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Congo-River-Demo-Survey

Africa’s Congo River is the 10th longest river on Earth, but it is the world’s second greatest river by volume of water discharged.  In the final 300 kilometer (200 mile) span before the river empties into the Atlantic Ocean, the Congo is a deeply weird river…in that it is weirdly deep.  Portions of the Lower Congo have a depth of 220 meters (720 feet) which makes the Congo the world’s deepest river (chasmic freshwater locations are evidently a fascination here at Ferrebeekeeper). The bottom of the Lower Congo is not a serene place either, but is a dark world of treacherous currents, strange eddies, underwater waterfalls, and whirlpools.

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Although these depths do not sound like the ideal place for, say, opening a sandwich shop, they are ideal for expediting the speciation of fish.  The Lower Congo has over 300 species of fish (and the number is growing as adventuresome ichthyologists study the native fish more closely…and as the river creates new varieties of fish).  The fast currents act like mountain ranges do on land, separating genetic pools of certain species so that they evolve in different directions.  This had led to some truly strange species such as the Gymnallabes nops (an air breathing catfish which is giving up on the scary river and crawling off into the moist leaves of the jungle), all sorts of exquisite elephant fish (Mormyridae) electrical fish which read the substrate with sensitive trunk like “noses”, upside-down polka-dotted squeaking catfish (which sounds like a rockabilly lyric), and, maybe best of all, Lamprologus lethops, a blind white cichlid of the chaotic depths which dies of decompression sickness when jerked up to the river’s surface.  When seen by Congolese fishermen, this cichlid is a bony blob of quivering pale agony gasping from a bony mouth.  This has led to the local folk calling it “Mondeli bureau” which means “white guy in an office” (an allusion to how they (correctly) imagine westerners look and feel in our miserable & pointless dayjobs).

Lethops

This is exactly how I feel! Thanks for noticing, perceptive Congolese fisherfolk!

I wish I could tell you more about the wonders of the lower Congo, but research into this unique ecosystem has been surprisingly scant. I will keep my eyes open though.  I want to know more about those upside-down, polka-dotted, screaming catfish! I also want to write more about catfish of the Gymnallabes family.  Finally, I have a feeling there are even weirder fish at the very bottom of the river, we just don’t know about them yet.  We will keep our eyes on the Congo.  For the world’s second greatest river, we know a lot less than we should.

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Giraffids--extinct and extant (painting by Mauricio?)

Giraffids–extinct and extant (painting by Mauricio?)

The Giraffoidea are a superfamily of artiodactyl mammals. They first evolved in the Miocene and they share a common ancestor with the deer and antelopes (and a slightly more distant common ancestor with hippos, pigs, and cows). Once the giraffes were numerous and mighty—twenty different genuses of these huge long-necked grazers spread throughout Eurasia and Africa. There were giraffids of all sizes and sorts—magnificent creatures bristling with hornlike ossicones and flourishing their long black tongues! But in the modern world the once-great family has shrunk down to two single species. The giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) is well known and features prominently in all sorts of cartoons and literature. The other last giraffe—the forest giraffe (more commonly known as the okapi) is much more obscure and was not known to science until 1901.

A male okapi (Okapia Johnstoni) at the Dublin zoo

A male okapi (Okapia Johnstoni) at the Dublin zoo

Legends existed of a shadowy unicorn-like beast which lived deep in the jungle. Horse-crazed European adventurers and administrators tended to imagine it as a sort of jungle zebra. Although ethereal rumors and sightings of this creature were reported, no western zoologist or biologist succeeded in finding out more about it until a strange meet-up between master trackers and a European colonial official took place late in the nineteenth century. According to the story, an evil impresario had abducted a group of pygmies in order to exhibit them in a circus (which does not make me feel any better about human nature). When the British colonial administrator of Uganda, Sir Harry Johnston, found out about this cartoonishly evil plot, he rescued the forest people and sent them home. In gratitude, the pygmies became his friends and shared their forest-lore with Sir Harry, showing him the tracks of an okapi. The hoofprint which was distinctly cloven—as a equine print would not be. Johnston doggedly pursued the furtive creatures through the Ituri forest and he eventually obtained a bit of striped hide and a skull. Today the Okapi’s scientific name is Okapia johnstoni (although it sounds like it should really be Okapia pygmidae).

Okapi and calf at San Diego Zoo

Okapi and calf at San Diego Zoo

 

Of course this latter name would not really fit Okapis—which are fairly large creatures. Adults stand 1.5 to 2.0 meters (4.9 to 6.6 ft) tall at their shoulders—and they have long necks. For such graceful animals they are also muscular and heavy–weighing from 200 to 350 kilograms (440 to 770 pounds). They live in the watery mountain rainforests in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo (and perhaps slightly into Uganda). [Coincidentally, I’m sorry that I am continuing Congo week for one extra day, but I could not resist adding the okapi] Because their habitat is so constantly rainy, they have oily waterproof coats. Their distinctive brown, white, and red color pattern allows them to melt into the shadowy rainforests like wraiths.

An okapi in a rainforest

An okapi in a rainforest

Okapis are herbivores. They do not just graze on leaves but they also eat berries, shoots, fruits, and fungi (many of which are toxic to humans). They are solitary animals which wander alone along narrow forest trails. Sadly (but unsurprisingly) okapis are endangered due to habitat loss and poaching. Interestingly, although it took Europeans a long time to discover the forest giraffe, it was seemingly known to ancient civilization. There is a carving of one of the creatures in Persepolis—being presented as tribute from a delegation of Ethiopians.

sculpture from the facade of the Apadana, at Persepolis

sculpture from the facade of the Apadana, at Persepolis

A pair of Congo Peafowl (Afropavo congensis) at Antwerp Zoo

A pair of Congo Peafowl (Afropavo congensis) at Antwerp Zoo

Behold the majestic Congo peafowl Afropavo congensis! This attractive bird is the only member of its genus. It seems to share characteristics with both the famous Indian peafowl and the guinea fowl—so perhaps it is a link between the two respective families. Male Congo peacocks grow up to 64–70 cm (25–28 in) in length and are brilliantly colored. Females are smaller and have duller plumage.

 

Look at that crown!

Look at that crown!

Congo peafowl are omnivores: they feed on fruits, berries and seeds as well as hunting invertebrates such as insects and sundry other arthropods. Both males and females have lovely but chaotic feather crowns. The birds are found only in central lowland forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and they are the national bird of that country.

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The Congo River is the world’s second largest river by volume of water discharged (which seems like the most worthwhile measure of a river). Portions of its watershed are both north and south of the equator—which ensures that some part will always be experiencing a rainy season. The Congo River flows through the world’s second largest rainforest, and, as you would expect, the waterway teems with exquisite animals of multitudinous variety. There are aquatic mammals, many different sorts of crocodilians, turtles, frogs, snakes, mollusks, insects, crustaceans, and there are fish fish fish! The piscine variety is staggering: stingrays, carp, cichlids, pufferfish, African tetras, and the highly predatory giant tigerfish. There are also some bizarre blind deep water fish—because the Congo is the world’s deepest river (with depths of at least 220 m (720 ft)).

A few Congo River Fish

A few Congo River Fish

Ferrebeekeeper has always been devoted to catfish which thrive everywhere other than the deep ocean or the arctic. Indeed there are all sorts of catfish in the Congo River—particularly squeakers (AKA upside-down catfish). However, as a special treat, let’s take a break from catfish and talk about an entirely different fish—the freshwater elephant fish (the Mormyridae family from the order Osteoglossiformes). According to the World Wildlife Fund, Elephant fish are the dominant fish fauna in the Congo River. And they are downright strange in so many ways.

Campylomormyrus rhynchophorus

Campylomormyrus rhynchophorus

As you might surmise, elephant fishes earned their common name from their long trunk-like mouths (although this feature is certainly not universal among the 200 plus different varieties). Different species vary greatly in size: the smallest elephant fish are only 5 cm (2 inch) when they reach adulthood whereas the largest grow to 1.9 meters (4.5 feet) in length. Like the electrical catfish and ghost knife fish of the Amazon, the elephant fish have electroreceptive sensory organs. These generate an electrical field and “read” the field so the fish can sense the world (and especially other living things) very clearly even in the murkiest waters and in complete darkness.

 (Image: Carl Hopkin)

(Image: Carl Hopkin)

Elephant fish are extremely intelligent fish with a greatly enlarged cerebellum. In fact the fish have a brain body ratio which is approximately the same as humans (although it seems that they use much of their mental power to operate their electrical sensory organs and interpret the electrical data). In humans, the cerebellum controls movement, motor control, and language so it is speculated that elephant fish may have greater abilities to communicate with each other than we currently understand.

Campylomormyrus alces (from aquaria2.ru)

Campylomormyrus alces (from aquaria2.ru)

Oh, also the elephant fish (and their closest relatives the African knife fish) are unique in that their sperm lack flagellums. Of all vertebrates—from turkey to megabat to axolotl–these strange African fish are the only chordates not to have motile sperm. I wish I could tell you more about that business, but I cannot (and researching it on Google has not made me happier or wiser).

 

Genyomyrus donnyi (George Albert Boulenger)

Genyomyrus donnyi (George Albert Boulenger)

I have tried to show some elephant fish which are endemic to the Congo River, but, alas, I am not an ichthyologist (although that might have been a good career choice) so I may have messed up. Hopefully these photos at least provide some small overview of this incredible family. Humankind needs to learn more about these splendid clever African fish which are so prevalent in the turbid waters of the great tropical river.

Mormyrops anguilloides

Mormyrops anguilloides

southern_africa_political-map

Regular readers will have noticed that Ferrebeekeeper’s epic east to west progression across Africa has stalled. We started on the microcontinent of Madagascar, traveled across the straight to Mozambique, moved up the rift valley through Malawi and Tanzania and then cut west onto the lush plains of Zambia. Now we stand at a dramatic crossroads.

The Kalahari Desert of Botswana

The Kalahari Desert of Botswana

To the south is the sparsely populated desert nation of Botswana. It is arguably Africa’s most stable democracy and it contains vast arid wildernesses where the San hunt the arid scrub but nature otherwise holds rule. In fact the Chobe National Park has the world’s largest population of elephants although I hesitate to even write it, lest poachers hear. Yet when poachers show up with their helicopters, machine guns, and poisons, Botswana captures them, tries them in a fair court, and locks them up. It is a well-run country with an educated populace (although it is struggling with the terrible scourge of HIV).

Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo, Home of the Endangered Mountain Gorilla

Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo, Home of the Endangered Mountain Gorilla

To the north lies an entirely opposite nation—the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a terribly run nation with a history steeped in bloodshed and horror. Whereas Botswana is an empty desert, the Congo is a vast brooding rainforest filled with hundreds of different ethnic groups. The Congo is the second largest nation in Africa by area. It is rich in mineral and natural resources. It has unprecedented amazing biodiversity. Yet it was the sight of the most terrible war of the second half of the twentieth century—a war which left terrible scars in the hearts of the Congolese people (and ushered five million people into an early grave). Even today, shadows of the war lie everywhere on the land, and beneath them are older shadows and scars from the most brutal colonial regime of Africa, and beneath those lie even more ancient hatreds and hurts…but I digress.

Flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Since we are traveling via thought on the internet, I say we head north into the Congo. In fact let’s spend this whole week there among jungles that have never known the axe and in the company of bonobos, okapi, and pygmies, the Congo’s original human inhabitants. In the spirit of this trip, I will start Congo week by describing the flag of the Democratic Republic of Congo which is a sky blue field with a red diagonal stripe with gold edges. In the upper left corner is a yellow five pointed star. According to Wikipedia “The red symbolized the people’s blood; the yellow symbolized prosperity; the blue symbolized hope; and the star represented unity.” Perhaps a more realistic flag would be totally red with an exploded star and all of the yellow locked away in some hidden Swiss bank account. Yet cognoscenti say that for all of its troubles past and present The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the most beautiful places of Earth. Its people are creative, diverse, and resilient. Hoist up the blue flag of hope, say a prayer upon the star of unity, and come traveling the Congo River. There are wonders and horrors in the offing as we spend some time in one of the world’s most amazing places.

camp for internally displaced residents in the Democratic Republic of Congo

camp for internally displaced residents in the Democratic Republic of Congo

 

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