I can still recall the experience of arriving in Maiquetia, the airport in Caracas, Venezuela. The sights, sounds and smells were very different to me. My grandparents had brought me to Venezuela to visit relatives I had never met. I was hesitant to go; what would I do as they talked about illnesses, births, deaths and the like, typical of a family reunion? Soon the trip proved fruitful. I fished ponds and creeks nearby.
Our relatives lived near Caracas and as is customary in the Latin culture, they threw a party to welcome the visiting family members. One of the invited guests was an architect who had an interest in aquarium fishes. That gentleman was Agustin Fernandez Yepez – the same person after whom the Uaru (Uaru fernandezyepezi) is named and whose work on piranhas, for example, serves as a basis for depicting many species in Myers’s book Piranhas. That encounter would have been forgotten had the subject of tropical fishes not been brought up. I was a nascent aquarist and Fernandez Yepez was an ichthyologist of sorts, so we were introduced and briefly discussed fishes. He suggested that I go to a specific area nearby to fish for livebearers. I did but they did not survive long in a jar.
In the annals of South American ichthyology, Fernandez Yepez is one of its shining stars. He has had more than one species of aquarium fish named after him (the aforementioned Uaru and the stingray Potamotrygon yepezi are two examples), his works are respected and he was curator (though not of ichthyology) at the Natural Science Museum in Caracas. He traveled throughout Venezuela and collected many species. I had never known him to have been interested in discus fish, so that encounter was never given much significance – until recently.
At last year’s American Cichlid Association Convention, Mark Weiss and I discussed the possible existence of discus in Venezuela. In the discussion, Fernandez Yepez was brought up.
Last week, the name of Fernandez Yepez, now very old, surfaced again. Ivan Mikolji traveled to South Florida to promote his underwater photography. Ivan had, like so many others, heard of discus fish occurring in Venezuela. Their existence has been classed as a myth by some. Others swear to their presence in Venezuelan territory and base their argument on a photograph of a discus in a book on Venezuelan freshwater fishes. That photograph was taken at the aquarium in Valencia and depicts a discus fish acquired from overseas – probably from a German importer, who acquired it from Brazil. It depicts a drab-colored fish that would not excite anyone. Its provenance is probably the area around Belem do Para.
Ivan and I discussed the possible existence of discus fish in Venezuela. Discus occur in adjacent Colombia and Brazil, so the likelihood is real. That no one has collected discus in Venezuela would not be unusual, as the area where the fish is likely to occur is remote and not easily accessed. That will hopefully change later this year. Through contacts in Venezuela, I have been able to arrange for a plane and pilot to take us to the area that Ivan believes discus fish could occur in. I will report the results of the expedition in the future.
Why, you may ask, is finding discus fish in Venezuela important? There are several answers to that question. There are natural barriers that allow speciation. Discus fish in Venezuela may be very different from their counterparts in Brazil. The true altum angelfish (Pterophyllum altum) differs significantly from the angelfishes found in Colombia, Brazil and Peru. The same applies to the Uaru – U. fernandezyepezi is very different from U. amphiacanthoides found in Brazil. Its shape, color or even size could be dramatically different. The true altum angelfish is a large, imposing fish. It grows far larger than the other angelfishes. According to Ivan Mikolji, when it sleeps it surfaces and lays flat against the water – a behavior I have never seen in the other forms.
The popularity of discus fish is on the decline. This is evident everywhere. Many Asian breeders have turned to other species; those that continue to breed discus have trouble finding a market for the fry. Exporters in Brazil and Peru will tell you that they now export a fraction of what they sent abroad a few years ago. This is not because of scarcity of the species but because the demand is simply not as great. A new, ostensibly different-colored species could revitalize the discus hobby. This is exactly what happened when the pigeon blood discus fish was introduced. It stimulated a craze that lasted more than a decade.
A new discus fish may create further taxonomic excitement. If it is isolated from the other forms, it may be a different species.
Finally, a new form may be used to improve the existing strains or forms being reared by aquarists.
The answers to the many questions will justify the mosquitoes and other tropical insects, the less than optimal living conditions in a remote jungle area and the effort of finding such a discus fish.