- Scientists recently identified a new species of air-breathing catfish, Clarias monsembulai, in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Salonga National Park — the first new species of catfish in the Clarias genus to be described in 42 years.
- It was named after Congolese researcher Raoul Monsembula, who collected samples of the species in 2006 and 2010 without realizing at the time that the fish was unknown to science.
- Experts say that species discoveries are very common in Salonga National Park due to the region’s rich biodiversity as well as the limited amount of research being done there.
- However, the area also faces numerous threats, including poaching and the possibility of fossil fuel extraction.
In 2006 and 2010, Congolese researcher Raoul Monsembula collected catfish and other species from the rivers in Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Then he hopped on a plane to New York City so colleagues could analyze them in their lab.
More than 10 years later, Monsembula learned that he’d actually collected a species of air-breathing catfish that scientists hadn’t known about. Not only that, but his colleagues had named it after him: Clarias monsembulai.
Experts say this is the first newly reported species of catfish in the Clarias genus since 1980.
“It was just a good moment,” Monsembula, a biology professor at the University of Kinshasa and the Greenpeace regional coordinator in Central Africa, told Mongabay in an email. “Any biologist would love to have his name dedicated to the species on which he is working. So, it was a good surprise of my life.”
Melanie Stiassny, an ichthyologist at the American Museum of Natural History, said she and her colleagues initially thought the catfish was another species, Clarias buthupogon, to which it bears a striking resemblance. However, she said that Maxwell Bernt, who previously worked with Stiassny as a postdoctoral researcher, noticed that the fish in question had some distinct traits.
“[Bernt] was doing a big study of these Clarias catfishes all over Africa,” Stiassny told Mongabay in an interview. “And he was going through our collections … including Raoul’s collection, and he realized that what we thought was a [previously] described species was, in fact, probably something new.”
Stiassny said they could distinguish the new catfish from its “extremely long barbels,” which the species uses to taste and smell things around them. They also noticed several “side proportional differences” between C. monsembulai and C. buthupogon.
Other catfishes in the Clarias genus are able to walk on land, but Stiassny said she doesn’t think the newly described species does this.
“The ones that walk are the Clarias that are living in arid areas in East Africa, and they’re in a pool and then the pool slowly begins to dry out and then they’ll trundle across the savanna trying to find another pool,” Stiassny said, “whereas this monsembulai is living in a dense rainforest with lots of quite big rivers and lots of small streams. So it’s really never going to have to get out of the water and walk.”
Stiassny and Bernt co-authored a paper on the newly described species.
Stiassny said that while the new description of C. monsembulai is certainly noteworthy, it’s actually very common for scientists to find species unknown to science in this part of the DRC. In fact, she and her colleagues even identified another new species from Monsembula’s collection: Eugnathichthys virgatus.
“In most parts of the Congo Basin, we are finding that wherever we … spend time looking at specimens, we do find new species,” she said. “So it’s a very poorly researched part of the continent.” Stiassny said local researchers like Monsembula are working to fill in many of the scientific gaps.
The DRC’s Salonga National Park, which is recognized as an UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a large tract of protected rainforest spanning more than 36,000 square kilometers (14,000 square miles). It’s home to endemic species like the endangered bonobo or pygmy chimpanzee (Pan paniscus) and the critically endangered forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis). The park’s forests and peatlands are also known to be important carbon sinks.
With the description of C. monsembulai, there are now 61 recognized species of catfish within the Clarias genus, including 32 endemic to African freshwater regions.
“[We need to] keep Congo Basin Forest intact to make sure that we are not disturbing its endemicity,” Monsembula said. “There [could] be many things we can discover in the near future if our forest stands in a good state. If we are destroying it, we are surely helping new species to disappear even before describing them.”
But like many protected regions in the world, Salonga National Park is facing numerous threats, including poaching, illegal occupation, and impacts from human conflicts. In 1999, UNESCO even added Salonga National Park to its List of World Heritage in Danger.
In 2015, WWF agreed to support a team of “eco-guards” to patrol and protect Salonga National Park, but this move has been fraught with allegations of human rights violations. An investigation led by Rainforest Foundation UK, an organization that supports Indigenous peoples and local communities living in rainforest regions, found that the eco-guards had beaten, raped and even murdered community members.
In 2019, the DRC government also approved a contract that would carve up large swaths of Salonga National Park for oil drilling. However, in July 2021 these plans were abandoned, and UNESCO subsequently removed the park from its endangered list. But a year later, in July 2022, the government announced that it had auctioned off 30 oil and gas blocks in the DRC, threatening other protected areas like Virunga National Park, home to the endangered mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei).
Joe Eisen, executive director of Rainforest Foundation UK, told Mongabay that the identification of C. monsembulai provided further proof of the “immense biological importance of the Salonga landscape” and that the area should be protected from threats like fossil fuel development.
He said the park’s “long-term future lies not with heavily armed ‘eco-guards’ and the subjugation of the local population but with the local and indigenous communities who have lived in and protected this area for generations.”
“Raoul has been a tireless campaigner for a model of conservation in the Congo Basin that is founded on the rights of these people,” Eisen said in an email, “and is fully deserving of this accolade.”
Bernt, M. J., & Stiassny, M. L. (2022). A new species of air-breathing catfish (Clariidae: Clarias) from Salonga National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo. American Museum Novitates, 2022(3990), 1-10. doi:10.1206/3990.1
Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.
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