Nuts about Brazil!

Chris Lukhaup was part of a team from Dennerle that recently explored Brazil, discovering fish, plants and breathtaking underwater scenery in an area they describe as the ‘cradle of aquatics’. Be prepared to be inspired — and more than a little bit jealous!

Our trip to Brazil might not have been a religious pilgrimage as such, but the strip of land around the small town of Bonito in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul might rightfully be described as an aquatic place of pilgrimage, with our journey there an act of devotion and reverence towards the magical powers of nature that are so present and inspiring in this incredible region.

This place might even be considered the cradle of aquatics, and for fishkeepers and adventurers — and everyone else who yearns to experience nature — this trip is a milestone.

We had been informed that the best time to go exploring in Bonito and the surrounding area was December— before the travelling season began.

We entrusted this journey to the knowledgeable hands of the Indian Marcello Yndio and his Swiss wife Mirjam who run Explore Panatal. They arranged the trip for us in a way that allowed us to see, photograph and film as much as possible over ten days.

In addition to their ample knowledge of the area, the pair have established all-important relations with the local authorities and owners of the places we planned to visit.

I left for Brazil two days before Stefan ‘Plantahunter’ Hummel and Max Dennerle, son of the company founder Ludwig Dennerle. At that time, there were heavy snowfalls in Germany and I was very lucky, as after my plane had taken off all flights for the rest of the day had to be cancelled.

Unfortunately the bad weather delayed Stefan and Max, who had to spend a number of days at various European airports. To top it all off, Max’s luggage got lost in transit...

However, they eventually arrived and due to the fact that we had lost several days, Marcello re-organised our trip with a new and even more crowded schedule.

Strictly supervised  
Our first trip was to Rio da Prata, the Silver River. These fascinating headwaters are strictly supervised and no one is allowed to go into the water on their own. You can only stay in one place for a few minutes, and you must not stand on the bottom to avoid stirring up any sediment — which would be detrimental to the habitat.

You can only float without touching fish or plants and a guide is always present to ensure you don’t violate these rules.

If you don’t have your own underwater camera you can borrow one there and then, together with any snorkeling equipment. Ecotourism is a real alternative to the vast soy farms and seemingly endless cattle pastures that are now so common to this region.

Our permit allowed us to stay in the source area for a full two days.

Bold fish
Silver River’s true assets are in its beautiful aquatic plants and innumerous large and small fish, which are not shy at all.

Some smaller characins, probably Cheirodon kriegi, were quite bold and kept biting our lips. We could see groups of blackish grey Pacu, Colossoma sp., gliding across the gleaming sandy areas, and quite a few Ancistrus sp., which seem to live under every other root.

Some large characins, Brycon hilarii, locally called Piraputanga, and which are exclusively plant eaters, sat in the current, waiting for the monkeys in the trees above the river to drop in some of their leftover food.

The Dorado (Salminus brasiliensis) pictured above is a large predator characin that calmly circles its territory and just opens its mouth to get a meal. They can grow to 1m/39”, adult specimens weighing up to 30 kg/66 lb. Their strong jaws are lined with sharp, large-dimensioned teeth, and their favourite prey is Prochilodus lineatus, which we found in large numbers in this habitat.

A group of Leporinus friderici dipped their noses into the detritus on the ground, stirring up micro-organisms, accompanied by a school of Hyphessobrycon eques. Their red colouration was especially stunning.

A Crenichichla vittata had staked out its territory under a tree trunk, defending it against everything that wandered close.

The dominant plant in these waters is Star grass (Heteranthera zosterifolia), which belongs to the family Pontederiaceae.

This plant needs lots of light. It can be found in vast stretches of several km in Rio da Prata, and even at depths of 2m/6.5’ its growth is dense and is a lush green. In some places we even found the emerged form with its light blue flowers. However, the strong current made photographing it difficult.

Especially attractive were the sharp-edged limestone formations we floated past, and which are below the waterline in a short stretch of the river. You have to be very careful here, as the sharp edges would not just slice through your wetsuit!

Besides Star grass, we also saw Hydrocotyle verticillata and Helanthium bolivianum. In a small pond beside the river we found a beautiful moss. Like so many other rivers in that region, the water of Rio da Prata is high in carbonates, which makes this moss suitable for hard water.

Natural meadows
Only a few kilometres from Rio da Prata lies Anaconda river, Rio Succuri. During the trip there we passed many pasture grounds with zebus, an Indian cattle species. Unfortunately, deforestation in this region increases open space so benefitting the interests of the cattle barons.

The spring source of Rio Succuri is in the middle of one of these pastures. Marcello procured a special permit for us so we could to spend all day here. The water was only 40-70cm/16-28” deep and crystal clear.

Stefan found at least ten different plant species here and especially impressive were large patches of Potamogeton illinoensis. In just a few square metres there were many plants we know well in the hobby, plus new ones like Bacopa australis.

In some places, the underwater scenery looked as though it had been moulded by human hands. Large beautiful ‘meadows’ were formed by Hydrocotyle verticillata and H. leucocephala. The latter, in its emerged form, could also be found in the undergrowth around the water. Here, Parrots feather (Myriophyllum aquaticum), was of a striking brownish red, due to plentiful light.

Contrasting with its delicate whorls of leaves, there were large-leaved Echinodorus macrophyllus and the Chain sword (Helanthium bolivianum) – well-known in the hobby for a long time under the name of E. bolivianus.

After around 50m/165’ in the shallow water of the source, the rivulet had quite a strong current. We put on our snorkels and floated downriver effortlessly. We could see great patches of Illinois pondweed (Potamogeton illinoensis) and their yellowish-brown leaves shimmered in the sunlight — absolutely fascinating.

After a few minutes, the water depth increased, in some places to 2-3m/6.5-10’. Here we found bright red Nymphaea gardneriana together with huge Pontederia parviflora. They prefer the bank areas, but grow also in deeper waters. However, the leaves always grow above the waterline.

We also found some dark green shoots of Stonewort algae (Chara rusbyana). At first glance this plant appears something like a small hornwort, but it’s actually a primitive water plant that belongs to the family of green algae. There were also small patches of Heteranthera zosterifolia and Gymnocoronis spilanthoides.

The fish fauna here was quite similar to that of Rio da Prata, but the population densities were a lot lower.
We didn’t see an anaconda on this trip, but we did see one of the very rare giant otters. It was at least 1.2m/4’ long, and as soon as it had emerged from the water it disappeared again.

Swords aplenty
The baylike headwaters of Rio Baía Bonita is paradise for the Echinodorus enthusiast. In order to get there, you have to leave the official reserve and walk around 800m/880 yards through dense forests, accompanied by a guide. Marcelo had organised a guide who was with us for the entire day.

When we arrived at the pool the view took our breath away. There were huge patches of lush E. macrophyllus at a water depth of 1.5-2m/5-6.6’. When snorkeling you sometimes touch the tips of their leaves as these plants grow really long. The most recent leaves are a beautiful red to pink. Unfortunately, due to their size, these plants are not suitable for a normal tank.

Between the Echinodorus patches, there are beautiful groups of Stonewort algae (Chara rusbyana), its dark green contrasting beautifully with the bright colours of the Echinodorus.

At other places in the bay we again found compact groups of Helanthium bolivianus. These stay comparatively small and reproduce by runners. They are great for the fore or middle ground of an aquarium. The reddish colour, as well as the relatively broad leaf blades (or laminae), have so far only been observed in nature.

Towards the open side of the bay we could feel the current towards the rivulet. We floated past huge patches of Senegal tea plant (Gymnocoronis spilanthoides), some up to 2m/6-6’ high and an incredible sight. There were also beautiful meadows of Potamogeton illinoensis interspersed with individual large water-plantains.

The manifold moss patches below and above the waterline on rocks and stones were also impressive.

Aquascapers would really have fun here – one natural layout following the other.

The fish fauna was dominated by the ever-present Brycon hilarii, circling in large schools.

Again, on the ground and in the rock crevices we kept seeing Ancistrus sp. and also a large, hitherto unidentified crab. Small tetras were swimming around, but moving too fast for a good photo.

Anteater river
The mountains of Serra Bodoquena are around 70km/43 miles from Bonito. Here, too, small and larger streams pass through the landscape. Marcello had organised a boating trip on Rio Betione — betione being anteater in English, of which we saw numerous specimens. Even the trip to the river was a foretaste of the adventures to come.

The way for the cars had to be cleared with machetes. After some kilometres through deep meadows and impenetrable bush we passed an ancient wooden bridge already rotting and threatening to break any moment.
Thirsty work!

After another kilometre we reached the bank of Rio Betione. The turbid water was a deep brown, with no water plants in view at all. I soon caught some catfish here. Marcello was very thirsty and almost emptied the container they were in – the fish were OK though.

Marcello warned us not to drink the water from this river ourselves however.  He’s grown up with it, so is very used to it.

We then had to travel on by boat. After a good two hours of paddling we had almost given up hope on getting any nice underwater photographs.

However, Marcello was still grinning and pointed to the front. In the distance, we could make out floating plants. When we approached them we were greeted by crystal-clear water and a white sandy ground – paradise!

A rare find
There was gigantic patch of Eichhornia azurea with their typical floating leaves and their especially impressive submerged leaves. This plant is really rare in the hobby and the underwater form is not too common in nature either. Probably the extremely clear water and the nutrient-rich ground have something to do with this wonderful phenomenon.

This Rio Bentione feeder has its source at around 600m/2000’ from the river and the plants have populated the entire stretch.

It was definitely the botanical highlight of this trip for Stefan.

Besides some tetras, we also discovered several crabs and some Apistogramma sp. on the ground.

Miniature paradise
Rio Formoso, near the town of Bonito, isn’t as clear as other rivers in the area, possibly due to the numerous cascades that churn up the sandy ground. However, it has its own special charm, featuring many beautiful rock formations and gigantic pieces of driftwood.

The slightly turbid water is a light pastel green with visibility around 10m/33’. By pure chance we stumbled across a small feeder stream of around 50m/165’ in length, with strikingly clear water and an incredibly beautiful aquascape with driftwood and large clusters of Stonewort algae (Chara rusbyana) which reminded us very much of dwarf hornwort. it was a miniature paradise, only a few square metres in size.

Stonewort algae can be found all over the world, and most frequently in clear waters and springs. Their common name comes from the fact that their stems are often encrusted in lime.

Besides seeing a pair of Crenichichla busy caring for their brood there was not much else in the way of fish.
Nature has done stunningly wonderful things to this place, but these habitats are now under ever increasing threat. The cattle barons need more pasture, the peasants more fields, and the world is hungry for soy.

We cannot say for how long these clear waters will still exist. Even though they are pretty well-protected right now, this might change in a short time.

What's the water like?
The parameters for the headwaters of Rio da Prata were:
KH: 7.5
pH: 7.7
CO2: 8 ppm
PO4: 0.01
FE++: 0 ppm
Temperature: 23°C/73°F

The parameters for the estuary of Rio da Prata were:
KH: 6.5
pH: 8.0
CO2: 2 ppm
PO4: 0.01
FE++: 0 ppm
Temperature: 25°C/77°F

Watch out for jaguars!

Repeatedly, Marcello warned us to be careful as there were jaguars around Rio Betione – and just a few days before there had been a deadly attack on a fishing boat there.

It had been a good 4m/13’ from the banks, but the jaguar took a gigantic leap and jumped directly on it, killing a 12-year-old boy with one bite at his head.

Jaguars must not be hunted in this area, although Marcello told us that the cattle barons still do so — one of them shooting and killing 29 or more of them. The wheels of justice turn slowly in these cases and the trigger-happy cattle baron has never been held responsible for what he did.

Thanks to…
Chris, Stefan and Max would like to express their sincere thanks to Marcello and Mirjam, who did a great job for Dennerle which sponsored this trip.

You can contact Marcello and Mirjam at or visit their website. Only a well-organised trip is real fun!

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Biotopes of Mozambique: Magic in the mountains

In war-ravaged Mozambique there’s little hope and even less water, unless you're looking for fish in higher ground. Heiko Bleher follows in the footsteps of a pioneer explorer…

Wilhelm Karl Hartwich Peters was a man I always envied. He was the first to research in Mozambique.

His expedition was in 1842 and he returned to Berlin with an enormous collection of specimens, having researched 51 freshwater fish species.

Having read about his amazing travels I’ve long been eager to research there as well. However, opportunity and the legacy of a lengthy and bitter civil war there had prevented me doing so.

I had also read that the first live cichlids were imported form Beira (Mozambique) before World War Two and they were called Haplochromis philander disperses, which is today considered Pseudocrenilabrus philander.

This excited me even further because I had found a very interesting Pseudocrenilabrus in South Africa near the Mozambique border, which did not look like the philander from Lake Otjikoto in South-West Africa. Then I read that there should be no Haplochromis in Mozambique, although a black and white photo from 1937 shows clearly a Haplochromis or a Chetia. I had to go to Mozambique...


I flew to Johannesburg in South Africa, and drove  the long trek solo, crossing the Drakensberg mountains into Mozambique from the northern end of the Krueger National Park. Late afternoon, I reached a village that looked as if it belonged to millennia gone by. Even its plough seemed Stone Age.

The mud huts were beautifully painted and covered with palm leaves. No one spoke Portuguese, only a native Bantu mixed with Portuguese, so I understood some words. I learned that there was no water nearby and the tributaries to the Limpopo — my first destination — were all dry.

At sunset I reached the Limpopo’s shore. The water wasn't even knee deep and this is supposedly one of Mozambique’s largest rivers.

I only netted a Clarias, probably C. gariepinus, and a Tilapia, as well as a Xenopus frog, probably X. laevis. This belongs to the only frog group living permanently under water and is endemic to Africa. However everything was desert-like along the riverbed, nowhere where a fish could find protection or food. Only the tough guys have a chance...

After another 75 km/47 miles drive along the Limpopo, partly in its riverbed, I came to three houses, one made of brick. On the map this was Mapa, but the sign said Mapai and showed it north-east of here. A native told me Mapai was 17 km/11 miles across the Limpopo, but the riverbed here was at least 500m/1,650’ wide and there was no bridge. Luckily it was shallow and sandy, and although I got stuck twice, four men from the settlement helped to push me to the other side.

Burned-out vehicles
The dirt track to Mapei was lined with several bombed and derelict houses — grim reminders of the hostilities. Natives lived in mud huts next to burned-out vehicles and tanks.

There was no water all the way to Mapei. Then I had to find a place to fix the exhaust pipe, which had become dislodged on these primitive roads. Finally I found a guy called Ernesto who helped find someone who could weld. Job done, Ernesto said he could show me the way to Massenga. I had chosen dirt roads to avoid rivers indicated in Google maps but, as Ernst said, none had water and no listed villages existed any more.

Massenga lies on the Save river on the maps, but in reality the riverbed is 4km/ 2.5 miles east and I would need a tractor to get across a shallow channel about 100m/330’ wide. I walked across and at the deepest point was about 1m/3.3’. I knew I would get stuck. With eight men pushing from behind we made it across, my 4x4 filling with water.  

During the night I camped and researched in the Save, but found only more Glossolepis and Tilapia. I knew I had to get to the source of these rivers.

I headed north and I saw a bombed concrete bridge over a small creek. It still had a little pool with water lilies. I walked down as a beautiful hornbill took off. In the shallows I found plenty of fishes, so that bird must have had a feast. There was so much life and countless frogs. The fish biomass consisted of four different species — three Barbus and another clariid catfish.

Further on I found another couple of drying pools and Nympheae struggling in any remaining wet soil, surrounded by bushes with climbing yellow flowering plants. In these pools and at my next collecting spot in another waterhole, I found the same barb species.

This biotope, once a flowing river, consisted of lava rock formation and in their crevices I spotted beautiful P. philander flashing in the early sun.


There was a pair in clear water carrying babies and when I moved close the female (above) sucked all of them into her mouth.

The male was a bright bluish yellow colour and they swam between half submerged Cyperus plants along the edges and some floating Najas species.

I collected one Chiloglanis species, possibly emarginatus the Phongolo suckermouth, about 5cm/2”. There was another small Barbus, bluish in colour, and many empty mussels. Water temperature was 28°C/82°F, pH 7.23 and conductivity 830 µS/cm. Air temperature had already reached 38°C/100°F.

I next headed for Beira, Mozambique’s second largest city by the Indian Ocean, for fuel and oil which was impossible to find at my next planned destination.

I drove to Chimolo from where I wanted to reach my most important destination in southern Mozambique — namely the headwaters of rivers in the Chimanimani mountains. which included Mount Binga at 2.445m/8.020’ and stretching for 50km/31 miles, to form the border with Zimbabwe.

Amazing plants
Binga is Mozambique’s highest mountain and I knew there was a track from Chimolo going almost to the top, crossing all of its hill streams. I followed a dirt road and further up, above a dam found very interesting fish species and some amazing underwater plants. Later I found out that it belongs to the genus Hydrostachys and is possibly one of the most amazing aquarium plants never previously collected.


The Revue river, not far from a native village called Dezembe Centro, had clear, fast flowing water and was an ideal place to camp. Late that night I walked over the river’s stone plates and watched at least two Chiloglanis species; a larger one (pictured above) which I later identified as C. bifurcates growing to 7.5cm/3” and C. neumanni at about one centimetre less in total length.

There were groups of four to seven of each, scraping and eating from the aufwuchs over the plates hardly more than 20cm/8” deep in the fast current.

One has to wonder how they can swim and feed at the same time under such a fast water flow, but I noticed later that C. neumanni (above) particularly has large ridges on the head and body which clearly enable them to do so.

I collected both for the first time alive and one female was full with bright yellow-golden eggs.

I also collected a pair of Barbus paludinous and one specimen of the latter was bright golden – possibly new.

Further upriver, again over rock plates, I found a third Chiloglanis species, (C. paratus), including another female full of eggs (pictured above) There were two other smaller groups of fishes, but I wasn’t able to catch any. One was a very beautiful Garra species with a juvenile, and the other an elongated and colourful Barbus species.
In addition, near the edge of the river, but still over these large rock plates, there was a fantastic Cichlidae which was always able to evade my hand-net.

The next morning I collected day-active species and took Barbus, probably B. eutaenia, and below overhanging grasses there was a small beautiful golden coloured Barbus with five black spots, possibly B. lineomaculatus.

Original subspecies
Then, a little deeper, there were three different tilapine species. One very small species (pictured above) was hardly 6cm/ 2.4” TL, which could be the original described subspecies of Tilapia rendalii, named swierstrae by Gilchrist and Thomson in 1917, but later placed in synonomy to T. rendalli.


The second was Tilapia sparrmanii, also a smaller species, and this population had amazing yellow-golden stripes, especially in the fins. The third, Oreochromis cf. niloticus (above) looked similar to the described species from the Nile, but all populations I collected throughout Africa were not as colourful as this…

This high-altitude site was my most successful collecting site so far, offering some very interesting fishes. The water parameters at 9am were pH 7.36, conductivity 50 µ/cm and water temperature 26°C/79°F.

The river was filled with reddish lava stones and on these grew amazing fern-like underwater plants, together with rock-plates.

Heiko's other biotopes in this series are:

Biotopes of Goa and Karnataka, India

Biotopes of Bolivia

Biotopes of Maharashtra, India

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Beating the dam builders

Heiko Bleher finds amazing fish in an Indian creek just hours before it is due to become part of a dam complex.

I had just given two lectures at the INDAQUARIA exhibition in southern India and had a little free time which my partner Natasha and I best used to visit the Seethalam Falls in Ubbalamadugu, Andhra Pradesh, south of Chennai. It was to be a case of just in time!

I had just three quarters of a day, as our flight out was the next evening, but I wanted to visit these falls as I always seemed to find interesting fishes near or at waterfalls around the globe.

During my talks at INDAQUARIA a breeder offered to guide and drive us there. We left next day at 5am and four hours later reached the dirt road leading to a distant mountain area and the falls.

After some 12km/7.5 miles we saw large movements of trucks and caterpillars turning masses of earth and starting to build a dam there – all for a small creek coming down from Seethalam Falls…

One arm of the creek was still undisturbed, about 4-5m/13-16’ wide, and had a clear water flow over rocks, stones and gravel. Along the edges, where the flow was slow, the rocks were covered with green algae but showed a variety of fish and one submerse Potamogeton species.

The other side had already been cut away from the main stream. Only algae-covered pools remained, with very few fish. There were already dead ones in some, like Macrognathus armatus.

Further up I found a pool where we spotted a pair of trapped Etroplus maculatus and the female was guiding around at least 100 or more babies. The guarding male had a fascinating colour pattern, but there was no other fish.

I walked the undisturbed upriver part of the creek, searching for every living species. In the fast flowing part, over seemingly endless rocks, I saw a beautiful bright yellow Labeo, and, after lifting aufwuchs-covered rocks, chased one of these beauties into my hand net.

Where grass and trees hung over the right-hand edge of the creek and the water flow was slow I saw Aplocheilus in groups of two and three, sometimes more. Being very good swimmers they have adapted to survive and escape rapidly from any intruder or possible predator, particularly birds.

However, after chasing them all over the place, I took a few in my net and discovered two different species living together: A. blockii and A. kirchmayeri – the latter with red lips…

I also found a beautiful Puntius in the slow-flowing habitat and shallow area, between hanging-in grasses. It was definitely not a young P. filamentosus, because I counted scales and fin rays and still cannot place it. However, it is a jewel with its yellow body colour, four broad black bands and red dorsal fin.

The P. cf. filamentosus was also very nice and I got larger specimens in deeper water. I found another unidentified Puntius living sympatric with the latter. It is a larger species, grows to 8-9cm/3.1-3.5”, has a golden body and very large black roundish spot in the caudal peduncle. A few scales below the dorsal fin in mid-body are ornamented with black spots, forming short, two or three horizontal rows.

I also found the similar looking P. vittatus in the same habitat. Here it was extreme yellowish as well, with an even more pronounced yellow tail, dorsal and head region, but this fish stays small, hardly reaching 5cm/2”. It also has a tiny small round spot in the caudal peduncle.

A magnificent P. bimaculatus was another barb found in the shallow habitat. Near the edges was a male with a bright red stripe from the eye into the tail and two almost square spots: one in the caudal peduncle and the other in the lower centre of the dorsal fin.

Finding five Puntius species in such a small habitat was amazing. They were living with Devario cf. malabaricus – a high form – and a Salmophasia species with extremely large eyes.

Unfortunately, the latter are rarely found in the hobby, although more than ten species have been recognised in the genus from India.

Salmophasia species may not have bright colours, but is a peculiar elongated shape with gigantic bright yellow eyes. It’s a very active group fish, along with the Devario species. Together they form an interesting shoal for any medium-sized aquarium.

I also found a very colourful Rasbora daniconius population living in smaller groups. The latter was the typical species with a bright golden stripe from the gills to the tail.

The fifteenth species I found was Macrognathus armatus, but it seemed most of this species had already died as I located only a single specimen and that was in pretty bad shape.

I took water parameters at 9.30am and pH was 6.72, conductivity 92 µSiemens/cm and temperature 26.2°C/79.2’F.

This creek of the waterfall’s drainage seemed undisturbed — until the diggers started to turn over the earth and divert part of it to build the dam. We had to move out, because the trucks were pouring in large stones, inhibiting the future flow of the creek.

Later that day everything was to be destroyed and these fish became history.

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Biotopes of Iran: On the very brink

Heiko Bleher’s search for Iranocichla in Iran revealed a cichlid barely surviving heavily salted waters and intense heat.

Even getting into Iran was difficult — and proved a prelude to the extreme conditions we and its fish were expected to face in this sun-scorched country.

The Iranian Consulate in Milan claimed we needed a contact number from the Ministry of the Interior’s website and only then could we apply for a visa. This would will normally take 14 days, but the website was currently ‘under construction’…

A friend unsuccessfully tried to get the visas for us in his own city, then drove 600 km/370 miles to Tehran to try his luck there. Twenty four hours before our departure, he called to say we could get them on landing at Tehran airport.

We arrived in the early morning to find immigration closed as the airport officials pray at least four times each day. We finally found one who had finished and our friend Behnam welcomed us, together with Ramtin, the largest fish breeder from Tehran’s sister town of Karaj.

Ramtin’s breeding establishment was breathtaking, as I was to discover later. His father had designed large vats and hundreds of aquariums built in four sections, each run by a gigantic filter. Every fish looked healthy and happy

The system never needs a change of water, only topping up after any evaporation, and it has been running efficently non-stop for ten years, according to Ramtin.

The journey south was long but the four-lane highway was in excellent condition. That evening we reached Esfahan, one of the oldest and most beautiful of Iranian cities.

Behnam showed us around, but I was keen to start researching in the Esfahan region for the killifish Aphanius isfahanensis. It was only described in 2006 by Hrbek, Keivany and Coad, but I had not seen a picture of it anywhere.

Behnam showed me the type locality, the Zayandeh Rud (Zayandeh river) at Varzaneh bridge, which is redundant now as the riverbed is completely dry! There’s a dam in its upper reaches, as the little water it gets during a few days in spring is urgently needed by local people.

Before the river became completely dry engineers pumped some water into the only mountain at Esfahan’s southern region to a park. They also incorporated a circulating spring water channel, some 50m/165’ long, and when completed some Aphanius appeared — a tiny population still surviving.

First we found only Gambusia in the channel, but then discovered a few Aphanius in deeper water. It was A.isfahanensis (above) possibly one of the last survivors.

Most easterly cichlid
The following day we travelled south-west, as I wanted to search for several Aphanius species and the most easterly of all cichlids on earth, the endemic Iranocichla hormuzensis. We drove along desert with mountains on both sides, but no trace of vegetation. We crossed riverbeds which hadn’t seen water for decades.

Behnam had told us about a beautiful waterfall in Semiron, which should have fishes — but no one was certain.

Hours later we find it outside a village which even had an aquarium shop which was selling Parrot cichlids and goldfish.

We were 2,000m/6,560’ above sea level and the waterfall was hidden in a small canyon. Just a few drops of water were falling and there were no fish.

Later we reached a sign directing us to a nomadic settlement at Ab Malakh (meaning fall, like waterfall) and the creek had crystal clear water. It looked very remote and almost untouched.

I found several cyprinids, including a nice golden and black striped Alburnus, probably
A. mossulensis. Juveniles were swimming along the shore, while the larger ones, at nearly 20cm/8” TL, were only in the fast running water.

Also along the shore, among some aquatic Potamogeton plants, was an excellent Barbus-like fish with golden body colour and black blotches, probably Capoeta aculeata, which could be ideal in smaller groups for aquaria.

In the open running water we also collected a cyprinid with yellowish body and yellow fins, a large Chondrostoma cryi (above).

Along the sandy bottom, in between larger rocks, was a fish which I first thought was a real Barbus with its two pairs of barbels. Yet when my partner Natasha photographed it I realised it had to be a Schizothorax, later discovering it was S. zarudnyi.

I also netted a really small and beautiful frog along the shore.

I walked for about one kilometre downriver and came to the waterfall Ab Malakh. From the top of the mountain the cold water tumbled over massive rocks into the creek. I fished everywhere underneath and round it, but found no sign of fish.

This place was pleasant and the water refreshing; the temperature was only 17.8°C/64°F, conductivity 19 µS/cm and pH 8.0 at noon.

We drove back to the highway continuing south, crossing mountains left and right and after an hour we crossed a bridge with a larger river flowing below. I found one large predator, Aspius vorax, in open water at nearly 1.5m/5’.

Along the shore, below overhanging bushes and in muddy and stony ground, I found the sub-species of Capoeta barriosi named mandica, and an unidentified Garra. Surely there are more species of Garra still to be named in Iran! The water was 19°C/66°F while the air was 30°C/86°F.
New species
Behnam wanted to find trout at a farm off the main highway in a mountainous region where water was falling and ideal for aquaculture. Next to it was a creek with many aquatic plants, which I believe were dark green Myriophyllum of a species I had never seen before and a light green Samolus species with some red veins in the leaves.

It was a pleasant but small habitat, with a rocky bottom, sand and many fishes, but Behnam took only a single species, probably Alburnus filippii.

South of the city of Shiraz I knew of a creek where a dam had been built and wanted to see if it still held water and fishes. We discovered hardly any water there and the creek, called Mond river, was just a few centimetres deep.

The biotope below was full of rocks and algae was everywhere, often in thick layers. In what little water managed to flow I found a few surviving fishes and some Cyperus species.

I caught one beautiful Cyprinion tenuiradius, probably never seen alive before, and this could become a biotope aquarium.

However, another beauty, Garra persica, caught my eye. I had never seen one alive before and only previously witnessed such a colourful Garra when collecting on the other side of Gulf in the Emirates in 2009.

We were lower now, only 1,345m/4,400’ above sea level and water temperature was 26.4°C/79.5°F at 11.30 hours.

The air temperature measured 38°C/100°F. conductivity was 264 µS/cm and pH 8.0.

From here we drove to Lãr, Iran’s hottest city, where it's claimed the temperature hardly drops below 40°C/104°F, but we were to find hotter locations...  


Brian Coad, the Canadian ichthyologist and expert on Iranian fishes, and who also described Iranocichla, recorded 22 sites for this cichlid. I wanted to see them all and perhaps find a new one. The first was south-west and the river was said to lie between Hormud and Tangdãlãn, but there was no longer a riverbed, only a lake with desert on both sides.

Here at 625m/2,000’ above sea level in very salty water, among millions of Potamogeton plants, I walked along the salt-accumulated shore, seeing many dead fishes — first Iranocichla and then Aphanius.

It was a thoroughly unpleasant experience to go breast deep into this saltwater and try to bring my seine ashore with tons of aquatic vegetation in it. Somehow I managed it and there was plenty of Apanius (above) possibly a new species. It looked like A. ginaonis at the time, but I found that species later at its type locality and it looked very different.

Sites remaining
The Irancichla here also looked different from what Coad has published, and had less red. I gave this Iranocichla hormuzensis population the title of number one, as I found three different ones.

Of the 22 sites registered as to where they occur, only two had water remaining...

There was no other fish species, as they probably cannot survive these conditions. I wonder for how much longer these can live in increasingly salted conditions. Water temperature at 16.00 hours was measured at 35.6°C/97°F, conductivity 6650 µS/cm and pH 7.6.

I had no oxygen with me so most of the 20 collected specimens died from heat exhaustion on the journey to the Strait of the Hormuz on the Persian Gulf. We could hardly breathe in this the most intense heat I had yet encountered.

The thermometer read more than 55°C/131°F — and that was in late evening!

I researched the entire area of the Strait of Hormuz and it was most depressing as most of the locations recorded for Iranocichla had been dry for a long time.

However, I had found variants on this my most recent trip; the two possibly new Aphanius species and the one described form here. I was able to get examples of the two of the three populations back and hopefully we will be able to breed them.

In its natural habitat this beautiful and very unique cichlid (above) is surely at the very brink of extinction. Global warming is taking a toll far greater and far more rapidly than many believe.

Heiko's other biotopes in this series are:

Biotopes of Goa and Karnataka, India

Biotopes of Bolivia

Biotopes of Maharashtra, India

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Biotopes of Goa and Karnataka, India

Heiko Bleher visits India in search of new fish. His expedition takes him to Goa and Karnataka where he discovers survival against the most formidable odds.

Goa was to surprise me. I have regularly fished in shallow waters. But there is shallow and Goa shallow! I even discovered creatures in mud that was drying so quickly that it offered only the last drops of moisture of an emptying creek.

The smallest Indian state, almost in the centre of the Western Ghats, Goa has 1.5 million inhabitants and we appeared to be mingling with most of them at the famous fish market at Panji. There were baby sharks and barracudas as well as stingrays of the genus Dasyatis which enter Mormugao Bay and live in freshwater habitats.

Yet there were no noticeable freshwater fish, so I wanted to visit some local aquarium shops, hoping to see some native species. However, they only sold Koi, goldfish, angelfishes, Pangasius catfishes, guppies, swordtails, arowanas and other exotics.

En route to Ponda I wanted to research in the Khandepa river which is a tributary of the Mandovi, but it was almost completely fenced off. The only access was through a private property and a Hindu temple guardian gave us permission to go through. Along the sandy riverbank I caught for the first time Mystus oculatus, a very nice catfish which looks like a South American pimelodid.

Forest escort
Then came a colourful Puntius vittatus (above), which is rarely found in the hobby, and the gudgeon, Eleotris fusca, found almost throughout the Indo-Pacific region.

While my partner Natasha was taking photographs on the balcony of the temple two software engineers approached. One said he knew where we could find "some interesting fishes" and he escorted us there on his motorcycle.

At the edge of a forest we walked to a small, stagnant creek which, he explained, practically dries up at this time of the year. I doubted finding any fish, but ventured in with my hand net and sunk to my waist in mud.

I lifted the load, looked in the mess and, amazingly, there were quite a few. The engineer said he knew where to wash them and gave me a lift to a tap at a nearby village — and I realised I had some interesting specimens.

I had a beautiful dwarf snakehead showing similarity with Channa punctata, then a loach (Lepidocephalus gunthea), two killis, (Aplocheilus lineatus) and A. kirschmayeri (pictured above) living sympatric, a labyrinth fish (Pseudosphromenus cupanus) in amazing reddish colours, again Puntius vittatus and possibly Rasbora daniconius, but with a different mouth shape.

It seems all of these hardy souls can survive in the mud and without water for a month!


In the Belgaum district I wanted to follow a small road leading south and research in this remote part of Karnataka, but people were everywhere. We had reached 1,000m/3,280’ above sea level and my first destination was a lake near a village called Kaspar Nandgad. Along the shore in early morning and next to a tiny pink Hindu temple three women were already washing cloth and a tractor was out collecting some of what water was left in there.

I tried my luck among many white flowering water lilies and Nymphoides aquatica with its typical 'Banana plants'. I  had collected many of these in Florida and made pocket money from them in the 1960s…

There was a striking red Parosphromenus cupanus in the net and an orange Puntius sophore, with its remarkable red gill plate spot, and Rasbora aff. wilpita with a very large mouth structure, and I had my first Puntius bimaculatus — the real one — in the net.

I found another dwarf snakehead, possibly new, with no pelvic fin and two remarkable red spots on its gill plate, and also a very strange small Danio. It looked somewhat like D. rerio, but its base colour was yellow, not blue, and it had only two golden stripes running from the gill plate into the caudal fin.

Another exciting find was a loach along the drying muddy shore. It had a remarkable pattern and could be a variant of Lepidocephalus thermalis (pictured above) found from India to Sri Lanka, and a transparent, light greenish Caridina shrimp. This lake would dry up in the next couple of weeks and the fishes will either survive in the mud or be eaten by herons.

Near the large Haligri Dam the road crossed a small creek, which seem to flow into the dam. While I walked this stony, slow flowing turbid creek two guys came along and insisted on catching fishes for me. They took a few each of Devario aequipinnatus, Nemacheilus denisonii, Rasbora aff. Daniconius.

I looked along the edges and came up with a few firsts of this trip, like Puntius melanostigma. For the first time I also had P. pookodensis  — probably never seen alive before — and again a P. bimaculatus population.

Again I was amazed to find so many different species in such a small body of water. Of those that survive, do they only live one year in nature? One typical example is the Cardinal tetra, or almost every Apistogramma species.

However on our next stop at Lake Hatiri, which belongs to the Kalinadi basin, I did not find a single fish. Was it too late? Was the water already too polluted from all the rubbish dumped in it?

The Tattihalla river was our next destination. It is a clear, 10m/33’ wide slow flowing tributary of the Kalinadi and my collecting spot was near the Tatwal village in the Uttara Kannada district. There were lots of trees along the river’s edges. With my large seine and Natasha helping from along the shore I caught some Esomus barbatus and an unidentified Rasbora species living in mimicry. I also had the true Lepidocephalus thermalis and again Puntius bimaculatus.

I asked my driver to head for the Magod waterfall region and discovered how different the aquatic fauna was above the falls. Unfortunately the almost 200m/ 650’ drop had hardly any water and to reach the lower of two portions would have taken a full day’s journey.

So I researched the upper part and in a small tributary supplying very little water found a beautiful colour variant of Danio rerio and again loaches.

Along its edge grew swamp plants; a Typha species and also an Araceae which looked like the large Anubias lanceolata from Africa.

Below is the Bedti river supplied with the water from the Magod falls. The bottom and edges were of gigantic stone plates and in some cracks there was gravel. In those I was able, with one of my hand nets, to fetch some Devario malabaricus which seem to lay their eggs in the cracks.

I found another Rasbora daniconius variant and large quantities of Garra mullya (above) grazing these plates by continuously scraping algae. Then, in one hole with a sandy ground I saw my third dwarf snakehead in Karnataka which, when I finally caught it, looked like Channa orientalis but had a very soft orange coloured edge around its caudal fin.

The city of Shimoga is well known for many attractions and one is the 253m/ 830’ falls, but again this had very little water dripping down – another legacy of the dry season.

The following day we drove south-east to Panji lake near Tarikere Tuluk. We crossed the bridge over an almost completely dry Tungabhadra river which flowed from a large reservoir in the north of the same name. There was hardly any flow of water, but the riverbed was several hundred metres wide.

Bare-handed catches
The lake was outside Tarikere and also drying fast. Actually we were lucky, as one to two weeks later I would not have been able to find any fishes in most of my collecting spots. The water level was hardly 10cm/4” and in most parts less. Right in the middle though were four guys with a big sack and I wondered what they were doing among millions of Potamogeton plants with floating leaves.

With their bare hands they were catching Labeo rohita up to 50cm/20in in TL with red eyes. These guys had a feast because it was so easy to catch them in these shallows. The only other living fish I was able to find was Aplocheilus kirschmayeri.

I knew of another lake a few kilometres further south and there was lucky to catch my first Devario fraseri. It was a beauty with bright yellow fins and golden stripes along its side, and does not grow as large as D. malabaricus. It also has a different head shape. It is a group fish and should never be kept in singles or twos.
I found only one loach species there — the less colourful Nemacheilus anguilla.

My third lake in this area was the Sauarenikaryl. It was larger then the previous ones, dammed and covered by species of the genera Myriophyllum, Potamogeton, Nymphaea and Lotus and there were lots of fishes.

The locals had already collected many to eat and to sell, including snakeheads, barbs, gobiids and very large Labeo rohita and Catla catla. One of the latter was more than 10 kg/27 lb.

Here I was able to catch the true Channa striata, which is bright yellow, even golden, along its belly and almost black in upper body. I also found what could be Puntius fraseri, a handsome cyprinid never before seen alive — at least in no publication or aquarium.

It has an emerald green upper body and shiny golden humeral spot in the centre of its rear body just below the end of its dorsal lobe. Immediately connected was a very large bright emerald green spot which narrows from a triangle into the caudal peduncle. I had never seen such a Puntius before.

I wanted to check as many lakes as possible and there was one more, the Arsinikare in Karnataka. It was near the village of Piriyapatna in the Mysore district. When it has enough water it drains into the Kaveri river basin, but we had arrived a few days too late.

The herons had already moved in and on, and there was hardly any water. However, millions of Certophyllum demersum, Lagarosiphon and Najas species, Lotus and Nymphaea, were everywhere, covered with a very large growing Salvinia species.

After a struggle in the mud I took a single Puntius in my net and one looking similar to P. vittatus.

My last destination was up in the Ghats at 1,400m/4,600’ near Madikeri. I knew from my research that there was a rainforest lodge ahead and higher still a small unexplored creek.

Malaria attack
The lodge was in a secondary forest with some medium-sized trees. It was refreshing and not hot at all. However, I suddenly felt sick and thought another malaria attack was imminent. Perhaps I was exhausted, visiting 24 collecting spots in five days.

I covered myself with all the blankets available, but was determined to fish the creek I had travelled so far to reach. I took a flashlight and hand net to this crystal clear, fast flowing but shallow waterbed.

The water was intensely cold and the further I walked the colder it became. Yet it was cooling my fever and with every new discovery I thought about it less.

This was the most virgin location of my entire trip. It was a fantastic biotope full of gravel, sand and round stones, most of them covered with moss or algae. Forest vegetation covered the shore of the creek.

Where the water flowed fast I found a new Travancoria species looking from a distance like T. jonesi, but the latter is only known from Pampadampara, Peerumedu Taluq, in Kerala, and far south from here. It has a different morphology and only two species are described. The second one is T. elongata, which lives endemic in the Chalakkudy river.

In the slower running parts I found a new Devario (sp. 1). This one had never been collected, nor seen before, and the other beauty was a Nemacheilus nilgiriensis, a very red loach. Then again there was a Danio rerio population.

This unique biotope, called the Kaluarili creek, is a source of the Kaveri systems,  and had the following springtime parameters: water temperature 18.5°C/65.3°F, conductivity just below 30 µS/cm and oxygen 5.95 m/l.

In most parts of this region water temperatures fall to 15°C/59°F, especially in winter in higher regions of the Western Ghats, and rise to 27-30°C/81-86°F in summer, mainly in lowland waterways.

Higher up it rarely reaches above 25°C/77°F. The pH was in most places above 7 and the conductivity everywhere I collected between 100- 300 µS/cm.

Dress sense
Two dozen women were washing cloth in the Kauveri river while I was looking between the rocks for fish and two came over to watch me in my search.

They then jumped in and used their dresses as hand nets, catching a beautiful loach in no time in between hundreds of large stones. They had caught the first Nemacheilus guentheri of my trip!

They also snared a magnificent Garra species and it could prove be the subspecies G. gotyla stenorhynchus. It had an orange spot below its dorsal and a large emerald green spot on the gill plate. The lips were bright blue, as was the base of its pectoral fins. The upper and lower tail lobe was orange-red.

Check out Heiko's other biotopes in this series:

Biotopes of Bolivia

Biotopes of Maharashtra, India

PFK in Sri Lanka: The incredible lake

Jeremy Gay visits a large lake in Rekawa on the south coast of Sri Lanka.

When I spent two weeks in Sri Lanka with the Marine Conservation Society recently, I experienced my own unforgettable journey of discovery.

Early in our trip we were taken to a large lake at the village of Rekawa on the south coast. It covered several acres and looked a real haven for wildlife, having plenty of birdlife, plenty of plant life, and, we hoped, plenty of aquatic life too.

Exciting lake
Even the look of the lake excited me, as we don’t really see anything as exotic as this in the UK. About 40% of its entire area was thickly planted, mostly with floating Salvinia natans, several varieties of water lilies, Water hyacinth, tall reeds and thousands of square metres of what looked to be Ceratophyllum demersum.

The plants seemed key to the health of the lake, as close inspection of a net revealed simply thousands of tiny aquatic invertebrates, insect larvae and larger inverts like shrimp and crabs. These would feed in and around the abundant mass of plants, which, in turn, went on to feed the lake’s fish.

I wasn’t disappointed with numbers of fish either, as I could see a few on the surface next to the bank. From above, they looked to be small killies, and where there is an abundance of one species there are usually many more too – at least in the tropics.

Our first glimpse of the lake was towards evening when we were actually in the area to visit a fish growing-on facility ran by the Turtle Conservation Project and because it was getting dark I didn’t get to dip my net. Yet on the Thursday morning of the first week Peter Richardson of the Marine Conservation Society and I were desperate to do some fishing so left early to see what we could catch.

I’m always cautious when entering unfamiliar waters because I don’t know how deep they get and how quickly, and I have a healthy fear of what I can’t see underwater. Peter was first in and I followed, and we found that in some places the lake felt as warm as bathwater and, in the margins where we were fishing, it averaged just 45cm/18” in depth.

As I said the plant life was incredibly thick, with Ceratophyllum completely filling the water in places and water lily leaves and floating Salvinia growing on top of that. Water tests were surprising, revealing an average temperature of 28°C/82°F, a pH of around 8, and general hardness that was through the roof. So this was a hard, alkaline, warm, habitat.

First fish
Despite feeling pretty horrible to walk through and accumulating floating rafts of plants around our legs as we did, this gave us an advantage in that the killifish-like fish at the surface didn’t really scatter when we came near. We could just scoop them up.

They were the first fish placed in our holding tank on the bank and we could make out females and some particularly nice males. Peter was excited as he had set up a Sri Lanka biotope before and I could appreciate that, although quite subtly coloured, these small panchax-looking fish, averaging only 2.5cm/1”, were thriving in the habitat and I was glad we had at least managed to catch something.


A later check in the reference book hinted that they might be Aplocheilus werneri, a fish that occurs where we were in southern Sri Lanka. However, the fish in the photograph looked far larger and more colourful than the one I had caught and, after reading that they grew to 9cm/3.5” and liked water between 22-26°C/72-79°F, I wasn’t so sure that those I caught were not a sub species or a regional variant. Mine were tiny and living in very warm water. Were they A. werneri at all? I think they were A. dayi.

Contemplation that night made me wonder if there weren’t any large adult fish because of the many hundreds of birds that frequented the lake. It didn’t seem to be from lack of food…

We only had one net so Peter took a stab into the raft of floating plants and immediately brought up a 5cm/2” snakehead that had been resting there. I was really pleased as I thought it looked like a snakehead habitat and this was the first large, predatory freshwater species that we had caught.

I couldn’t identify the species as it was quite mottled, and typically shaped,though a local fisherman told me that it got to about 25cm/10” in length, which isn’t too bad and does make it suitable for captivity. Ralf Britz later confirmed it was Channa punctata, a species that is quite cheap and easy to get hold of in the UK.

The only problem with any snakehead is that they hate confinement, refuse to be tamed and are great jumpers — and ours jumped out of the tank when I wasn’t looking. We got lots more, but all fish were put back anyway. We were there to discover and appreciate them, not to collect them for ourselves.

Key to keeping
I think the key to Channa punctata in captivity, and maybe many others, is to heavily plant the tank with feathery leaved plants and use floating plants on the surface too, as these were resting just under the surface among the plants. It may help to stop them from jumping out too!

Next were the barbs. The first we caught were tiny and silver, and there in abundance. We caught them fairly easily and a close inspection revealed a hint of yellow colour on some males, but all with a small black spot in the dorsal fin. They were Puntius vittatus, though again the book’s temperature reference was too low. Were they taking measurements in wintertime and me in the summer?

P. vittatus are really too plain for most peoples’ tastes. I liked their small average size though, again at around 25cm/1” in length. Through the shoals of thousands of panchax we started to spot a few vertically-banded barbs, small at first and the larger at 5cm/2” in length or more.

The black bands were clearly defined and looked like what the locals called “filamentosa”. The Sri Lankan filamentosa is actually Puntius singhala.

They proved incredibly agile and hard to catch and we caught just one juvenile, making identification even more difficult. The juveniles would certainly stand out in any aquarium!

But you can’t be in ponds, lakes and ditches in somewhere like Sri Lanka without catching a few anabantids and before long we started to catch some tiny fish that looked like small Paradise fish. The closest geographical match in the book was the Black spike-tailed Paradise fish (Pseudosphromenus cupanus.)  

Either way they were tiny and gratefully received. We didn’t see any of these in the lake and every one was caught just by shooting the net through a load of floating plants and checking it.

Introduced species
As beautiful as this lake was it did have issues in terms of fish and the main one involved introduced species. It was full with Oreochromis niloticus of all sizes, known just as 'tilapia,' and they were introduced to Sri Lanka as a food fish.

They are very popular as such, only inevitably they escaped and are now in most natural waters in the country. As we visited a tilapia and Koi growing-on farm just feet from the lake’s edge I voiced my concern about having alien species so close to a natural water because of the risk of escapees.

The guy feeding the captive tilapia pond said he had caught them from the lake in the first place, so it looked like they were there to stay. Thushan, our local expert and guide, said there were also Catla catla in the lake as food, which I caught as small fry later that day (above). They are not really aquarium fish, looking a bit like carp and growing large.

Wonderful plants
If into either natural or cultivated plants, either terrestrial or aquatic, you would have loved this lake. Every plant in Sri Lanka looks like something out of the Eden Project anyway and the plants here were no exception. As I mentioned, I think plant life in the lake plays a major part in its ecology, as well as looking aesthetically wonderful.

Floaters, lilies and vast beds of Ceratophyllum dominated, though there was also Hydrilla, Potamogeton looking in wonderful contrast to the Ceratophyllum with its red leaves, what looked like Aponogetum and lots of lily-like plants.

All the plants grew in deep, soft mud, warmer than the water above as the sun shone onto it. Where there were patches of sand, no plants grew. The huge patches of aquatic plants looked superb in the clear patches of water and were undoubtedly a huge factor in this lake’s habitat. Whether it will continue as the population of tilapia grows I couldn’t say.

Set up a Rekawa lake biotope
A lake biotope tank would be easy to set up at home and, due to the small fish species we caught, doesn’t have to be too large either.

Choose an aquarium at least 60cm/ 24” long with gentle filtration and quite bright lighting for the plants. All plants in the lake are hardy and quite easy to grow in the aquarium without much special care, though CO2 could be added for better growth.

The substrate in most places was dark brown mud, littered with dead plant leaves, stalks and detritus. In open water where no plants grew, there were patches of fine sand. To replicate this and feed the plants at the same time, either use a complete soil-based aquarium substrate like Tetra Complete, Sera Floradepot or Dennerle Deponit — or make your own out of pond soil.

To stop it getting stirred up place a layer of sand on top, again dark if possible, and heating cables could be used to replicate that warm mud I waded through across the lake shallows.
There were few hard aquascaping features in the lake, just the odd log or branch or two, so some narrow bogwood is all that’s needed. I felt or saw no rocks.

Plants were a massive feature in the shallows, so plant heavily with Ceratophyllum demersum and place Salvinia natans floating above it. For larger aquariums of 120 x 45cm/47 x 18” or more, large tropical water lilies could be added along with Water hyacinth. Potamogeton spp aren’t that readily available for the aquarium, so check with a plant specialist as to their availability. Use bright daylight spectrum lighting set for ten hours per day.

Use a heater set to 28°C/82°F to regulate temperature and, to be particularly biotope correct, use hard alkaline water with a pH of 8. Add Aplocheilus dayi, Puntius vittatus and Pseudosphromenus cupanus.

For the larger, oddball version of this biotope leave out all the small fish and add Channa punctata instead — or for the alien, but also biotope correct look, add Oreochromis niloticus.

The Marine Conservation Society
The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) are a UK charity caring for our seas, shores and wildlife. MCS have supported the Turtle Conservation Project (TCP) in Sri Lanka since 2002.

MCS and TCP arranged Jeremy’s trip as part of a collaborative project developing alternative income within Rekawa village, which is supported by the BBC Wildlife Fund.

MCS also campaign for better protection of endangered marine creatures; promote sustainable seafood choices to protect fish stocks for the future; campaign for pollution-free seas and litter-free coastlines; and involve thousands of volunteers in work to survey and protect our marine life. You can join MCS for as little as £3 per month.

Visit Sri Lanka
If you want to explore the aquatic wildlife of Sri Lanka, visit

This item first appeared in the May 2009 issue of Practical Fishkeeping magazine. It may not be reproduced without written permission.


Biotopes of Bolivia

Heiko Bleher’s relentless search to find and photograph new fish takes him to the Yungas, a remote region of Bolivia fished before only by intrepid pioneers.

Lunchtime conversation with the now late Jacques Géry got round to Nathan Everett Pearson, a student of world famous ichthyologist Carl H. Eigenmann, and who had found many new species in an area of Bolivia.

When Jacques asked why I had not been there a new expedition began to form in my mind...

Jacques was referring to the Yungas where Pearson, during 1921-22, had collected 6,775 specimens, of which the characiformes represented about half of his collection and 77 of a total of 155 species there. Pearson had actually found 25 new species and two new genera — of which most had never been seen live until today. 

I have collected several times in Bolivia, but never in that part which is on the eastern slope of the Andes. I felt some very interesting research was there to be done!

 The only other person who had reported fieldwork there was Perugia, who in 1897 published on 200 specimens Professor Luigi Balzan (who had the cichlid Gymnogeophagus balzani named in his honour) had found in Bolivia. They represented 37 species, of which five came from the Marmoré and 32 from the Beni, in the Yungas.

Haseman also collected in Bolivia, but only in the Marmoré/Guaporé region.

I wanted to see some of those new genera and species live, especially after I searched and found out that none had ever photographed in the wild and very few had ever been collected.

Bolivia beckoned and La Paz, the highest capital city in the world, brought back childhood memories. After we came out of the jungle in 1955, during my mother’s first two-year South American expedition, she had to sell her Rolleiflex camera to get enough money for our train tickets to Arica in Chile.

We were also involved in a bus accident in Cochabamba and I needed many stitches in a head wound. We also lost two years’ worth of collections of fish, plants, insects and animals —  all except Tincho and Pancho (two Capuchin monkeys), Lorita (a parrot), Aquilia (an eagle) and Lagarto (an iguana).

The road from hell

I rented a 4WD truck with spare tyres and fuel tanks in La Paz for this expedition. Once on board I had to cross the city in an incredible traffic jam uphill because although La Paz is almost 4,000m/13,100’ above sea level, it lies in a valley and you have to climb to cross the Andes to almost 4570m/15,000’.

At the city exit all vehicles must stop. Your personal ID, car registration and destination is enterered in a book. First I wondered why, later I was to find out…

On the very top, in late afternoon and after continuous rain, the sun came out and, from the peak, I saw what was front — carretera de la muerte (the 'highway of death'). Here you drive on the left, just inches from a deep abyss, and every few hundred metres there is a cross on the roadside as it seems that every day one or two cars plunge down…

In most places this mountain road (pictured above) is no more than
2 m/6.5’ wide and if another car comes in the opposite direction you have to back up until it widens — and this on a slope which goes straight down 500m/1,640’ or more.

Water flows almost constantly from the mountains and it rained non-stop when I was driving. It rains frequently along the eastern mountain slopes, which turns this treacherous road into a muddy, even more dangerous one!

Having successfully negotiated 'the highway of death' I reached a point, at around 2,286m/7,500', where there was a side road that crossed a tiny, shaking bridge over the Río Huarinilla. I had to stop and, although it was getting dark, I caught in my hand net three very interesting tetras with their mouths up.

Pearson had described Hemibrycon beni from an lower area of this region with a similar mouth shape but different colour pattern. Interestingly, mine lived only in the fastest flowing part of this mountain stream and up to 2743m/9,000’ high.  

In the early morning, after driving 150 km and descending from 4570m/15,000’ to 914m/3,000’ close to the Yungas, I found an empty space, pulled in and slept for hours.

I awoke to find hundreds of gigantic tree ferns, bromeliads, in the treetops, Heliconia with their long red and yellow flowers along the road, across were orchids with violet flowers and tucanos were flying overhead. It was good to see because, further on, people had deforested to plant bananas. Then came the lower checkpoint before Caranavi, after crossing the Río Kaka. The military police couldn’t believe I was travelling alone…

Caranavi is a larger city with buildings along the Kaka river for kilometres. From here the road went uphill again to Carrasco. It rained continuously and the road was pure mud. If I hadn’t this high wheelbase 4WD I would never have made it to Sapecho which was just a couple of houses. Fog then became so dense I spent another night in the car.

In the Río Jarreli at 7am I collected some beautiful Hypostomus (probably H. bolivianus) and an Asytanax, recalling that Pearson found four different ones during his expedition. Here in the middle of nowhere, the early morning view was unbelievable: primary rainforest as far as the eyes could see with trees covered by epiphytes.

It continued like this almost until I reached Yucuma (Yocuma), a tiny settlement that showed I had already reached the flat land, the Amazon basin. I could see entirely deforested areas and extensive cattle ranching, a few palm oil plantations and a single aquaculture station, sponsored by Europeans but not functioning. Yet here I had a stroke of luck…

Along this dirt road I suddenly had an urge to stop and enter the bushes to my left. It was actually the only place where I found trees.

'Swimming jewel'
Sure enough, about 200m/650’ inside, there was a small lake about 10m/33’ across and no more than 30cm/12” deep. It was a fully functioning environment with different insects, plenty of aquatic vegetation and tea-coloured water. The bright sun hardly penetrated the treetops. I knew there were fish and came up with 27 different species in lttle more than two scoops.

My most exciting find was a tiny characoid, a swimming jewel, which is not scientifically described but probably a Tyttocharax sp. It had a bright gold body, black stripe below the centre golden stripe, two large yellow spots above and below the large black caudal peduncle spot, golden eyes and was only 2cm/0.8” long. Hopefully we can breed it.

There was also an Apistogramma — according to Steack a new species — a strange looking red eye Moenkhausia species and a spectacular Pyrrhulina cf. vittata.

My next stop was the Río Tigre which was full of shrimps, some lobsters, crabs and another Astyanax in schools. Under rocks were a couple of interesting Ancistrus species, maybe A. montana. Pearson collected in this area and had four different Ancistrus on his journey: cirrhosa, hoplogenys, bufonia and montanus.

That evening I reached Rurrenabaque, a city at the intersection of three major ecosystems: mountains, rainforest, and pampas. The result is a remarkably high diversity of wildlife. It is also the gateway to most of the Bolivian Amazon area for tourists — mainly travellers and eco-tourism lovers.

Next day I had to have the vehicle fixed after the pounding it had taken on those terrible mountain tracks. Afterwards I set off to find Pearson’s locations along the eastern slopes to Ixiamas and Alto Madidi and I wanted to cross the Río Madre de Dios and drive to Cobija. The ferry took my Toyota across the Río Beni to where my road headed north-west.

On most of my drive to Ixiamas I had the high eastern slopes of the mountains to my left and It was little more than 100km/62 miles from Rurrenabaque with Tumupasa near the middle to where Pearson researched. After all day collecting in every creek and waterhole I could find, I reached Tumupasa in early evening.

National park
A cafe owner there told me that in 1995 Conservation International was able to convince the Bolivian government to establish the Madidi National Park in this area. It is home to 85% of all the bird species in Bolivia and 11% of all the world’s bird species, 75% of Bolivia’s mammal species and 40% of the country’s reptile species.

Endangered jaguars, giant otters, spectacled bears and black caiman roam the forests there.

A dam is set to be built across the Beni at the entrance of the national park, flooding the established Chalalan Lodge and surrounding rainforests. There are road projects in the pipeline too and two companies hold concessions to search for and extract hydrocarbons within the park’s boundaries.

I camped along of one of the 100 creeks flowing from the mountain to meet the Rio Enapurera, Undumo or later the Claro and Madidi rivers. Along this stretch and in many parts of the national park were cattle farms. Finally I found a spot, still amid primary rainforest, and at dawn thousands of dragonflies were in the air.

In the stream, full of rocks, I saw hundreds of Characidium — characoids living mostly over the substrate — swimming in the fast current over and under the rocks.

They were beautifully banded with very large pelvic fins, like hands, which they use to hold onto the rocks in swift waters and graze on the aufwuchs. It took me hours to catch just a few as they were too fast. I hope this fish is C. bolivianum, which Pearson originally collected in Tumupasa.

Next day I was appropaching Ixiamas, with only cattle farms and rice fields in view. It reminded me of an old Wild West town — the end of the line! Except for cattle, rice and wood,  there’s nothing to haul away.

I was told that the road goes no further than Alto Madidi, not even to Cobija. I walked a small track for kilometres and encountered a hunter who told me that there had never been a road! I could go to the river (Madre de Dios) and no further...

My luck was in though. In a small creek flowing from the mountain I saw some beautiful blue, neon-like, luminescent fishes. With my hand net I chased a small group into a corner of this 30cm/12” deep crystal clear creek. Once caught, I realised they must be a Tittocharax species.

Back at my home in Italy, I sent some to the characoid taxonomist Dr Stanley Weitzman and he identified them as similar to T. tambonpatensis. This tiny tetra, hardly 12mm/0.5”, then spawned like crazy at my friend Peter Frech’s place in Germany, with thousands of large eggs!

However, after the second generation only very few eggs appeared and after the third there was nothing. The reason is is a still an unresolved mystery.

Pearson and Eigenmann had a great opportunity to see in South America nature at its best — and I can be proud that I have too, I just hope the fishes I brought back will become established in breeding around the world.

Why not check out Heiko Bleher's expedition to Maharashtra, India?

This item first appeared in the November 2009 issue of Practical Fishkeeping magazine. It may not be reproduced without written permission.