Distinguished professor of ichthyology making 50th trip to Africa to study fish

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When Jay Stauffer made his first trip to Lake Malawi in 1983, just before joining the faculty in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, he never dreamed that the trip would be the genesis of his career focus and that it would yield valuable partnerships for the University.

Next month, Stauffer — now a distinguished professor of ichthyology — will travel to the “African Great Lake” for the 50th time to describe fishes. Lake Malawi, he points out, long has been the focus of his attention because it is the third largest freshwater lake, by volume, in the world, and it contains the largest number of fish species of any lake on the planet.

While Stauffer is in southern Africa, he expects to finalize an agreement to transfer his 30,000-specimen Lake Malawi fish collection from Penn State to the South African Institute of Aquatic Biodiversity in Grahamstown, South Africa.

The Lake Malawi fish species — just a quarter or so of Stauffer’s 1.2 million-specimen collection housed in a building at Penn State’s Russell E. Larson Agricultural Research Center at Rock Springs, located about 9 miles southwest of the University Park campus — are mostly colorful cichlids. The rest of his collection are mainly fishes from North American waters, most from Pennsylvania and the rest of Appalachia.

30,000 specimens

While Stauffer is in southern Africa, he expects to finalize an agreement to transfer his 30,000-specimen Lake Malawi fish collection from Penn State to the South African Institute of Aquatic Biodiversity in Grahamstown, South Africa.

IMAGE: Penn State

All the Lake Malawi specimens have been netted during scuba-diving excursions and then preserved by an elaborate and time-consuming process that involves multiple steps including fin-pinning, soaking in formalin and ethanol, and multiple washings. The collection includes underwater videos, photos and detailed field notes.

“The collection represents 36 years of work — for 25 years, I spent four to eight months of every year in Malawi collecting fishes,” Stauffer said. “I had read about Lake Malawi and its huge diversity of fishes when I was an undergraduate and graduate student, and then I went over in 1983, when I was still an assistant professor at the University of Maryland. I took one look at the place and fell in love with it. I have been lucky enough to secure funding to go to Malawi every year since.”

Over the years, armed with grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, among others, Stauffer established a research station on the lake, complete with a 45-foot boat, inflatable boats, microscopes, computers and underwater video cameras. During his many visits to Malawi, he forged professional relationships with a number of southern African educational institutions, including Bunda College, the University of Malawi, Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, the South African Institute of Aquatic Biodiversity, Chancellor College (now part of the University of Malawi) and Rhodes University.

As a result of those academic connections, master’s and doctoral degree students have traveled from Africa to Penn State to study under Stauffer before returning to their homeland to take positions of prominence related to aquaculture and fisheries in southern Africa. Moreover, Penn State students have accompanied him on his trips to study in Malawi.

specimens

All the Lake Malawi specimens have been netted during scuba-diving excursions and then preserved by an elaborate and time-consuming process that involves multiple steps including fin-pinning, soaking in formalin and ethanol, and multiple washings.

IMAGE: Penn State

Stauffer’s efforts have opened significant channels of cooperation and collaboration between Penn State and those institutions in southern Africa, according to Deanna Behring, assistant dean for international programs in the College of Agricultural Sciences.

“Penn State is honored to be contributing to the collections housed at the South African Institute of Aquatic Biodiversity,” she said, “as it will be used as a resource not only for South African researchers but for the larger regional goal of research excellence for the sustainability of Africa’s aquatic environments, as called for by the Southern African Development Community.”

Although Stauffer’s career is winding down, his work in Malawi is not finished. There are an estimated 850 to 1,000 species of fish in the lake, he said, and just 500 of those have been formally described.

“One of the problems with the fishes from Lake Malawi is that there are not enough people in Malawi who can describe the species, so I will continue to work on these fishes and train Africans in systematics. Fish provide 70% of the animal protein in the human diet in Malawi, but they can’t manage the fisheries adequately unless they understand the life histories of the fish species in the lake.”

old boat, huge lake

Lake Malawi is the third largest freshwater lake, by volume, in the world, and it contains the largest number of fish species of any lake on the planet.

IMAGE: Penn State