Like many Caribbean children, James Josaphat grew up with a love for fishing, spending much of his free time near water with his friends in Haiti. He didn’t know at the time that he would be involved in the discovery of a new species of fish many years later, right in his homeland.
“Since my childhood, I have been passionate about fish,” says James, as we communicate on WhatsApp, allowing him to more easily translate from his native Haitian French. It is the easiest method of contact as access to the Internet in Haiti is difficult and electricity is often available only at night.
Against the backdrop of Haiti’s incredible, much-undiscovered biodiversity and widespread social unrest, James began his journey into the world of fish at the undergraduate level with courses in fisheries, coastal resources and aquacultures.
“I obtained a scholarship for a master’s degree in a programme (MSc in biodiversity conservation and sustainable development in the Caribbean), funded by the European Union, ECCAM (Education for Climate Change and Adaptation and Migration) to go to Trinidad at The University of the West Indies.”
From there, he would go on to work with Dr Amy Deacon, who supervised his studies in Trinidad.
“He approached me because he had a special interest in fish and freshwater ecology, which is one of my specialist areas,” says Dr Deacon.
Originally, his plan had been to conduct his research in Haiti, but the logistics of moving back and forth didn’t work, and they decided instead to design a project based in Trinidad that would give him the skills in freshwater fish and sampling to take back to Haiti.
“From the very beginning, James was set on the idea that he wanted to apply those skills in Haiti. People have been studying the rivers in Trinidad for more than 100 years— we know quite a lot about the fish there, whereas Haiti, because of its situation, has had very little research.”
To put that into perspective, Trinidad has a total area of just over 5,000 square kilometres while Haiti clocks in at almost 28,000 square kilometres. Yet there are thousands of articles on Trinidad’s freshwater biodiversity available online while only a handful can be found on Haiti.
With the economic and social challenges Haiti has faced, conservation efforts have been difficult to put in place. Once James had completed his programme in Trinidad, he was determined to bring this knowledge back to Haiti and to do the crucial research of his local biodiversity before it is too late.
“That’s something that’s quite special about James and this situation,” says Dr Deacon. “For a lot of people in countries like Haiti, it’s very tempting to take opportunities to go abroad, but then you are taking your skills away from where they are needed the most. But from the beginning, James has said, ‘No, I want to make a difference in my country’.”
Meeting Limia mandibularis,
the jawed limia
The phenomenon of “brain drain” is well-known to the Caribbean as many of our brightest have an easier time finding opportunities abroad. Programmes such as the Caribaea Initiative, whose mission includes training and supporting the next generation of conservation scientists within the Caribbean, allow passionate young minds like James to do the much-needed local work with support, funding and other opportunities.
In 2018, James met fellow fish enthusiast (the scientific study of fish is called ichthyology) and Cuban PhD student at the University of Oklahoma Rodet Rodriguez-Silva, at the Latin America and Caribbean Congress for Conservation Biology, which was held in Trinidad and hosted by the Department of Life Sciences at the St Augustine campus. They made plans for the historical expedition that would lead to the discovery of a new species.
“Back in Haiti, after the master’s was complete, my first fieldwork experience with fish was with Rodet. I learned a lot from him in the capture methods and identification of fish, especially in Lake Miragoâne,” says James.
This lake, in the south-west of Haiti, is where they made their incredible discovery—a fish they called Limia mandibularis, a cousin of the Trinidadian guppy. “It was very exciting for me because I am very young in the field and I was able to be a part of a team that discovered a new species in my country, in my first major research project since completing my master’s.”
The fish, whose discovery was recently published in the journal Zootaxa, is an endemic species—which means it is only found in Haiti. Its name, “jawed limia”, comes from its well-developed lower jaw (mandible). According to Prof Ingo Schlupp, a poeciliid expert from the University of Oklahoma, “This is the most unusual mouth I have ever seen in a livebearing [retains the eggs inside the body and gives birth to live offspring] fish.” In other words, this fish is sporting a wicked underbite.
But Limia mandibularis is not the only exciting creature to be found in Haiti’s natural world. Haiti appears to be a hotspot of endemism for this group, with a total of nine species of Limia discovered to live only there. So James and the cross-Caribbean team have a lot of exciting work ahead.
Starting with a Haitian and a Cuban meeting in Trinidad, and going on to include scientific collaboration between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, with the addition of Patricia Torres-Pineda, this is truly an inter-Caribbean endeavour.