Heiko Bleher visits some of the biotopes of Maharashtra in the Western Ghats states of India and finds new species overcoming great handicaps.
More than 300 species of fish have been recorded from this biodiversity hotspot in India and I knew, since my first visit to the Western Ghats in 1987-1988 and 1989, that a lot more are still waiting to be discovered!
During a later field trip I researched with my partner Natasha all three Western Ghats states of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Kerala, as well as Goa, and found additional fishes. We collected in 37 rivers and lakes, finding more than 150 species, of which surely some are new.
We began in Maharashtra, a place of several languages. A previous visit there had revealed communication problems, but a chance telephone call from a well-wisher enabled me this time to arrange a driver who spoke all the necessary languages and a little English.
I had scheduled my trip to collect during the dry season, which normally lasts from December to May-June.
After a flight and a four-hour traffic jam journey into Mumbai, formerly Bombay, we ‘escaped’ next morning before sunrise and before the day’s traffic built up.
On my way I wanted to visit Sharad Ramchandra Sane, the pioneer of ornamental fishes in India. I also wanted to go with him to the type locality of Horaichthys setnai (recently placed into Oryzias by Parenti, 2008). This was never imported alive, but has probably the most amazing biology of any known small fish.
Although already described 1940 by Kulkarni, it had only been known from a drawing…
We drove along Dharavi, India’s largest slum, where half of the city’s 6 million live.
The water there was so incredible polluted that if I had placed a finger in, it would surely have fallen off. However, Sane explained that I should try further south in Panvel where a creek of the same name flows.
South of Mumbai is a gigantic construction site, a new city emerging and a large lake, seemingly artificial, which contained only tilapias (Oreochromis mossambicus) and endless amounts of rubbish.
We crossed a long, high bridge over the Panvel and I had a hard time getting down to this 50m/160’ broad river. I slipped through mud, cow dung and rubbish. I looked everywhere but could not spot or catch a single fish. Sinking deep, I suddenly I noticed a tiny transparent movement at the surface. I initially thought it was a water spider — but, practically invisible, were the tiniest fish, each hardly a centimetre in total length. Were they Horaichthys?
I tried to catch one, but it was almost impossible as I could only be aware where they swam once they moved. Now I realised why no one had ever collected and exported them before. It took me hours in the boiling sun and warm water, sinking deeper all the time, until I had caught a dozen.
Finally we got a photograph of this unique creature. The male has a gonopodium which encompasses almost half its length. In proportion, no living fish has a longer penis!
Horaichthys have been classified with ricefishes of the family Adrianichthyidae, which were only recently revised by Parenti (2008) and now contain 28 species. Four belong in the genus Adrianichthys and 24 in Orzyias, including Horaichthys, and also the two Xenopoecilus species — of which I discovered one in Lake Lind in Sulawesi many years ago.
They live in freshwater but also brackish habitats from Pakistan to Japan. Ricefishes are mostly light coloured, sometimes yellowish. They rarely have particular colours, except for a couple of Oryzias from Sulawesi. Except for the four Adrianichthys species, they live only in the upper water columns. Their origin is found among the beloniform fishes, but they resemble more closely the cyprinodontids.
Why does Horaichthys male have such an extremely long penis? Because of the need to survive, amazing mechanisms evolve, especially in such tiny creatures, to be able to propagate in a rough world full of larger predators.
Nature has equipped the male with testes to produce special 200-300 sperm capsules, so-called spermatophores, instead of ordinary semi-fluid milt with suspended sperm. A spermatophore is a tiny hyaline body, the broad part of which contains a mass of sperm.
At the tapering end there is a pointed cap with hooks and barb-like structures pointing backwards. The spermatophore get attached with these near the genital opening of the female. There is no permanent opening on the spermatophore to liberate the sperm.
Before freeing them, a small bulging appears at the neck of the tapering spermatophore and begins to enlarge. When it becomes sufficiently large, an opening is formed at its tip by a rupture of membrane and sperm are liberated, swimming into the genital pore of the female.
This form of fertilisation and reproduction is not known in any other live form.
We drove south-east as I wanted to research the hinterland of Maharashtra, in remote areas hardly collected before, reaching Pune, India’s eighth-largest city 560m/1830’ above sea level on the Deccan Plateau. At sunset we drove on a narrow pass to the Karanadi river.
There was very little water flowing over its large rock formation, but I was able to find, in between cracks, a group of Garra nasuta grazing over the algae-covered rock. I also found a loach, which looks similar to Indoreonectes evezardi, but does not have typical bars — being spotted instead.
There’s another similar looking loach, Nemacheilus keralensis, but there are differences. The third species was the most beautiful loach, somewhat similar to Schistura semiarmata and placed in Nemacheilus by some, but the typical black stripe below the eye was missing, as were any spots.
Next sunrise I was walking along the Nira river, which from here on to the sea is dammed many times, so I hoped to find something different and ‘natural’…
Along its edge, although muddy and full of rubbish, I found nice growth of an interesting Bacopa species and submersed large accumulations of Potamogeton with Ottelia alismoides among it. Strange that both of these widespread and 100% submerse plants are rarely found in the hobby — and, among so much aquatic vegetation, fishes thrive very well.
I was able to collect a loach near the edge among the Bacopa, which looks similar to Acanthocobitis botia. It could be new. In open water I found the widely distributed needlefish Xenentodon cancila, at nearly 1,000m/3,280’ above sea level. Unfortunately they are very sensitive and therefore rarely imported.
Everywhere were masses of Oreochromis niloticus babies. Man has introduced them in almost every country, tropical and temperate, around the globe. How ignorant can we be to allow this to happen?
Among them I discovered a few Puntius setnai and Devario fraseri, both species only known from Maharashtra and none have entered the hobby. Hopefully they will soon, but for how long can they cope with the tilapia explosion?
We drove south on the mountainous road and stopped near Bagara village on a creek which was hardly flowing and covered with green algae. However, in one spot not completely overgrown I saw loaches and was lucky enough to catch another Maharashtra endemic Lepidocephalus thermalis. It is a beautiful elongated loach able to survive in this remaining waterhole and a species perfect for a nano tank.
Along this creek every plant, bush or tree was in full blossom — spring was truly in full swing.
The people in this region live as in ancient times, taking care of their rice paddies and with oxcarts their only means of transport. John, our driver, took us below rows of old trees, completely natural and untouched, but returned to the 21st century when crossing several complete dry river beds which were evidence of global warming, We encountered natives who spent all day searching for water.
We turned west at Shirwal, continuing on the mountain road and near Bhor, along giant dams and water reservoirs on our right hand side, most of which had little water.
Late afternoon we again met the Nira river, near Apti. Here, for a short stretch, it was not dammed and showing natural but shallow flow. It had to have fishes, I thought!
Sure enough, after some water buffalos had been washed and moved on, I got a nice Barilius into my folding hand net. It was probably B. barna, a species so far not recorded from the Western Ghats.
This is a beautiful community tank fish to be kept in groups of never less that five or six, but better at ten, swimming as they do non-stop. Quite an attraction for any aquaria, they are still rarely imported, but are available from specialist dealers.
I also found a yellow Rasbora daniconius, but if I look closely at Francis Day’s description (1867) of R. neilgherriensis from the Western Ghats some have been placed in synonomy of R. daniconus Hamilton, 1822 from the Ganga drainage, I would think Day’s fish is a different species.
Another very colourful Devario malabaricus arrived into the large seine, exactly where the flow was stronger but also very shallow at hardly 20cm/8”.
Among the river pebbles I caught a nice green Garra, which so far has not been identified. Neither has the Glossogobius species collected in the same habitat. The latter is frequently classified as G. giurus by Indian scientists but it is a different species and giurus is not found in India.
I was delighted to find the endemic glassfish Parambassis thomassi here too.
We drove on across the mountain range of Sahyadri towards Mahad. The winding road was edged by monkeys waiting for truck drivers to feed them.
Looking down into the deep valley to what is left of the Nira riverbed one could almost identify with the Grand Canyon in the USA, but along the steep slopes are native huts of the Katkari, Thakur and Koli tribes, each one speaking their own language and living autonomously in this remote district.
Late afternoon on our third day we reached the Savitri river, before Mahad, and almost at sea level again. I had to check out this almost 200m/650’ wide, riverbed, although its water flow was only a fraction of that width. I collected in different spots up and downriver and found first some Ambassis urotaeniata, which in literature is said to be a brackish water fish, yet it lives here in pure freshwater habitats far from the sea.
It is a beauty and lives here together with a colourful Aplocheilus blockii variant in shallow water habitats. There was also Dayella malabarica, a clupeid I had never seen alive before. Also found was a second Glossogobius species and again a population of Puntius setnai.
The most interesting discovery though was a halfbeak of the genus Zenarchopterus with a dark brown blackish colour. This genus has never been recorded from western India, only from West Bengal and much less a species with such colour pattern. Almost all described Zenarchopterus are silver or without any colour.
The genus belongs to the needlefish family Belonidae and there are some 20 species found from Pakistan to the Philippines and Australasia. Many are brackish residents, but some are land locked, found in pure freshwater habitats and can only live there.
Some species can tolerate fresh, brackish and saltwater (anadromos) and some have a huge proliferation, such as Zenarchopterus dispar (Valenciennes, 1847), which is found from East Africa to the Fiji Islands, in New Caledonia and Samoa. Most species inhabit freshwater regions of Australasia, from were the most recent species was described about 25 years ago. That is Zenarchopterus ornithocephala, Collette, 1985, from the Vogelkop Peninsula, which G R Allen and I discovered in 1982.
Zenarchopterus striga (Blyth, 1858) is known from the area around Calcutta (Kolkata) on the other side of India on the Gulf of Bengal and the morphological characteristics differ significantly from the species I found in Maharashtra. Obviously, it is also a freshwater species.
The needlefish habitat at 16:55 hours that day was pH 7.68; conductivity 1,394 µS/cm; water temperature 27.2°C/81°F. The water was brown and cloudy; easily flowing over pebbles, large rocks and had a muddy ground. There was no aquatic vegetation, but nearby were cattle farms and water buffalo breeding facilities.
It became dark but I collected by torchlight another Puntius amphibius, which I was to collect again further south, and a beautiful Puntius so far impossible to identify.
Next day we followed the N17 route south to the valley of the Gard river flanked by terraces, as in the Philippines. Here stood an old stone bridge built during the British Raj in the 19th century. Below were small groups of Aplocheilus panchax easy recognisable by the shiny spot on top of their head, and racing over the rocky ground were hundreds of Garra mullya. There was so much rubbish in the river I had no intention of going in!
I still had two more destinations scheduled in southern Maharashtra. One was a drainage of the Krishna river, with an arm flowing into a bay west of Rajapur going down to an old fishing village called Jaitapur — and then one more stream further south.
Jaitapur was reached by a tiny, winding, steep road and all the inhabitants paid attention to our work in collecting tiny fishes which they insisted were babies of large fishes, also Horaichthys. This is a typical response by fishermen who only see fish in large size because their interest is only in eating.
That is why I was able to discover several new dwarf Channa snakehead species as I recalled that fishermen insisted that C. bleheri also grows large when I found it in the 1980s. Besides the ricefish we had marine fishes in the net living in freshwater, like the glassfish Ambassis gymnocephalus, young snappers Lutjanus argentimaculatus and L. erythropterus.
Our last stop before Goa was a creek, east of the N17 called Biali-Nadi and I researched near Alassi. It was 8m/26’ wide, but the water level was no more than 10-15cm/4-6” deep and flowing slowly, although I found a variety of fish over the stony bottom. There were Garra mullya, the Giant danio, Devario malabaricus with bright golden stripes, Puntius amphibius and a gudgeon, probably Pseudogobius melanostictus.
Near the edge, under overhanging grass, I found a very pretty panchax killifish, Aplocheilus lineatus, a blue-yellow banded loach, which could be Schistura denisonii and a Rasbora, which at first looked like R. daniconius, but then I realised was different. It was unusually large with a predatory mouth turned upwards and a remarkable bright jet-black stripe. Its golden body colour was particularly striking. I also had a very nice Caridina shrimp in the net.
New discoveries for the benefit of all
It had been a good field trip across Maharashtra with many discoveries made, including some species never previously recorded from the Western Ghats or even mentioned in the Ornamental Fishes of Western Ghats of India Mercy et al., 2008 publication. There’s surely some beauties set to join the most beautiful and educational hobby in the world. And I had Horaichthys…
Victims of the chemicals
I was only able to collect a few good needlefish specimens in the Savitri near Mahad as most were terribly deformed. The natives told me that not far upriver a chemical plant had been discharging untreated waste for several years into the river and masses of dead fish regularly floated past. No wonder half of all fishes I caught at this point were mis-shapen.
This item was first published in the October 2009 issue of Practical Fishkeeping magazine. It may not be reproduced without written permission.