New highly endemic species of Maharaja Barbs fish found in Northern Western Ghats

The species has been assigned to a new genus, described as Waikhomia, named in honour of eminent Indian ichthyologist Dr Vishwanath Waikhom.

Credit : BNHS

Pune: A new species of Maharaja Barbs of the Western Ghats, a genus popular amongst the aquarium hobbyists, has once again pointed out the high endemism of the fish in the Western Ghats and the need to conserve their habitat.

The new species has been discovered through collaborative research by scientists from the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), the Kerala University of Fisheries and Ocean Studies (KUFOS) in Kochi, Modern College, Pune and the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Pune. The scientific paper presenting these results have been published in a leading international journal ZooTaxa, on Monday. 

The group of fish was known only from a single species, Puntius sahyadriensis described in 1953, from Yenna (Venna River), a tributary of Krishna River, near Mahabaleshwar. This species acquired popularity amongst aquarium hobbyists because of their majestic appearance and beautiful colouration males achieve during breeding.

“We decided to look for this species in more parts of the Northern Western Ghats, and surveyed river basins from Mahabaleshwar to Karnataka. We found the species well-distributed in the Eastern wing of Western Ghats, in river Krishna and its tributary Tungabhadra, as well as some west-flowing rivers of Karnataka,” said  Unmesh Katwate, Fish Scientist at the Freshwater Research Unit of the BNHS and PhD student at KUFOS, who is also the lead author of the study.

This research has given a new identity to the Maharaja barbs, endemic to the Western Ghats of India, based on fresh collection of specimens from throughout the Western Ghats. Researchers found the group unique among species included in genus Puntius. The species has been assigned to a new genus, described as Waikhomia, named in honour of eminent Indian ichthyologist Dr Vishwanath Waikhom.

“Professor Waikhom is one of India’s most well-known fish taxonomists who has described over 100 species of freshwater fish, and worked tirelessly to promote the science of taxonomy and systematics in the country,” said Dr Rajeev Raghavan, Assistant Professor at the KUFOS and a senior author on the paper.



The study has also led to the description of a new species, Waikhomia hira, popularly to be known as Kohinoor Barb, which appears to be distributed only in west-flowing Kali River basin of Karnataka.


High endemism calls for greater conservation

"There’s something unique about, Kali River basin as we are seeing many new species getting described from this small west flowing river in Karnataka. Our researchers described a stone loach, Balitora chipkali in 2016 and now, Kohinoor barb, Waikhomia hira from the same river. This study highlights the urgent need to recognise and advocate such small riverine systems for conservation prioritisation," said Deepak Apte, Director of BNHS.

These endemic species found in the Kali river basin have shown that the river might have some ancient connection to Krishna river, which needs to be discovered, said Katwate.

He added, “We have seen so many endemic species in Western Ghats. These species are not just endemic to the Western Ghats, but to specific river basins in the region. So if watershed areas of these basins are affected, it is certainly going to affect biodiversity. The policymakers need to understand this while planning and promoting developmental projects in the region.”


Northern Western Ghats need more attention

The rivers in the central and northern parts of Western Ghats, particularly in northern Karnataka and Maharashtra are poorly explored for their fish diversity.

“Earlier, many taxonomists assigned the species found in the Northern Western Ghats either to the Ganges or the Southern Western Ghats. No proper taxonomy of these species was earlier carried out, which is changing now. That is the reason we are coming across more new and endemic species in the region,” said Dr Neelesh Dahanukar, Scientist at IISER, Pune and senior author of the paper. 

Genetic or DNA analysis of the species has also been promoted by researchers these days, and it’s getting easier by the day.

“Some of the rivers in the northern part of the Western Ghats possess high levels of ichthyofaunal diversity, but intensive exploratory surveys, taxonomic revisions and molecular-based studies are urgently required to uncover this hidden diversity,” Dahanukar said.

Katwate added, “Earlier, researchers made use of external as well as internal taxonomy widely to identify species. I think after around the 1950s, more focus was given only on the morphological structure. But genetic analysis is picking up pace now, and scientists are on their way to discover several newer species.”