Ron Coleman is a Canadian currently an Assistant Professor at California State University, Sacramento. He is interested in cichlids both as a scientist and as a hobbyist. As a scientist, he tries to understand how and why parent fish take care of their kids. This has led him to a great interest in egg size and he is founder of the Cichlid Egg Project. He works both in the lab and in Costa Rica and writes for the scientific literature as well as various hobbyist publications, including Cichlid News. His favorite fish is Tomocichla tuba.
I am interested in cichlids from two angles, both as a scientist and as a hobbyist. On the hobbyist side, it is hard to beat cichlids as entertaining an just plain interesting animals to have around. They are intelligent and curious creatures that come in so many shapes, sizes and colors that I find it hard to believe that anyone could not be fascinated by them.
Many of these same qualities of cichlids make them fascinating to me as a scientist. The sheer diversity of the family offers countless opportunities to evolutionary biologists like myself.
The goal of my research is to understand the key processes that shape the characteristics of organisms. Those characteristics might be solid physical things, like the size of the body, or more intangible things like behavior.
The approach I use is called life history theory which in a nutshell argues that most every aspect of an organism is the product of tradeoffs. This means that there are costs and benefits to every aspect of organismal design. For example, why is the giraffe's neck so long? The giraffe gains many benefits from its long neck: the ability to forage on vegetation far above the ground, the ability to see potential predators at great distances, etc. But, balanced against these benefits are an equal number of costs: giraffes have great difficulty drinking, they aren't very well balanced, can't jump hardly at all, and are pretty easy to spot at great distances as well.
As I see it, the goal of modern biology is to understand the costs and benefits of the characteristics of organisms we see around us. In this way, we can hope to understand what is "driving" nature and this will allow us to make intelligent choices on this ever-more-crowded planet.
Cichlids, are nature's gift to the evolutionary biologist. So many questions of evolutionary biology are stiffled because of the lack of diversity in many groups of organisms. For example, the North American sunfish are a fabulously interesting group of fishes and few things can match a male bluegill sunfish protecting his nest and babies. And yet, we can never answer the question of why it is the male bluegill that guards his nest rather than the female by studying sunfish. Why? Because it is the same for all sunfish. All species in the family exhibit male care so we have nothing to compare them with. This is not the case in cichlids. There are so many cichlids, doing so many different things, that we can look into this vast treasure chest of diversity and seek out comparisons to help illuminate the biology we see. In vertebrates, cichlids are unmatched for this breadth of opportunity.