UF to lead $2.7 million worldwide project to discover fish species

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The National Science Foundation has awarded the University of Florida and two other institutions $2.7 million to conduct a global inventory of the largest order of freshwater fishes, including some of the most commercially important fish worldwide.

The four-year grant is part of the NSF Planetary Biodiversity Inventory initiative, which began in 2003 and aims to identify and catalog every species on Earth by 2025.

Scientists and students from UF, Auburn University and St. Louis University, with help from about 50 other researchers around the world, will search for undiscovered species and study known species in the order Cypriniformes (pronounced sy-PRIN-uh-FOR-meez). They expect to describe about 1,000 new species in this order, which includes minnows, carp, loaches and suckers.

“Through this inventory, we will gain a better understanding of how diverse cypriniforms are and how they fit into freshwater ecosystems,” said Larry Page, the study’s principal investigator and ichthyology curator at UF’s Florida Museum of Natural History. “We will use this information to study the evolutionary relationships of these species and gain a better understanding of how biological communities form and persist.”

Page said identifying the fish is a priority because of their geographic and biological diversity. Many are popular in the pet trade and some are raised for human and pet consumption.

“The top five fishes used for aquaculture worldwide are cypriniforms,” Page said. “Aquaculture is an $86 billion-a-year business and nearly half of all fish consumed worldwide are farm-raised.”

Cypriniforms are found on every continent except Antarctica, Australia and South America. Researchers will focus most of their work in tropical Africa and Asia where diversity is highest and new species are most likely to be discovered. Teams will capture and identify new species and produce descriptions, web pages and interactive identification keys with information about their ecological characteristics and geographic distribution, Page said.

This information can be used to identify species with diminishing populations, develop conservation strategies and provide a foundation for further studies.

Study co-investigator Jonathan Armbruster, an associate professor and curator of fishes at Auburn University, said about 6 percent, or 4,000 species, of all vertebrates are cypriniforms, making this group of fishes nearly as diverse as mammals.

“You need to know what is out there before you can conserve anything,” Armbruster said. “In much of the world, we aren’t even close to determining this.”

Page said museum and institutional collections will also be studied in the search for unidentified species.

Page, who has studied fish for more than 30 years, received and directed another NSF Planetary Biodiversity Initiative grant in 2003 to inventory catfishes worldwide. He is the only researcher to receive two of the awards. Scientists on the first project described 1,000 new catfish species and created websites that greatly expanded the information available on freshwater fishes.

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Source: Larry Page, office: 352-273-1952; cell: 352-256-1889, lpage@flmnh.ufl.edu
Writer: Leeann Bright
Media contact: Paul Ramey, 352-273-2054, pramey@flmnh.ufl.edu