This introduction was extracted from an article written by Antenor Leitao de Carvalho in "O Aquarista," a magazine for Brazilian tropical fish hobbyists, August 1966. This article was originally translated by Randy Keller and has been edited by Allan Semeit.
When and where did Simpsonichthys boitonei, known as the Brasilian Pira" first appear? At the new zoo being constructed at the new capital of Brazil, Brasilia, a zoo official named Saturnino Maciel de Carvalho was responsible for collecting live fishes to feed the aquatic birds of the zoo. During one of these collections in 1959, he noticed the beautiful appearance of five specimens of a fish. He brought these to the head of Zoological Services, Sr. Jose Boitone. Sr. Boitone, not being familiar with pisciculture, took it upon himself to send specimens to the renown scientist and ichthyologist, Dr. Antenor de Carvalho, in Rio de Janeiro. Dr. Carvalho described and classified this new species in 1959, giving it the name of Simpsonichthys boitonei. The species name was in honor of Sr. Boitone for having sent the specimens for classification.
In Search of Simpsonichthys boitonei
By Allan L. Semeit
This article was originally published in "Killie Notes" of the American Killifish Association, December 1973. It has been edited by the author and additional information has been included.
What does a normal person do when he is newly among the ranks of the unemployed, with a dismal outlook in the immediate future? What he almost certainly does not do is decide to travel to Brazil to collect tropical fish. But then, "fish-nuts" are usually considered suspect.
In June 1973, I had just completed my first full year of teaching. Unfortunately the State of California decided to make some drastic changes in school finance laws, and the district where I worked was forced to lay off over fifty teachers. As other districts were doing the same, the future was not promising. Fortunately, I had been able to save enough money to take a vacation for the first time in about nine years.
I finally decided to travel to Brazil. Brazil had the advantage of containing some of the prettiest fish in the world, had only one language to worry about (and one visa), and, of course, the beaches of Rio are world renown. In addition, the San Francisco Bay Area Killifish Association had volunteered to work with South American annuals for the AKAís Species Control and Maintenance Committee. I hoped to find some species currently unavailable in the United States.
I left San Francisco on the first of July 1973 with a limited itinerary: a flight to Sao Paulo, two nights hotel reservation there, a flight sometime from Sao Paulo to Brasilia, and a flight from Rio de Janeiro home. My first stop was Miami. When I found out that I would have a four hour lay-over between flights, I wrote to Andy and Jane Sigl who were the only AKA members listed in Miami. They kindly came to the airport and we spent a few pleasant hours at their home talking about fish.
From Miami, I flew to Sao Paulo, Brazil. Dr. Gilberto Brasil met me at the airport and we scheduled a tour of the local fish stores. It was quite a surprise to find numerous swordtails, platies, guppies, and gouramies, and almost no Brazilian fish. One store carried some Rivulus santensis and Mimagoniates barberi (I had been asked to bring back the latter Rosario La Corte). Dr. Brasil promised to ship these fish to the States, if I couldnít locate them later during my trip (I did collect one R. santensis near Rio later).
Quite frankly, Sao Paulo gave me claustrophobia. My hotel was a tall building surrounded by tall buildings separated by very narrow streets that were clogged with cars and people. Also, the weather was overcast and it occasionally turned into drizzle. You can understand why I left Sao Paulo after two days.
The flight to Brasilia wasnít what I had expected. One reads about how the new capital had been carved out of the jungle but whoever wrote that either never went to Brasilia or doesnít know what a jungle is. The Brazilian Highlands resemble the African veldt more than a jungle. There were numerous rolling hills with sparse vegetation. Large farms or ranches were scattered about. Although it was the dry (winter) season, the temperature highs were in the 60s and 70s.
If someone has the time, one place that looked promising for fish collecting was Goiania where the plane made a stopover. As we were landing, I noticed several small ponds very close to the airport. If Simpsonichthys boitonei is derived from a Cynolebias ancestor, there are probably intermediary species in the area between them. It is something to consider.
My first day in Brasilia was almost indescribable. I made the mistake of not booking a hotel reservation. With the capital under construction, many government employees were being housed in the available hotels until their residences were completed. After a number of attempts, I finally obtained a hotel room at the Imperial Hotel.
My only reference to Simpsonichthys boitonei was a "Tropical Fish Hobbyist" loose-leaf description of that mentioned the local zoo as the source of discovery. After finding a hotel room and I then spent several hours trying to get to the zoo. I should point out that I didnít speak any Portuguese and, that day, I had an extremely difficult time locating anyone who spoke English. Such being the case, my first attempt was to try public transportation and I ended up traveling around the town on one of the commuter buses.
I finally succeeded in finding and reaching the zoo by taking a taxi. My frustration increased when no one there could speak English either. The people at the zoo recognized the TFH picture of S. boitonei, but I could not figure out what they were saying. The cab driver took me next to a high school where I found a teacher who relayed what the zoo people said via the cab driver, and I was able to explain that I was trying to find the fish. We then went looking for Dr. Boitone, the man for whom the species was named, but he was no longer in Brasilia! We returned to the zoo and the cab driver talked with the zoo people. He then took me to First National City Bank and an attractive teller translated for us. I found out that the original collecting site had been destroyed by some construction and the zoo people did not know of any other place where Simpsonichthys might be found. Then the cab driver took me around Brasilia looking for aquarium stores - without success.
That evening, while watching television with the other hotel residents in the lobby, I met a lady who worked as a translator for the government. She offered to set up an appointment with Dr. Godoy, the director of the zoo, and with a translator. The hotel, by the way, cost about $13 a day and that included breakfast.
The next day I returned to the zoo. Dr. Godoy was not very interested in helping me. I was later to find out that there had been a great deal of dislike existing between Dr. Godoy, on one hand, and Dr. Boitone and Sr. Carvalho (the person who had actually discovered the species) on the other. The zoo translator, a fellow named Helio Negrelli Filho, was more helpful. He supplied me with the name of a man who had collected Simpsonichthys boitonei 20 km east of Brasilia near the town of Taguatinga, and also the name of an aquarium store in Brasilia to which the man had sold the fish.
My next stop was the aquarium store. They did not have any S. boitonei in their tanks. The owner, Sr. Jose Durvalino, indicated something about collecting fish in a few days, but I was not able to comprehend him too well.
After the aquarium store, I headed for the government agency that directs manpower training. The fellow who had collected the fish had been assigned by this agency to the zoo, but had been reassigned somewhere else later. At the agency I had a real stroke of luck. I met a former AFS student named Celso Almeida who was delighted to help me. We werenít able to trace the collector but, even better, one of the members of the agency recognized the name of Sr. Saturnino Carvalho and knew how to contact him. That evening I was able to meet with Sr. Carvalho and he promised to ask the aquarium store owner, who was a good friend of his, to collect some Simpsonichthys boitonei and Rivulus strigatus for me.
A few days later, with my new friend Celso Almeida from the government agency, I went to see the fish store owner. Mainly, I was hoping to go collecting with him in order to obtain habitat data and photographs. In this I was disappointed. The store owner knew of four locations where S. boitonei could be found. One of these he had shown to a German who had later returned and cleaned the spot out, therefore, the owner wanted to keep his locations a secret. He did promise to catch some S. boitonei.
My friend and I decided to try collecting on our own as well. Brasilia sits on a peninsula surrounded by a large man-made lake in a horseshoe shape. Towards the tip of the peninsula are the major government buildings. Near the Presidential Palace was a pond created by an earthen dam, in which we found some cichlids. Just below the dam were some very small pools created by seepage. We decided to give these a look-see.
The seep-ponds surprised me. They looked shallow, maybe six inches to a foot deep with a rusty orange bottom. One step instantly revealed that this was deceptive. The orange "bottom" was actually a very fine mud in suspension and the true bottom was about another foot below. One could see why S. boitonei could be divers. The seep-ponds did not contain any S. boitonei (at least we did not catch any), but we did find a pretty gold tetra with red fins and Rivulus strigatus. I did not check the temperature, but the pH measured 7.0.
The next day my friend and I really spent some time collecting. We went completely around the large lake checking any promising sites. The best location turned out to be a stream on the south or southeast side of the lake. We were able to collect some large Rivulus strigatus (two inches) and more of the golden tetras. These tetras really surprised me. All of the others that we had seen were about an inch in size. These were about three inches and appeared to be the same species. Celso and I also drove out towards Tagatingua and collected at likely spots along the way. Unfortunately, despite our search, we were unable to find any Simpsonichthys boitonei.
It was a surprise the next morning when my friend telephoned the fish store and found out that the owner had collected four pairs of Simpsonichthys boitonei for me. He remarked that it is easier to find the species in October.
These four pair were able to survive two-and-a-half more weeks while I stayed in Rio, as well as the trip home. Unfortunately, I had a two week stint of reserve training shortly after I returned. I gave one pair to Jim and Judy Milgram who were excellent killie breeders. When I returned from training, two females had disappeared. In checking the three set-ups, I found about twenty eggs that are now incubating. I still had three adult males and a female. There is still hope. Also, Steve Sellers (AKA New & Rare Species Chairman) and I are trying to work with the aquarium store owner on a shipment of this mostly lovely fish.