Thursday, July 28, 2016

Describing the undescribed

Fig. 1. Chiloglanis kerioensis, one of the species Hank Bart and colleagues discovered in Kenya. (Credit: R.C. Schmidt).

Henry “Hank” Bart, director of Tulane University’s Biodiversity Research Institute, had never done research in Africa, much less visited the continent, before 2008. Now after intense suckermouth catfish research in Kenya over the past few years, Bart is looking to continue his work there.

“I don’t want it to end. There’s a lot more discovery work to be done,” he said. “Every year I find a way to get myself back to Kenya.”

Bart’s work as lead investigator took him to Africa, thanks in part to the U.S. National Science Foundation’s funding of a collaboration with the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) and the University of Nairobi. The team - made up of Bart, U.S. students and Kenya-based scientists and students - studied Chiloglanis, a diverse genus of catfish that Bart said scientists are still describing. With approximately 50 of the species described, Bart, his former doctoral student, Ray C. Schmidt - now working in Kenya as a Smithsonian Postdoctoral Research Fellow, and collaborator Wanja Dorothy Nyingi of NMK have added two species to the stock of known Chiloglanis species based on specimens collected while in Kenya, East Africa. Schmidt, Bart and other colleagues are in the process of describing eight new species of Chiloglanis from Guinea, West Africa.

“Many described species have really broad distributions that encompass other undescribed species…,” Bart said. “We encounter these undescribed species in the course of comparing specimens from different parts of the described species’ distributions.”

He said considering synonymy is important - or making certain the name they are considering when describing their species hasn’t already been assigned to an already-described species.

“When describing the two new species of suckermouth catfishes from Kenya, we determined that these species were not formerly named, so we named them,” Bart said. “We also indicated which species should be continued to be recognized as valid in Kenya, and what other names are in synonymy of those described species.”

Part of the group’s work involved collecting any and every fish they encountered, depositing the specimens into Kenya’s museum ichthyology collection, studying them and their genetics and comparing them to specimens from other populations.

Beyond describing previously undescribed Chiloglanis, Bart and his team were able to determine much about the environments from which these catfish come. With higher elevations and a more arid climate, Bart said that East Africa’s biodiversity is less diverse than West Africa. He also described local rivers’ histories and colonization patterns of the catfish.

“So these fishes occur in freshwater rivers, and their biodiversity reflects the diversity in the rivers and the history in the rivers,” he said. “As the rivers formed and fish colonized different rivers, those populations became isolated, and, over time, those populations diverged to the point where they formed different species.”

While Bart hopes that he can continue his research for years to come, he also wishes others are afforded similar opportunities. He said while he was fortunate enough to be funded by the NSF, many individuals’ work relies on studying type specimens. Bart said the museums that house these described specimens are generally located in Europe and the United States. Museums in many undeveloped countries don’t have type specimens and taxonomists from those countries often don’t have easy access to the museums that house the types to study them and compare them to species they are describing.

That’s why, he said, funding is so important. Along with the NSF funding, USAID Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER) funds went to Nyingi, Bart’s research collaborator.

“Funding goes further in developing countries than in the U.S.,” said Bart, who encourages relationships across agencies and abroad. “We can find solutions … (through global partnerships).”

(2014, March 14). Fish Identification: Find Species. Fish Base. Retrieved From:

Schmidt, Ray, Bart, Henry, Nyingi, Wanja (2015, November). Two new species of African suckermouth catfishes, genus Chiloglanis (Siluriformes: Mochokidae), from Kenya with remarks on other taxa from the area. Zootaxa, vol. 4044(1):45-64. DOI: 10.11646/zootaxa.4044.1.2


The use of scientific names to designate the same taxonomic group.
Type specimens
The representative for an animal or plant species, which acts as a reference point when a species is first named.