New species described from DRC after mistaken identity

  • Scientists have recently identified a new species of air-breathing catfish, Clarias monsembulai, in Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo – the first new species of catfish in the genus Clarias to be described in 42 years.
  • It is named after Congolese researcher Raoul Monsembula, who collected samples of the species in 2006 and 2010 not realizing at the time that the fish was unknown to science.
  • Experts say species finds are very common in Salonga National Park due to the rich biodiversity of the area as well as the limited amount of research being done there.
  • However, the region also faces many threats, including poaching and the possibility of fossil fuel extraction.

In 2006 and 2010, Congolese researcher Raoul Monsembula collected catfish and other species from rivers in Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Then he hopped on a plane to New York so his colleagues could analyze them in their lab.

More than 10 years later, Monsembula learned that he had in fact collected a species of air-breathing catfish that scientists were unaware of. 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 world. Clarias genre since 1980.

“It was just a good time,” Monsembula, a biology professor at the University of Kinshasa and Greenpeace’s Central Africa regional coordinator, told Mongabay in an email. “Any biologist would like his name to be dedicated to the species he is working on. So, it was a good surprise of my life.

Greenpeace activist Raoul Monsembula shows peat in the peat forest around Mbandaka, Democratic Republic of Congo. Image ©️ Daniel Beltrá / Greenpeace Africa

Melanie Stiassny, an ichthyologist at the American Museum of Natural History, said she and her colleagues initially thought catfish were another species, Clarias buthupogon, to which it bears a striking resemblance. However, she said Maxwell Bernt, who previously worked with Stiassny as a postdoctoral researcher, had noticed the fish in question had distinct traits.

“[Bernt] made a great study of these Clarias catfish 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 tell the new catfish apart from its “extremely long barbels,” which the species uses to taste and smell things around them. They also noticed several “lateral proportional differences” between C. monsebulai and C. buthupogon.

Other catfish in the Clarias genus are able to walk on land, but Stiassny said she doesn’t think the newly described species does.

“Those who walk are the Clarias who live in arid areas of East Africa, and they’re in a pond, and then the pond slowly starts to dry out, and then they cross the savannah trying to find another pond,” Stiassny said, “so that monsebulai lives in dense rainforest with lots of fairly large rivers and lots of small streams. So he really will never need to get out of the water and walk.

Stiassny and Bernt co-wrote an article on the newly described species.

Image courtesy of MJ Bernt and ML Stiassny’s study.
A catfish
Clarias batrachus, a species of walking catfish. Image by Wibowo Djatmiko via Wikimedia Commons.

Stiassny said that although the new description of C. monsebulai is certainly remarkable, it is 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 find that wherever we…spend time looking at specimens, we find new species,” she said. “So it’s a very poorly documented part of the continent.” Stiassny said local researchers like Monsembula are working to fill many science gaps.

Salonga National Park in the DRC, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a vast expanse of protected rainforest spanning over 36,000 square kilometers (14,000 square miles). It is home to endemic species such as the endangered bonobo or the 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.

It is estimated that there are around 600 species of trees and 10,000 species of animals in the Congo Basin, including 400 species of mammals, 1,000 species of birds and 700 species of fish.

With the description of C. monsebulaithere are now 61 recognized species of catfish in the Clarias genus, 32 of which are endemic to African freshwater regions.

“[We need to] keep the Congo Basin forest intact to make sure we don’t disturb its endemic character,” Monsembula said. “The [could] There are many things that we can discover in the near future if our forest is in good condition. If we destroy it, we are surely helping new species to disappear even before we have described them.

But like many protected areas around the world, Salonga National Park faces many threats, including poaching, illegal occupation and the impacts of human conflict. In 1999, UNESCO even added Salonga National Park to its list of World Heritage in Danger.

A river that runs through Salonga National Park. Image ©️ Kim Gjerstad / Greenpeace Africa.
A community fishing establishment in Salonga
A fishing community in Salonga National Park. Image by Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

In 2015, WWF agreed to support a team of “eco-guards” to patrol and protect Salonga National Park, but the move was fraught with allegations of human rights abuses. An investigation by Rainforest Foundation UK, an organization that supports indigenous peoples and local communities living in rainforest regions, found that eco-guards had beaten, raped and even murdered community members.

In 2019, the DRC government also approved a contract that would carve out large swathes 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 announcement that he auctioned off 30 blocks of oil and gas 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 identifying C. monsebulai provided further evidence of the “tremendous biological importance of the Salonga landscape” and that the area should be protected from threats such as fossil fuel development.

He said that “the long-term future of the park does not depend on heavily armed ‘eco-guards’ and the subjugation of the local population, but on the local and indigenous communities who have lived and protected this area for generations. “.

“Raoul has been a tireless advocate for a conservation model in the Congo Basin based on the rights of these people,” Eisen said in an email, “and fully deserves this distinction.”

Banner image: A fishing community in Salonga National Park. Image by Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).


Bernt, MJ and Stiassny, ML (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 an editor for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECalberts.

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Animal Behavior, Biodiversity, Conservation, Environment, Fish, Freshwater Animals, Freshwater Ecosystems, Freshwater Fish, Habitat, Habitat Destruction, New Discovery, New Species, Research, Rivers, Science, Wildlife, Wildlife Conservation

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