by Antti Vuorela, uploaded April 14, 2007
Follow our footsteps with the companion interactive map.
English translation edit by Julian Dignall
All images by the author
In the spring of 2004 I had the opportunity to join ichthyologist and catfish expert Heok Hee Ng and Julian Dignall, the father of PlanetCatfish.com, on a fish collecting trip in West Bengal India. The main objective was, of course, the study of catfishes. Our host was Mr. Andrew Rao from Malabar Tropicals and he proved not to be only an aquarium fish exporter, but a nature lover with extensive knowledge of the area and its fishes and waters. So we were in for a treat - a really good look at the diversity of fishes and their habitats in West Bengal.
My trip from Helsinki in Finland to West Bengal was tiring to say the least. The flight was through Copenhagen and Bangkok to Kolkata (Calcutta) and I had a few hours waits in both way points. When we all had arrived in Kolkata late in the evening our host Andrew told us we would have a very early morning wake-up to catch an internal flight to Bagdogra in northern Bengal, some 500 kilometres north from the Bay of Bengal. From there it would be a slow jeep ride of a little less than 100 kilometres to Kalimpong, our first base camp in the foothills of the Himalayas.
The next morning, tiredness from the monotonous flights was quickly forgotten when Andrew led us to the jeep outside Bagdogra airport and we started seeing our first up close sights of West Bengal. The route to Kalimpong followed the Tista river. Tista collects its waters from the eastern Himalayas, from the northern Indian state of Sikkim all the way close to borders of Nepal and Tibet. In April the end of the dry season approaches and so the two-three hundred meters wide riverbed had water for less than a hundred meters width. Sometimes we saw almost dry riverbeds and this is quite normal in India. The great seasonal nature of the climate alters water levels so much that some channels are just for the waters of rainy monsoon season. The biggest rains fall in the summer, July being the month of heaviest rains.
As we passed through more populated areas of countryside and some towns we saw cows wandering free on the streets and in more organized manner grazing fields in a leash. I had always wondered about this Holy Cow thing, tourist guides never giving any better explanations for them, so I had to ask Andrew, "Is it really so that they are just holy and therefore free to do anything?". Andrew's explanation was a bit more practical: the cows in the cities and towns were owned by poor families, there's no grass so they graze the garbage and whatever they can find there but return to their owner for the night. The cows on the fields were milking cows, and when they didn't milk anymore they were sold to Bangladesh for meat. The Indian culture lost some of it's mysteriousness to me but on the other hand started making more sense.
As we drove further the landscape got hillier and the valley of the river got deeper and the river itself narrower. The water looked more greenish and was fast flowing. Also the people started looking different. The typical Indian looks started mingling into the East Asian looks of the Nepalese.
Fishing around Kalimpong
Kalimpong is situated at 1500 meters elevation above sea level. It used to be a retreat for the British from the heat of Kolkata, a so-called hill-station. Our base camp was a small hotel that had been there since the time of the British. It really was significantly cooler, in the evening the temperature dropped to less than 15 degrees, and this was the warm season.
Portrait of the River Reli
In the morning the view was beautiful with snow capped mountains dominating the horizon with a rim of clouds around them. We drove down to the valley for our first fishing in a small 10-20m wide river called Reli. The river was very shallow, mostly less than half a meter deep. The bottom was rocky and the cool crystal clear water was running fast. Water had a pH of 8.2. First fish sightings were some small fry of Cyprinids but we didn't focus on them. We started lifting the rocks sweeping with a push seine net under the rock at the same time. It didn't take long before we had our first catches. Schistura devdevi seemed to be the most common species. We caught also other Nemacheiline loaches, with typical brownish grey colouration and vertical bars on the backside. The species were Schistura scaturigina, Schistura inglisi, and the attractive Aborichthys elongatus.
Schistura inglisi is a quite large and robust species. It is the species called S. multifasciata in Dr. Menon's book on Indian Balitoridae loaches and it isn't often available in the aquarium hobby. Loaches from the genus Aborichthys are close relatives to those of the genus Schistura and Nemacheilus. Typically Aborichthys species differ from these in being a bit larger, having a rounded caudal fin and more slender body. The vent of Aborichthys species is situated more forward in the body, making the posterior part of the body longer. The long "tail" is an adaptation to fast running waters. The Aborichthys elongatus we caught had nice red caudal markings, which are typical for the species of this genus. No catfish was found here.
The next day we visited a river called Rishi. This was also not very wide but significantly deeper river, at slightly lower elevation than Reli. The water seemed to be warmer, probably over twenty°C. The river was over 2 meters deep in some places. The bigger size of the river showed also in the more diverse fish fauna. Immediately we found the same Schistura devdevi loaches here. First new encounter was Devario aequipinnatus. They had very nice turquoise colour on sides and reddish fins. We could sight Garra under water as well. They had quite strange, fierce, or even cruel looking face. Many Garra have these deep grooves above their mouths giving them peculiar look. The species here was most likely Garra gotyla.
We had some help from the local fishermen who were able to catch us a very interesting catfish. From the deepest parts with strongest current falling between big rocks they could catch Pseudecheneis sulcata. These magnificent catfishes are quite large, over 15cm in total length. They had typical colour for the members of this genus, chocolate brown ground colour with some orange or cream coloured markings on fins and body. These catfishes are the plecos of Asia, they belong to the hill stream catfishes of the family Sisoridae. Their closest relatives are the catfishes of the genus Glyptothorax. Both have adhesive organs on their ventral side just behind the mouth. The Pseudecheneis have this organ made of transverse skin folds as Glyptothorax have radiating skin folds, which makes these two genus easy to identify from each other.
Other interesting species from Rishi were the salmon-like Schtzothorax sp. and Barilius sp, both are cyprinids adapted to fast flowing waters.
6800 feet above sea level on the misty tea road to Darjeeling.
From left, Antti Vuorela, Heok Hee Ng & Julian Dignall.
Down from the hills
After a tourist visit to the famous tea capitol of Darjeeling we started coming down from the foothills to the close by low land environments. We moved on different locations in the Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar districts. The Tista, Mansai and Sankosh river catchment areas go through these plains. The elevation from the sea is small and temperatures here are mostly between 22 and 32°C, sometimes in the couple of coldest winter months dropping to 15-20 degrees temporarily. The riverine habitats have somewhat lower temperatures than fully tropical environments, usually waters are quite close to 20°C.
Collecting Rosy Barbs in the Dolong.
Our first collecting trip in lower altitdue was around the town of Mathabanga. The first collection locality was the Dolong river, this was a tributary to the Mansai river. It was a 10-20 meters wide river with sandy and partly even muddy bottom. The shore vegetation was lush and water hyacinths were growing near banks. There was some Vallisneria and Ambulia growing submerged also. The first nettings through the shore vegetation yielded certainly a different kind of catch than the hillstreams. We caught some old aquarium favourites right away! Rosy Barbs (Puntius conchonius) and Badis cf.
Fishing contraption on the river Schutunga.
Our team was increasingly focussed on finding some catfishes and we were told that next stop, the Schutunga river would not let us down. This was also a river of the Mansai system. Walking the path leading to the river we channced upon local fishermen with diverse catch from the river. The peculiar frog mouth catfish Chaca chaca stood out right away among the catch. We photographed different species caught by the fishermen. Some of the nicest species were the true Mastacembelus aral and Somileptes gongota, an interesting loach in a monophyletic genus on its own.
A bag full of Pseudolaguvia.
When we got by the river we found it to be a beautiful shallow and wide river with sandy bottom. Entry was easy via slopping sandy banks upon which we intially pondered our likeloehood of finally collecting some catfishes ourselves. Going down into the river I surveyed the sandy bottom and when I saw a small piece of broken pottery I tried there with my pushnet. It worked! There were couple of small erethistid catfishes hiding inside the pottery. There were some pieces of bogwood here and there along the othewise bare sand river bottom as well as patches of plants, Vallisneria, Myriophyllum and a third one we couldn't identify. These places seemed to be the hideouts for the catfishes and suddenly everybody was having tiny catfishes in their nets! And it was not just one species, there were three different types of miniature catfishes present. With a contrasting colouration pattern, Pseudolaguvia shawi was most common and there was also the flatter and less contrasting Pseudolaguvia riberoi. But there was also an Erethistoides species present - more on that later. We caught also Schistura savona and Somileptes gongota in the habitat too.
Sperata aor for sale at Mathabanga fishmarket.
Back at the motel we photographed the fishes and were of course anxious to know exactly what species of miniature erethistoid catfish we had caught. Heok Hee didn't give any species level confirmation and no wonder, it was a new species. Later in Heok Hee's examination this new species was described to science as Erethistoides sicula(1). It is differentiated from the more brownish coloured bumblebee catfishes by its more silvery colour, flatter and more slender form. From its more common congener Erethistoides montana it is distinguished most easily by the slender caudal peduncle. These are now the two known species of Erethistoides from the Tista, a third species Erethistoides pipri is known from farther afield in the Ganges drainage.
That great fishing day had an exciting ending away from water when we visited the market of Mathabanga. Mystus and Ompok catfishes as well as Colisa fasciata were sold at the market as food. But the most impressive fish was a almost one meter long Sperata aor.
By the Buxa tiger reserve
We didn't waste much daylight time and the next day we headed to the edges of the Buxa tiger reserve in the Sankosh drainage area. Once famous for dolomite mining, Buxa was declared a tiger reserve in 1983 and achieved the status of National park in 1992. Located in the Assam-Bhutan border, Buxa has an area of 745 sq km, the largest forest in North Bengal and has the second highest tiger population in West Bengal after Sunderbans. But first we made a stop at the huge some 200 meters wide Mansai main channel early in the morning. We watched the fishermen use their cast nets, they were throwing the cast nets from small wooden boats which looked very picturesque on the still water surface. When they came to the shore we checked their catch. The most exiting catfish was Gagata cenia, a schooling small catfish of the Sisoridae family. These fishes appear infrequently in the hobby since they ship poorly, needing well oxygenated water and being catfishes constantly moving and eating they make quite tricky aquarium fishes needing lots of attention in all these aspects. The fishermen also had three species of Mystus: M. bleekeri, M. cavasius and M. vittatus. The algae eating Crossocheilus latius was also there and some Danio, Barilius and Puntius species.
Collecting the Rydak.
Although chances encountering a tiger near the Buxa reserve were practically non existent Andrew told us enchanting stories how people used to work in the area with a face imitating mask on the back of their head. Tiger is said not to attack people easily from the front so these masks were to distract the tigers. When we got to our destination the Rydak river we went searching again for fishes – without a mask. The Rydak river was a very shallow but more than 15meters wide river with moderate current. The bottom was covered with gravel and small stones. We could see small loaches and Garra fleeing in front of our feet when walking the river bottom. When the fishing started with the help of local aquarium fish collectors we ended up getting a nice collection fishes.
The first fishes we caught were loaches. Acanthcobitis botia was common and there were two Schistura species as well: S. shebbearei and an undescribed species. Schistura shebbearei looks very much like the common Schistura savona but it has uniform black dorsal side while S. savona has bars. The undescribed species was beautiful with plenty of red in the fins, especially in the caudal and it had about 8 broad bars on the sides. We encountered again Pseudolaguvia shawi and this time two different catfishes from the genus Amblyceps: The more common Amblyceps mangois and the more robust and yellowish Amblyceps apangi. A. apangi has a truncate caudal fin which makes it easy to distinguish from the other species in the area.
We were shown also Badis cf. kanabos and the sympatric bigger species Badis blosyrus side by side, both were caught here. Badis blosyrus grows to almost 10cm length and is the second largest member of the Badidae. Badis blosyrus is one of the newest members of the genus, described in 2002. Interesting species at this biotope was also the Pillaia indica. This eel like species belongs to the Chaudhuriidae family, which is a sister family of the spiny eels of Mastacembelidae. They differ from the spiny eels by their rounded snout and the absence of spines in front of their soft dorsal and anal fin. The most striking fish was however the green pipefish Microphis deocata. We thought this distant relative to the seahorses was beautiful in the green ground colour and red and blue markings on the ventral side. But when mating the red and blue belly extends to an amazing sail-like disc with all these colours. This sight is one of THE sights in aquarium fishkeeping, this interesting species is featured in the german magazine, Amazonas X/2005 where a breeding report is published.
Julian Dignall collecting Danio and Dario.
The Dario biotope
As we started driving to our motel for the night after fishing and photographing at the Rydak river I asked Andrew about the small and colourful Dario dario, the most colourful of all Badidae. It is a small species of about 2,5cm length but it has a striking pattern of neon blue bands on bright red background. This species lives sympatrically with Badis kanabos and B. blosyrus, so we were supposed to be in the right place to find it. I talked our team into making a visit at the end of the day to a habitat Andrew knew. We arrived to locals living quarters, Andrew gave apologies for disturbing their peace and we walked through the fields to a lush river of about 10 meters wide. There was lots of water lilies floating and Myriophyllum and some grasses growing in the water, even algae was growing strong here, probably because of all the farming around. I was afraid maybe the Darioswould be hard to find because of aquarium fish collecting and pollution but my fears were way off. Right with the first try under the water lilies with a pushnet there were many specimens of Dario in the net! And the males were very colourful indeed, bright red with neon bands. Andrew told us how he first found this species. He was at another locality where the water was reddish with humic acids. Andrew saw the fishes but because of the water hid the red body colour of the Darios they didn't get his attention right away. Only after he netted the first male specimens up he was amazed by the bright red colour and knew it was definitely something new.
We had another species that Julian and I were very happy to catch. We got our first zebra danio (Danio rerio)! We had quite forgotten about this famous aquarium fish and it was truly a joy to find it for the first time in its natural habitat. The biotope with almost standing water was probably not the most typical, but it shows it's a hardy and adaptable species. No wonder it is one of the oldest and most common aquarium fishes. Later we found it in small streams, but we did find out that it is not a hill stream species since we never found it at the altitude of the foothills.
Other species at the locality were Microphis and a very small Cyprinid we thought was Oryzias. This small species turned out later to be an undescribed Danionella species!
When we finally reached our resting place for the night we had some nice species from local markets and aquarium fish collectors waiting for us. Most readily identifiable were the Colisa lalia, an old aquarium favourite. One of the nicest fishes was small sized blue Channa, it goes by the name Channa sp. himalaya in the hobby. Other species were the slender and elegant fighting catfish Olyra longicaudata, Nandus nebulosus, Ctenops nobilis, Glass perches. What a day for an aquarium hobbyist!
Somewhere in between I got also stomach problems and fever. That is fairly common for westerners travelling in India especially those who eat fried Mystus catfish in mustard sauce. I missed a fishing day when Heok Hee and Julian got some nice Danio dangila and Devario devario, along with some other species and the first Yo-Yo loaches, Botia almorhae. Luckily antibiotics worked well and I was able to participate the next day's fishing at the Tista main course, down below a huge dam.
The Tista river as it exits the Himalayan foothills.
The Tista (also spelled Teesta) is a relatively cool water river, with temperatures around 20°C and below in Bengal. It is essentially a clear water river. It collects the waters high from the Himalayas in Sikkim state, close to border areas of Tibet and Nepal. When the monsoon begins, water gets more turbid from eroding stone and soil material dissolved to the water. We were told by Andrew that this is the sign for many catfishes to rise upriver for breeding.
The Tista is several hundred meters wide at the dam we visited. Below the damn where water level was lower local people helped us with cast nets and we also were able to try out our own casting technique. I didn't go straight to the main course, but fished with local folks above the damn. There was a large low water area with standing water. Bulrushes and aquatic vegetation were present and with our nets we got mainly four species of fish: Colisa lalia, Puntius gelius, glass perches and Xenentodon. All the Colisa were small sub-adult specimens but Puntius gelius looked really nice. The glass perches I was not able to identify to species but I must say very often a glass perch species is found where small sized Puntius are common. They school often with Puntius partipentazona in Thailand, with Puntius anchisporus in Borneo and so on. Glass perches do not seem to travel well, probably requiring well oxygenated water. That must be the reason for their relatively small numbers in the aquarium hobby.
As I got to the fast flowing main river channel below the dam, the others had already received lots of different species from the local collectors. Among them were some species well adapted to fast flowing waters: Balitora brucei which was first “true” hillstream loach we saw. We found many Schistura and other species belonging to the Nemacheilinae subfamily of Balitoridae hillstream loaches but this was first really flattened species with large fins capable of sucking onto rocks. These fishes belong to the Balitorinae sub-family of the Balitoridae family with Gastromyzon, Psedogastromyzon and other common aquarium sucker belly loaches. The Psilorhynchus barbs were also quite interesting. Psilorhynchus balitora is Cyprinid fish adapted to fast flowing waters. As the name suggests, they bear a resemblance to the hill stream loaches of genus Balitora, being stream lined and having their fins in more horizontal position for better grip to the rocks of flowing waters. Crossocheilus latius and Garra were also present here.
Here I saw the first Botia almorhae on location. This is the common Yo-Yo loach in the hobby with young specimens having the typical markings on their flanks. No other Botia was found here. However we got Acanthocobitis and Lepidocephalus gunthea here. Nice loach catch – and somewhat unexpected – was Pangio pangia. It is the only Indian Pangio available in the hobby. There should be two forms of it actually. Specimens from more calm waters, ponds and such, are said to posses no pelvic fins.
We got some catfishes here as well. One of them was the true Batasio tengana, catching it actually led to redescription of this species by Heok Hee. Batasio catfishes are small shoaling species living in the upper reaches of big rivers. Under the name Batasio tengana has traditionally been mixed three different Indian species: Batasio tengana, Batasio fasciolatus and Batasio spilurus. New material of B. fasciolatus leading to it's description was from this trip too, actually a find Heok Hee spotted on a fish market on our way through Malbazar town. B. spilurus again is a species found upper in the Brahmaputra river. Typically B. tengana and B. spilurus have short adipose fin base and a dark mid dorsal stripe. B. tengana differs from B. spilurus by having a deeper caudal peduncle and more rounded snout. The market find, Batasio fasciolatus with nice yellowish colouration has distinctive 5-6 bars on its side dorsally and can be mixed only with Batasio tigrinus from Thailand. Descriptions of the three Indian species were made by Heok Hee in 2005.(2)
We got two species of Amblyceps also, Amblyceps laticeps with a truncate caudal and the more common Amblyceps mangois. But best of all we caught a new species of catfish! The new species has been described as Pseudolaguvia foveolata.(3) It is a small erethistid with typical bumblebee colouration, more greenish though compared to most Pseudolaguvia. I remember well this species since it was swimming so wildly without rest in our phototank that getting a good picture was virtually impossible. This wild swimmer is differentiated from it's other genus members by a more slender and elongated body. These streamlined adaptations might have something to do with this species habitat which was more fast flowing and rocky with currents compared to the more typical steadily flowing sand bottomed erethistid biotopes with low water we had visited earlier. Later this year Andrew submitted yet another Pseudolaguvia catfish to Heok Hee from this location and it has been described as Pseudolaguvia ferula(4). It is has a less contrasting pattern than most other Pseudolaguvia and is higher and narrower in its body form.
This Pseudolaguvia might be closest what we have to a miniature Bagarius, also the more greenish colouration gave that impression. Bagarius catfishes are large, out and out predators of large rivers in South East Asia, and met some in our next fishing place, the Hugli river.
The banks of the Hugli.
When we returned the 500 kilometers to Kolkata from the Northern West Bengal we had still one locality to explore, the Hugli river. A long time ago the Hugli river used to be the sea draining main channel of the Ganges. Nowadays it is a smaller river, a short cut south to the sea from the main river Ganges. The Hugli has medium hard water with a pH around 8 or above. It shares the water properties of the Ganges which means it has a slightly higher mineral content and pH compared to, for example, amazonian white water. Andrew promised we would find many catfishes here in the hotter climate of the lowlands.
As we arrived we noticed the river was big - more than 100 meters wide and also deep since many boats and ferries travelled here. We went onto small boats the local fishermen paddled to the open water. The fishermen had about three meters wide nets that were made between two bamboo sticks horizontally. Nets were thrown to the water and dragged close to the bottom of the river in few meters depth. This unique technique they employed was perfect for catching small catfishes and - of course - when I refer here to "we caught" was all down to the skills of those fishermen. With its turbid water the river didn't quite look the best habitat for a diverse catfish fauna, especially for Sisoridae, but there I was wrong!
When the fishermen pulled the nets up there was many small catfishes stuck to them. They were mostly sisorid catfishes. I would have imagined that the streamlined species of genus Glyptothorax and the highly elongated Sisor rhabdophorus should have been found at the crystal clear waters of higher altitudes but instead they were common here. The Mystus cats and other Bagrids that I thought would be common here on the lower planes were clearly outnumbered by various Sisoridae catfishes. We did catch a couple of bagrids, namely a species of Rita and Mystus cavasius but on the other hand we got at least 8 species of sisorids. Among them was the aforementioned Sisor rhabdophorus and juveniles of the giant among sisorids, the fish eating sharp-toothed Bagarius yarrelli. Slightly more common species were the Glyptothorax we found. Glyptothorax telchitta was the most common species, it has a distinctive very dark coloured top of the dorsal side. Lightly brown coloured Glyptothorax cavia was a smaller species, with noticeable colouration only on the base of the caudal fin. We caught also a small species with very prominent tubercles on the head and the body. This species was Glyptothorax botius and was already considered to be a synonym of G. telchitta. With the specimens we caught Heok Hee was able to make a redescription of this species.(5) It has saddles rather than uniform dark markings on the dorsal side and it has more slender caudal peduncle and laterally viewed more rounded snout compared to the more common G. telchitta.
Other sisorids found here were Gagata cenia, which were plentiful and which we found almost 500km north from here back in the Mansai river as well. Nangra assamensis is a lighter brown or even golden coloured species we caught here, more slender than the Gagata. Another rare (in the trade) sisorid here was Gogangra viridescens, a species closely related to Gagata, a bit smaller with a bulkier head structure but with similar colouration. One of the most peculiar fishes among the catches was Ailia coila, a member of the schilbeidae family whose close relatives are the African glass catfishes. Ailia coila is silvery, almost transparent, and uniquely it has no dorsal fin. Another catfish present here from the same family was Eutropiichthys vacha. Non-catfish species were the minority, from the location we obtained also Cynoglossus freshwater soles, Botia dario and Doryichthys pipefishes. But the fun didn't end there. One of the most delighting things on our trip was spotting fresh water dolphins in the Hugli. I wasn't sure at first what I had seen from the shaky boat but as it happened more times that the dolphins emerged smoothly to get a breath of fresh air from surface of the river around us I believed it. That was a great sight to see and with all the catfishes we found was nice to know a river with such huge population around it could be this diverse in its fauna.
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