Venezuela Collecting Diary

by R. Shane Linder

On Sunday, November 19, 2000 I headed southwest from Caracas to the Rio Guarico. I had collected this place before but I thought it was the Rio Pao (see Diary part 1). This time I had the sense to ask a local exactly where I was. I have found that maps are not that helpful as most people down here are not familiar with them. I guess if all you ever know in your life is where you can walk to, there really is not a reason to know where your village is in relation to places that are hundreds of kilometers away. My main reason for returning was to collect a replacement male Farlowella since my last one collected at this location decided to exit the aquarium. You know the answer to the old question, "Can a fish jump out of the tank?", "Yes, once!" I was not let down and collected two males and one very gravid female. I also collected lots of Farlowella fry as small as one inch, but I left the fry in place. While collecting Farlowella I also caught about a dozen Rineloricaria fry. I kept six larger specimens (about two inches SL each) and will try to identify them when they grow a bit.

I also collected about 20 Hypostomus ranging from two inches to ten inches. This location is full of them once you have the proper technique for catching them down. At one point I brought up four Hypostomus in one net! The key is to move into the middle of the current and stretch out the seine. Then step over your own net and kick the substrate. The frightened fishes are quickly carried by the current into the net. This is the same technique I use for Chaetostoma in rivers in the foothill mountains like the Rio Zuata. The species collected was most likely the true Hypostomus plecostomus. I have collected two species of Hypostomus now at this location. One is most likely H. plecostomus and the second H. emarginatus. I noted that in the Aqualog "All L-Numbers" book there is a picture of H. cf. wawata listed as from the Rio Guarico. I would agree on the identification of the fish in the picture, but H. wawata appears to occur in mainly western Venezuela in and around the Maracaibo Basin, so maybe the collecting location is incorrect.

Perhaps the best bit of luck was catching a one-inch Pimelodella. This fish was caught along the bank in the overhanging vegetation where I was catching the Farlowella and Rineloricaria. It is a plain-colored species with a dark mid-lateral stripe. Other fishes: I caught a number of a beautiful Acara species. These are really colorful fish with a bright orange caudal fin. I also captured a lone Pike cichlid (Mataguro), a Hoplias (Guavina), guppies, and a strange predatory-looking tetra. The absence of tetras at this location was really surprising. Normally, tetras are the vast majority of fishes encountered at any location down here. Considering that I collected for two hours and only caught a single tetra, I would say that tetras are just not utilizing this section of the river.

The Biotope: To recreate the Rio Guarico I would use a 20 or 30 gallon high aquarium. Build a false riverbank with rocks up the entire back wall of the tank to the water’s surface. Coming out of the riverbank, place several branches of driftwood angling down towards the front of the tank. The effect here should be roots from trees exposed by the water as the bank is washed away. The substrate should be small gravel mixed with sand. A strong powerhead should provide a good amount of current to the tank. I would then place cuttings of terrestrial plants all along the back of the tank. Pothos Ivy works great for this. The Farlowella will live and spawn among the plant roots and the artificial wooden roots. The Rineloricaria will live in the caves formed by the rocks and feed over the sand and gravel substrate. A pair of small Acaras could be added for more color and movement. The water of the Guarico is soft with a neutral pH. Due to recent rains the temperature had dropped to about 70°F and the water was slightly brown with floating sediment. I would replicate this with a small dose of blackwater tonic with every water change.

List of catfish species from the Rio Guarico: (Collecting location is about 10 kilometers east of San Juan de Los Morros where the road to San Sabastian crosses the Rio Guarico.)

Hypostomus plecostomus
H. cf. emarginatus
Farlowella "Guarico" (likely F. vittata)
Rineloricaria sp. "Guarico"
Pimelodella sp.

On November 26, 2000, my wife and I took a trip to the Rio Tarma to do some collecting. The collecting location was near the confluence of the Rio Tarma with the Rio Tuy between the towns of Nueva Cua and Mendova on the road that runs west from the town of Ocumare del Tuy. When we arrived, we watched two young men from the bridge. Due to the heavy vegetation along the banks, we couldn’t see what they were doing, but we did see one walk to a bucket with a Hypostomus species in his hand. Later, as we collected the river, we came across these two guys again and I realized they were fishing for Hypostomus. I watched up close for a while and this was the technique they used. They found holes in the muddy bank six inches to a foot below the river’s water level. One guy blocked the hole with his hand while the second started building a dam out of mud taken from around the hole. Eventually the dam around the hole was higher than the water level and thus the hole was cut off from the river. The hole was also substantially larger having grown from a 3-4 inch opening to a 8-10 inch opening. Then the guy that built the dam would use a cup to start scooping out the water from the hole. The second guy stood by with a sharpened stick that looked like an arrow without feathers. When the water was low enough in the hole the Hypostomus would make a run for it. However, he was cut off by the dam and thus could be speared by the waiting fisherman. In a few cases the Hypostomus never made a run for it. The fishermen would then keep digging out the hole until it was big enough to reach into and pull the fish out. This method, although labor intensive, certainly could work just as well for taking live Hypostomus and other loricariids that live in holes in the muddy banks.

This was a beautiul collecting location. The river, actually more of a stream, meanders down from the north side of the Serrania Del Interior into the Rio Tuy. The river is a series of riffles with a fair amount of current and wider sections with a gentle current. The banks were heavily vegetated which provided great shade to collect in. The vegetation along the banks was mainly large thickets of bamboo. The water was about 75°F with a neutral pH and was tested at 70 ppm GH. The substrate in the riffles was composed of well-rounded stones while the substrate of the slower sections consisted of small gravel and sand. The banks of the slower section had stands of Anacharis growing about a foot out into the stream. Acara, diamond tetras, and various other tetras were collected from these patches of vegetation as well as guppies. Kick-seining the riffles was the most productive method of collecting loricariids. This was the first time my wife had handled a large (ten foot) seine and in about 30 minutes we were operating like a professional team. The following loricariids were collected from the riffles over the course of two hours:

Ancistrus brevifilis (about 40 total) ranging from one to five inches SL
 Peckoltia/ Panaque sp. (4) from two to three inches
 Chaetostoma sp. (1)
 Rineloricaria sp (1)

The Ancistrus were collected from the riffles, along the banks, and among downed trees and driftwood. We also collected a few Hoplias and two small Pimelodella. The Rineloricaria, Acara, and Pimelodella appear to be the same or very similar spp. collected in the Rio Guarico and the Ancistrus brevifilis are exactly the same as the specimen collected from Cano Canoa. I still have to compare the Chaetostoma to those I have from the Rio Zuata to see if it is different. The headwaters of the Rio Tarma are only a mile or so from the headwaters of the Rio Zuata. The Rio Tarma takes the drainage from the northside of the Serrania Del Interior and runs north while the Zuata drains from the other side of the same mountain and runs south. The highlight of the day was the largest male Ancistrus (5 inches SL). As we watching the locals catch Hypostomus, one of the guys saw that we were collecting Ancistrus (Barbon). He walked over to the bank and told me to follow. A piece of dead bamboo was hanging over the bank into the water. The guy placed his hand over the open end in the water and broke the piece off about two feet up. He then cracked the bamboo open to reveal the large male Ancistrus guarding 60-70 fry. Since their home was ruined, I collected the male and placed the fry in a quiet section of the stream. All I could think was that I had not brought a camera to capture this!

Also, a note of warning. While carrying this large Ancistrus to the collecting bucket he flexed his cheek odontodes. They were large enough that when he flexed, the odontodes punctured my thumb. It did not hurt very much but did draw blood.

There are currently no exporters in Venezuela. The Ministry of Agriculture (which would issue permits) was shut down some years ago for lack of funding. There is an internal tropical fish trade that supplies pet stores in the larger Venezuelan cities. These collectors are, for the most part, located in southern Venezuela in and around Puerto Ayacucho. There is also at least one northern Venezuelan collector because Corydoras aeneus, Hypostomus plecostomus, and other northern fishes are commonly available in Caracas pet stores. Why anyone would buy a fish that they can catch in a local ditch is beyond me, but then Florida pet stores sell guppies, mollies, and other fishes found in ditches all over the state. The few fishes that make it out of Venezuela are "smuggled" into Colombia and Brazil. This is one reason why we see the same fish assigned two L Numbers. One L Number assigned to the species as a Venezuelan fish and one as a Colombian fish. You can hardly call this real smuggling though, since the Orinoco is the border. It just depends on which bank you are collecting. As one Venezuelan official told me, "The permit cost is whatever customs decides to extort (if anything) from you on the way out." This would be fine with me except that you have no paperwork to accompany the fishes when they arrive in the U.S. or Europe. How do you obtain the necessary legal paperwork when these types of legal permits simply do not exist? The situation is better in Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and even Colombia and these countries bring in millions of dollars a year exporting a renewable resource. BTW, Ecuador has now become the largest collecting location for the Arius specie(s) sold as shark cats. The last time I was in Miami, I stopped at two large importers and all of their Arius were coming out of Ecuador. Ecuador has great potential for producing the next wave of "hot" fish, but transportation from the Amazon region (Rio Napo) to cities is still via a six-hour ride on a dirt road. I do believe we will see more tropicals from the coastal area of Ecuador in the next few years.

Had a great few days of collecting in Carabobo State and actually found another aquarist! I’ll write more on both later. I wanted to share some notes on various Venezuelan fishes based on conversations between German aquarist Norbert Flauger and myself. Norbert has been collecting in Venezuela for years and has collected both the Amazonas region and the Orinoco Delta (Amacuro).

Diamond Tetras: Originally described from the Lake Valencia area. Norbert said the last time he went collecting there he caught only a single individual. Two industrial parks have been constructed near the town of Valencia and have really contaminated the lake. The good news... Years ago Lake Valencia drained into the Rio Tuy system. I have found Diamond tetras in both the Rio Tuy and the Rio Guapo. I do not know how long the two populations have been separated, but it would be worth investigating if they have split into two species. Anyway, the Tuy and Guapo forms are very beautiful with more purple in the fins. The Valencia form has white edges to the fins.

Guppies: The farther west you go in Venezuela, the guppies get more blue/green coloring. To the east more red/orange. I do not know why, but this is a fact Norbert and I have both observed.

Corydoras aeneus "Black": is the form from the Llanos. The northern form is more green and the black form is found in the plains north of the Orinoco. Norbert has a beautiful collection of the black form.

LDA 2/ L 75/ L 124: Hypostomus "big spot" is found in the Amazonas State region near Puerto Ayacucho.

L 106/ L 122: The fish in the Aqualog book is similar to a species in the north of Venezuela. The fish pictured in Baensch Atlas #4 is from Amazonas.

The southern fish has a deeply forked caudal and much more yellow. Norbert has collected the Amazonian form pictured in Baensch #4.

Panaque suttonorum: This fish is not gone. Exports were coming from Colombia and the river system was destroyed somehow (possibly pollution from a factory). However, this fish was described from Venezuela! We located some spots on the map where this fish should be. Sadly, this area is under guerrilla control so we will not be collecting there any time soon. Do not expect to see very many of these fish imported.

LDA 22: Found in Cojedes State near Tinaco. Also found in this system are Lamontichthys, Otocinclus, Rineloricaria, Ancistrus, Hypostomus, and others. A collecting trip will take place soon.

L 94/ L 123: is Aphanotorulus ammophilus which is common in Cojedes. The fish is actually correctly labeled on the poster that comes with the "Most Beautiful L Numbers" book published by Aqualog.

L 36: This fish greatly resembles the "common pleco" of the Tuy/ Guarico systems (see photos at planetcatfish). This is about as close to H. plecostomus as I have seen. Western Venezuela is supposed to have H. watwata, but I have not collected any.

On January 5, 6, and 7, 2001, we headed west to the state of Carabobo to stay is a posada (inn) run by Norbert and Gabriel Flauger. The posada is named Casa Maria and I had heard that it was a great place before we ever left the states. I heard from an American down here that Norbert, an entomologist, kept a few aquariums at the posada. That Norbert "keeps a few aquariums" is about the greatest understatement there is. Norbert left Berlin 8 years ago and moved to Venezuela so he could open a posada to support his studies on tropical insects. At some point he got sidetracked into fish. A written description can hardly describe the paradise he has built on the posada’s grounds. His "fishroom" is outside and only half of it is covered. The other half consists of two large ponds. The upper pond is about 500 gallons and houses some piranhas and tetras. This pond then overflows to make a water fall down to the next pond which is about 4 feet wide by 20 feet long. Glass windows are installed in both ponds so you can sit on the ground and see the fish aquarium style. The lower pond holds Ancistrus, Corydoras, and many kinds of tetras. Amongst the tetras are the largest diamond tetras I have ever seen. The fishroom proper consists of about 11 large tanks built into a brick wall. These tanks hold everything from Altum angels to rare Venezuelan L Numbers. Did I mention that Norbert has collected all of his own fishes throughout Venezuela over his years here? With every fish is a story about where and how it was captured. The big show is a 20,000 gallon pond with three large viewing windows built into it. Large schools of Corydoras swim about with Oscars, Acara spp., Geophagus, Severums, and other large cichlids. Panaque nigrolineatus, Ancistrus, Cochliodon, Hypostomus, and other loricariids lounge around the "centerpiece" of driftwood that stands three feet tall and ten feet long! Norbert and I went back to the pond at night and spotlighted loricariids and auchenipterids for better viewing. Spread throughout the grounds are several other ponds that Norbert has seeded with one tropical fish or another. The wild life on the grounds is also amazing. Norbert and Gabby are avid bird watchers and they have recorded over 300 species of birds in the immediate area. The place is also full of sloths and they show no fear of people as they munch their leaves. Add to all of this three pet dogs, two pet monkeys, and parrots so tame they land on your shoulders, and you can see what I mean by the word paradise. When I told Norbert I wanted to go collecting on Saturday, he said that he had another surprise for me. Located right below my bungalo was an extra(!) fishroom. The room was equipped with three homemade 40 gallon tanks, a sink, shelves, lights and a large airpump. Norbert said he had set up the little fishroom just in case a visitor wanted to do some collecting. How is that for service! On Saturday, I collected the Rio Urama and on Sunday, Norbert and I collected the Rio Chirgua. Casa Maria is ideally located because it sits in the middle of the Cordillera de la Costa that divides the Orinoco drainage from the coastal drainages. Drive for 30 minutes north and you are collecting very different species than you would 30 minutes to the south. If you are an aquarist with only one day in Venezuela, this would be the place to spend it.

Today, March 11, 2001, we drove south from Maracay along the eastern edge of Lake Valencia. The map shows a number of small rivers in this area that flow into the lake. Sadly, this area is now so built up and populated that we did not find a single viable collecting location. We decided to head southeast to San Juan de Los Morros for lunch and to scout out the area a bit. Just outside of San Juan de Los Morros, we came upon a nice-looking creek and decided to check it out. The creek was 10-15 feet across and less than a foot deep in most places. Walking along the banks, I was amazed at the concentration of fishes! On one large rock where there was slightly more current, we could see Hypostomus, Farlowella, and a small Panaque-type fish. Below the rock in the leaf litter we could see a number of Rineloricaria. Seining turned up all of the above as well as the usual cichlids, guppies, Hoplias, and tetras.

Two small boys, about 8 years old, watched us for some time and then said they could show us where there were "bastante corronchos" (lots of plecos). We followed them upstream to a pool near a large boulder. A few seine pulls turned up some small Rineloricaria. One of the boys then dove into the deepest part of the pool and came up with a foot long Loricaria! I was very excited and asked if he could catch more. The boy and his friend just kept diving down and grabbing a fish with every sortie. Basically, they just swam to the bottom and, with both hands, grabbed into the thick leaf litter. In about 15 minutes we had 5 Loricaria between 12 and 18 inches long as well as a half dozen nice sized Rineloricaria. As we prepared to leave, I offered to buy the boys a soda. They replied, "No thanks" and stood near us staring at the ground. Eventually one boy pointed to my seine and asked how much it cost. Needless to say, the method of payment had been named! The boys were delighted when I told them they could keep the net. I figured that a ten-dollar net was more than a fair trade for five giant Loricaria and a handfull of Rineloricaria. As we pulled away in the car, we saw the boys outside of their bamboo and mud home carefully hanging the net to dry. I am sure that the net will provide their family with many meals.

On the way out, I stopped and asked a man what the name of the creek was. Imagine my surprise when he informed me it was the Rio Guarico! I checked the map and sure enough I was only about 15 kilometers upstream from my normal collecting location east of San Juan de Los Morros. The dry season had changed the river so much that I thought I was in a small creek. The environment: The exact location was 4 kilometers NW of San Juan de Los Morros on the road between that city and Villa de Cura, Aragua State. The water was clear and very warm (about 82°F). The substrate was sand and gravel, but due to the slow current caused by the dry season, there were large amounts of leaf litter. The current was sluggish with occaisional small riffles. The total take in less than one hours was: Countless juvenile Farlowella about 4 inches. No adults were seen or captured. 5 large and 2 juvenile (4 inches) Loricaria Many juvenile Hypostomus One small Panaque-type sp. that I have yet to identify. These fish were common, but very hard to catch as they were mostly in the shallows over sand. It appears to be of the L-122 complex.

This article first appeared in PVAS’s Delta Tale, Vol 32, # 2