Wednesday, April 6, 2011

SCUBA diving in Laguna de Apoyo

We dive to study fish. We study fish to save them. Doubtless the fish of Laguna de Apoyo are facing a race against time as man continues to encroach on their habitat. Each day, the shores of the crater lake have fewer trees. Houses are built, forests are cut, pesticides are applied, all slowly drying and poisoning the only home for six known species of fish and countless others which have not been "discovered" officially. Dozens of fish species remain undiscovered in the waters of Nicaragua.

Here are the endemic species which have been named to date:
Amphilophus chancho
Amphilophus globosus
Amphilophus supercilius
Amphilophus flaveolus
Amphilophus astorquii
Amphilophus zaliosus

The last listed species, the arrow cichlid, was discovered by George Barlow in 1976, while the other five were discovered between 2008 and 2010 by a multinational research team in collaboration between FUNDECI/GAIA, Jay Stauffer's group at Pennsylvania State University and Matthias Geiger at Maximillian Ludwig University (Munich). They are all very closely related species, evolved since an introduction into the volcanic crater lake 10,000-20,000 years ago. All the fish are descendants of a parent Midas cichlid (Amphilophus citrinellus) stock.

In the photo below, taken while SCUBA diving on one of our monitoring sites in Laguna de Apoyo, several of the above-mentioned species are present.
Dive Nicaragua
A multispecies Amphilophus school in our monitoring site. Photo by Balasz Lerner.
We count fish numbers at fixed depths in specific locations monthly, as well as fish nests. The counting methods have permitted us to gain the extensive experience necessary to begin to decipher the differences between the fish species-distinctions that the fish themselves "see" but we do not nearly as easily.
Dive Lake Apoyo
Lorenzo Lopez is taking notes on fish populations in our fish monitoring activity in Laguna de Apoyo.
This study is important because it permits us to detect changes in the lake habitat and fish populations, hopefully giving us time to respond in the event of a potential fish kill or extinction event. We are still trying to understand just how many of each fish species are in the lake in order to interpret our results better. We have recently published a baseline of fish populations and breeding rates at three sites in Laguna de Apoyo, which you can find here.

Not only fish are observed in our monitoring work. We count the crabs seen as well:

SCUBA dive Laguna de Apoyo
Potamocarcinus nicaraguensis in Laguna de Apoyo.
Little is known about the crabs that inhabit the Nicaraguan Great Lakes system. We occasionally see them eating a dead fish, or more often, hiding in a hole or beneath an object. We usually see two or three each dive. We have begun counting them systematically, to look for trends in their population over time.

You can join us! Please let us know if you would like to dive with us in Laguna de Apoyo. If you are a certified diver, and you would like to accompany us, you can learn about the rare and threatened fishes of the lake, see them up close, and help us collect data that ultimately will contribute to scholarly publications about these fish and their habitat. We know far too little about these fish, and your participation helps us learn more about how to protect these species. We are saving Nicaraguan wild nature, and you can help.

Whether you are a field biologist or a tourist, we there are ways you can participate in our work. A few of the ways are:

1. Participate in our diving research program as a diver. Any certified diver can contribute by "buddying" on a research dive.
2. Visit us at Estacion Biologica in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve and meet us personally.
3. Tell others about us and the nature conservation activities in Nicaragua.
4. Patronize businesses with responsible management practices such as permits, pesticide use, waste management, etc.
5. Volunteer some time with us-we have a constant need for volunteers outside the water as much as inside, from computer data management, conservation professional support, to physical activities without technical expertise.
6. Collaborate with us as a visiting scientist. We have numerous projects and topics that could benefit from the involvement of more researchers. Our group publishes more than any research group in Nicaragua, and we would like to work with more international and local collaborators.
7. Donate-whether in cash or used dive equipment in good condition. We can get material transported from the US if necessary. We can receive financial donations via paypal, and provide tax information (we are a Nicaraguan registered not-for-profit).

Please contact us if you want to help. This project depends on individual, small-scale contributions, so your can make a difference.

dive Laguna de Apoyo
Click on the "escudo" to contact us.

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