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The Search for a phantom fish in northern Colombia with images by the author

By Frans Vermeulen Aruba It is June 2006....Very deep, about 5000 meter below me, changed the monotonous blue water of the Caribbean Sea into a brown desert landscape with hills and dry watercourses, the peninsula La Guajira. The Bay of Maracaibo was shining in the sun, blue like a swimming pool. The, till than, quiet flight became abruptly turbulent as we, ten minutes later flew over the huge mountain massif of the Sierra Nevada and firmly bugled- up in my seat we were smashed from the left to the right. We passed the 5775 m high, with snow-covered, peaks to the right and it was a strange experience to see the mountaintops peaking above the clouds on a higher level than we were flying. Colombia is not exactly a chosen destiny by foreign scientist. It was for over 35 years- and still is - plagued by various guerrilla groups and armed militias who do not respect the lives of other people very much. Therefore, Colombia is for foreign scientists a very dangerous country to explore. In many provinces total anarchy rules, this because the police and the authorities of the villages and towns are, or bribed and on hand of the guerrilla, or have been killed or moved to saver grounds. For some years I had the wish however to visit this huge and interesting country. My goal was to find some of the Killifishes that had been described scientifically in the past, sometimes over 130 years ago, but that never became recollected or never got introduced alive to aquarium hobbyists. There is for example, at the Natural History Museum in Vienna, a single conserved sample of a fish, collected by F. Steindachner during his expeditions to the northern part of Colombia in 1875 which is described as Cyprinodon martae that became my special interest. Dr. Franz Steindachner was born on 11 November 1834 and died on 10 December 1919. He became a respected scientist and was working at the “Vienna Natural History Museum�. Eight years later, he took a leading job at the Boston University in America, but returned to Vienna in 1874 after participating in various Expeditions before. This species became subject to several modern scientists like Dr. Jean Huber from France and it was clear to him and to other scientists that the species was not a Cyprinodon but classified wrongly and assigned to a genus it cannot belong to.

To clear questions about this subject it was necessary to recollect the species and bring it back alive for further investigations about their behaviour. The genus Cyprinodon, with approximately 50 species, is quite large. The major part of this genus lives in the southern U.S. states, mostly in highly saline- or brackish waters along the Northern part of the middle- and South American coast and on the offshore Islands in the Caribbean Sea. Baron de Lacépède from Paris described the genus in 1803 with Type species Cyprinodon variegatus. So far, a little history, but this knowledge is important if you want to understand purpose of my trip. Dr. Jean Huber from Paris was working to solve the puzzle of this Phantom-fish, and he needed more animals and additional information such as info about the distribution range and type of habitat to examine the relationship to other genera. In the initial description, there was no precise information were the species was found. It was called simply, "Santa Marta, near the delta of the Rio Magdalena. This description covers an area of approximately 400 km2 and it would be the search to the well known needle in the haystack. One should of course bear in mind that travelling in these countries at that time was a very time-consuming matter, and an expedition often took many months of hard work so that no possibility existed that collected animals could be kept alive. The information about actual locations were often very inaccurate or randomly given during those days. Nevertheless, I was planning to travel to Santa Marta. But in this area fighting’s between guerrillas and the Colombian army took place very often and I was forced to wait several years to implement my plan. Meanwhile, I collected more information about Colombia and made contact with scientists in Medellin and to institutions such as the “Von Humboldt Institute” and I used the time also to improve my Spanish language. I also learned more about the weather conditions in the north of Colombia, because I expected the species to be an annual fish and the time I would choose to look for it was crucial in having success or not. During the end of dry periods annual fishes are only present in the form of eggs buried in the soft clay bottom of the pools. At the other hand is during the rainy season complete areas get flooded and water levels far too high to be able to collect Killifishes.

Drawing from “Cyprinodon” martae, conform the single specimen in Vienna. © by F. Vermeulen. The species body structure resembles to the genus Austrofundulus and the long- elongated fins resembles to Terranatos dolichoptherus, which has its spreading in the Llanos of the upper Orinoco River in Venezuela. The time of waiting was over as the unstable political situation changed in so far that the journey became not necessarily to be fatal. And so I made me on my way. I planned a short trip of only one Week and one of my Colombian workers accompanied me to assist me in the field or if language would bring me in problems. Together we took the flight to Barranquilla and after that we took a bus to Santa Marta. From Santa Marta, we made several trips along the slopes of the Sierra Nevada. To the north was the province of La Guajira, a peninsula that is formed by the Northeast-passat, a moonlike dry landscape with low bushes and cactuses, scattered with temporary waters. South of Santa Marta, banana- and palm plantations as far as the eye can see, from time to time interrupted by areas where cattle was grazing. In that region plenty of rain is falling. On many locations there are rivers that flow down from the Sierra Nevada usually very cold, fast flowing streams. Most of these riverbeds are filled with huge stones and gravel and surrounded by forests.

Santa Marta itself, a medium large city, is located between the slopes of the Sierra Nevada and the sea and divided into two parts by a mountain but connected by a mountain road. I did not know where I should begin my search, and chose the southern route first in the direction of the village Fundacion. To achieve this trip, we hired a taxi with driver, because no rental cars were available that day, and drove the whole day in the area around, stopped at each water we could see. But darkness started and still no Killies found as we went back to our hotel. The next morning was our rental car available. We drove to the northeast and this time we could collect Killies although not the Phantom fish. I know about collected Austrofundulus and Rachovia only from the neighbouring Venezuela and was therefore glad as we could find these beautiful fishes in a mud hole that was meant for the cattle to drink. We did collect only animals, already seemed to be adult.

Austrofundulus guajira, male. COL 2006-01

Austrofundulus guajira, female. COL 2006-01 Of course I wanted to keep the catch alive. Because the water was so muddy and over 33째C warm, a water change was needed soon and we found a deeper pool some km further to do so., For some animals this water exchange unfortunately came already too late. As we drove towards Riohacha more to the north, a small harbour town situated at the north coast, we stopped at the roadside, where we found a small ditch with stagnant water with cloudy and muddy ground. There were beautifully coloured Austrofundulus guajira to capture,

with a brick-red margin at the rear end of the tail.

Austrofundulus guajira, male. COL 2006-02 We found very few and these animals all were infected by anchor worms, a parasite known as Lernia. Here too we collected Rachovia hummelincki, some of which had red colour not only in the lower part of the tail but also at the upper edge. At both places we took the GPS coordinates and measured the water data. Remarkably was the temperature difference between the upper and lower water layer. On the surface, the temperature reached 33째C and about 40 cm deep close to the bottom temperature was only 27째C.

The larger Austrofundulus lived in the middle and the deepest part and the smaller Rachovia

mainly at the edges. Austrofundulus hunts for the smaller Rachovia or they prefer simply the better and cooler areas. I cannot imagen the Rachovia did prefer the warmer edges. The bottom was formed by very soft grey clay, in which we sometimes sunk in knee-deep. Unlike many Kill species living in the rain forest the annual live fishes their lives in Clay waters and do not like low pH values. The water is neutral to slightly alkaline. This knowledge is essential if you want to keep and breed the species. The lowest measured pH value was 6.75. After collecting we went back, because we were facing the darkness of the night and the possible presence of the FARC, the most feared guerrilla movement, forced us to stop collecting. Still, we had no trace of our Phantom Fish so far found. This second day of collecting however, was already worth the journey. We had a very nice catch made that day, and as we were back at the hotel, we refreshed the water of the fishes and re-bagged them in several plastic bags. As my plastic bags for the large Austrofundulus cf myersi were to small I stored a group in a large plastic garbage bag. I then I stored them under the beds we were sleeping on. I am used to hear the animals jumping during the night but my travel companion was not and could not sleep at all by the noise the fishes produced. Later, after he complained about it, we stored them into the shower every evening so he could sleep. Each morning before a new tour and before the Breakfast I changed all the water in the bags. We also did collect several livebearers including the beautiful and rare species of Poecilia caucana, and various dwarf cichlids. Then we went south again, but this time we wanted to penetrate far into the unknown interior and in west direction to push forward to the Magdalena River. In a southerly direction on the road from Cienaga to Fundacion we held at a place with an underpass under the road with little standing water in it. The place was not far from Fundacion and we could collect the beautiful Rachovia brevis that was also on my “wishlist� and not in the hobby for 34 years. The approximately 3-4 cm long fishes were clearly Rachovia brevis and I was delighted especially about this discovery. Many fans of Killifish had been waiting so long for this. I was not the first to relocate this species. Professor Jamie Thomerson was in Colombia in 1972 and found it in the same area. From Fundacion we went in a westerly direction on a dirt road partly gravel but also with deep wet muddy places. In this marshy area we watched many Rancheros on mules and the time seemed to have stopped for hundreds of years.

At several places, we found different colour variations of

Rachovia brevis.

Rachovia brevis, male. COL 2006-04

Rachovia brevis, male. COL 2006-04 After about 165 km we stopped at a small finca (farm), with some pools behind the house. We asked the farmers for permission access to the pools and found again Rachovia brevis. Among the captured animals were

like almost at any point, also Poecilia caucana but this time I did a strange discovery. Between the fishes I did catch 3 Trichogaster from Asia and that was the last species I expected to find there. Later I learned these fishes had spread the whole Magdalena area due to a major flooding years ago and by that by the “release” of thousands of these fishes from a fish nursery. Among the R. brevis there was a young couple of different texture that turned out to be Austrofundulus aff. myersi. At the end of the trail our car was covered with mud from bottom to rooftop. A very smart guy build his carwash at the end of the road just at the entrance of his village. We gave him the job to clean out the car and 2 man took over 2 hours to finish the job. Then we proceeded to the point where we wanted to board a ferry to cross the wide Magdalena River, and from there return to Santa Marta, a distance of about 175 km. We almost had have to spend the night on the banks of the river in the car because space on the last Ferry that evening was not enough to board us. A bribe of USD 25 solved the problem and we saved ourselves the inconvenience of staying behind, unfortunately for him or her, someone else suffered the night in the car I think. It was however a strange sight to see our car on the edge of the movable ramp of the ferry outside the chain that protected other cars from falling of the ferry. The next morning we retuned the car to the rental company because of the disturbing noises at the front axle, which was not a big surprise after our trip. Than we made a visit to the public aquarium of the city Santa Marta. I wanted to get in contact to fish specialists in the area to find out if somebody ever had heard of my Phantom fish. That was not the case, but we got an address from a Man, locally known as "the Alemán", which means " The German". We found him at home, about 30 km outside the city in mountainous environment. It turned out that we had found the right person in Professor Eberhard Wedler. He had been working 25 years at the University of Santa Marta and knew almost everything about what is going on in this area with marine and freshwater fish.

Rachovia brevis, male. COL 2006-05

Poecilia caucana, pair. Although we were not announced, he and his wife Gloria received us very warmly and listened to the Reason of my visit with the highest interest. Both had not the slightest idea what Fish I was looking for, but he wanted to help us to find the species.

The house was a small paradise with orchids and a koi pond and stood on the side of a mountain in the vicinity of the Río Piedras. The whole plot of about one hectare size was associated with ponds and pools , many of them full of Tilapia. Moreover, there were Barns with aquariums in which Eberhard bred Discus fishes and other nice species. As he is retired now he had an additional income by selling the Tilapia for the food market. The water was lead directly from the clear hillside stream into the facility and pipes distributed the water throughout the plant. With much dedication Eberhard told us of his nature reserve "Reserva Biologia Caoba" which was situated high on the slope of a mountain not far from the city where he had purchased 30 hectares of forest to build a reserve for study purposes. He invited us to visit this reserve. What we got to face was like a Fairy tale. Many small and large ponds were stepwise connected to each other and there was a wonderful landscaped garden with various trees and plants, often for herbal and medicinal use or other interesting plants. In the ponds about 2 m long Arapaima gigas, and several Osteoglossum bicirrhosum. There were flowering water lilies of all kinds and beautiful aquarium plants like Echinodorus, Eichornia and Victoria amazonica, the giant Water Lillie. It is a beautiful place where lovers of nature and researchers can not only visit, but also where seminars can be carried out. Eberhard has all his savings put into this place to let it become a paradise, where people can recover and learn what the nature of South America us has to offer. At the moment he was building accommodation for guests, some of which are already in use. If you like to know more of this project you can make contact on We agreed to search the remaining two days together to find my Phantom fish, and because Eberhard knows the area like no one else, we visited all unthinkable places where the species could remain. During this days he told us about the history of the area and it became clear that because of the development of roads and houses, various water bodies had disappeared. I realized that the Phantom fish may no longer exists and that its status perhaps can be described as "extinct". But still I do have hope to find traces of water that can be the home of this species. Back to Aruba in the Caribbean, where I live, I treated the animals against parasites by carefully take them of with a lancet and brought them in my outdoor fish nursery, where water temperatures vary between 27 to 33°C.. Both, the Austrofundulus as well as the Rachovia dive deep into the substrate, where they burry their eggs.

If the female is ready to spawning the male determines the spot to dive by standing head down against the substrate. The female follows him, and both animals disappear into the soil layer. Lot of substrate stir up with that amount of propelling fins. Even if the layer is thick enough, both fish choose to lay their eggs at the surface as well. The female uses the anal fin to form a tube and penetrate the eggs deep into the soil.

Rachovia hummelincki, male. COL 2006-01 Just after getting half matured the fishes start to spawn because time is short and the species keep doing so till they die. The eggs remain in the moist deeper layers of the soil, and evaporation cause the habitat to dry out completely, till a new rainy period moisture the substrate and the larvae can hatch. Not all eggs are far enough developed, when the first rain falls, and therefore save the population if immediately after the first rains a brief dry period the water can dry out again. Since these animals only live a short life, they grow quickly and are within one to two months able to reproduce. Because of the dry season grasses dye also. The dry vegetation cause, when inundated, a rich variety of infusorians that become the first food for the young’s. When the fishes grow up, they like food as beef heart, and mosquito larvae and other life foods. It is supposed that the adolescent ones in nature feed mainly on the later born youngsters of their own kind and insects and tadpoles.

Dive series; No. 1 For breeding, I use a container with a lid on top in which I make a hole. They enter the hole and lay their eggs. Ones in the 2 weeks I collect the peat and store it with the eggs in a plastic bag. Depending on temperature the eggs take 2 to 12 months to develop. The higher the quicker they hatch up to 35 C. Lower causes the eggs to take longer diapauses. If the eggs are sufficiently developed, you can see the iris of the eye clearly. If water is put on the peat the larvae hatch within one to two hours.

Dive series; No. 2 The young fish immediately eat Artemia. and if the water get changed weekly and food is given enough, it takes only one month to get eggs for the second generation.

Dive series; No. 3 Finally, I can say that I, once again, learned a lot and that the Colombian culture, the landscape and the Killi-fauna still attracts me. And my Phantom Fish..... OK ....perhaps went extinct or... is waiting still somewhere until I travel to Colombia again to look for it. To see more of the Killies of the South American continent, visit

Phanthomfish in Colmbia