A researcher sits on a boat in Lake Malawi in eastern Africa.

Cataloging the aquarium

Ever since middle school, Mike Pauers has been fascinated by a popular ornamental and colorful aquarium fish called Labeotropheus. Now, the assistant professor of zoology at UWM-Waukesha researches the freshwater fish in one of the world’s largest aquariums – Lake Malawi in Africa.

As a UWM graduate student, Pauers studied how these fish use colors in sexual selection and how males use color patterns in aggressive encounters. As a professor, his academic curiosity focused on why there were so many “morphs,” or geographically isolated color variants, available for his hobby.

Collaborating with the Malawi Department of Fisheries, he intends to fully document and describe the diversity of genus Labeotropheus, which features fish in shades of red, blue and gold that grow up to 15 centimeters long. After years of studying body shapes and unique breeding colors, Pauers has already described three new species, and he continues to explore the evolutionary interrelationships among the different species.

He obtained new specimens on a trip to Lake Malawi in the summer of 2018, and initial examinations have found more variants among them. Additional painstaking measurements and DNA sampling will determine if they, too, represent distinct species.

Pauers’ research has long been supported by the Milwaukee Public Museum’s Orth Family Ichthyology Research Fund.