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Natural Vs. 'Man Made'

 (A delicate, “philosophical” matter)

 by Francesco Zezza

During all these years MCH’s position on the hybrid issue has been absolutely clear, while it has turned to a more "radical" one as time passes by. In can be easily summarized on one word :  NO!

Many interesting articles (beyond MCH’s position on this issue) have been added … here and there (the latter input being the joined effort of many people). Our “motto” has been (and still is) let’s go natural … Although this article reflects my personal view and thoughts I’m not going to change it. However, when I was offered four medium sized “Red Parrot” for free by one of fish shops I visit every now and then, forced me to think on it. I politely refused the fish even though I am sure that at that moment I convicted them to a less bright future.

Monsters (in the true meaning of the term) like the flower-horn (believed to be a mix between a LOT of central american cichlids such as “Cichlasomatrimaculatus, “Cichlasomafestae, the man-made Blood Parrot, and many more), the “glowing tetra” (imagine a fish glowing like a lamp while trying to escape his predators in the wild darkness, or trying to sleep without eyelids and tankmates that glow all night), some “over-colored” Discus varieties, the “Red Rubin” and/or “OB-morph”  … Aulonocara and the alike HAVE TO BE AVOIDED and no kind of exception is (or should be) allowed.

But then what should we do with the so called “mild manipulations”? Are they “allowed” or not? And up to which point should we accept them, where should we put the borderline ? For instance, how are we supposed to “judge” albinos (occurring in the wild but as a rare exception and not as a rule which they have become for some breeders)? Who is going to state – in a universally acceptable way - which is the point after which we’ve gone “too far”? These few questions are (or should be) obvious, even if hidden by a “philosophical approach” to all fish keepers … The answer (to the above questions and to related ones) is anything but easy. To explain what I feel (while the above statement on “monster-specimens” remains true to the utter extent) I’ll rely on three pictures.

This is (first picture below) a wild caught Pterophyllum sp. specimen (likely a Pterophyllum scalare or – if they are a different geographic morph or even species – a Pterophyllum sp. “Peru”). The fish (a male) has been collected during my Amazon trip, in year 2000, and being a wild fish it carrying all of its genome and -presumably most of its phenotypic characteristics since there has been no inbreeding or selective breeding for it …

The fish – kept under the best possible conditions I could offer it – turned into a gorgeous animal (happily swimming in his 500 lt. tank) and same is true for the other similar fish (a male too, regrettably) kept separated because of territorial matters. These fish are said to be “mild mannered”, but a tank like this proved to be “not enough” for two adult males (to my wonder I have to add …). I happen to have no (wild) females or, better yet, no females at all! And he’s supposed to spend all his life with no offspring at all. Then, one day I got this fish (two pictures below):

 

It was sold to me (for a very cheap price, at a small/medium size) as Pterophyllum sp. “leopard morph” (referring to the skin patterns, and correctly sold as a tank raised fish …). This fish (despite the fact that it turned to be a third male) is undoubtedly a Pterophyllum sp. (closely – from a “genetic” point of view - related to the above shown wild specimen) and this fact is very clear. The fish has grown up correctly and (apart from the fact that it is of the wrong sex for my needs) is healthy and nice to look at so, he could/should be presented to a “compliant” female being able to fertilize eggs and, finally, give birth to an equally fertile off-spring, exactly as the wild specimen shown above …

At this point I felt (and still feel) a lot of my “aquatic wisdom” getting weaker, while a lot of questions (without any answers) arise in my mind, such as:

  • Is this (at least as stated in the previously mentioned articles and according to “common sense” for whatever that term means) a hybrid or not?
  • If this is a hybrid -even though it is extremely close to the, so called, wild form - what am I supposed to do with him (disposing him is NOT a valid answer)?
  • Is it “ethically correct” (from a theoretical point of view, since I have only males) to mate him with a wild fish, to allow at least (roughly) 50% of wild genomes to flow into an aquarium bred strain of the genus Pterophyllum?

There are many more questions on the same account, but the MAIN point which still calls for an answer is the same: HOW far are we allowed (if we are allowed at all, of course!) go with the “hybrid game” (someone at MCH correctly called it the “playing-the-God” role)? At which point can we actually start to use the term "monster" (in the sense of the word outlined above)? Who is then authorized to say “The mark has been passed”? Because I don't have any doubt that such a mark can be defined.

I have no answer … all I can do is try to remind myself that only MOTHER NATURE knows the “Rule”, and has the “Key”. I guess that this is said a bit roughly but those who want to understand will have no problem to get the feeling. All of us may be good aquarists, but this is not enough. We should also try to avoid to trespass this door or if we decide to do so (satisfying the well-know “human curiosity”) being extremely conservative, and respectful of the Higher Design, which took millions of not billions of years to become what we see today. The way I see it, we are not allowed to destroy / modify it (in the wrong direction) simply for the sake of our pleasure/curiosity/stupidity you may choose the term you like most.

The key point to me (and that’s what I’m going to discuss hereunder, in brief) is … “How far should we go?” or "How far are we supposed to go?". Such an answer is anything but easy for lot of evident reasons. Genetic research – it is very clear nowadays - can lead to results improving the life of mankind, but can at the very same time lead to “mistakes” which have consequences. These are unpredictable during the “experimental period” and possibly also after it. In each and every case – to make things more “spicy” – a lot of money is involved in this matter either in the form of development / research costs and later as forecasted income to make up for the money spent. I will try – for evident reasons – to focus on fishes only, further narrowing the target on fish supposed to be kept in aquaria.

To begin with (simply think of the size of the “species flock” of Lake Malawi cichlids) the question is “why” are we supposed to “hybridize”, or better yet produce hybrids? This simple question has a lot of answers, among them: scientific purposes, increasing (worldwide) food demand, curiosity, search for more profits, ignorance (think of unwanted M’buna cross-breeding in a community tank), and many other – hard to predict / define – alternatives …the list is practically endless.

But then, if the analysis is focused, as stated before, on fishes kept for fun in tanks, many of this reasons are not applicable any more: maximizing the off-spring number can/could be of interest when producing fishes to be used as human food while the same thing, when keeping cichlids for our joy, is of lesser importance at least compared to the well being of our fish. Thus, strategies which are tolerated (if not mandatory) in farms producing feed for food (like cyprinid pituitary hormones) are not recommended or welcomed in the hobby.

In contrast, when we see things from the other side of the scope, the improvement /enhancement /change of colour pattern /hue /fins shape and/or length and alike can/could be of interest in aquarium trade and of almost no interest/use in aquaculture. There are many more examples of this "difference" but I think what I’m referring to when (see above) I mention the “mark” is clear …

  • Wild Discus have some “trace” of red in their natural colour pattern. By maximizing this percentage (through selective breeding and not only) some “tricky” strains have been created and stabilized. Albino specimens occur in the wild but by selectively and continuously mating albino fishes this “recessive colour” characteristic has been turned (according to genetics laws) into the dominant characteristic and albino fishes are now available in the trade. Till this point (cases mentioned above or similar) I have my doubts (what is the real purpose and need for this kind of fishes) but if I stretch my criteria a bit I can “accept”  them,
  • Then we go one step further and we should refer to fish with a colour pattern unnatural /not-existing in the wild such as the OB (Orange Blotch) and/or “Red” Aulonocara. At this point my disagreement starts to grow considerably. Since the main interest of a (clever) aquarist is/should be to investigate /reproduce what is going on in the wild, the answer to the question "do we need them actually since they do no exist in the wild?” is – or should be – extremely easy: NO! However, even at this point, which is really close to the “border line” as I see it, we could have a sort of “theoretical” excuse and justification (which is still  weak to me). Can you be absolutely sure that such a “Red” Aulonocara won’t appear – sooner or later – in the wild? Since natural genetic evolution is unpredictable (even though it is influenced by environmental factors, do not forget that) the answer is "of course NOT" ! I “smell” something going bad here. There is no real need for this fish!!!
  • The next and more "advanced" step are “invented” / "produced" fish such as the previously mounted “glowing tetra”, the Red Parrot or the Flower Horn (no matter the reason for their occurrence, I refuse to call it “Creation” for evident reasons). There’s no real need for them (in this beautiful world of ours!) whether they were produced for business, ethical/religious reasons, pure fun or anything else. For fish belonging to this “class” there’s no reason, no need, no nothing - this is my personal point of view, of course! …

The three steps mentioned previously mark a – progressively worsening – scenario that leads me to my (rough) idea of where we should put the "stop" mark when it comes to “hybrid productions”. I feel that we should not trespass this point, which could be defined - for “artificially developed” fish (= all three categories mentioned above) as follows:

a)      Reproduce (in tanks) naturally. This means without “hormone injection” or other human/chemical helping agents such as – trust me it happens, regrettably! – fins trimming to allow them to swim/move correctly while mating. Some fancy goldfishes have too long fins and need to be “pruned” in order to spawn!

b)      Being able (once, ideally, returned in the wild) to re-introduce themselves in the “very same biological niche” where their ancestors (the so called “wild caught” fishes offered, sometimes, in the trade) were collected. I know for sure (even if I take into consideration a certain degree of abstraction due to the fact they – for instance – no longer “fear” human beings), that off-springs (aka F1;  F2; F3) of fishes I collected in Lake Malawi could be “returned” there to Mother Africa and happily rejoin the “Big Circle”. Can you claim the same for a Rubin Red Aulonocara (glittering the way a Christmas decoration does), for instance?

Intentionally I’ve not considered /reported /referred to anything related to genetics and/or evolution related matters for at least two reason the first one being I’m, by no means, good at that and the second one being the fact that the genetic/evolution clock has been running for ages and this is way longer than our lifespan, so whatever happens in our tanks can't possibly resemble with accuracy what happens in the real world, no matter how close to the "ideal" our tank is.

Finally,  I fell I should emphasize once more the fact that ALL the above statements are just my feelings and ideas on the “Natural Vs. Man Made” issue, without any intention to be regarded as the one who knows the "absolute truth". I simply share the “average aquarist's” point of view (my own aquarist point of view, of course), nothing more - nothing less. I may even be partially or totally wrong … each and every (polite and respectful) input on the matter will be appreciated and carefully considered since it could bring me one step “further” … which is (knowing more things in greater depth) the “real core” of my interest in fish keeping …

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