Cichlid of the Week: Julidiochromis ornatus

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Above: Julidiochromis ornatus – the masked bandit of Lake Tanganyika.

Like a few other species here in Lake Tanganyika, J. ornatus is a cooperative breeder; meaning that they form groups in which smaller individuals don’t reproduce (usually) and help raise the offspring of the breeding pair.

The cooperative system in the Julies gets a bit more complex however. In the breeding pairs the male or female can be larger, and fish preferentially form groups so that one or the other is substantially larger. When the male is larger, the social system is typically polygynous. This means the male mates with multiple females in the group. In most cases, the female is larger and the system is the opposite. The term for this is polyandrous, meaning “many males,” and she keeps a harem of males around.

 

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On Running…

Since getting to the lodge, I’ve managed to go running a few times most weeks. If I’m honest the limiting factor is being willing to wake up before breakfast to do it.

Running here makes me imagine myself a character from Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, but rather than being known by a legendary nickname like “Caballo Blanco,” I’m known as “Mzungu,” or “Big Man.” The latter has a bit of a condescending vibe akin to “champ” or “chief.”

The road we run is extremely rocky in parts, and so steep in places that you might as well walk. While there are two clear tire tracks on the road, the grass between and on either side is well over my head. It makes me acutely aware how impressive it is that our ancestors weren’t all picked off by lions, leopards, and hyenas.

The people vary in their response to runners. They’re generally more respectful to men; Adam and I might elicit a chuckle, but the girls have unquestionably been mocked in Bemba by groups of women walking on the road. There are generally four responses:

1) Stupid mzungus…

2) What are you running from? Are you hurt? Are you being chased by something or someone? Should I be running too?

3) You’re lost, you missed the trail to the mzungu lodge (see #1)

4) Will you be my wife? (only the female team members have been graced with this response)

Several times women on the road have stepped in front of me at a fork in the road and angrily insisted I was about to go the wrong way and needed to turn in order to get back to the lodge. I insisted I knew where I was going and was eventually permitted to continue.

The route I’ve been taking lately takes me by the school and across the soccer field (an overgrown clearing which had two sticks staked in the ground). Children have a habit of waiting in the school or in the grass until I pass, and then chase me across the field. They’re all friendly and want to know what I’m doing, but its become routine enough that they seem to know when to expect me.

In spite of all the issues, and the fact that we really can’t run all that far here, there is something a bit poetic about running where our ancestors first learned to run upright. If nothing else I’ll have improved my ability to attack hills for my next race!

Cichlid of the Week: Lamprologus callipterus – the mob

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I should start by saying I have a love-hate relationship with these fish. As you can see, they are very attractive fish. At a certain level, they can be considered ecosystem engineers for the shell beds they construct; shell beds that a number of species (including last weeks cichlid of the week) rely on. Territorial males collect shells and defend patches of shell bed. Successful males maintain a harem of females who live inside the shells where they lay their eggs. Less successful males are on the lookout for great shells they can steal.

The males are far too big to fit inside, but because of the drastic size dimorphism between the sexes the females have no issues. These are reasons I really like these fish, now for the reasons they test my patience…

As I said, territorial males are much larger than females, and they don’t grow that big overnight. Juveniles form schools sometimes numbering in the hundreds that move all around the lake floor where they essentially pillage the territories of other fish. As “the mob” descends onto territories, they all start picking up mouthfuls of sand, eating whatever they come across, send the other fish into a panic, then leave just as fast as they arrived. They do a fine job of messing up observations, and they also have a gift for getting caught in our fence nets. And it’s never just one that gets caught in the net either.

In the end these are pretty cool fish, in spite of their gift for frustrating me.

A few days of relaxing…

Go Bucks!

Having dove twice a day more or less every day since arriving, we have decided to take a couple of days to rest up and recuperate before the final drive of our field season. Its been a fun, relaxing, and entertaining few days!

On both Friday and today a number of police, navy, and other government officials have been at the lodge learning how to SCUBA dive. They’re a very friendly bunch, but none of us had any idea they’d be here. Apparently most of them learned to swim last week and from my perspective they’ve gotten comfortable with the whole thing very quick.

Yesterday we went back to Katoto for a fun dive to see all the fish in the rock garden. The rock garden is an area in 3-5 meters of clear water that has huge boulders as well as abundant aquatic plants. For whatever reason, this site has tons of fish, and most of them are way brighter than they are here. It was a great time, and both our bottle filler Fernandez and our boat drivers Damias and Mr. Kupembwe joined in for a fun swim. A bunch of kids on shore who in all likelihood may have never seen a Muzungu were waving from shore and yelling “Hey, Muzungu!” for our entire visit.

These kids found us swimming much more interesting than anything else going on.
These kids found us swimming much more interesting than anything else going on.
Adam rocking out a shatanga.

Cichlid of the week: Neolamprologus multifasciatus

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Above: A little “multi,” sadly where we found them was at 15 m off the east coast of Mbita Island; a little too deep for my camera, so you have to settle for a shot of this little guy we brought up with us.

Last week I wrote about the worlds largest cichlid, its only fitting that this weeks feature be the worlds smallest, which also lives in this lake. Neolamprologus multifasciatus is a tiny fish maxing out just over 2 cm. They live in shell beds in which each male defends a plot of shells and all the lady multi’s that call those shells home. The shell bed we were working on was huge, empty gastropod (snail) shells as far as the eye could see (which depending on the visibility was 1-7 meters). 

Don’t let the small size fool you, these little guys are kings of their domain. The males duke it out to make sure their neighbors don’t get too close to their territory, and the males “police” the females living in his territory to make sure their fights don’t get out of line. Of course, each fish has its own little shell for safety in case a bigger (any) fish comes along looking for a meal. The plan works great until the predator happens to be a researcher who just picks up the shell. Eventually getting them out of the shell was a huge pain however…

 

So this is the rainy season…

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The past week or so has been interesting in terms of weather; we had an intense rainstorm a few nights ago that lasted about 8 hours, and before that (and coincidentally right now) the wind has begun to pick up and lead to waves around 2 m. Combining those waves with a rocky shoreline makes it a bit unsafe to dive so we already had to take one afternoon off. The first day, we were still debating the dive as the wind kicked up, and I walked by Fernandez our bottle filler, navigator, and general advisor on what not to do. I asked whether it was thumbs up or thumbs down for the afternoon, to which he responded “oh, yes.” When I looked back confused and asked if it was safe to dive, he promptly responded “oh, no,” then laughed. Some of the other team members were on the boat by Mbita Island when it started up, and they were stranded at the dock at fisheries until the early evening. Their return trip included a frantic boat ride to shore, a car ride from town to the wrong village, from which they had to walk to our lodge.

Our fearless leader Susan has headed home. It was sad to see her go, but she trained us all well and I’m confident we’ll survive without her.

It seems National Geographic has taken an interest in Lake Tanganyika recently. Hopefully you find it interesting!

http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2013/03/07/warming-lakes-climate-change-threatens-the-ecological-stability-of-lake-tanganyika/

Cichlid of the Week: Boulengerochromis microlepis (Nkupi)

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Above: A pair of Nkupi defending a swarm of fry.

Twice I have found myself swimming along in midwater to find the water around me rippling as though I’m in a swarm of gnats. It then becomes clear I’m in a cloud of fry, thousands of them. The next thing I’ve noticed is the parents circling around me nervously. Boulengerochromis microlepis, also known as Nkupi or Yellow Belly, are the largest cichlid in the world, growing up to 70 cm in length. They are beautiful fish and very graceful in the water. They form at least socially monogamous pairs (to my knowledge nobody has actually done paternity work on them to look for cheating). These pairs fiercely defend the eggs, fry, and juveniles. 

It seems at least some of them have an issue with divers wearing yellow masks or snorkels. On a previous expedition, one diver got rammed by a Nkupi multiple times.

They are also delicious.