Traveling to Myanmar

I came closer to realizing my dream of collecting fishes in Myanmar when, in the fall of 1995, I went to work at the American Museum of Natural History in New York for a year. At that time you could obtain only a two-week visa for travel to Myanmar, and I spent my first week in the capital,

Yangon, waiting for permits. During the second week, I was able to travel around a little. But the wait in Yangon did have a positive side. One evening, over a beer in one of the street cafes, I was told by a group of students that a chemistry professor at the university was very interested in native fishes and it would undoubtedly be a good idea for me to meet him.

Accordingly, a get-together was planned for the next evening with U Tin Win, who was to play an important role in my subsequent study of Burmese fish fauna. We got along very well right from the start, and spent the entire evening chatting enthusiastically about the freshwater fishes of Myanmar. I told him about the increasing interest among aquarists and mentioned that exporting aquarium fishes from Myanmar would be a worthwhile business undertaking. Soon afterward I left for a barely week-long collecting trip to Mandalay and Lake Inle. I returned with a small but interesting haul that later served as the basis for the revalidation of the , Channa harcourtbutleri, and the description of Dario hysginon, sometimes appearing as the Red Flame Dario.

My Myanmar fire had been kindled, and in 1998 I had the opportunity to collect with Sven Kullander for the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Myanmar. Our travels took us to Lake Indawgyi, where we caught dozens of specimens of Parasphaerich-thys ocellatus (Eyespot Gourami) and Indostomus paradoxus (Armored Stickleback) in the marginal vegetation. I also managed to bring around 20 individuals of each species back to Germany alive and to breed the Armored Stickleback. During this trip we discovered more new species of Badis in the area around Myitkina and Putao, and these were described in 2002 as Badis corycaeus (Cory Badis), B. kyar (Chameleon Fish), and B. pyema (Pyema Badis). I also brought specimens of Dario hysginon (Red Melon Dario) and the three new Badis species back alive to Germany and managed to breed Dario hysginon, Badis corycaeus, and B. pyema.

Unfortunately, I lost contact with Tin Win after my visit in 1996—e-mail wasn’t available in Myanmar back then. So my surprise and delight were great when, in 2002, I found a message from Tin Win in my inbox. He told me that he had followed my advice and founded an aquarium-fish export company after taking early retirement. I was surprised and delighted to be back in touch with him.

In spring 2003 I set off on my third collecting trip. Tin Win was of inestimable help in its planning and execution. I was now able to see his fish farm and meet his wife, Daw Tin Pyone, and his son, Ye Hein Htet, after whom his export company, Hein Aquarium, was named. The trip was a complete success, and in the years that followed I traveled to Myanmar again whenever the opportunity arose, in order to study the freshwater fish fauna with Tin Win’s support and infectious enthusiasm. Over the years, Tin Win, with the aid of Hein Aquarium, has managed to export a series of very interesting fishes. Every time I visited Tin Win he proudly showed me his newly discovered fishy treasures, which almost always included as-yet-undescribed species.

Several large rivers flow through Myanmar. Along with their tributaries, especially those of the mountain regions, they are responsible for the enormous diversity of the country’s freshwater fish fauna. The largest river is the Irrawaddy, which runs from north to south through Myanmar. Into it empties the Chindwin, which has its source in the north of Myan-mar. It runs south along the border with India and is probably one of the least known large rivers of Myanmar. The Sittang rises to the southeast of Mandalay at the edge of the Shan Plateau, a highland plain that extends as far as China. The Salween has its source in Tibet, and in Myanmar forms part of the border with Thailand before flowing through the completely unstudied southern Shan states to the state of Kayah and emptying into the Andaman Sea to the east of Yangon.

Another interesting and little-explored river is the Tenasserim, which meanders along the narrow coastal strip of Myanmar that extends to the south in the direction of the Isthmus of Kra. A few weeks ago, the strikingly patterned Inscribed Arowana, Scleropages inscriptus, was described from this river. Somewhat better studied are the relatively short rivers that drain from the Rakhine Mountains in southwest Myanmar straight into the Bay of Bengal. Here an interesting endemic fish fauna has evolved, including Channa pulchra, Garra flavatra, and Danio aesculapii. Garra flavatra.

During my seven collecting trips to Myanmar I have visited a wide variety of waters and gotten to know a considerable part of the country. What has astonished me the most and fascinated me time and again is that every accumulation of water, no matter how small, harbors fishes. For example, I was able to catch a new snakehead species in a residual pool around 16 inches (40 cm) in diameter and 8 inches (20 cm) deep that remained beneath a large piece of rock in an otherwise completely dried-up stream bed. A total of a dozen specimens had taken refuge there!

I was equally astonished about the type locality of Dani-onella translucida: a broad, fast-flowing, clear river with a sandy bottom and no aquatic vegetation. The tiny fish were found along the river margins beneath the grasses trailing from the bank, and also at greater water depths where the temperature was rather cool.

I found 12 specimens of an undescribed Channa species in this residual pool in the Rakhine Mountains.

The waters around Yangon, the former capital (in-cluding the rivers in which we found Dani-onella translucida) contain more or less cloudy water with a pH of around 7.5; the conductivity varies between 10 and 100 mS/cm. The temperature ranges from 73°F (23°C) in shaded, cool areas to more than 86°F (30°C) in strongly sunlit surface waters. Here one can find Badis ruber, Trichogaster labiosa, Rasbora daniconius, Xenentodon cancila, Dermogenys burmani-cus, Macrognathus dorsio-cellatus, Chaca burmensis, Channa gachua and Danionella translucida.

Somewhat further west, in the Irrawaddy Delta at the type locality of Paraspha-erichthys lineatus, the sister species of P. ocellatus from northern Myanmar, I measured a pH of 7.1 at a temperature of 84°F (29°C) and a conductivity of 290 mS/cm. Astonishingly, I also found Dario hysginon and Indosto-mus paradoxus there, species that I had previously caught only in the area around Lake Indawgyi in the north of Myanmar.

On the eastern side of the Bago Yoma, the chain of hills to the north of Yangon, the water parameters in the drainage of the Sittang River were further into the basic range. I measured a pH of 8.2-8.5, a temperature of 75°F (24°C), and a conductivity of 70 mS/cm. The waters around the Anisakan waterfalls on the Shan Plateau near Mandalay, where Puntius padamya, the Odessa Barb, also occurs, had rather unusual water parameters, initially causing me to suspect a faulty display on my pH meter. Here the pH was an astounding 11, the temperature of the water just 68°F (20°C), and the conductivity 320 mS/cm.

I found high pH values of 8-9 in almost all waters situated further east on the Shan Plateau. And in the Nan-Kwe River in the vicinity of Myitkina, from which Badis corycaeus, B. kyar, and Dario hysginon originate, the pH of 8.6-8.9 was again in the alkaline range; I measured similar water parameters in and around Lake Indawgyi.

I encountered unusually low temperatures well to the north around Putao, a region from which Channa burmanica was described, and I caught it there myself. During my trip in February the water in several streams there was just 57-63°F (14-17°C)! From this it is clear that species such as Badis pyema, Channa burmanica, Pun-tius tiantian, the local Danio cf. choprae, and the attractive Devario species found around Putao should be kept at low temperatures that should drop even lower at times, particularly in the winter.

Given the huge variety of fishes (well over 300 species) that occur in Myanmar, it is extremely hard to choose a selection to present here. The real giants are found at the local markets in Myanmar’s villages and towns. Par-ticularly worthy of mention are the huge Pangasius myanmar, Sperata acicularis, and Bagarius yarelli, plus the Tor and Neolissochilus species. And adult Monopterus albus and M. cuchia are, at more than half a meter long, impressive fishes. Naturally, the smaller fish species are interesting for aquarists, and there is no lack of them in Myanmar.

The various Danio and Devario species have received a lot of attention, above all the Celestial Pearl Danio, Danio margaritatus, a paragon of color. But the Glowlight Danio, Danio choprae, which Tin Win exported for the first time, has also been a real sensation. Myanmar is a hotspot—that is, an area of particularly high diversity—for this group of fishes.

Species that have not yet been imported, but have potential, include Devario xyrops from the Rakhine Mountains, the prettily marked Devario kakhienensis, and a Devario species from the area around Putao.

A minor sensation for me was the discoverof Danionella dracula, in which Tin Win played a significant part. Males of this species have long, daggerlike fangs—they aren’t teeth, but processes on the jawbones, a development unique among the cyprini-forms. The reproductive behavior of all Danionella species is still largely unstudied, and there is undoubtedly a lot to discover. Unfortunately, the various Badis species—B. corycaeus, the unusual B. kyar, B. juergenschmidti, and B. pyema—and Dario hysginon are imported only occasionally.

A real snakehead boom was triggered by the importation of the recently described Channa pulchra, which was discovered by Tin Win, and C. ornatipinnis, the most colorful of the snakeheads.

I discovered Channa ornatipinnis through a random event. We were on our way back from the collecting tour in the Rakhine Mountains and stopped in the evening at a little restaurant in a tiny village near the pass. I had a few live specimens of the recently caught new snakehead with me in a clay pot. The owner of the restaurant, Salai Thein Maung, peered into it inquisitively, and I explained to him that I was in Myanmar to collect fishes. He immediately said that the same fish occurred in the valley, but was much, much more colorful there.

I was very curious, and the next morning we climbed down the very steep path into the valley 656 feet (200 m) below. After half an hour we saw the first specimen flapping in the net of a native fisherman. When I put it in a plastic bag and looked at it more closely, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was immediately clear that this incred-ibly colorful snakehead was a new species. The description of Channa ornatipinnis appeared in January of the following year, and just a few weeks later I saw the first specimens of this species offered for sale for £150 ($240) in a well-stocked store in north London.

With regard to the genus Puntius, we are again far from grasping the extent of species diversity in Myanmar. The colorful species that I caught at the foot of the Chin Hills made this clear. But a large number of the species already described are not imported, or are only occasionally imported—for example, the Burmese Bumblebee Barb, Puntius tiantian, and the larger, more colorful species Puntius binduchitra, aka P. sarana, the Olive Barb.

Myanmar is also home to interesting species from groups of fishes less popular among aquarists, and their maintenance would certainly be rewarding for the specialist. The spiny eel species, for instance, are not only highly interesting and intelligent, but, depending on the species, also attractively colored; examples include Mastacembelus alboguttatus, the exquisitely striped M. tinwini and M. caudiocellatus, and the golden Macrognathus aureus. I think that Macrognathus pavo from the Rakhine Mountains, where it occurs together with Channa pulchra, is probably the most unusual and most beautiful spiny eel in Myanmar.

The first importation of the Clouded Archerfish, Toxotes blythii, was a great surprise, as nobody had seen specimens of the species since its original description. During my last visit to

Tin Win there were dozens of this extremely impressive and gorgeously colored freshwater archerfish swimming in his tanks. There are also numerous pretty loach species, but the identification of the species isn’t always clear. Small and unusual fishes always make my heart beat faster, and Myanmar is home to not only Indostomus paradoxus, the Armored Stickleback, but also remarkable fishes such as Chaudhuria caudata and Pillaia kachinica.

The gobies also include species whose keeping would undoubtedly be rewarding, for example Sicyopterus fasciatus and Brachygobius nunus, which differs from the Indian form in its smaller size. The catfish fauna of Myanmar is likewise fascinating by virtue of its unusual forms, with the various Hara, Amblyceps, and Olyra species worthy of mention.

Unfortunately, many of the fish species from Myanmar pictured here have not yet appeared in the aquarium hobby. This could change in the near future, as the country is in the process of opening up further and the export of aquarium fishes could become a growth industry. In the meantime we should try to establish those species that are available by breeding them. The economic development of Myanmar will lead to increased pressure on its unspoiled ecosystem; this has already happened in some other countries with a high biodiversity, which are now numbered among the so-called threshold countries.

And the production by fish farms of exotic fish species for food and the aquarium trade alike is certain to have a significant influence on the native fish fauna. Almost everywhere, even in remote areas of Myanmar, there is hardly a watershed that doesn’t contain Tilapia. During my last two trips I saw large numbers of South American Pacus and Prochilodus, which are now reared on farms, in the fish markets. A fish caught in the north of Myanmar and thought by the fishermen to be a new species turned out to be a South American loricariid of the genus Hypostomus. This demonstrates that in Myanmar, too many exotic aquarium fishes are being released uncontrolled into the wild. Nevertheless, there is still much to be discovered in the waters of Myanmar, and I am already looking forward to my next collecting trip.

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