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Science & Technology - Campus & Community

A Parting Gift: New Catfish Named for Academy of Natural Sciences' Retiring President

August 9, 2017

Trachydoras Gepharti in the hand of its namesake, George W. Gephart Jr.
Trachydoras Gepharti in the hand of its namesake, George W. Gephart Jr. Photo by John Hutelmyer/ANS.

When retiring from most places, you can expect a farewell lunch, some trinkets to remember the office by and even maybe a toast.

It’s a little different at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, though. Along with your goodbye speeches, you might also get a fish.

George W. Gephart Jr. is now the namesake for the latest catfish to be named by the Academy’s ichthyologists, Trachydoras gepharti.

“Naming the new species after George was an easy decision,” said Mark Sabaj, PhD, interim curator of Ichthyology at the Academy. “It took us almost two decades to describe this new species and, with tongue in cheek, you might say it’s because we did not have a person to properly name it for — until now.”

“This is perhaps the most special and enduring honor I could receive, thanks to Mark Sabaj, the Academy, and Carl Linnaeus,” an appreciative Gephart said. “A beautiful exclamation point to my years with the Academy.”

Gephart holding the fish named for him with the researchers who named it for him, Mark Sabaj (left) and Mariangeles Arce H. (right).
Gephart holding the fish named for him with the researchers who named it for him, Mark Sabaj (left) and Mariangeles Arce H. (right). Photo by John Hutelmyer/ANS.

Gephart, who is a birder, said he’s always been “fascinated by the people and stories behind the common names” of the birds he scopes out, such as (Thomas) Say’s Phoebe, (John) Bachman’s Warbler, (John James) Audubon’s Oriole.

“Now we have “Gephart’s hard-nosed thorny catfish,” he said. “Some in my family will think that I’m type-cast for this name!”

Sabaj has named 31 species over the years, including a catfish for an Academy mailroom employee and another for his daughter. Now, he’s named one for a boss who inspired him.

“George’s support of collections-based research at the Academy helped motivate us,” Sabaj said.

Sabaj actually found the tiny fish with oversized eyes for the first time amid the Academy’s collections all the way back in 1999 during a weeklong visit.

Trachydoras gepharti
Trachydoras gepharti

“As a graduate student working on my doctoral dissertation at the University of Illinois, I applied for support from the James Böhlke (longtime curator of fishes at the Academy) Memorial Fund to visit,” Sabaj explained. “For my thesis, I studied catfishes in the family Doradidae — thorny catfishes, and the Academy has the most important collection of doradids in the USA.”

Sabaj was “immediately blown away” by what he saw in the collection. He even slept on a cot in the museum’s offices to maximize his time there.

What jumped out at Sabaj and set off nearly two decades of work was a “large lot” of 312 small doradids that he sorted through. Most didn’t even measure 50 millimeters long, but it became apparent that the lot didn’t just contain a single species, but two. One already had a name, Sabaj believed: Trachydoras microstomus. But there was another, it seemed, with unusually bushy chin whiskers. These fish appeared to be new. 

Sabaj returned to the Academy as Collection Manager of Fishes some years later and successfully defended his thesis in 2002. But it took four more investigations into the fish, with help from Mariangeles Arce H., who started as a student visitor and eventually became interim Collection Manager of Fishes, to finally name Trachydoras gepharti this year, amid Gephart’s retirement. While gepharti was easy to identify, it was the clarification of five other already named species of Trachydoras that slowed the process down.

A fallen tree sticking into a river.
Tama Tama, a site visited by a 2005 expedition team that collected T. gepharti. Photo by Mark Sabaj/ANS.

In life, Trachydoras gepharti hails from the lowlands of South America’s big river basins, such as the Amazon and Orinoco. Described as being shaped like a torpedo, it has a relatively large head with extremely large, oval-shaped eyes and a somewhat small mouth. It is often found along sandy beaches in large rivers and is specialized for vacuuming up midge larvae.

With a plethora of samples collected from those beaches and the nearby waters, Sabaj has decided to spread the wealth, sending Gephart’s namesake fish to enrich other collections.

“We have a large number of specimens deposited at the Academy, so we decided to distribute paratypes to other institutions far and wide,” Sabaj said. “Paratypes have a special status as specimens that were studied by the authors of the new species and explicitly designated as ‘copies’ of the holotype — the one ‘true’ specimen.”

At 43 institutions around the world, on every continent, 176 paratypes will be spread out. That includes sending a few to the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, since Yale is Gephart’s alma mater. 

“So, should George and his wife, Elizabeth (Pooh), need an excuse to travel the world, visiting museums that curate his namesake might suffice,” Sabaj said, adding, “And the holotype will permanently reside at the Academy of Natural Sciences, a place where George will always be welcome.”

A full report on the fish is available in The Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences.


Media Contact:

Frank Otto