Internet has returned!

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Above: What we found under a rock in camp. For reference its about 3 cm in length.

Thus far we’ve been very impressed with both cell phone service and wireless internet access. When these are working, all is well. When things require adjustment or renewal, they may have the most user un-friendly support systems. Finally, with some tinkering, and some brilliance by Mr. Adam Reddon, we are  back in contact with the western world (somewhat). Now if I only had more power for the laptop…

Diving has been good, and we’re making good progress on research. This morning a few of us met with Mr. Danny Sinyinsa at the Department of Fisheries to get some information about local sites of interest to us. He was as always extremely helpful and suggested some potentially great locations nearby for us to dive. After our meeting we went into town for some supplies and an ice cold coke.

I don’t really have a ton to report, our days of diving, eating, and sleeping have been going well. On any given day at least one of us knows what day of the week it is. We’ve seen lots of cool fish, plenty of other interesting things, and the people here continue to be extremely friendly. 

Get ready for the next cichlid of the week, as a little teaser they’ve been ramping up for breeding the last week or so, and the full moon is upon us, so big things are going to be happening very soon!

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Cichlid of the Week: Perissodus microlepis (are you right or left mouthed?)

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Aside from being pretty fish, and great parents (those are their fry in the top picture that were being guarded closely by both parents), these fish have an extremely cool story to tell. They’re scale eaters, which means they sneak up alongside unsuspecting fish and nip a few scales off the fish. That’s more or less their entire diet. They’ve actually evolved mouths that point to the side so they are more effective at nabbing scales. There are right-mouthed fish and left-mouthed fish in the population, each of which can only attack the left or right side of the host fish.

Obviously the fish being bitten aren’t a big fan of this, so they start watching out for these guys. If the population of P. microlepis is predominantly right- or left-mouthed, other fish start watching that side more closely. In an awesome study, researchers found that over time there is negative frequency dependent selection for one mouth type or the other. What that means is when there are lots of right-mouthed fish, all the host fish watch their left side really closely and get good at avoiding right mouthed fish. The right-mouthed fish go hungry, but those few left-mouthed fish eat a lot, reproduce more, and eventually become the majority of the population. The population of P. microlepis goes back and forth between mainly left and right-mouthed over time!

Diving and stuff

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Above: Young callipterus inspecting some line we just laid down.

Our dives have been going well, and we’ve been seeing tons of cool stuff. Unfortunately the guys on the team can’t stay under as long as the girls (a tank of air only lasts so long with our bigger lungs), so I haven’t been able to contribute as much as I’d like. Nonetheless, Adam, Joe and I have been able to stay down an hour or so the last few dives, and we’ll probably be able to last longer when we’re sitting still on the bottom doing observations. In any case we’ve identified a ton of N. pulcher groups, set up some transect lines, and started to catch fish for some other studies.

This morning we met with the Head Man (chief) of the nearby village, as well as some of the villages advisors, and secretary. All were very friendly and very interested in our work. The head man even made a joke about how their village was much like our fish in that they had a lot of extended family members around. 

Yesterday we all went to Mplungu to pick up some research supplies and other equally important items (cookies and beer!). In the market Connie picked up some eggplant which was integrated into our delicious dinner last night. In spite of it being delicious, dinner last night was quite the event. After our dive we had gotten things put away quickly as an imposing storm was clearly approaching fast. We assumed dinner would be delayed because of the weather, but instead we dined in the pouring rain with gusts blasting water through the shelter. We all managed to have a good laugh about it however.

Below: Connie, Kelly, and Jenn enjoying a rainy dinner.

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Cichlid of the Week: Neolamprologus pulcher (we found them!)

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Above: A subordinate N. pulcher

Below: Several N. pulcher hanging out around their shelter

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Today we finally got to see some of the fish the majority of our experiments are focused on.  Many of us agreed that its especially exciting to see these fish since we’ve spent so much time watching them in the lab.

Neolamprologus pulcher is a cooperatively breeding cichlid; that means their basic social system consists of a dominant breeding pair and a number of subordinate “helpers.” These helpers assist the breeding pair in defending against predators, raising their offspring, and maintaining the territory. These fish have been of interest to biologists for many years because the apparent altruistic behavior of the helpers doesn’t make evolutionary sense at first glance. Why help another fish (who they might not even be related to) at your own expense? Any helper that cheated would be at a huge advantage and you’d expect the cooperative system to fall apart. But it doesn’t.

These fish have very diverse and amusing behaviors. There is a dominance heirarchy within groups, and smaller individuals are submissive to the larger, more-dominant fish. One of these behaviors is called the “tail-quiver,” which as the name implies, involves the subordinate fish quivering its tail in front of the dominant fish. 

I’m sure I’ll have plenty of stories of the antics of these fish, but for now just know that there are seven North Americans somewhere in Zambia who are very happy to have finally seen them in their natural habitat!

For more info on N. pulcher and some of the experiments I’m planning, check out this video from the SciFund Challenge a while back:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zmlZf6vnrQw

 

 

SCUBA finally!

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Above: A sailboat passing the lodge in the late afternoon.

We finally got to go SCUBA diving today! Naturally, the water was the roughest and most turbid its been, but nonetheless we got to dive! Last night we got our first real rainstorm since arriving at the lodge, and the waves were likely associated with that in some way. For being the rainy season it really hasn’t rained otherwise.

The team has been spending a good amount of time discussing our research plans and trying to coordinate as best we can on the planned experiments. We’ve also been working on fish identification, as we’ll be doing transects at various sites recording species abundance as well as a suite of environmental data. There are roughly 60 species of cichlid found here alone, not to mention what we might find at other sites, and all the non-cichlid species.

One of the coolest things I’ve seen in the past few days is an eel hunting amongst the rocks, and several Lepidiolamprologus elongatus following it to catch any fish that might dart out to escape the eel. Its unclear whether this relationship is mutualistic, commensalistic, or parasitism; but it seems like the eel is getting the raw end of the deal.

We’ve managed to get in a few workouts in the mornings since arriving, each has consisted of a run and various cross-fit-esque activities led by Connie (she puts the rest of us to shame). Yesterday on my run I went to a neighboring village on the road to Mplungu. The road was really rough and hilly, and I’m confident a tall white guy awkwardly running downhill on the rocky road into town was the funniest thing everyone in the village saw all day. The route is great, from a bend near the top of the ridge you have a beautiful view of the bay, the lake, and two islands where we’ll eventually be taking samples.

The team continues to get along great, it really is a great group of people, and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know them all better. We’ve also gotten to know more of the family who runs the lodge, and just like Augustine and Celestine they’re all extremely friendly and helpful.

We brought a few bottles of wine from Lusaka for Susan’s birthday a few days ago, and she stowed one away for tonight, to celebrate our first dive in Lake Tanganyika!

Cichlid of the Week: Tropheus moorii

Now that we’re at the lake and have gotten things relatively situated, I thought it would be appropriate to begin a (roughly) weekly series called the Cichlid of the Week. While it would be appropriate for me to begin with Neolamprologus pulcher, I haven’t actually seen them yet (they aren’t really found above 10 m – and our SCUBA tanks won’t be here until Monday). In light of that, I thought I’d start out with another fish that we’ve seen plenty of in the shallows.

Tropheus moorii is a shallow water species found everywhere in the lake. They have a huge number of color morphs. We’ve seen at least three morphs here, the most abundant have dark bodies and bright yellowish blotches on their sides. The largest individuals we’ve seen are roughly 20-25 cm in length. They’re very territorial (see video below), and are persistently chasing each other away from their self-proclaimed home rock. These fish are also maternal mouth brooders, which means the females take the fertilized eggs into their mouths and keep them there until after they hatch. Even after they’ve hatched, the fry flee back into their mothers mouth at the first indication of danger.

In the video below you’ll see two fish fighting over a particular spot, and one fish eventually running off the other. Interactions like this seem to be continuously happening amongst these fish.

Today we all also went for a short run and a brief workout set. One more reason for the locals to think the Mzungus are crazy I suppose…

18 hour bus ride to paradise

We made it to the lake!

On Wednesday afternoon we headed to the bus stop in Lusaka where we boarded a bus which was to take us to Mplungu, a small city on Lake Tanganyika. The bus ride was long, crowded, and often smelly (the bus also had a disconcerting abundance of roaches). At various stops along the way we had to pay one kwatcha (~20 cents US) to use the restrooms.

Zambian roads are terrifying. Our bus driver did not hesitate to pass any vehicles he felt moved too slow on the 1.75 lane road. I only slept an hour or two total, but feel pretty good now anyway.

Once in Mplungu, we were picked up by the Department of Fisheries who helped us move our gear and also shuttled us to our lodge. Upon arriving we got our gear organized, made sure nothing was damaged in the latter part of our journey, and had a delicious lunch that redefined fish and chips.

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The lodge is simple but beautiful, and Augustine and Celestine who run the lodge along with their family are extremely friendly. Adam (from McMaster) and I are sharing a hut right on the lakes shore.

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After lunch, we couldn’t resist to go in the water for a little snorkeling. I didn’t go further our than 3 meters, and just in that space the diversity of fish is unbelievable; dozens of species of cichlids, plus catfish, eels, and other assorted fish. The lake is beautiful; our lodge is at the southern shore. To our west is a huge rocky ridge, to our east we can barely see the opposite ridge (the lake is part of the African Rift Valley). Much closer to our east is the Forbidden Island, on which only men are allowed – more on that when at least some of the team visit it. All day fisherman have passed by in their wooden boats and nearly all of them have waved and said hello.

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I am sure as soon as the sun goes down we will all quickly get tired, but as for now its pleasant to sit under shelter on the shore and watch the waves roll in. It is our hope in the next day or two that our compressor and tanks will be ready; and we’ll be able to see the species we  came for: Neolamprologus pulcher.