Using tissue samples collected from two earlier expeditions in 2008 and 2011 from the largely unexplored region in Guyana’s north, Toronto-based Nathan Lovejoy and his team found that the fish’s DNA is so distinct that it represents a new genus – the classification level above species.
“We were delighted,” Lovejoy, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus, told CTVNews.ca on Thursday.
Named after the Akawaio Amerindians in the region, Lovejoy says the electric fish doesn’t look like what you would normally find here in North American waters.
“It is somewhat eel-like, but the tail of the fish tapers off into basically a point,” Lovejoy said of the fish, which he suspects is nocturnal. “The eyes of the fish are very small so that suggests it doesn’t rely on eyesight much.”
Similar to other electric fish, the Akawaio penak produces an electric field thanks to a long organ running along the base of its body. The field – too weak to stun prey – is used help to communicate with other electric fish and to help it “see” in its murky habitat.
“When objects enter the electric field, they produce a distortion in the field and the fish can then detect that distortion,” Lovejoy said.
The electric fish lives in an isolated area filled with countless rivers. The area is considered a hotspot for biodiversity, but its freshwater habitat population has recently come under attack due to gold-mining in the area.
The results from the discovery are published in the journal of Zoologica Scripta.
The expeditions were co-organized by the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and the University of Guyana.