Michael Oliver - a man obsessed with Malawi Cichlids
Every hobbyist who would like to keep Malawi Cichlids and who
tries to gather as much knowledge about those beautiful creatures
as possible, surfing the net, sooner or later must come across
Here, among photos and descriptions of cichlids, articles and maps,
he or she will forget about the real world, reading and admiring
incredibly large resources that are able to satisfy even the
greatest appetite. The man who has created that brilliant site
is Dr. Michael K. Oliver. He is a man who has named six species
and one genus of cichlids. He is the kind of man who is able to
talk about quite difficult concepts in a very clear and
fascinating way, which allows us to state with amazement:
"It wasn't difficult at all". And what is most important,
he is a forbearing friend, who always has some time to answer
my questions and who appreciates my efforts in studying the
miraculous world of Malawi Cichlids.
Michael, I know that I am not the only person
who admires your work and your site. Your site "The Cichlid
Fishes of Lake Malawi, Africa" has been awarded and honored
many times. It was featured in Bio-Merlot (Multimedia Educational
Resource for Learning and Online Teaching), featured as a
learning resource by Internet Scout Report for Science &
Engineering, featured as a Digital Dozen Web site by the
Eisenhower National Clearinghouse for Mathematics and Science
Education, it was reviewed in the magazine Science, etc.
How do you feel today knowing that your site has been such
a great success? Do you remember your first award?
First, Marzenna, let me thank you for asking to interview me.
I feel extremely honored, but it is hard for me to believe that
there are aquarists in Poland or other countries who would wish
to read about me!
I first posted my site in May 1997, and was amazed when,
just two months later, three awards were made to my site -
from Fish Link Central, Web-Fish Catalog, and the Digital
Dozen. People were actually finding and liking my site!
The Web seemed almost magical (and still does).
The Digital Dozen award especially astonished me,
because it came from the US government's Department of
Education. It was a bit scary, realizing that my government
was able to notice my little site... . I have to say, though,
that a huge amount of misinformation, ugly ideas, and utter
rubbish is also on the Web. Any site that presents good,
solid information or honest opinions with reasonable care
will probably receive awards. I'm sure that if the contents
of my site were published as a book, aquarists would yawn
and think, "Oh, yes; here's still another book about Malawi
cichlids; aren't there too many of those already?" Still,
I admit, I feel very happy when people find my site helpful
or interesting, and pleased that Web technology gave a
second life to my old color slides. They had been sitting
on a shelf in a closet for 15 years, but now I share them
with far more people than ever saw them years ago when I
Building such an impressive site must take a lot of
time, how much time do you spend working on it?
Too much time! And, not nearly enough. Too much time,
because it requires several hours a week just to maintain
the links and bibliography pages, and to answer the e-mails
I get because of the site (but I enjoy doing this).
Sometimes I am guilty of working on it when I should be
helping my wife. It is hard to find enough time to
improve the contents, correct errors, and implement new
features. There is not enough time for this. I suppose
I spend five or six hours a week working on the site.
You have been to Africa and you have been able to
observe Malawi Cichlids in their natural habitat; do you
remember your first impression?
It was 1968 when I first visited Lake Malawi.
In those days, there were no organized tour groups of
aquarists making pilgrimages there! I was among the first
Americans, maybe even the very first one, to go to the Lake
because of interest in its fishes. I was only there for a few
days, but the lake and the fishes made a strong impression on me.
This was only a few years after the first mbuna had been exported.
The very first species ever shipped to the USA was the Rusty
Cichlid, or at least that is what Peter and Henny Davies,
the first collectors and exporters to the US market, told me.
The Rusty was sold as Petrotilapia tridentiger, and was usually
called the "Trident Tiger" in American pet shops.
(The Rusty was not a Petrotilapia at all, of course, but
actually a new genus and species that Paul Loiselle and I
named Iodotropheus sprengerae in my first scientific paper,
in 1972). Other species I remember seeing in aquarium
stores before that first trip include Pseudotropheus zebra
and Melanochromis auratus, which was still called
Pseudotropheus auratus in those days.
I had corresponded with David Eccles at Monkey Bay,
and was very excited when he invited me to visit him.
This became possible when I accompanied my parents on a
trip that included several stops in Africa, from Cape Town
to Cairo. I persuaded them to add a stop in Malawi. We
rented a car in Blantyre and drove to Monkey Bay. David
Eccles greeted us with magnificent hospitality. He organized
several fish-collecting outings, and showed and told me
about many of the cichlids. I remember feeling awed and
privileged to be swimming in the wild among some of the
same fishes I had seen sold for high prices in aquarium
stores. The exotic locale, the friendly and remarkable
people (African and European), and the bewildering swarms
of colorful fishes all combined to affect me deeply. Now
I was really spellbound!
When I returned home, I wrote a three-part article for
an American aquarium magazine, The Aquarium. The series was
published in 1970, with many of my color photographs. In
it, I highlighted some of the beautiful and interesting
non-Mbuna cichlids, arguing that these would also make
excellent aquarium fishes. When I returned to Malawi
in 1971 and first met the Davies, I was astonished when
they told me that they had seen my articles and, as a
result, they had decided to start exporting some of the
non-Mbuna. Until my article, they had thought no one
would be interested in them! Today, with the enormous
interest in these "haps," it is hard to believe that
this attitude ever existed. Of course, without my
article, I'm sure these fishes would eventually have
found their way into our tanks and our hearts anyway.
There are many species of endemic cichlid fishes in
Africa; they all have a very interesting behavior, so,
why you are "a man obsessed" with Malawi Cichlids? What
is so special in Malawi Cichlids for you?
That quote about my being "a man obsessed" was just a
silly remark in a magazine article listing notable Web
sites based in the small US state of Connecticut where
I live. I think the author was simply not familiar with
the passion that any scientist - or cichlid hobbyist! -
brings to his or her interests.
Like many people, I feel an emotional need to see and
learn about some of the many creatures sharing Earth
with us - a hunger for biodiversity that is more intense
because as a biologist I am so conscious that all living
things on Earth have evolved together, and are related to
each other by common ancestry. We share sections of our
DNA with cichlids! ...and with beetles (which I also collect
and publish about), and crabs and orchids and bacteria,
because organisms ancestral to all of us already had those
sequences in their DNA. The comprehension of this unity of
life on Earth is breathtaking.
I can't really explain why, starting at age 14, I
quickly developed a strong interest in fishes. Their
esthetic beauty has something to do with it. I find many
groups of fishes to be beautiful and fascinating, but
cichlids are hard to surpass in their diversity of form,
coloration, behavior, ecological strategies, and sheer
number of species! And, of course, it is well known that
Lake Malawi has more different kinds of fishes (almost
all of which are cichlids) than any other lake on earth;
more than all the species of European and North American
freshwater fishes combined.
Have you got any favorite cichlids and what
species do you keep in your tanks?
Well, I feel a real attachment to some of the species
I have been fortunate to name and describe, some of which
have become highly popular in the hobby: Rusties
(Iodotropheus sprengerae), Placidochromis milomo,
Otopharynx lithobates (it has a very elegant shape!),
and Exochochromis anagenys. Except for the last,
I have kept all of these. At present, I have only a
single cichlid aquarium, with a group of O. lithobates,
a yellow Labidochromis caeruleus, a pair of
an unidentified Aulonocara, and a Synodontis njassae.
Slowly, I am furnishing part of my garage as a "fish room,"
and hope to set up several large aquaria for mbuna and non-mbuna,
with smaller tanks for raising some of the fry.
With great attention I have read your article where
you prove that "if a separate genus is to be recognized for
the Pseudotropheus zebra group, the correct generic
name is Maylandia". Still, in many resources we can
find the name Metriaclima. Your article was written
in 1999, do you still maintain your opinion?
Yes, absolutely! I have not seen a definitive publication
to make it official, but the principles of zoological
nomenclature are very clear in this situation. I see
no way that the name Maylandia would not be ruled
the valid name, despite the wishful thinking of
the authors of Metriaclima. One day, we will all
know for certain.
Now something a bit personal if you agree. What
does your wife Joan think about your hobby? Is she
interested in these beautiful creatures too?
Joan enjoys watching my cichlids, but is not an aquarist.
She is very understanding and tolerant of this hobby,
luckily for me!
One of the most interesting new pages at your site
is a table showing trophic adaptation of Malawi Cichlids,
and my question is (because I am looking forward and I am
very impatient ;-): How long does it take to complete it
Michael? I hope that you will answer me: "Not too long."
Sorry, Marzenna! It's not going to be completed soon.
I try to add another species now and then. With each one,
I include a thumbnail photo linked to my main page about
that species. I am looking critically at the photos I
originally posted on those "species pages," and am
reprocessing some of them. I was inexperienced at
optimizing photos for the Web when I started, and
many were too dark. Now, I can often improve the
quality substantially. I use Paint Shop Pro for
tuning most of the photos and other graphics.
Have you got any ideas about your site for the
future? What else do you want to add?
Oh, yes! Recently, I added a search box to supplement
the extensive index, and an always-current list of
significant changes and new pages (accessible from
a button on the homepage labeled "What's new here?").
My future plans and dreams for the site include:
- Possibly collaborating with a leading researcher to add
larger, higher quality photos of many of the fish
(discussions are under way).
- Expanding and upgrading the information offered
about each species. For many of them, I wrote only a
sentence or two at first. I also want to add locality
information about the specimens in my photos.
- Adding pages with photos of additional species -
I still have many mbuna photos taken at the Lake to
digitize and incorporate into pages. Ultimately,
of course, I would like to have a page illustrating
and summarizing every species, but this may be impossible!
- Several new FAQ pages with advice for aquarists
who are beginners at keeping cichlids - good species to
start with, keys to success, and so forth. Others are
far better at those matters than I am (I know you are a
better aquarist, Marzenna), and I already provide links
to the sites of experts, but my visitors seem to want
this information at my site, too, and I will try to oblige.
- A new section of scenic photos of the lake, habitat
photographs, and some photos of the Malawi countryside.
- A gazetteer of the names of lakeshore localities
and islands, linked to maps showing where they are located.
- Finally, I received a good suggestion by email just
the other day (don't be shocked at this one): Why not
provide recipes for cooking cichlids, Malawi-style? Farm-raised
tilapias are now available in many American markets
(and European ones?), and they are close relatives of
the delicious Malawi Chambo. I have a Malawi cookbook
with some good Chambo recipes... .
Thank you very much Michael for your kindness and
your time. I am sure your site will be still the best and
the most interesting for people obsessed with Malawi Cichlids.