Researchers Name Tiny Catfish After Indian Villagers Who Helped Trap Them

Scientists have named a tiny endangered catfish species after Indian locals after they helped them find it in wells and underground water channels.

Image shows the newly discovered, subterranean fish species Horaglanis populi, undated photo. It was discovered with the help of the locals in the state of Kerala, India. (C. P. Arjun/Newsflash)

The team of German and Indian researchers made the fascinating discovery when they analysed small airbreathing Horaglanis catfish in the state of Kerala, India.

But they reportedly did not succeed alone, as they enjoyed the help of good Samaritan locals who helped them scavenge through wells and underground water channels before they found the petite 32-milimetre-long (1.2 inches) catfish.

In order to honour them for their unconditional help over the six-year-long research project, the scientists decided to name the newly found individual after them – Horaglanis populi.

Dr Ralf Britz from the Senckenberg Natural History Collections in the city of Dresden, Germany, said in a statement obtained by Newsflash: “The specific name populi, the genitive of the Latin noun for ‘people,’ honours the invaluable contributions of the interested public in Kerala who helped document the biodiversity of these subterranean fishes – including the discovery of the new species.

“Our Horaglanis project is an excellent example of how public involvement can greatly increase our knowledge of rarely collected organisms that live in relatively inaccessible habitats.

“Local people expand the researchers’ ‘eyes and ears’ by several orders of magnitude.”

The scientists reportedly searched through wells and above-ground storage tanks, with scoop nets in shallow wetlands, water channels, home gardens, and plantations.

To detect as many individuals as possible, Dr Britz also used baited traps in excavated wells on farmsteads, in ponds, and caves along with Dr Rajeev Raghavan from the University of Kochi and Dr Neelesh Dahanukar from Shiv Nadar University in Delhi, India.

Dr Britz added: “There are very few documented occurrences of these species – as a rule, these elusive little fish only come to the surface when a domestic well is being dug or cleaned.

Image shows a computed tomography image of the skull of Horaglanis populi in frontal view, undated photo. The species was discovered with the help of the locals in the state of Kerala, India. (Britz, Senckenberg/Newsflash)

“Local people are often the only ones who get to see such well-hidden species.

“Therefore, they can play an important role in improving our scientific knowledge of this unusual fauna!

“We informed local villagers about the importance of subterranean fish species and their conservation needs and asked them to share information, photos, or videos with us when they encountered and/or collected these species.

“This allowed us to generate data sets with a total of 47 new site detections and 65 new genetic sequences.

“These show, among other things, that Horaglanis are endemic to the part of Kerala state south of the Palghat Gap – the mountain pass apparently represents a biogeographical barrier for the subterranean world as well.

“The genus is characterized by a high level of genetic diversity that has evolved over millions of years – although the fishes’ appearance has changed remarkably little.”

The new red-bodied species – endemic to the Pathanamthitta District in Kerala – was found to be quite genetically distinct from the other previously known Horaglanis individuals.

But the little guy’s lack of eyes reportedly placed it on IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species as ‘Vulnerable’ since it could only be found in subterranean habitats.

Dr Britz explained that fish in their study area enjoy little or no protection under local or regional laws, while their habitats are embedded in densely populated landscapes.

Image shows a homestead well typical for the region, undated photo. Scientists discovered the new species of catfish in the state of Kerala, India. (C. P. Arjun/Newsflash)

Both groundwater extraction and mining of laterite rock layers are reportedly found to be a threat to the animals.

He added: “To ensure the survival of Kerala’s enigmatic subterranean catfish, a planning and implementation approach involving a wide range of stakeholders is needed.

“This must also include the local population, whose support was instrumental in advancing our research to its current state.”