Ad Konings explains how he discovered the stunning cichlid Protomelas sp. \'Steveni Taiwan\' during a stormy dive in Lake Malawi.
How did you first discover this species?
During an expedition along the western coast of Lake Malawi I spent six weeks diving at every possible site.
Since the late Stuart Grant, Malawi fish exporter extraordinaire, had been collecting in the area for about 15 years, I was interested in places never previously dived.
We asked fishermen where these unfished reef sites, called virundu, were to be found. These are rocky reefs, sometimes very deep, that usually support large shoals of utaka — the plankton-eating cichlids that feed in the water column and which are the staple food of Malawian people.
Could the fishermen find these unfished reefs?
Malawi fishermen have an amazing memory and feel of direction when it comes to locating a fishing site. So we took one or two on board our boat to guide us.
Many times their virundu sites consisted of just a few rocks on the sandy bottom. Even though such areas may harbour thousands of fish, these were not what I was looking for. We needed larger rocky areas that may support different kinds of rock-dwelling mbuna.
Justus Chirwa, the boat’s coxswain, was born and raised on Chizumulu Island, in the middle of the lake. Like most of the natives living along the shores of Malawi, many island inhabitants are fishermen.
Justus told us of some reefs he knew around Chizumulu and rounded up some of his fishing friends to guide us to a reef far from the island and which the locals call Taiwanee.
So it’s Taiwanee Reef, not Taiwan Reef?
Yes. At that time I misunderstood the name and for years referred to it as Taiwan Reef.
We had problems organising the trip as there was a particularly high wind blowing and the fishermen found it too dangerous to go out in their dug-out canoes. It took our diesel boat about an hour to make its way to the site.
Although the fishermen were positive we had reached the right position we couldn’t possibly anchor the boat, even with a 40m/130’ anchor chain, as the south-easterly was blowing hard.
Most fishkeepers think of Lake Malawi as a huge body of relatively still water. Do the strong winds whip up a current?
Yes, it gets quite rough. When I got into the water I felt a formidable current forcing me against the wind. It was so strong that I could barely manage to swim against it, even with my fins on.
After a while I could see the rocks at a depth of about 7m/23’, but it took me a long time before I could get a strong enough hold to prevent me being swept away.
Unfortunately I had to stay where I was as I could not clear my ears of the pressure and pain.
What fish did you find on Taiwanee Reef?
I could see a small, bright yellow mbuna (later described as Pseudotropheus saulosi) in large groups fighting against the current atop a large boulder. It was the only species I could see and guessed it was the only one able to withstand the fierce current.
At a later date, when the winds abated, I returned to try again and I needed the help of the fishermen to locate the reef. On this dive I discovered a most beautiful rock-dwelling non-mbuna with a strong resemblance to Protomelas taeniolatus, the so-called Steveni, which at Taiwanee Reef has broad, vertical bars — a pattern fairly similar to that of P. fenestratus.
How did you know it wasn’t simply fenestratus?
Unlike fenestratus I did not see it squirting water into the biocover to expose prey. The latter is a typical characteristic of P. fenestratus and all populations are supposed to employ such a method of foraging.
If the Steveni at Taiwanee Reef were P. fenestratus the lack of such behaviour could be explained why there was no sediment to blow in. However, there are more characteristics that wouldn’t match with a population of P. fenestratus and, after examining several specimens, I concluded that the Steveni was undescribed. I gave them the name of Protomelas sp. ‘Steveni Taiwan’.
Anatomy is closer to P. taeniolatus but it has a much larger eye and basic colour is different. The eye might be an adaptation for deeper water.
What’s the reef like?
It is completely isolated from the mainland and also from Chizumulu which lies about 7km/4.3 miles south of the reef and separated from it by water deeper than 100m/330’. As far as I know it contains the most isolated rock-dwelling fish community in the lake and, as such, the reef is a very interesting area for evolutionary studies.
As it is so isolated, are some of the fish found there are endemic?
That’s right. Probably because of the lack of any ‘frequent’ contact with neighbouring populations the community of rock-dwelling cichlids living at the reef includes a number of endemic species.
Interestingly the reef seems to be inhabited by only a few mbuna, with all mbuna complexes represented by just a single member apiece and Labidochromis not found at all — yet. In addition the ‘Stevenis’ are just represented by P. sp. ‘Steveni Taiwan’, while at most other rocky habitats around the lake there are usually two or more species of that group.
Are there any similar populations elsewhere?
Almost identical ones have been found. They are thought to be P. sp. ‘Steveni Taiwan’, found in Tanzania at Higga Reef and Ngkuyo (Mbamba Bay) Island. These are known as ‘Chimoto Red’ and ‘Chimoto Yellow’ respectively.
What is the behaviour pattern of ‘Steveni Taiwan’?
Territorial males of P. sp. ‘Steveni Taiwan’ defend territories on top of rocks at rather deep levels and most males are found at more than 15m/50’. Females can sometimes be seen in shallower water, usually in loose groups of less than 25.
Keeping Protomelas sp. ‘Steveni Taiwan’
‘Steveni Taiwan’ is found alongside P. saulosi, a small mbuna. However, you should avoid mixing it with larger or more boisterous species as these may be too feisty for company
To reduce the likelihood of a single female being harassed, always place more females than males. Two females per male is the minimum, but the more females added the better.
Protomelas sp. ‘Steveni Taiwan’ reaches nearly 20cm/8” so needs space. The minimum for a male and some females would be a 120 x 30 x 45cm/47 x 12 x 18” tank.
Like most of the other cichlids in Lake Malawi, Protomelas are maternal mouthbrooders. Brooding females need quiet places to shelter, so add plenty of rocks to the tank so that they can escape the males.
This item was first published in the September 2009 issue of Practical Fishkeeping magazine. It may not be reproduced without written permission. Pictures by Neil Hepworth and Ad Konings.