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



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


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.


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


Above: A subordinate N. pulcher

Below: Several N. pulcher hanging out around their shelter


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:



SCUBA finally!


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.


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.


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.


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.

Day 3 in Lusaka


Above: Joe and Jenn caught off guard by a photo in the back of the Land Cruiser.

Today our final team member, Kelly, arrived. After picking her up from the airport and having breakfast, we went to the Department of Immigration to get our permits to stay here and do research. While it took a while, it could have taken much longer. We also visited Dr. Katongo at the University of Zambia where we met with a professor who has helped us work with the Zambian government and was gracious enough to provide us with some ethanol for our samples (flying with ethanol would have presented some obvious problems). He and everyone else we met in the Department of Biology we met was extremely friendly (as it seems everyone in Zambia is), and it was great to see another college campus.

Around the house and in various other parts of town we’ve seen plenty of interesting things (at least to a group of biologists): plenty of lizards, giant millipedes, and huge land snails. I’m guessing most of the Zambians consider us pretty unusual Mzungus when they see us all huddled around a tree or anthill.

It looks like we will be heading to the lake on Wednesday on an overnight bus ride, so we’ll arrive Thursday morning in Mplungu. Tomorrow we have some more errands to run, and we’ll need to get everything organized for the bus trip.


We’re here!


Above: a new friend at the farm.

We made it to Zambia! It is currently 5:30 p.m. here in Lusaka, we’re staying at the farm outside of town for the next few days before we depart for the lake. Its warm. Its beautiful. Everyone is extremely friendly. Today after leaving the airport we came to the farm, unloaded our gear, and cleaned up before going to the mall to pick up phones and SIM cards, as well as get some money changed to Kwatcha. Since returning to the farm, we’ve all quickly fallen asleep. The climate here today reminded me a lot of inland Florida, complete with an afternoon rain.

I did get a phone, its not a smart phone, and to my knowledge I don’t receive photo texts, but if you’d like the number e-mail me at my OSU account ligocki.3 and I’ll try to get it to you! It may be cheaper to call my phone over Skype, I’m unsure.

Everyone sounds like they’re from London!

ImageJenn and I getting ready to leave Columbus.

Jenn and I have arrived at Heathrow Airport in London. We’re currently waiting for all but one of the team members to arrive here (Kelly flies in on Monday) in the hopes we can meet up for lunch.

Both of our bags have been searched three times, each time we’ve had to explain what the dive weights and dissolved oxygen meters are. Both at JFK and Heathrow we didn’t realize we would be going through security again, and each time had to chug Nalgene bottles full of water before going through.I think the security officials are more entertained than anything else with all the random junk we have with us.

I must say the flight from JFK to here was one of the best I’ve been on. The concierge changed our seats so Jenn and I could share a row, but then it turned out there were few enough passengers that we each got our own row and got a few hours of sleep. The flight attendants were very friendly and the food was actually very good.

We’re here for 12 hours before flying to Lusaka overnight. I’m a little bummed that both flights are overnight; this morning I saw the city lights in Ireland, it would have been cool to see the landscape. Tonight we’ll be going over the Mediterranean, the Sahara, and the Congo. All at night. In any case, this is going to be an amazing trip, and I’m sure there will be plenty to see once in Zambia!


One week out!

In less than a week I’ll be en route to Zambia for the long awaited 3 month expedition, and I can’t wait! To be honest, after planning for this trip over the last 6 months, it seems a little surreal that it’s so close. The plan is to arrive in Lusaka (the capital of Zambia) on Saturday morning, and spend a few days getting things together before taking an 8 hour bus ride to Mpulungu, on the lake. I’ll be buying a phone while in Lusaka, I’m not sure exactly how phone calls and texts will work there, but if you want that information when I have it let me know.

The high temperature for tomorrow in Mpulungu is 73 degrees F (23 degrees C), which will be a stark contrast to the snowy drive I had in today. Once there, I’m sure I’ll have tons of interesting things to write about, but in the meantime all I can tell you about is my decision making process in selecting ear drops, or how happy I am my income tax paperwork arrived before I left, so I’ll spare you.