“Oscar describes Oscar”: Interview with Oscar Lasso-Alcalá, Pt 2

“Working in science in a country under these conditions, and getting to publish the results of the investigations in high-level scientific journals such as ZooKeys, is an act of “true heroism”.

Oscar Miguel Lasso-Alcalá, MSc. is a Spanish-Venezuelan ichthyologist. This summer, his team described a new species of Oscar fish in the journal ZooKeys.

In this second part of his interview, he tells us about the challenges in his work and shares the story behind the new cichlid’s name. You can find Part 1 of the interview.

What did you find to be the biggest challenge?

Throughout the past seven years, the description of this species has been a real challenge. Our group of researchers knew from the beginning that it was going to be a difficult job.  However, we never imagined the magnitude of the problems or challenges we would encounter.

We had to study the specimens from the Orinoco River basin in Venezuela and Colombia, and rivers from the hydrographic basin of the Gulf of Paria in Venezuela, which were within our reach, in the main scientific collections of fishes in Venezuela. Similarly, we studied the specimens from the Amazon River basin in one of the main collections in Brazil. We studied the traditional external morphology (morphometric characters, or the body, and meristic measurements, or the number of structures or parts such as scales, fins, etc.) and their coloration, as well as their internal morphology, that is, the study of structures of their skeleton, with the use of high-definition radiographs, where we found the main differences with other species.

A novel technique was the study of the shape of the otoliths, or “ear stones”, a technique not used before in the study of this group of fish. That is why I mentioned before that we also made some great scientific discoveries.

In addition to the long and meticulous laboratory work, we also had to conduct field work, not only to capture new specimens for the morphological study, but also for the genetic and molecular study, a new methodology that has become popular in recent years as a way to support taxonomy and systematics in the description and classification of species.

For this latest work, we also relied on a recent study in this area of ​​research, carried out by the genetics specialists on our work team. This means our research was based on what is currently called “integrative taxonomy”, which is the sum of different techniques, methods, and technologies, at the service of achieving our goal: the description of a new species for science and for the world.

Many other difficulties came up along the way, which is why this research took over seven years to be published. Normally, researchers cannot focus 100% of their time on one single research, and workloads fluctuate. Sometimes we think that a greater number of specialists would help distribute the workload evenly or that getting input from others with different fields of experience, sometimes specialized, would help enrich the work, but that also makes it more difficult to reach agreement. Reaching perfection is never possible, and it took a long time for us to reach a level of results that was both acceptable to all and well accepted in the field of taxonomy and systematics.

One of the biggest challenges was purely financial. While we had some funds from Brazilian research support organizations and two universities, this was not the case in Venezuela, a country plunged in a serious political, social, economic, and humanitarian crisis.

Working in science in a country under these conditions, and being able to publish your results in high-level scientific journals, including ZooKeys, is an act of “true heroism”, as my brother José Antonio often says when cheering on my publication.

How come you named it after Ivan Mikolji?

People who do not know about the great work carried out by river explorer Ivan Mikolji might wonder about that, but the thousands of people, connoisseurs and followers of his work are absolutely clear on the justification for this appointment.

Find more about Ivan Mikolji and his work on his website: https://mikolji.com/.

In addition to being an excellent professional explorer, author, underwater photographer, audiovisual producer and even plastic artist, he is a tireless and enthusiastic disseminator of the biodiversity and natural history of freshwater fish in Venezuela and Colombia.

His work has contributed greatly to the knowledge and conservation of the aquatic ecosystems of both countries. His motto is: “You cannot preserve something that you don’t know exists.”

He has made dozens of photography and art exhibitions in Venezuela, Mexico and the United States, as well as award-winning documentaries on the Orinoco River and its biodiversity that have acquired millions of views.

Mikolji has also inspired thousands of “conservationist” aquarists, as a judge in a worldwide movement called “Biotope Aquariums,” where people try to simulate, as much as possible, the ecosystems and aquatic biodiversity of their places of origin, for the conservation of their local biodiversity.

In addition, his educational work further includes the “Wild Aquarium”, a new movement and methodology, where he recreates in the same place (in situ), a “Biotope aquarium”, helping local communities (children and adults) learn about local aquatic ecosystems and biodiversity and their conservation.

In addition to his great artistic, informative, and educational work, with the enormous data accumulated in more than 15 years of work and field observations, in the recent years, he has participated in different research projects, publishing books and numerous scientific articles, some of them with us. For this reason, in 2020, he was appointed Associate Researcher of the Museo de Historia Natural La Salle (Caracas) of the Fundación La Salle de Ciencias Naturales, in Venezuela. By the way, we are planning research that we hope to announce soon in various publications.

Regarding Astronotus mikoljii, our good friend and now colleague Ivan Mikolji, was the one who initially proposed that we describe this species that he loves so much. He selflessly supported all the authors throughout the study in diverse ways, even in the field work in Venezuela. Ivan helped us in the search for equipment and materials, in the search for information, in the photographic work, and now in the dissemination of this study. For this reason, the article, in just one week, achieved more than 4,500 downloads, both on ZooKeys and ResearchGate web platforms, a true record for a study of this type.

Most importantly, throughout these years, Ivan has always encouraged us not to lose our course and objective, even in the most difficult moments. After years of knowing him, we have cultivated an excellent friendship. This is why we decided that it was just and necessary to recognize his work, help, companionship, and friendship, naming this beautiful and beloved species in his honor.

Photos by Ivan Mikolji.

***

You can find Part 1 and continue reading with Part 3.

***

Follow the ZooKeys journal on Twitter and Facebook.

Leave a Reply