How some tiny fish might unlock the secrets of evolution

A tiny sampling of the hundreds of species of haplochromine cichilds endemic to Lake Victoria.

Lake Victoria is a vault of evolutionary knowledge. Studying the Lake Victoria haplochromine fishes – aka fulu, furu, nkeje, or “happies” – is like watching stars being born deep in the time and space of the cosmos. Lake Victoria is a gift, a priceless scroll. We have only to peer into its waters and read what is there.

Les Kaufman is part of the team who are presently on a on-going field work at Lake Victoria, their project was designed to look at big fish – Nile perch, tilapia, and the Lake’s biggest catfish, the imposing Bagrus docmac – and little fish alike. Several team members, both on the boats and abroad, are madly (quite literally) obsessed with biodiversity of the lake’s native fishes, most of which are small, only occasionally very colorful, and not commercially valuable. So, what gives?

Though not to Western tastes, haplochromine cichlids are useful to the people who live around the lake. They are the base of a fish soup that is an important home remedy, just as chicken soup is central to my own Jewish culinary culture. They are caught in the same nets as dagaa (the lake’s abundant minnow, Rastrineobola argentea) and used in similar ways: sun-dried and turned into a protein additive for animal feeds.  Economically, their greatest utility is indirect as food for the introduced Nile perch, which appear to grow fastest when foraging on these colorful little fishes.

Before anything can be food, though, it’s fodder for science and this raises familiar questions: how important is it to pay tedious attention to all the little tiny ones? Why must we care about species of no immediate value? Why care about biodiversity?

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