It feels like it was yesterday when I was in Peru, looking into a tray of fishes from the Perene River. Opening one jar. Pouring fishes onto a steel tray covered with white porcelain. Looking at features of fishes, their heads, their tails, their fins, as I separated them into piles according to groups. Then again. Each group contained more than one type of fish, according to their teeth, the number of branched anal fin rays, and the shape of their caudal fins. Then again. Is the humeral spot present in all the specimens? Is this variation? Is this a repeated pattern? I used Gery’s Characoids of the World, to identify characids; Burguess’ An Atlas of Freshwater and Marine Catfishes, when looking at catfishes; and Kullander’s Cichlid fishes of the Amazon River drainage of Peru to learn about cichlids. I was working on ecology of fast flowing rivers, and among those piles of fishes there were some armored catfishes that seem to be so constant, but at the same time different. Abundant, yes. There was no key for identifying them, so I had to look at original descriptions. I was handed Schultz (1944) and Eigenmann and Allen (1942) by Fonchii Chang, my mentor.
Fonchii wouldn’t talk to me much. I was slow and clumsy with the forceps. I was learning to use insect pins to count the teeth of characids. She was always busy. She had her desk against one wall, in the corner of the laboratory. Her desk was simple. A small wooden desk that looked more like a bookshelf, with a large wooden panel projecting forward as a desktop, with two shelves above it, and one below it. Those shelves were full of jars, boxes with cleared and stained specimens, books, and photocopies. There were always buckets, with jars in them, around her chair, and on her desktop. In those jars there were fishes. Fonchii was very organized. She would go on an expedition, come back, and immediately start working on sorting, identifying, and cataloging fishes. That kept her busy.
I was trying to identify all the species collected in one river as part of my thesis to get my Biology Title (we have to do that in order to get a work license in Peru) and I needed help. Desperately. Fonchii used to work in the lab all the time. Sitting on a metal-framed chair. The chair had two pads covered with green vinyl, one for sitting on it and one for the back. It was high enough for her to look through the microscope. A light illuminating the stage, and Fonchii, holding fishes with bare hands, steady, was a common picture. I could hear a ‘click’ sound now and then. The sound of her glasses hitting the oculars. When she was not identifying fishes, she was preparing manuscripts. Species descriptions. Sometimes making drawings. We didn’t have a camera lucida available, so she used to make her drawings with an ocular that had a square mesh on it, and graph paper with vellum paper on top of it. When she was not at her desk she was topping jars with alcohol in the collection. She was a volunteer, and she was always busy.
I kept working on my identifications by her side. We didn’t talk much. I kept trying. I would ask her about my identifications, and most of the time they were wrong. But I kept reading, and making notes, looking at fishes, and drawing features. Day after day, for months. One day she needed someone to go with her to the field and there was nobody else than me that could do it. So she took me, as her assistant, to the Candamo River. We flew into Puerto Maldonado and from there to a little town called Mazuco. Coco Mazuco greeted us and hired a guide to go with us. The three of us flew by helicopter to a place called “La Nube” and left us there with our equipment, tents, food, and a radio. That was, for me, the time of my academic life. In two months I learned everything I know about field work, about taming the rivers and loving the fishes. We played hard, we fought hard, we laughed hard, and we became good friends.
I kept working on those armored catfishes, and today, I miss her so much.
Thank you, Fonchii (1963-1999)!
Today is Taxonomist Appreciation Day. A day to recognize the silent work of those who identify and describe species. Those who produce classifications and artificial keys for all other biologists to use. Those who painstakingly keep doing it, one species at a time, observing, illustrating, and painting with words, that wonderful wold around us.