Meet the Expert: Heiko Bleher

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Heiko Bleher is the world's most famous ichthyological explorer and will be writing more for you in future issues of PFK. Here he tells Matt Clarke what makes him tick.

What countries have you explored to collect and which fish is your favourite?

Including this year I have researched in 164 countries and to pick my favourite fish is quite difficult. I have appreciated every one caught during more than 800 field trips — although finding quite a few have taken their toll, what with having contracted malaria and bilharzia on the way!

I’ve also tangled with some military and police and government employees — even being sent to prison!

Where are you going next and what do you hope to find?

In southern Australia I expect to find the only freshwater fish which turns its head around like humans — the Salamander fish, Lepidogalaxias salamandroides.

Then I’m collecting again in The Pamirs in Central Asia at the ‘The Top of the World’. Hopefully I’m going to study and collect live for the first time the world’s highest altitude fish — a unique loach —  surviving at 5,876m/19,280’ in the Himalayas.

For 2010 I’ve already got another 12 field trips scheduled:  to India, the Arabian Peninsula, New Guinea, Indonesia, China and Mongolia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Belize again, Canada, Argentina and Nicaragua.

How many fish species do you think you’ve discovered and which do you consider your greatest discovery?

So far I have found and introduced more than 4,000 .species, not all being new to science but certainly to the hobby. Some, like rainbowfish as Melanotaenia praecox, M. boesemani, Nanochromis transvestitus or others had been described long before, but no one had seen them alive, nor did we know their colours.

As to my ‘greatest’ discovery, that’s difficult. The biggest was the freshwater sawfish I found 1982 in a lake in northern Australia, which was 315cm/10’ long and the largest recorded (discovered) freshwater fish of the 20th century.

For the hobby maybe Hemigrammus bleheri stands out most and today it is one of the world’s most widely sold tetra. There’s also Melanotaenia praecox. From the 13 specimens I originally collected, 5,000,000 are bred in Indonesia alone every month and shipped worldwide. M. boesemani is also among the most asked for aquarium fish for community tanks.

How do you identify fish in the field? Is it from memory or do you take books and ID keys with you?

I have been working with fish and aquatic plants all my life. I am currently working on three volumes of a monster book of all fresh and brackish water fish of the world. So far 25,000 different forms/species have been identified, researched and collected, and I have details of almost all committed to memory.

When I found a new tetra, cichlid or loach, new labyrinth fish or new atherinid, new Corydoras or loricariid, new snakehead or aponogonid I had not mistaken for anything else, the science/specialist in our expedition group confirmed identities. That knowledge, combined with DNA evidence, was used on my new Paracheirodon species discovery in 2006. I cannot recall ever mis-identifying any fish.

Naturally any final ID is made when I return home. I never take ID keys with me as I have more than enough equipment to carry! In my library at home I have 33,000 fish books and about 2.5 million original descriptions or photocopies of them.

I can also tell where some species were described twice — where there are two names for the same species — although they may be just a variant/colour morph or geographic variant. These errors are usually made by so-called ‘pseudo-ichthyologists’.

I have also been the managing editor of aqua, International Journal of Ichthyolgy, for nearly 20 years — and that helps too!

What’s been your most impressive recent discovery and can you share any details?

Most striking probably in terms of colour for the community tank was the Melanotaenia sp. ‘2’, as pictured in April 2009’s PFK. It is a stunning and beautiful rainbow species — some say the most beautiful I’ve found.

There is also the Millennium rainbowfish, Glossolepis pseudoincisus, I found in 2001 which is probably the most red of all fish and it stays quite small. Then again, some of the Apistogramma species I found recently are quite breathtaking.

The new Badis and Dario, as well as some of the colourful Indian loaches, are great for the smaller aquariums, being incredibly active and beautiful with rare behaviour patterns from which we can learn a lot.

The super small Fluviaphylax species — at least three new ones — I found last year are another fantastic top-swimmer for smaller tanks.

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