Juan Miguel Artigas Azas,
Cichlid Room Companion

Interview with: Wayne Leibel, Jul-97

By , 1997. image

Classification: People and associations.

" Wayne Leibel, was for seven years the editor of the "Buntbarshe bulletin" (American Cichlid Association publication), he is a fellow of the ACA, columnist of TFH with his popular "Wayne's New World" column. Wayne is one of the world ultimate specialists in South American cichlids, a productive author, a regular and powerful speaker at cichlid conventions, a great acordion player, a Ph.D., and a nice guy! "

I still remember back in 1989 when I had the opportunity to met Wayne Leibel for the first time. I had been his admirer for long, having read his classical FAMA articles on South Americans cichlids again and again and followed his Buntbarshe bulletin editioralship as well. It was the American Cichlid Association "International Cichlid Conference I" in Orlando and I was listening to Wayne as he played accordion in an impressive way. When after he finished I had the chance to talk to him (believe me, finding a chance may not be that easy, as he is a very popular person) I asked him over the conversation if he was a Ph.D., the reply was immediate "But I am still a nice guy". And yes, that is something that everyone that has the luck to know Wayne knows for sure, besides his impressive knowledge on American Cichlids, he is a person who is fun and pleasure to talk to. I am very grateful to Wayne for giving me this interview, which I am sure you will enjoy as much as I did making it. The interview took place by e-mail during July 1997.

Wayne, How did you get interested in fishes and later on in American cichlids, could you tell me something about the history of your fish keeping?

I started keeping fish at the age of 6 (I am now 46). I really wanted a dog, but apparently I had allergies to fur and feathers as a child, so my parents denied my request (not to mention that they were "city people", and had no interest or liking for canines, felines or birds!). I suppose I persisted (I remember vaguely walking around with my imaginary pooch on an imaginary leash) until I irritated my parents, Arthur and Hilda Leibel, sufficiently so they offered me a fishtank. The first was a 15 gallon tank -typical community thing - and it was a disaster. As first-time aquarists (all three of us), we hadn't a clue, despite reading a few pamphlets before initial set-up. The first few years weren't very productive ones, until we learned the basics like water changes and keeping the temperature constant (i.e. change water with same temperature water, don't chill fish coming back from fish store in winter, quarantine new fish, etc.) - surprising how the little details store owners often leave out really make a difference.

My father encouraged my interest, whereas my mother began to think it detracted from what I should really be doing (i.e. excelling in school) once the "bug" finally hit and I got more tanks. In retrospect, I think it was my father's way of rebeling and also one of the few connections we shared: he wasn't an aquarist himself, but he had some interest and later, when I went away to college, he took care of my fish. In fact, he was "still keeping them for the kid" when I moved away for good - he had tanks until shortly before his death at age 73 in 1986! I always bought him fish for his birthday, etc., but he was actually a terrible aquarist - too much attention to "cleanliness" in the tank to the detriment of the fish. But he never gave up!

Our ritual was to go out together to the local fish store after dinner every other Friday night. Also, he escorted me to the local fish club meetings, the Exotic Aquarium Society in Hartford, Connecticut, and actually sat through with me. I won my first bowl show with a Hoplosternum catfish. I also remember vividly seeing some of the new Congo imports circa late 1960's, namely Pelvicachromis taeniatus, Nanochromis parilius, and Polypterus ornatipinnis, being shown at the bowl show. My first cichlid spawning was not convict cichlids, rather, Nanochromis parilius, and completely by accident!

My interest in New World cichlids is simply understood: I memorized Axelrod and Voderwinkler's Encyclopedia of Tropical Fish, circa 1960, and the only cichlids covered were New World. I became particularly enamored of Apistogramma species and would have killed to have A. agassizi, then rather uncommon. What Apistos we got came in as "mixed dwarfs" and often had mostly Nanacara anomala. But we also had Dicrossus (Crenicara) maculata! Why cichlids? Well, their behavior mostly. I dabbled seriously in killifish in the 1970's, but always had dwarf cichlids. Why NOT African cichlids? They were too expensive in the 1970's and they didn't really charm me. Finally, when I moved to Boston in 1979 after finishing my graduate degree, I got serious about Geophagines and kept them almost exclusively (with a few acaras) for nearly 10 years. I started the Geophagus/Aequidens Study Group around that time and began writing articles on Eartheaters, first published in the Boston Aquarium Society's journal but, later, encouraged by Paul Loiselle, in Buntbarsche Bulletin and finally in FAMA.

Do you presently keep fish in aquaria Wayne?, if so, could you tell me about your setup and the species you maintain?

I've been dry only for one year - the year my parents got sick and died (1985-86) - and my collection has usually consisted of a hodge-podge of tanks of various sizes and configurations (and materials) strewn throughout my succession of apartments. I finally moved into a townhouse 3 years ago and finally had my first proper fish room. It is 2000 gallons of mostly larger tanks: 2 125's, 10 breeder 50's, 6 70's, 10 30's, and a few 20's,10's and 5's. These days I'm keeping mainly Aequidens species, the "true acaras" (e.g. Aequidens diadema, tetramerus (various color/populational morphs), patricki, pallidus, metae, etc.), and various populations of severums (5 at last count) along with a bunch of dwarf cichlids and other interesting fishes I collected in Venezuela in the two trips I've gone there, January 1996 and again in 1997. In particular I'm maintaining - but haven't yet spawned, Geophagus taenioparieus- the non-mouthbrooding surinamensoid, and the Orinoco mouthbrooding severum. A few other goodies: Hoplarchus psitticus, my 8 year old pair and their '"babies", now about a foot themselves, a pair of Astronotus crassipinnis, some very beautiful chanchitos, some guppies and some "long-finned" white clouds, and a bunch of catfish and silver dollars (Myleus schomburgki is my favorite). I also have 1000 gallons in 10's and 20's of convict cichlid populations at school.

You have being a long involved with the American Cichlid Association. Being now a fellow and for a long time the editor of it's bulletin. Could you tell me about your experience in the group and the satisfactions and maybe frustrations of have being the editor or Buntbarshe bulletin? ?

Well the satisfactions and the frustrations are pretty evident and pretty typical of all editors at any level. It's magic to see a completed journal - there's something definitely magic about creating something in print. I still get shudders of delight seeing my articles in press - not the content per se, but the actual physical product. I like seeing the nearly 50 issues of BB I created over the 7 years I was editor. The frustration is principally getting material, although I must say I had a good number of friends who I could depend on for articles and for photos. In particular, my good friend John O'Malley shared his photographic talent with my and members of the ACA. Also, Paul Loiselle was always good for an article at the last minute. And when need be, I wrote to fill space, despite the criticism that BB had become "too New World".

What are the threats that you see for the Amazonian fish fauna. What is the present conservation state, is there really a chance for those species, many of which are not even yet identified and known to aquarists?

Well, I must confess that I haven't really paid much attention to the conservation side of things until recently, despite what I've seen happen in Lake Victoria, and what's happening in Madagascar and in Central America, as told to us by Paul Loiselle, yourself, and others. Now I realize that the South American cichlid hobby (and, obviously and more importantly the South American fish fauna) may be living on borrowed time. Labbish Chao, in particular, has drawn our attention to what is going on along with some of the "green" non-fish conservation organizations. In Brazil, deforestation and gold mining are beginning to have their effects on the great rivers of this country. The flooded forest provides the spawning areas and nurseries for the fish during the rainy season. Human activities which ruin the varzea obviously impact the fish. Discharge of raw mercury into the rivers during the purification of gold is of obvious negative impact: mercury is building up in the sediments and in the fish. Also, the Brazilian government initiated huge hydroelectric projects that threaten to block rivers and flood great areas of forest, impeding the normal migratory -spawning routes of many commercially important fish, including catfish and large characins. As a byproduct, they will flood reservation lands of some of the last remaining native tribes. Luckily, the latter (in particular, the Kayapo protest over the Xingu Project) has caused the World Bank to rescind their loans to Brazil and cause construction of the 30+ planned dams to come to a halt.

While this all sounds like politically-correct liberal boiler-plate (i.e. save the Amazon), from a selfish standpoint - as advanced hobbyists wanting a steady and constant supply of new, wild fish - we need to get involved. And, as is true for most conservation efforts, they succeed only in so far as they provide economic alternatives. Want to slow cutting of the forest? Then show people how they can make as much or more money with sustainable harvesting of forest products. Ornamental fish are one such potential if managed properly. And that, in part, is what Labbish Chao is attempting with his Project PIABA. Using the small village of Barcelos on the Rio Negro in Brazil, Chao is attempting to educate the native fishers in the ways of sustainable fishing. To set-aside fish nurseries during the breeding season, where fish will not be collected. To develop and implement techniques that increase the survival of caught fishes, both before pickup by exporters and during the trip downriver to the export facility. To develop grow out and on-site breeding of select profitable species (eg. Apistogramma sp.). To identify commercially valuable fish (e.g. the red oscar). And, finally, to foster pride in the people involved in the industry.

It is not impossible that Brazil and other South American countries will close down their countries to ornamental fish export, or regulate it to the extent that little is available to the hobby. While I certainly encourage the development of hobby-based species maintenance programs to ensure that certain rare and desireable fishes will not disappear from the hobby, I also hope that governments will realize it can be a win-win-win situation, that is the foreign (American) hobbyist, the native fisher people and the government itself can all benefit form a properly-regulated and managed ornamental fish trade. And that is, in part, what Labbish is trying to do.

Could you tell me about the conservation efforts for South American species maintenance, what should a hobbyist do in your opinion to help in this efforts?

So, at least be aware that the South American wild fish spigot may some day be "turned off", and to think in terms of maintaining certain desirable species for the long run. Also, to actively support Labbish Chao in his activities, either by direct donation, or by going on one of his "ecotourism" trips that kick money back to his operation (led by a number of American aquarists like Jeff Cardwell, Indiana and Scott Dowd, Massachusetts) or even just buy a PIABA tee-shirt. Lee Finley is handling the money end of things for Friends of Project PIABA in the United States. You can contact him by e-mail if interested.

Being a leading specialist on American cichlids in a time of taxonomic turmoil, what is your opinion on the state of the former genus Geophagus, is the nomenclature pretty well advanced, are there many new species to be described?

I think Sven Kullander is "right on" at the genus level. I tend to sometimes view him as the ultimate species splitter (i.e. too much), but behavioral observations on reproduction in several lineages of eartheaters is suggesting that there is either much behavioral plasticity in species, or that their are a lot more species out there. One example is Geophagus surinamensis: P. Gosse viewed this species as one cosmopolitan species with many geographic morphs but, while sharing basics of their color patterns, fish like G. argyrostictus (Tocantins) and G. taenioparieus (Venezuela) have proven to be non-mouthbrooding substrate spawners, whereas G. proximus (Peru) is an immediate mouthbrooder and G. brachybranchus (Guyana) is a delayed mouthbrooder. So, the "slight" differences in color pattern, etc. are reinforced by very different breeding strategies. And aquarists have played a major part in generating this behavioral information.

I'm confident that "G. brasiliensis"will be broken up into many species - the different color morphs will probably prove to be worthy of valid species status when someone actually gets out and collects them. Similar story for Gymnogeophagus cf. gymnogenys/labiatus. I just received a strange "surinamensis" type captured in the Rio Tapajos - the Red Hooded Eartheater written about in the recent TFH by the Canadian importer Oliver Lucanus - and realize it must be an undescribed, new species - while sporting the "flag tail" striping of G. proximus and G. megasema (as I understand these latter two species), instead of pronounced horizontal striping (usually alternating blue and red lines in most "surinamensis"), the stripes are reduced to small gold scale flecks, BUT, the sides have double V-shaped vertical bars in dark blue/black reminiscent of Gg. balzanii! Never seen anything like this.

So, I'll not be surprised if we double the number of species as more and more collections are made.

What are the satisfactions that brings you your very popular column in TFH magazine "Wayne's world", can we expect to be reading it for the foreseeable future?

Honestly, when offered the opportunity to write a column by then editor Mary Sweeney, about 5 years ago, I said "no". I told her I couldn't do a general column on cichlids because I really didn't know much about Africans. She countered by saying that a column focused on New World cichlids would be fine. I gave it an overnight and then said yes. Although my strength is South American cichlids, I do have an interest and have kept (and still keep) Central American cichlids, although I wouldn't call myself an expert on that topic: You, Willem Heijns, Don Danko, etc. are the experts here.

In the past two years I've slowed down a little in terms of regular visits to the importers and rarefish dealers in my area. In part this has been due to my increased musical activities and in part because I burned out a little. Just when I think that I have nothing more useful to say, and that I should stop, I go to an ACA convention, or even fly off to give a talk at a regional workshop or local society, and someone will tell me that they read and enjoy the column. Authors love to hear that their stuff is getting read and sometimes having an impact. And, frankly, when I'm reminded that people like it, it fills me up with the energy to continue on. I've told my good friend Lee Finley that when I run out of ideas and start repeating my columns, he should either insist that I stop and, if I decline, to shoot me. Some columnists (and I won't disclose my opinions of who) keep writing the same tired articles year after year. A good columnist knows when to get out, just like a prize-fighter who elects to retire before he loses his abilities. I hope I know when that is. For the next year or so, however, I think I'll muddle on, assuming TFH doesn't yank the privilege (we are battling over "Herichthys" versus proper Kullanderian nomenclature).

What are you presently working on, any plans for a book/home page on South American cichlids?

I'm just about done with my Aquarium Fish Magazine series on South American cichlids that's been ongoing for the past 5 years - now nearing 40 installments. I never envisioned it droning on and on, but the editors are wedded to the idea of not more than 2000 words per and I'm a wordy SOB - they've chopped most of the articles up into pieces and, I think, lessened their impact. I'm also not happy with the photo editor who chooses what I consider absurd photos only for their aesthetic content, and often runs misidentifications simply because they are on the slide (AFM editors are not really advanced fish people).

The articles will be re-edited by me, up-dated, and distribution maps drawn up and I hope will be reborn as the mythical TFH South American cichlid book for which I received a written contract nearly 5 years ago. I hope to use their photo file and properly ID the fish, as well as my own slides and those of other photographers (e.g. John O'Malley). Then, having said all I have to say, I'll simply retire to my basement and raise tetras. No kidding.

Anything you would like to add?

Yeh. The hobby has been very good to me over the years. It has provided a wonderful vehicle to meet interesting people and participating in local and national clubs has kept me sane and away from the "know-it-all" academic types who I've worked with and been exposed to all of my life: I like to think I'm not one of them even if I derive my living in academe. I've really enjoyed the writing and photography end of things, in addition to the simple pleasure of acquiring, raising and breeding rare fish which has been the hallmark of my last 20 years in the hobby. More recently, I've gotten to travel and speak and have thoroughly enjoyed meeting aquarists from all over the country and the world, for instance, you Juan Miguel. There's no question I'm a "lifer" and will be raising fish, even if its a single tank of goldfish, until the day I die, whenever that will be. Down here in New Jersey , Bill Jacobs, who is 94 and still maintaining and breeding fish (no kidding), has been in the hobby for nearly 90 years! I don't know that I will top that achievement, but if I live that long I certainly intend to try. And no, I won't still be writing "Wayne's New World" by then!

Thank you very much Wayne.


Artigas Azas, Juan Miguel. (Jul 28, 1997). "Interview with: Wayne Leibel, Jul-97". Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on Feb 29, 2024, from: