New Genus Cryptomyrus - ‘Hidden Fish’- Described for Two New Electric Fish Species Discovered in Gabon

Ithaca, New York  | February 08, 2016

A new genus of mormyrid weakly electric fish with two new species has been described from just three specimens collected over a period of 13 years in the Central African country of Gabon. The genus was named Cryptomyrus (“hidden fish”) and is the first new genus to be described within the family Mormyridae since 1977.

The description is published in a new issue of the scientific journal ZooKeys, authored by John P. Sullivan and Carl D. Hopkins of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and Sébastien Lavoué of the Institute of Oceanography at the National Taiwan University in Taipei, Taiwan.

“It’s odd we have only three specimens, given how much fish collection effort there’s been in Gabon over the past two decades,” says lead author John Sullivan. “Not having more made the descriptions difficult, but it was important to bring this discovery to light without more delay.” Sullivan added he doesn’t know if these fish are rare throughout their range or if ichthyologists simply haven’t yet sampled localities or habitats where they are common. “It shows that we still have a very incomplete picture of fish diversity in Gabon,” said Sullivan.

The last of the three specimens was found on an expedition to Gabon’s Ogooué River in September 2014 jointly sponsored by CENAREST (Gabon’s science agency) and The Nature Conservancy

It was after nightfall on the Ogooué, beside Doumé Falls, when Sullivan and the other team members caught the one odd fish in a plastic fish trap baited with earthworms. 
Sullivan, puzzled over the identity of the fish upon his return to the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates. He remembered a somewhat similar single specimen collected in the Nyanga River of Gabon by his colleague Sébastien Lavoué 13 years earlier and another from Gabon’s Ngounié River, sent to him for identification a year and a half earlier by colleague, Yves Fermon. “This is why we need natural history collections,” said Sullivan, “to keep these specimens and their DNA samples in good condition, because it can take years or even decades to connect the dots.”

DNA from the three specimens sequenced at Cornell University showed they were close relatives and didn’t belong within any recognized genus of mormyrid. “That left us no choice but to describe them as a new genus, and Cryptomyrus, which means “hidden fish,” seemed an appropriate name given how hard they are to find,” said Sullivan.

Over 200 species of mormyrid fish live in fresh waters across Africa where they orient to their environment and communicate using electric pulses—too weak to be felt by humans—in combination with highly sensitive electroreceptor cells embedded in their skin.

Sullivan was able to photograph and record the electric signal of the single specimen from Doumé Falls. The fish is named Cryptomyrus ogoouensis for the Ogooué River. The specimens from the Ngounié and the Nyanga Rivers are described as a second species, Cryptomyrus ona, named for Gabonese environmental activist Marc Ona Essangui, founder of the NGO “Brainforest” and winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize, known as the “Green Nobel,” in 2009.

“Marc Ona has worked tirelessly for years to protect the forests and wetlands of Gabon from reckless exploitation and pollution,” Sullivan said. “A few years back he and his group halted plans to put a dam on the Ivindo River at Kongou Falls, the most spectacular waterfall in all of Central Africa. It would have irreparably changed the ecology of the Ivindo, a river with a unique fish fauna. This fish name doesn’t come with the money or prestige of the Goldman Prize, but it’s a sincere token of our admiration for his accomplishments and his fearlessness.” 

The Nature Conservancy, a global conservation organization that impacts conservation in 69 countries around the world, funded the 2014 expedition of the Ogooué by Sullivan and other experts. “The Nature Conservancy deserves a lot of credit for this discovery,” said Sullivan. “It’s a great example of how conservation organizations can promote the discovery of biodiversity by partnering with taxonomists and natural history museums.”

“The Nature Conservancy is thrilled to have contributed to this discovery.  We need to know what exists and where it’s found in order to protect it.  Understanding the state of Gabon’s fish and rivers will help the country effectively manage their resources for both people and nature,” said Marie-Claire Paiz, Gabon Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. “Our goal is to equip Gabon to make science-guided choices about where and how to use rivers wisely, such as where to develop infrastructure in order to minimize damage to other resources that people need. That's how these expeditions and the work of these scientists can help shape the course of history for this country.”
Cryptomyrus is the first new genus to be described within the family Mormyridae since 1977 and Cryptomyrus ona is only the second fish from Gabon named for a Gabonese. The first was a catfish described in the 1960s, Notoglanidium boutchangai, named for Honoré Boutchanga, a technical assistant in the Department of Water and Forests at that time.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 72 countries, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit or follow @nature_press on Twitter.


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