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'Punk' fish, fruit piranha among newfound species

New species of bloodfin tetra from the Upper Caura River in Venezuela
New species of bloodfin tetra from the Upper Caura River in Venezuela

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CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) -- Scientists studying an unspoiled jungle river wilderness in Venezuela announced this week the discovery of 10 new fish species, including a red-tailed tiddler, a "punk" catfish with a spiky head and a piranha that eats fruit as well as flesh.

They called on the Venezuelan government and international conservation bodies to protect the Caura River Basin in Bolivar state, a vast area of pristine tropical forest and waterways covering five percent of the surface of the oil-rich country.

Conservationists fear encroachment by human settlement, as well as fishing, farming, mining and possible government hydroelectric projects, could destroy what they call one of the world's richest biodiversity "hotspots."

New species

"The Caura River Basin requires immediate and urgent protection as a wildlife reserve," said Antonio Machado, a zoologist from Venezuela's Central University who announced the new fish discoveries in Caracas.

Among the 10 new freshwater fish species logged was a tiny fish with a blood-red tail, a previously unknown variety of the Bloodfin Tetra family, which is popular with aquarium owners.

This had been given the scientific name in Latin of Aphyocharax yekwanae in honor of the Ye'Kwana Indians who live among the Caura River Basin's flooded forests and waterways. "These indigenous people depend on the water," Machado said.

Other new and as yet unclassified species found included a variety of tentacled armored catfish, whose tangle of spiky protuberances on its mouth and forehead -- looking like a punk rocker's hairstyle -- has earned it the name of "punk" fish.

Also discovered was a new piranha, different in size and shape from other known varieties of the South American flesh-eater. It supplemented its meat diet by eating fruit from submerged trees, Machado said.

A new species of freshwater shrimp was also found.

'Biological swat teams'

The 70-meter Salto Pará waterfall divides the Caura River into two biologically distinct zones.
The 70-meter Salto Pará waterfall divides the Caura River into two biologically distinct zones.

In conjunction with Washington-based Conservation International, he presented, after several years of exhaustive study, the definitive findings of a three-week expedition that studied the biology of the Caura River Basin in late 2000.

Explaining the delay in announcing the expedition results, Leeanne Alonso, a director at Conservation International, told Reuters: "These scientific studies are a lengthy process".

The conservation group, which studies and protects the world's natural wildernesses, calls its expeditions Rapid Assessment Programs or RAPs in which "biological SWAT teams" of scientists swoop into often unexplored regions by plane, helicopter or boat to assess their ecological value.

Machado said it was essential to preserve intact the free-flowing watercourse of the 420-mile Caura River, which is one of the tributaries of the mighty Orinoco.

He said any attempt to divert or dam the river for hydro-power development -- like the huge power dams on the eastern Caroni River that generate more than 70 percent of Venezuela's electricity -- would reduce water levels and dry up waterfalls. This would threaten hundreds of varieties of freshwater fish, shrimps, crabs and aquatic plants.

"They can do what they like on the Caroni, but they must leave the Caura alone," Machado said.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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