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Eastern Europe – On costumes, conflicts, and cultural spaces (02/2015)

In Darwin’s footsteps

Christoph Dieffenbacher

Zoologists and evolutionary biologists of the University of Basel are diving for cichlids in the great lakes of Eastern Africa to examine them morphologically and genetically. (Images: Robert Huber, Adrian Indermaur)

More than 150 years ago, the English naturalist Charles Darwin realized that living organisms change by adapting to their environment. As they adapt to different surroundings, whole new species can arise. Thus almost 2,000 new species of cichlids have evolved in the great lakes of east Africa alone – Lake Tanganyika, Lake Malawi, and Lake Victoria.

These tropical freshwater fish, which can also be found swimming around our fish tanks, vary greatly in appearance. Their basic shape is oval, rather elongated, and flattened at the sides, but they have differently shaped mouths, depending on their diet. According to Professor Walter Salzburger, a zoologist and evolutionary biologist at Basel University, “Cichlids are fascinating model organisms for understanding how biological diversity arises.” The African lakes are probably the only place on earth where such a huge number and variety of species have developed through adaption to different ecological niches – and in a relatively explosive way.

Salzburger, who is originally from the Tyrol region, flies to east Africa with his team at least twice a year. There, the zoologists spend a few weeks diving for cichlids, chasing them into nets, fishing for them, trapping them, or buying them from local fishermen, so that they can later study their morphology and genetics. And it isn’t uncommon for a fish to end up in a frying pan as dinner for the visitors from Basel.

Walter Salzburger joined the zoological institute of the University of Basel in 2007 as assistant professor. In his research, the zoologist focuses on the evolution of cichlids. He also conducts research into vertebrates of the Alpine region.

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