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Michael Oliver - a man obsessed with Malawi Cichlids

Michael Oliver

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 this address: 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 gave talks.

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.

Placidochormis milmo
Placidochormis milmo
photo © Ad Konings,

Exochochromis anagenys
Exochochromis anagenys
photo © Ad Konings,

Iodotropheus sprengerae
Iodotropheus sprengerae
photo © Ad Konings,

Otopharynx lithobates
Otopharynx lithobates
photo © Katja und Oliver,

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.

Marzenna Kielan



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