A new species of electric fish now has a name—a name it shares with one of SCBI’s scientists: Mary Hagedorn, a marine biologist with SCBI’s Center for Species Survival. The fish, Sternarchorhynchus hagedornae, is native to the Manu River in the Peruvian Amazon.
I am an expert in electric fish, and have worked in Central and South America and Africa on their ecology and behavior for over 20 years. Electric fishes have a sixth sense that we do not: electricity. They use electricity to find their prey, move around and locate objects in their nighttime waters (kind of like bats using echolocation, only it is electricity not sound) and for communication—especially during breeding. Males produce long electrical courtship songs that attract females and encourage them to breed.
While in the Amazon, working at the Smithsonian field station in Manu (called Pakitza, now defunct), my colleague Kip Keller from the University of Oregon and I discovered these fish living in the rapids of a river near Rio Manu. We recorded its electric organ discharge, similar to bird song, only made up of electrical impulses. We collected males and females and had their images drawn for our paper on the electric fish of Manu, then deposited voucher specimens of the fish in the Natural History Museum in Lima, Peru.
Besides using electricity to communicate with, there are a lot of physical differences between the two sexes. Their overall length, the size of their jaw and their electric signals differ for males and females. A lot of information is encoded in their signals. Just like in human voices, you can tell male from female, old verses young, and sometimes even area of the country- just from a voice. It’s the same for electric fish.
To me, the most amazing thing about these fish is their lower jaws which are a ball-like structure bristling with teeth. They look like that ancient weapon, called a mace. The males in the river had scars on their backs which suggested to me that they did a lot of fighting with these teeth. In other species of electric fish, I have observed males locking jaws and fighting for dominance and the chance to breed. Usually, only the dominant fish gets to breed, and once they become dominant, they change their electric discharge to encode that dominance.
No, this is the first time, and I am incredibly honored by Carlos David De Santana and Richard Vari from the Division of Fishes, National Museum of Natural History naming a fish after me. I collected and identified the fish, but I am not a taxonomist. Taxonomists tell us whether a fish is a new species or not. So, when they reexamined the classification for this group (called a genus), they added in any new species and named them, and I got one named after me! It was fantastic—it is every biologist's dream to have a species named after you!