Bucket of Eels: Mastacembelus shiranus

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Today’s eel: every edition of this newsletter is named after an eel. Today’s is the Malawi spinyeel (Mastacembelus shiranus).

Today’s eel was selected because it lives in Lake Malawi, a place I just recently visited (more on that later in the newsletter). I wanted to feature an eel from the Malawi region (the Southeast, in case Malawi isn’t on your mental map of the continent) and it turns out there are a few interesting options. The Mastacembelus apectoralis, for example, lives in Lake Tanganyika and has evolved to lose both its color and it’s pectoral fin

The trouble is that eels in Lake Malawi aren’t particularly well researched. This is true of eels in most lakes and rivers, they’re a notoriously under-studied creature across the globe. But Malawian eels are overlooked in particular because they have the misfortune of sharing their lake with some of the most scrutinized fresh-water fishes of all time: cichlids. You may not know them by name, but you’ve almost certain seen a cichlid before. They’re the colorful fish that dart about in many fresh water aquaria. If you see a little, colorful fish in a freshwater tank, it’s probably a cichlid. They come in a dizzying array of shapes and colors naturally, and have been bred into an even trippier kaleidoscope. Cichlids in Lake Malawi and Lake Tanganyika are also one of the classic examples of something called “adaptive radiation.” Because they won’t swim across large stretches of sand, the cichlids in each lake evolved from one common ancestor to hundreds of different species simply because they don’t mix with one another. Between Lake Malawi, Tanganyika and Victoria there are over 2,000 species of cichlids.

Anyway, this is supposed to be about eels. Sorry. The cichlids once again steal the show! The point is that these cichlids have been so closely studied in East African lakes that the eels have gotten short shrift. In fact, the eels of Lake Tanganyika and Malawi are also quite good examples of adaptive radiation. But they’re not as cute as the cichlids, and have been mostly ignored. 

Which brings us to the Malawi spinyeel, found only in Lake Malawi. The Mastacembelus shiranus is rarely traded by aquarium hobbyists. In fact, one aquarium site notes that, “The only African spiny eels you are likely to find in the shops are the ones from Lake Tanganyika, in particular Mastacembelus moorii and Mastacembelus plagiostomus. Mastacembelus moorii is sometimes known as the mottled spiny eel though sometimes is simply labelled as the Tanganyikan spiny eel. It is a beautiful fish, with a dark snakeskin pattern set against a creamy-brown background colour. The pectoral fins are yellow. Mastacembelus plagiostomus is also from Lake Tanganyika and is another very attractive fish, this time with a cream to salmon coloured body and dark brown, saddle-like bands running over the back and about two-thirds of the way down the flanks. This handsome fish doesn't have a common name as such, but if you see it, it'll probably be called either the Tanganyikan spiny eel or simply the African spiny eel.”

The Mastacembelus shiranus, or, as the locals call it, “nkhungu,” has a delightful little nose and pretty spots. Scientists think that it might travel around and spread across the large, deep lake using floating rafts of vegetation. Also, I’m just going to sneak this in here at the end: Technically, Mastacembelus shiranus is a fish, not an eel. Sorry.

Current status: I just returned from my aforementioned trip to Malawi, in Southern Africa. I went with my partner, whose best friend of over twenty years has been living there for the last two years. Malawi is a beautiful country, that has also been thrown under the bus repeatedly by colonialism and failed aid projects. (I recommend the book Malawi: A Place Apart for a primer on some of this.) Almost 70 percent of the people of Malawi live on less than $1.90 a day. Most people do not have power or running water. About a third of the country’s square mileage is taken up by Lake Malawi, a gorgeous, deep and incredibly fascinating body of water. 

I’m not going to say all that much about my personal experience in Malawi here. There is far too much writing by white ladies about their time in Africa, and I only spent a handful of days in the country. But I will share with you some photographs of the safari we went on in Malawi’s next-door neighbor, Zambia. Here’s what South Luangwa National Park has to offer.

Essay: First let me just say: I’m tired. I can’t believe it’s June. I’ve been putting off this newsletter for too long, which is rude to all of you and in particular those of you who pay to subscribe and were promised something more regular. I’m sorry.

Last week, we spent a night on Domwe Island, in Lake Malawi, and by some strange twist of spacetime ran into two people who live down the street from me in Berkeley, California. One is a professor at UC Berkeley, the other an undergraduate student of his. They were on the island looking for Spotted-necked otters — large, long creatures who can be identified down to the individual by the pattern of white spots on their necks.

I interview scientists all day, but I admit that whenever I meet a scientist in my “off time” I get a little flustered. Sad, maybe, is a better word. Embarrassed is perhaps even more honest. If we get to talking about what I do, I often have to tell them that at one point I wanted to be in their shoes. To be on a lake in Malawi, binoculars around my neck, waterproof notebook stuffed into a pocket, looking for otters. Ever since I was a kid, that was my dream. Today, it’s not what I do. And when they inevitably ask how I got into this thing, science journalism, writing, I have to figure out how to explain how I went walking the same path they are on, to this other one that I’m on now.

I don’t know how to do that without being self-effacing. I quip, light heartedly, about how, well, it’s funny, you see, I love science, but I’m terrible at doing it. I make a joke about staring into a microscope for 10 hours a day sexing krill and wondering what it was all for. I hope they laugh. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t. Either way, the message I tend to convey is “I wanted to do what you do, but I wasn’t good enough, or smart enough, or patient enough. So I failed, and now I do a second-rate knockoff version.” I’m like a groupie, someone who wanted to be in their own band but couldn’t hack it, and now pitifully follows actual artists around hoping to live vicariously through them. That’s the message I convey at least.

There are absolutely scientists who think that people who once pursued science and now instead work in journalism are failures, too dumb or frivolous to hack it in research. I know because they’ve sold me so. I’ve also been told by scientists (physicists, actually, exclusively) that anybody who chooses to go into social science, or the humanities, only does so because they’re not smart enough to do math or physics. This is why, for the longest time, I avoided the job title “science writer,” because it sounded like an admission of failure. Not a scientist, a science writer, someone who tried and failed and now just chronicles the deeds of people she could never compete with.

So at this long wooden table on Domwe Island, with hyraxes making all kinds of ungodly noises behind us and bats swooping into the light to eat the bugs that were trying to eat my legs, I did my usual song and dance about how I failed and now do this other thing and it felt terrible.

The thing is, that’s not actually how I feel. I’m good at what I do, and what I do is difficult. Any good scientist can tell you that asking the right questions is not only the key, but often the most challenging piece of the job, and that’s what journalists have to do every day. Writing is hard! Keeping the public’s interesting nearly impossible! It’s not that I wasn’t smart enough to sex krill for ten hours a day, or learn R, or navigate the bizarre power dynamics of a lab (honestly I think that last bit seems like the hardest of all). It’s that the payoff didn’t seem worth it to me and I found something else that I really love, that is extremely difficult, and that I’m good at doing.

Now I just need to figure out how to say that next time I meet a biologist in the wild.

Flash Forward: A quick programming note on Flash Forward! May 12th marked the show’s four year anniversary! I’ve done 94 episodes, interviewed hundreds of guests, and whispered sweet nothings about the future into the ear holes of millions of people. By the end of this year I’ll hit 100 episodes. One hundred! I’m so incredibly grateful for everybody who’s ever listened to the show, said nice things about it, agreed to be an expert, volunteered their voices for the future, and just in general supported the project. 

On June 11th I wrapped up the second little mini-season of the year. As you may know, I am really focused on making sure Flash Forward’s guests are as diverse as possible across many different axes. (I publish my data and goals here.) I’m really proud of this BODIES season on that front in particular. I think it provided a nice antidote to the way that futurism usually talks about bodies. Half the guests are POC, 20% are disabled, 20% are trans or non-binary. We talk about ableism, bodily autonomy, where the self actually lies, cultural narratives and how tech intersects with all of those things.

Over the last month I’ve run a little promotion on Patreon for Flash Forward: become a Patron before June 30th and you get a prize in the mail! Here’s the truth about why I’m currently running the Patreon promotion you’ve heard me talk about on the show:  this year, my ad sales company has only sold 3/20 ad spots on the show. Which means that so far this year I’ve made only 15% of what I expected to make on the show. This is... very bad! Ad sales traditionally made up about 1/2 of the show's revenue. If I can't figure out a way to make up the difference I'll have to stop making the show basically. As you can probably guess, making Flash Forward takes a ton of time, and I do have to pay rent and feed my dog and all of that. It's a bit embarrassing to publicly admit that the show is sort of failing right now, but here I am!

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That’s all for this newsletter! Thanks for reading!