Michael K. Oliver was born and raised in Los Angeles. Fishes somehow swam into his consciousness early on and, from age 14, when he set up his first aquarium, he knew his life would be connected with them. His interest was nurtured by the Los Angeles Aquarium Society; as a teenager he presented slide shows of his family's African travels to the society and co-edited the LAAS Newsletter-Bulletin for several years. By the time he moved east to complete his graduate studies the LAAS had made him a life member, and its renowned fish photographer, Gene Wolfsheimer, had awarded Michael the society's first Gene Wolfsheimer award for photographic excellence.
Both his Masters research at Occidental College and his Ph.D. research at Yale concerned the systematics of African cichlids. Dr. Oliver discovered that Heterochromis multidens, a little-known large cichlid from the Congo, was not a specialized tilapia relative as previously assumed, but instead is the most phylogenetically primitive living African cichlid, a conclusion since corroborated by anatomical and molecular studies.
Dr. Oliver has visited Lake Victoria and Lake George, the Zambezi, and the Nile, among other noteworthy African aquatic localities, but he is most drawn to Lake Malawi to which he has traveled three times, making some 80 research dives and collecting thousands of fishes for science. He has described two genera (Iodotropheus with Dr. Paul Loiselle and Abactochromis with Dr. Matthew Arnegard) and 13 species of Malawi cichlid, including some of the species most popular with aquarists such as the rusty cichlid Iodotropheus sprengerae and Otopharynx lithobates. Michael's Web site, The Cichlid Fishes of Lake Malawi, Africa, is widely used by both aquarists and scientists; one highlight of the site is his up-to-date bibliography of Lake Malawi biology.