Dr. Wolfgang Staeck interview

Dr. Wolfgang Staeck

Since I began the The Cichlid Stage in 2015, I have had the honor of interviewing people who have made enormous contributions to our understanding of cichlids. Today’s interviewee is no different.

With over 140 publications from a career spanning more than 50 years, German ichthyologist Dr. Wolfgang Staeck is without question an authority on the Cichlidae family of fish. Some of the first books I ever read about cichlids more than 20 years ago were written by Dr. Staeck. He is truly an icon in the cichlid community because of his incredible research and knowledge. In fact, his extensive travels exploring rivers, lakes, and streams around the world have resulted in the discovery and description of more than two dozen cichlid species. Without his efforts, you might not know much about some of the cichlids in your own tanks right now.

Dr. Staeck rarely engages in social media, but he was gracious enough to answer a few questions for the blog. Without further ado, let’s dive in (see what I did there?).

You have discovered and described several species of cichlids in your travels around the world. Please talk a bit about the cichlids that are waiting to be described. Where are we most likely to discover these new species? In other words, what parts of the world do you believe still have the most untapped potential to yield new cichlid discoveries?

Both ichthyologists and aquarists know of numerous species that are still waiting for their formal scientific description by taxonomists. Some of these cichlids are even kept by aquarists. This is especially true for fishes from the three great lakes in East Africa as well as in South America for species from the two largest cichlid genera Apistogramma and Crenicichla.

Adult male Apistogramma sp.Abacaxis” (or Apistogramma sp. “Wilhelmi”). Photo by Wolfgang Staeck.

In addition, there are certainly cichlids that have not yet been discovered, although their numbers have decreased considerably in recent years. In South America, I suspect them in Brazil, Colombia and Peru in the hard to reach last areas with original tropical rainforest.

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in an experimental fishery at the research station in Monkey Bay in the south of Lake Malawi. At this occasion, experimental bottom trawling was carried out at great depth, and it was incredible how many unknown cichlids were caught. That is why I expect that in the lower regions of the three East African lakes, where there still is oxygen, many species are waiting to be discovered. 

Julidochromis dickfeldi, which you described in 1975, happens to be one of my favorite lamprologines and one of which I have written many posts about on the blog. What is your favorite lamprologine and why?

The focus of my biological interests is behavioral biology. This is the reason why I have been working with cichlids for a long time, because many of them have particularly differentiated and very special patterns of behavior. Among the lamprologine cichlids of Lake Tanganyika, the ostracophilous or shell-dwelling cichlids as well as Neolamprologus brichardi, N. similis, N. multifasciatus and the Julidochromis species are my favorites because they have highly complicated family structures and brood care helpers.

Adult Neolamprologus similis. Photo by Wolfgang Staeck.

The Apistogramma genus has been a particular focus of yours. What are some of the species in this genus that fascinate you the most and why?

On the one hand the few species that are mouthbrooders and on the other hand species with an unusual ecology and biology such as Apistogramma diplotaenis and A. psammophilas. Both groups are exceptions in the species-rich genus because of their special biology. They show many interesting specializations and, therefore, will be transferred to other, new genera in a future revision of Apistogramma.

Adult male Apistogramma diplotaenia in threatening posture. Photo by Wolfgang Staeck.

Like fish keeping in general, the cichlid hobby has changed significantly in the last 20 years. What are some changes that concern you and where do you see the hobby in the next decade?

Since the end of last century, animal protection and animal rights activists and organizations have publicly criticized the aquarium hobby as a leisure activity that is no longer compatible with modern ideas of animal and species protection. Contrary to the results of relevant scientific research, they claim that the removal of fish from the wild endangers their populations and threatens species.

However, published breeding statistics, lists of in the aquarium kept species and sponsorships indicate that aquarists make intensive efforts to maintain the imported cichlid species in their hobby. They regularly reproduce an amazing variety of species in the aquarium and thus maintain these cichlids independently of renewed imports on a large scale. Due to their regular reproduction in the aquarium, the removal of these fish from the wild is at least temporarily superfluous.

Recently, in many countries political parties are even demanding a ban on the import and on keeping of wild animals. Such a ban will destroy the foundations of the aquarium hobby in the long term, a leisure activity practiced by millions of aquarists. It will have a negative impact on the pet trade and the accessories industry and even be detrimental in several respects to both animal and species protection in the home countries of the ornamental fish species.

For followers of your contributions to the cichlid community, like me, what are some things you’re currently working on that we can look forward to in the coming months?

I still have several tanks, in which I keep about a dozen different fish species. I will go on publishing texts about my experience with them and my observations in order to provide information on their optimum maintenance in the aquarium. Maybe I will publish another taxonomic work on a South American cichlid species in the future.

You rarely give interviews, especially on social media, so I greatly appreciate your time. Anything we did not cover above that you would like to comment on regarding the cichlid community?

Attractively colored tank-bred color varieties of cichlids, which were created by breeders in the aquarium, can certainly be seen as an enrichment of the hobby. However, their evaluation and the attitude towards them currently depends not only on aesthetic aspects, i.e. on their assessment as beautiful or ugly, but increasingly also on ethical considerations that have to do with our responsibility for the animals kept.

A major difference between keeping fish in the last century and in the future will be that the number of available species will decrease more and more rapidly and for a far greater extent. Because of various reasons, it is foreseeable that in the future there will be no unlimited, but at best considerably limited exports of aquarium fish from their natural habitats. The once common and popular collecting trips by aquarists are now banned in many of the home countries of our aquarium fish, and Brazil, one of the most important exporting countries, has heavily regulated and restricted the export of aquarium fish. Many countries prepare legal regulations and laws with the intent that the import of wild-caught fish should be generally banned.

Adult Paretroplus nourissati. A threatened species from Madagascar. Photo by Wolfgang Staeck.

At the same time, there are increasing signs of a steadily accelerating, serious depletion of the fish populations living in the wild, for the survival of numerous species is acutely threatened by ecocide. The populations of wild forms of some species maintained in aquaria, for example some cichlids from Lake Victoria and Madagascar, therefore already form valuable remnants of fish species that are seriously threatened or already extinct in their native waters.

The existence of tank-bred color varieties of many species carries the risk that the wild form of the species in question will be lost in the hobby, because the altered genetic material of the artificially produced forms spreads uncontrollably throughout all the aquarium populations. In this way, the original species as a genetically pure form can disappear from our aquaria within a short time.

Deformed, tank bred hybrid cichlid (blood parrot). Photo by Wolfgang Staeck.

All in all these are convincing arguments that explain why a critical attitude towards tank-bred color varieties prevails among serious aquarists. In the future, breeders should therefore concern themselves less with these forms, but more with the preservation of the available wild forms of cichlid species.

It is an open question whether in the next decades the natural species will still be available in great diversity or only the artificial products of commercial breeders. Neither the breeding of mutants (for example of albinos), nor the reproduction of hybrids and crossbreeding attempts between different species make any biological sense.

School of deformed, tank-bred hybrids (blood parrots). Photo by Wolfgang Staeck.

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