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Why do some cichlid species remain undescribed?

8 years 2 months ago #31703 by Nuchal Man
As far as the Cichlid News, you may have to buy the issue. I'd recommend subscribing as it is a great magazine.

For a database, California Academy of Sciences has a pretty good database on their web site that is searchable. The differences in names that they view valid that I don't (example, I don't believe Maylandia is valid, it should be Metriaclima) are mostly due to differences in opinion.

I have a confession. I'm a cichlaholic.

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8 years 2 months ago #31702 by MbunaRob
Thanks for the thorough explanation. I agree and I have come across some of the errors & short comings of fishbase, however I haven't found a better source listing yet to help this novice get closer to a more accurate scientific name than the ones used by most average sites returned by a typical search. The internet just seems to be filled with misspelled and outdated cichlid names.

I was very interested in the October 2010 Konings article you referred to, but the Cichlid News link from a previous thread in this forum appears to be broken. Is there another source for this article?

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8 years 2 months ago #31700 by forumadmin
Dude, that was a really awesome response. Well done!

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8 years 2 months ago #31699 by Nuchal Man
Your question has a complex answer. As a person studying this field I'll try to explain it.

Let me first state that Pseudotropheus sp. "acei" has in fact been found to be the same as Pseudotropheus elegans after comparing it to the type specimen. Although this hasn't yet been published in a scientific journal, it is currently being worked on. Konings writes a nice article on the current taxonomic state of this species in the October 2010 Cichlid News.

I also think it is important to note how poor of a resource fishbase is. Fishbase is full of misinformation. Much of the taxonomy is not up to date and many of the photos represent the wrong species. Fishbase also wasn't designed specifically for aquarium hobbyists. That's why many of the fish you see there don't have all the aquarium nicknames there.

The reason that not every cichlid is described has many reasons. Cichlids are constantly evolving. They won't stop. As I'm typing this, they are evolving. Cichlids evolve at an amazingly fast rate. It has been documented that new species have evolved within 20-40 years! This is incredibly fast, especially for vertebrates.

Another reason not all cichlids are described is that there just aren't that many ichthyologists primarily doing taxonomic work on cichlids. there is probably only around 25-40 ichthyologists in the world who readily work on cichlid taxonomy. Recently, taxonomy has become less of a primary focus of ichthyologists and phylogenetic studies have become more important. This is essentially creating a family tree of evolution. It is important to note that anyone could describe a species. A fair number of species have been described by hobbyists. The problem is many times the hobbyist is not trained as an ichthyologist and their publications usually have some badly done descriptions. Sometimes, hobbyist descriptions have even caused serious taxonomic issues that have taken years to resolve.

Another reason is that scientific expeditions to collect fish for descriptions takes lots of time and money. In today's economy, it is really tough as there is much less funding available. One has to apply for research permits as well as import/export permits. These can be quite pricey and require tons of paperwork. It can take months to obtain them. For a research expedition one pay for travel to country, food, collection and preservation materials, and travel within the country. In countries with poor infrastructure, it can take days just to get to the study site. It is time consuming to plan an expedition and it costs thousands of dollars.

Describing a fish is also a very time consuming process. It is frowned upon now days to describe a fish off only one or two individuals. It is important to get a decent sampling size. This is because you want to measure the variation of characters within a species. Ichthyologist measure many characters of. Sometimes, these characters are minuscule, hard to measure parts. After one measures fish and has data on the characters and measurements of the fish, one then has to compare it to other fish. This can be extremely time consuming. Lets say someone is describing what they believe is a new Metriaclima. Metriaclima is comprised of about 30 very similar fish. One would have to compare their specimens with the already described specimens to note the differences between them and if the differences in their fish are significantly different from previously described species.

Describing the actual fish and writing the paper for publication is a long process. There is a specific taxonomic code that ichthyologists must follow stated by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. I won't get into detail on the rules much in this thread, but they are available online if you are interested. One important rule that I will state is that in order for a description to be valid the "description must be published in a work that is obtainable in numerous identical copies, as a permanent scientific record (criteria of publication, Chapter 3)". This means that the local fish clubs publication won't cut it. It is very important that one publishes a description in a journal well respected by other researchers in a field.

The publication process is a long and tedious one. Papers in the ichthyology community and many other scientific communities are peer reviewed and heavily scrutinized. Ichthyologists must put every important detail and thoroughly explain their findings. There are tons of statistics that need to be thoroughly organized and placed in tables and graphics displayed. Ichthyologists send there paper to numerous journals for review and hopefully approval for publication. This usually takes a minimum of about 6 months. The editors of the journal also will state whether or not your study need to be described more elaborately or more statistical analysis need to be included in order to be up to their standards for publication.

In conclusion, the low number of individuals doing taxonomy specifically on cichlids, cichlids always evolving, cost, and time is why not every cichlid will be described. That doesn't mean some cichlids don't deserve to be described, it just takes years to describe a species. It's also important to note that ichthyologists like their job because they find fish interesting. If an ichthyologist has an interest in Victorian cichlids and wants to do taxonomy, he'll probably try to do it on Victorians because that's what interests him.

As far as resources for undescribed fish, hobbyist publications are usually the best. Cichlid Room Companion is a fantastic site full of information on more cichlids in depth than probably any site. I assume from your username and example of Pseudotropheus sp. "acei" you probably have an interest in Malawi cichlids. Konings books are well worth the buy and have tons of in depth information on described and undescribed species.

Hope that helps,


I have a confession. I'm a cichlaholic.
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8 years 2 months ago - 8 years 2 months ago #31698 by MbunaRob
Why do some cichlid "species" remain scientifically undescribed despite apparent, extensive knowledge of the named fish and/or popularity in the hobby? One named fish that comes to my mind is Pseudotropheus sp. "Acei", which seems to be very popular and readily available at many big box stores. Does it not deserve to be described?

I have been using fishbase.org to validate the current cichlid genera & species names, but I can not find even an invalid name reference to a fish named "Acei", even using their common name lookup.

Is there any good and/or semi-offical source to get a list of currently known, undescribed cichlid species?
Last edit: 8 years 2 months ago by MbunaRob. Reason: clarify question
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