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Just a Fish Story?

Chiapas catfish

November 29, 2012

The warm sun is setting and the waters are alive with activity. It is the late Cretaceous period and the earth is flourishing with unusual life. The rumble of a herd of dinosaurs can be heard far-off in the distance. Flowering plants can be seen for the first time. A certain ray-finned, whiskered, scaleless group of fishes quietly travels the dark currents of a river, searching the rich river bottom for decaying plants and small aquatic bugs to eat. Untouched by the shifting earth and its tumultuous changes in climate and landscape, this family of catfishes will stand the test of time.

Fast forward about 75 million years to 2005. Academy Curator and Chaplin Chair of Ichthyology Dr. John Lundberg wades in the Lacantún River in Chiapas, Mexico. He and his colleague Dr. Rocio Rodiles are about to collect additional specimens of the newly found species that could help unlock Earth’s mysterious past: Lacantunia enigmatica.

Named for the place of its discovery and its enigmatic origins, Lacantunia enigmatica, commonly known as the Chiapas catfish, is no ordinary fish. Unlike other catfish in its habitat, the Chiapas catfish is closely related to a clade, or a group of organisms that traces back to a common ancestor, located in Africa. The fact that Lundberg made this fishy discovery in Mexico challenges our existing views on Earth’s history and the dispersion of wildlife throughout the shifting continents. How did it get there?

“This is more than just a fish story,” explains Dr. Lundberg. “What was the connection between the pathways out of Africa? You begin to brainstorm possibilities.”

Using CAT scans, fossils, and molecular data from living specimens, Dr. Lundberg is working with other ichthyologists and geologists to map out the genetic tree of this mysterious fish. Because this species of catfish is a freshwater inhabitant, the scientists can narrow the possibilities of its pathways from Africa to Mexico. With new discoveries and the process of elimination, they can slowly unravel the age and location of the Chiapas catfish’s ancestors.

“The research brings in a little bit of everything we do,” says Dr. Lundberg.

This December, the Academy invites you to come with us behind the scenes to explore some of the 1.4 million specimens that are central to the knowledge of biodiversity and earth history, just like the Chiapas catfish. On these free behind-the-scene tours, you’ll also see the fossils and animations that Dr. Lundberg and others use to study our underwater friends. View electric eels, a stuffed sturgeon preserved for nearly 200 years, fish skeletons assembled in the mid-1800s, and miniature fish monsters from the dark ocean depths. Meet our fish scientists, and bring your questions about collecting fishes from around the world.

The free tours will be held at the Academy Thursdays through Mondays, December 1 through December 21, at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Sign up at our front desk on the day of the tour. Tours are for visitors ages 8 and up, with a maximum of 10 people per tour. Come unravel the fish tale here at the Academy this December!