“Oscar describes Oscar”: Interview with Oscar Lasso-Alcalá, Pt 1

“As an ichthyologist, I feel pride in collaborating and contributing to science, nationally, regionally, and globally.”

Oscar Miguel Lasso-Alcalá, MSc., is a Spanish-Venezuelan ichthyologist with undergraduate studies in Oceanography, Fishing Technology and Aquaculture, and Postgraduate studies in Agricultural Zoology and Estuary Ecology. He has worked in diverse areas such as taxonomy, biology, ecology, freshwater, estuarine, and marine fisheries and management. For 33 years, he has participated in more than 70 research projects and published over 250 studies. He has made more than 250 scientific expeditions to different regions of Venezuela and six other countries in America. He has dedicated much of his work to studying, educating, and managing introduced species and their invasions.

This summer, Oscar’s team described a new species of cichlid fish from northern South America in our journal ZooKeys. We spoke to him to find out how they came to the discovery and what it means to him.

When did you discover the new species?

Although some taxonomists have specimens that they believe, or have preliminarily diagnosed, to correspond to different, undescribed or new-to-science species (in my case I know of around 15 species I’ve diagnosed as new), Astronotus mikoljii was different. We did not discover that it was a new species overnight.

Normally, the process of discovering a new species takes a long time and a lot of work. It is not an easy task. First, you need to analyze the external and internal morphology. You study the color pattern and other characteristics and compare them to those of known, described species that are akin or similar to the one being studied, looking for the main differences. It is also very important to carry out exhaustive documentary and bibliographical research, to learn about all related species that have been previously described. Then, if there is complete certainty that it’s a different species that has not been previously described and published, there’s an entire process of formal description of the new species.

Did you immediately recognize it as a new species?

Absolutely not. Mikolji’s Oscar is difficult to differentiate externally. The first researcher who evidenced the main differences of Astronotus ocellatus (a binomial as it was previously known) from the Orinoco River basin, was the Swedish ichthyologist Sven Oscar Kullander, curator at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm. He is one of the greatest specialists in the world on species of the Cichlidae family, to which the species we were studying belongs. This was first published in 1981, followed by his 1983, 1986, and 1989 studies (including his Ph.D. thesis) and later in other studies of his published in 2003 (all cited in our recent article published in the ZooKeys journal).

Likewise, my brother, the Spanish and Venezuelan ichthyologist Carlos Andrés Lasso, currently a researcher at the Instituto de Recursos Biológicos Alexander von Humboldt of Colombia, with more than 40 years of experience, also recognized this species from the Orinoco River as different from the one present in the Amazon River basin. In 18 different studies carried out in Venezuela and Colombia (all cited in our article), he records this species as Astronotus cf ocellatus (“cf” means the species name is yet to be confirmed), or directly as Astronotus sp., already assuring that it was a different species and new to science.

We are letting the world know a defined and individual species exists.

With this background, we responsibly acknowledge that it was Sven and Carlos who discovered Mikolji’s Oscar, and not us. Our credit and recognition are given for the process of describing the new species and for its publication. It is very important to clarify here that the discovery of a new-to-science species and its description (and publication) are two different facts, situations, and processes. However, in our study, we discovered some very important morphological characteristics, as well as genetic information, that allowed the differentiation of this species from those already known.

What was most exciting about this finding?

 As an ichthyologist, I feel pride in collaborating and contributing to science, nationally, regionally, and globally. I feel satisfaction every time I share my research results at a scientific event or meeting (congress, symposium), or publish them in a scientific book (or part of it) or in a popular journal. This is not just an ordinary job for me, since I really like to investigate, and almost always have a lot of fun with this activity. As I have said in many of the interviews that I have had throughout my over 30-year career: to me, it’s not a job, it’s a way of living.

It fills me with great satisfaction to have the opportunity, more than 40 years after first meeting these Oscars, to be able to study them, describe them, and give them the name and place they deserve in science, and in the world.

The description of a species which is new to science is something really special, not only for me and my colleagues in this study, but for the vast majority of taxonomists. This is not only due to the fact that our last names will always appear next to the scientific name, but also to the fact that we are letting the world know a defined and individual species exists. By adding another species, we increase the known biodiversity of a country, a region, and the world, and therefore, we demonstrate that biodiversity must be studied, managed, conserved, and used rationally and independently.

Astronotus mikoljii is a very charismatic species, highly appreciated, valued, and loved in the aquarium hobby.

I remember that as a kid (between 7 and 13 years old), in the aquariums built at home by two of my older brothers, José Antonio and Carlos, to whom I largely owe being an ichthyologist today, we had some specimens of Oscars from Orinoco. We bought them in a local aquarium store in Caracas and took care of them, loved them like little children. I remember that in addition to feeling happily identified with the name (Oscar), they felt like real pets. They “got excited” when they saw us, took food directly from our hands without biting our fingers, and even let themselves be caressed, as if they were docile puppies or kittens. They were my favorite fish.

Years later, as an adult, beginning my research years, in the late 80’s and early 90’s, even with aquariums in our house (I had more than 20 in my good time as an aquarist), we had new specimens of these Oscars. This time, they were specimens captured by my brother and me, in the floodplains of the Orinoco River (Llanos de Apure), where for more than five years we studied the biology and ecology of some 200 local fish species, many of them unique in the world just like Mikolji’s Oscar. From that field study came the doctoral thesis of my brother Carlos, and the undergraduate theses of half a dozen other researchers, including mine.

It fills me with great satisfaction to have the opportunity, more than 40 years after first meeting these Oscars, to be able to study them, describe them, and give them the name and place they deserve in science, and in the world. It also fills me with deep satisfaction, having the opportunity to describe a “large-sized” species that was apparently already known, both locally and nationally (for its importance in fishing), as well as internationally in the world of aquarism. That is why, as I shared our study and finding on social media, I wrote: “Oscar describes the Oscar: Mikolji’s Oscar.

We are also extremely grateful to the many people who helped us and collaborated with us in this study, by collecting new specimens in the field, reviewing fish collections under their care, taking X-rays, searching for specialized bibliographies, studying the native or indigenous names, and even editing and publishing the article in Zookeys journal.

Likewise, it was exciting to share this research experience with colleagues from Brazil (co-authors of this study, just like me), who trusted us and our meticulous work.

Photos by Ivan Mikolji

The story continues with Part 2 and Part 3.

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