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Fish Found: The Greatest Conservation Success Story of 2013?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Mangarahara cichlidSeven months ago things looked pretty bleak for the Mangarahara cichlid (Ptychochromis insolitus). The only habitat for this rare Madagascar fish species had been destroyed and the cichlid was down to its last three known individuals, all of which were males. In a last-ditch effort to save the species from extinction, conservationists at the London Zoo Aquarium and Berlin Zoo put out a worldwide call to private aquarium owners, fish collectors and hobbyists in hopes that someone, somewhere, would have a female fish waiting to find a mate.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t have much hope that any females would turn up. The zoos had already searched other facilities far and wide, with no luck. It appeared certain that the Mangarahara cichlid would soon join the list of extinct species.

But lo and behold, the public plea worked. Last week the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) announced that a group of Mangarahara cichlids has indeed been found. Not only that, they were actually still living in the wild. From ZSL’s account of the rediscovery:

One of those to respond to the appeal was a farm and business owner in Madagascar, who recognized the fish as one he’d seen in a secluded north-Madagascan town.

An exploratory expedition was arranged with vital support from HM Ambassador in the British Embassy of Madagascar, so that, along with aquarists from Toronto Zoo in Canada, Brian Zimmerman and Kienan Parbles from ZSL London Zoo could head off to Madagascar to search for the Mangarahara cichlid.

After days of searching empty streams, and rapidly losing hope of finding the cichlid, the team visited a tiny village built on the edge of a now-disconnected tributary from the Mangarahara River.

With help from local villagers, areas of water were cordoned off using nets to mark the search areas. Initially finding only other native species, the team were ecstatic when they finally found the first one of the last remaining Mangarahara cichlids in existence.

mangarahara cichlid female

A female Mangarahara cichlid

Ultimately the team found a total of 18 cichlids, which had hung on for years in a less-than-suitable habitat. “These cichlids have shown remarkable survival skills,” said London Zoon Aquarium curator Brian Zimmerman, “and managed to find one of the very last remaining water sources to live in, but their numbers are tiny and the non-flowing water is not an ideal habitat for them. We’re now doing all we can to protect these remaining fish.” The 18 cichlids have been moved from the tributary to a private aquaculture facility, where they may get a chance to breed and grow their population and hopefully save this species from extinction.

There may still be hurdles. Male cichlids have an annoying tendency to kill females rather than mate with them, so breeding is not guaranteed, but it’s a heck of a lot more likely now that the known population isn’t entirely male.

This is an amazing success for a species that didn’t have much hope at survival earlier in the year. Let’s hope for even more good news about the Mangarahara cichlid in 2014 and beyond.

Photos: Zoological Society of London

John R. Platt About the Author: Twice a week, John Platt shines a light on endangered species from all over the globe, exploring not just why they are dying out but also what's being done to rescue them from oblivion. Follow on Twitter @johnrplatt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Ingamas 5:45 pm 12/23/2013

    “Male cichlids have an annoying tendency to kill females rather than mate with them”
    Maybe extinction is in the cards.

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  2. 2. Lou Jost 5:03 pm 12/27/2013

    Wow, I’m amazed they moved all the individuals they found. That seems like incautious scientific hubris.

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  3. 3. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 10:01 am 12/28/2013

    I think it was the right call, Lou. Restoring the river to a point where it had a natural water flow and other important habitat characteristics would have been a much more difficult proposition.

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  4. 4. Lou Jost 11:29 am 12/28/2013

    My concern is that things often go wrong in captive breeding, especially when all the eggs are in one basket, as here. Only a single private aquiculture facility has all the rescued animals. An accident or misjudgement would wipe them all out. The fish did manage to live in that tributary successfully, presumably for some length of time. I don’t know the details of the situation, so maybe I am wrong, but generally speaking, I think it is important to leave some individuals alone, as an insurance policy, unless there were imminent threats (as in the California Condor, some frogs, and some other species).

    After reading the original press release, I think they may not have taken them all. It says “Brian and the team moved 18 of the Mangarahara cichlids to a private aquaculture facility”. This sounds like they might have left some.

    Anyway, it is great news, thanks for writing about it. We need good news now and then! I hope they are successful.

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