Thanlwin, Bassein became Pathein, Tavoy Dawei, Pagan Bagan, and Akyab is Sittwe. But Mandalay is still Mandalay. Check out a modern map.

In India, Madras is now Chennai, and Bombay became Mumbai (but Bollywood is not Mumywood).

Anyone long enough into South American fishes knows Barra [do rio Negro] means Manaus, and type localities in Amazonian Ecuador in the 19th Century are now in Peru (like the famous Ambyiacu of Cope = Ampiyacu, a tributary to the río Amazonas in Peru, the one called Marañón a bit upstream today as the whole river was named by the early Spanish, until el río de las Amazonas as it was called by Cristóbal de Acuña caught on.

I have been fighting with Lake Tanganyika localities for a while, starting with and Stanley, moving on to Boulenger and all the more bewildered I am for good old Kinyamkolo is today Mpulungu, and Albertville of course is Kalemie. When I read in Humphry Greenwood’s foreword to George Coulter’s Lake Tanganyika and its life (1991) that the lake was known as Uniamesi Sea in 1855, long before it was “discovered” by Europeans, I am not surprised.

Whatever happened to Tanganyika? is a book for people who find the above interesting and worth remembering. It is written by Harry Campbell (unknown to me), with a foreword by Alexander McCall Smith (The No 1 Ladies’s Detective Agency), who comes up with the term nostalgic geography. Maybe nostalgic for him. In biodiversity informatics name changes are for real and nothing to joke about. Author Campbell, however, is entertaining. When tired of being serious with name switching, this is the book that will amuse and enlight. There is 158 pages and 46 chapters, each one dedicated to a particular toponym. Your will find out about Tanganyika at the end, and you can read a little on Amazon (an online book etc. shop) to start with.

Fish from nowhere

Yesterday I mentioned briefly the leopard danio, a small golden fish full of dark spots, apparently a color mutation in the zebrafish Danio rerio, but described in 1963 as a species on its own with the name Brachydanio frankei. The leopard danio is a popular aquarium fish in its own right, which keeps its colors but does not differ in behaviour or size from the zebrafish, and hybridises freely with zebrafish. When it first appeared in the aquarium trade, its origin in the wild was unknown. That should have called for some caution … On the other hand, who could believe other than that the differences in colour pattern was a strong indicator of species distinctness?

Spotted danios are known from the wild, however. There is Danio kyathit from northern Myanmar, in which the spots are more or less irregularly arranged in rows, and many morphological characters distinguish it from other species of Danio. Described by Fang in 1998, based on four specimens she collected herself, she also included two specimens collected in the 1920s that were not spotted but striped. There was simply no way of distinguishing the striped and spotted kyathit other than by colour pattern, and because the rows of spots are merely broken up horizontal stripes, there was room for considering intraspecific variation. How different conclusions can be once you know a little more about the group you are working with!

Here is an image of Danio kyathit, photographed by Fang Fang.

The other spotted danio has no scientific name yet. It is a small fish, similar to Danio rerio but with large spots on the side. It is already available in the aquarium trade where it is called Danio sp. Burma. Will anyone dare to describe it? Is there a striped counterpart already available among the many supposed synonyms of Danio rerio??

A real sunshine story is the that of the “Odessa barb”, one of the major aquarium fish species, and belonging to the large family of cyprinid fishes. Males are marked by a stunning, glowing, deep, exquisitely brilliant red band along the side, and contrasting black spots in the dorsal, anal, and pelvic fins. Females are less colourful. It is or relatively small size, less than 5 cm, and easy to reproduce in aquarium.

The early aquarium history of the “Odessa barb” is not well documented. In 1973, Russian aquarist Dazkewitsch wrote that it originated from a market, not stated where, and arrived in Odessa, Ukraine, in 1971, soon being cultivated in Moscow. So it was named “Odessa barb” although quite evidently a South Asian species. It was a confusing time, a time for much speculation among American and European aquarists, and no information from Ukraine. And how come a small aquarium fish, soon of world fame could first be found in Ukraine, at the time part of the Soviet Union and with no aquarium fish import? Maybe it was also a “form” of some kind, like the leopard danio? Strangely, nobody got the idea this time to describe the new fish as a new species!

So, things remained for 30 years till Frank Schäfer in 2001, working for the German wholesale aquarium fish importer Glaser reported having found the “Odessa barb” in an importation from Myanmar.

Wow! And I and my colleague Ralf Britz (yes, that’s him with the vampire fish), missed it totally on our collecting trip in Myanmar just a little before, in 1998, crossing the country from Yangon in the south north to the foothills of the Himalayas in Putao.

Well, there was still no precise locality. And Ralf then found the fish in 2003, near Mandalay. So, it exists in nature, we know where, and last year we got it described. We named it Puntius padamya. Padamya is the Burmese word for ruby. The ruby barb of aquarists, however, is Puntius nigrofasciatus from Sri Lanka. The description is available online as an Open Access resource from the Electronic Journal of Ichthyology.

The “Odessa barb” freshly collected in the wild, a bit pale in the photo tank. Photograph by Ritva Roesler, from Kullander & Britz (2008: Electronic Journal of Ichthyology, 4: 56-66):

And the stately preserved holotype of Puntius padamya:

The lessons, if any, are: Don’t name fish known only from the aquarium trade. Be patient. And, give nice names to nice fish.