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Thursday, October 4

The story of finding the new stone Loach, Balitora laticauda: an interview


Western Ghats Rivers have a bounty of yet unknown aquatic fauna. Recently, a new member was added to the Indian aquatic fauna when a group of researchers found that a fish known to villagers living on the banks of Krishna River in Satara District of Maharashtra, is unknown to science. After conducting follow up studies and comparing it with already described similar species in India, they have established that it is indeed a new species. NeeleshDahanukar, IISER Fellow at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune who was part of the research team, talks about the finding of the new stone Loach from Krishna River with Indian Biodiversity Talks.

Balitora laticauda, teh new stone loach found from Krishna River in Northern Western Ghats
Image Courtesy: Sunil Bhoite
It is indeed interesting to know that the Western Ghats Rivers still keep organisms new to science. Will you please tell us how your team happened to find the fish?

Sunil Bhoite, who is a naturalist working in Satara District, Maharashtra, first caught this species in 2009 and sent it to Dr. Shrikant Jadhav, a scientist in Zoological Survey of India, Western Regional Center, Pune. 
habitat near Krishna River bridge
from where Balitora laticauda  was found.
Image Courtesy: Sunil Bhoite

During our collaborative work on the freshwater fish diversity of the northern Western Ghats, Dr. Jadhav showed me this species as an interesting specimen of genus Balitora. In 2011, Dr. Jadhav and I had an opportunity to visit the ZSI headquarters in Kolkata during which we studied the comparative material of related species. We realized that the species of Balitora from Satara is indeed a new species, still unknown to science.

In collaboration with Sunil Bhoite, who collected more specimens of the species early this year, Dr. Shrikant Jadhav and I worked on the species description and the findings are now published in Journal of Threatened Taxa. We also received some additional specimens of this fish from another locality in the same river from Madhavi Chavan and comparative material of Balitora mysorensis from Rahul Kumar, which were very important in the study.

Though the fish is new science, it had a local name. Were the locals using the fish for any cultural or other purpose?

This fish does not have any cultural value nor does it have any food value. However, sometimes tribal people (called Katkari) catch these and similar hill stream loaches and sell them in the local fish market. The species, however, is rare and is only seldom seen in the market.

With your finding, it is clear that the Western Ghats Rivers still have aquatic fauna which is yet to be described. Considering the rapid pace at which Western Ghats water bodies are polluted, do you think many of these unknown species will stop to exist even before we find them?

In the recent IUCN report on the threats to freshwater diversity of the Western Ghats (http://data.iucn.org/dbtw-wpd/edocs/RL-540-001.pdf) it was suggested that about 60% of the total endemic freshwater fish species of the Western Ghats are threatened because of several anthropogenic stressors including  organic and inorganic pollution of the water,  biological resource use (food fish and aquarium trade), invasive species, residential and commercial developments and natural system modification.
Typical habitat of Balitora laticauda
Image Courtesy: Sunil Bhoite

Especially in the northern Western Ghats such rapid developments are highly uncontrolled and they are modifying the natural ecosystems posing severe threats to the aquatic biota. On one hand, while the habits of the freshwater fishes, especially the specialists like hill stream loaches that require fast flowing clear water with a good substratum, are getting lost or severely affected; on the other hand we are still discovering species new to science. 

Unless we take efforts for conservation of the habitats and keep a check on the various anthropogenic stressors, it is quite likely that several freshwater fish species will go extinct even before we know them and describe them scientifically. 

Is there any specific threat to the newly described species?

There are no specific threats in the vicinity of type localities of the newly described species. However, potential threats to the habitat include severe sand mining upstream of type locality and agricultural run–off entering into the river. Some organic and inorganic pollution in the area is contributed by the washing of cloths and vehicles. Some river stretches in the vicinity of the habitat also have human settlements which contribute to household wastes directly being added to the river water.


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