Sunday, December 23, 2018

Electrofishing Kosovo and a road-trip through North Macedonia

Could be in Noth Vancouver I know...
December 2017

Ok...its like being in Western Canada but only about a 1000 kilometers North of Athens Greece! Dimitri and I drove up to Kosovo last December and we had a wonderful time! Working with our friend Linda Grapsi from the University of Prishtina the a fish study in the upper White Drin river.

We spent the rainy weekend electrofishing, sightseeing and enjoyed the wonderful food. The people were warm and hospitable like Mediterraneans everywhere - the experience was fascinating for us.  We electrofished in wintry conditions on a tributary of the White Drin (near the town of Kline).The rivers here flood in spring - a very powerful freshet noticeable and alder woods and flood flows are everywhere.  The Drin being one of the largest river basins in the Balkans but its fauna is poorly studied. You need to consdider also that after the late '90s, the disastrous Balkan wars and many socio-politcal changes, little effort has been given to biodiversity research. The Drin is part of the Southeastern Adriatic Ecoregion, one of the poorest explored European Ecoregions....Our work was exploratory; many many questions still. The taxonomic challenges made species-level identification difficult (many of our fishes still have question marks besides their names).

We caught a lot of fish and shipped a lot of them down to Athens (with licence and a good cooperation with the university). We came back with a lot of cheap booze too (but don't do this- it is probably illegal). It was snowing on the drive back and the situation was getting near freezing, we really felt we should be going south. On the way back we had a look at the wonderful country of "North Macedonia" (I truly wish this name-conflict subsides! Please forgive me for branding this newly proposed name instead of the acronym FYROM, for us Greeks, Macedonia is still such a touchy issue - lets get over it!). Exploring our neighbouring republic to the north is fantastic. What a amazing river the Axios/Vardar is!  We saw the Vardar at its birthplace in southern Kosovo and then followed it down to the sunny Thermaikos Gulf.

We promised we will be back; we are organizing a re-visit soon.

Here we share some snap shots and a compilation of field aquarium fish photos taken at the sampling sites.

My friend Linda and my son Dimitri with Albanian colleagues in the background. Expedition style!
Note the density of plastics in the trees behind us...

In conditions like this, even three nets are not enough! 

Trying to catch fish is not easy in winter.
Note the in-filled river bank; debris and rubble from the war back in 1999. 

Another site on the Klina river, water up, floods are common here. Woods are alder Alnus glutinosa.
The old man near a rushing river: reminds me of the valleys near Vancouver again. This is one of the huge karstic springs of the White Drin.

Yes these are the western Balkans, but with alder and lots and lots of rain - it could be anywhere on a temperate west coast. This upper stretch of the river is a trout zone (only Trout and Minnows present- waters always cold). 

Dimitri and Linda on a clear cold river. Note the extensive amout of war rubble and construction-site debris!  This is not just unplanned sloppiness; it is the result of war. And it is disturbing. Sampling using electricity near bombed bridges was not particulary safe....
But the rewards of fishing here...a selection of collected fishes near the Nora Hotel near Kline town, on the  mid-section of the upper White Drin.  A. Alburnoides ohridanus (sprilin, Juvenile); B. Alburnoides ohridanus (spirlin, Adult), C. Rhodeus cf. amarus (bitterling), D. Squalius platyceps (chub), E. Salmo fariodes (trout), F. Pachychilon pictum (moranec), G. Gobio skadarensis (gudgeon, Juvenile), H. Gobio skadarensis (gudgeon, Adult). Taxonomy will be soon confirmed using genetic screening.

Selection of collected fishes on the upper White Drin. A. "Barbus cf. rebeli/balcanicus" (barbel); B. Barbatula sturanyi (stone loach) at Site 3; C. Alburnus scoranza (bleak) at Site 1, D. Alburnus scoranza (bleak) (large-sized adult), E. Phoxinus cf csikii (minnow), F. Phoxinus cf csikii (minnow, adult female), G. Phoxinus cf csikii (Minnow, Juvenile at 'fry' stage), H. Salmo fariodes (trout) showing extensive skin disease (Adult). Taxonomy will be soon confirmed using genetic screening.

Selection of collected fishes on the upper White Drin. A. Squalius platyceps (chub, adult) at Site 2; B. Chondrostoma cf. ohridanus (nase, adult) at site 2; C. Chondrostoma cf. ohridanus (nase)  at site 3 (Juvenile); D. Sabanejewia balcanica (loach, juvenile) at Site 2, E. Pachichylon pictum (moranec) at site 2.  F. Salmo fariodes (trout) at Site 2. , G. Gobio skadarensis (gudgeon) at site 2. Taxonomy will be soon confirmed using genetic screening.

Somewhere in NW Kosovo.
Typical roadside scene in the upper Vardar Valley in Kosovo very close to the 'North Macedonian' border.

Huge albanian flage on the Kosovar side of the Kosovo-'North Macedonian' border.
The Vardar in North Macedonia. 

The Vardar in North Macedonia. 

Saturday, December 22, 2018

University of Patras Herbarium: a new Botanical Museum!

December 2018
University of Patras

We visited the opening of the new Botanical Museum at the herbarium rooms of the University of Patras (at Patras in Western Greece). The new professors and researchers established here have taken the initiative to re-furbish and turn the old archive to a brilliant little museum! Professors Dimopoulos, Panitsa and nature interpretation experts Vassilis Hatzirvassanis and Aris Vidalis with the help of students and friends have done a great job - and this should be GOOD NEWS both locally and beyond. And this will benefit the society of Patras and Greece as a whole - a new landmark for environmental education. Its such actions that go over-and-above the call of duty but remain a legacy for education and the environmental movement. 

We sincerely hope the Botanical Museum of the University of Patras be incorporated within a much larger Natural History Museum to include outdoor exhibits (the Botanical Garden) as well. Its a great revival! 

This is a tribute wall to the many older expert botanists (almost all foreigners) who collected in Greece. The numbers below show the new taxa described by each explorer - botanist from material collected in Greece.  
This is the herbarium case archives. 
This is the herbarium case archives, the panels here 'decorate' the herbarium shelves (on Left).

There were many pioneering botanists at the grand opening of the exhibit, here Dimitris Christodoulakis. 

The collection process explained. 

A collage of photos outlining the history of the Herbarium collections. 

The recent development of this exhibit is the brain-child of my friend Professor Panayotis Dimopoulos.

The well-developed themes are helpful for students of various levels of interest. Artwork by V. Hatzirvassanis.

Detail of the artwork by V. Hatzirvassanis.

More famous Botanists and other visiting scientists at the grand opening. 

The flora of Greece themed panel. 

Plant pressing and taxonomy.

Professer Maria Panitsa, at center with her students. 
Nicely lit panel. 
The humble entrance to the herbarium, with Vassiliki Vlami and our friend Ioannis P. Kokkoris, both associated with University of Patras conservation and research projects. 
And the full team credits for the new Botanical Museum. Congrats to all!

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Upper Kifissos River, Athens: Studying the river fish as bioindicators

Dimitris Kommatas in the water.

Upper Kifissos River, Athens
November 2nd 2018

A lot of what we do is usually not part of any "project". We get ideas, prioritize, test things, often faltering, sometimes succeeding.

One area of conservation interest for us is the Kifissos river of Athens. Several years back we worked hard to try secure a project here - no funding was possible (...perhaps being right at the beginning of the Great Greek Recession in 2010 didn't help). But we did the first electrofishing surveys and found lots of fish (and achieved our 5 minutes of fame on the city's Media World too). The Kifissos has fish and not only a few native fishes but also some "translocated species" (these being - native to Greece but introduced by humans beyond their native range). 

Fish are important indicators of river ecosystem health and we know very well that this river is gravely suffering from degradation and pollution. So even at its most "pristine" part in its upper waters near Metamorphosi-Lykovrisi and Kifissia the river is a great "natural laboratory" for studying fish as bio-indicators to the various peri-urban pressures. In this case one of our top-men, Nicholas Koutsikos (PhD student) is working on looking into how the most abundant translocated fishes here may act as indicators- in fact how much garbage they ingest! The microplastics issue is thus being studied for the first time in this legendary small river.

Today we visited a site on the river about 20 kms upstream from the Sea, at about 150 meters above sea level (at the Lykovrissi area of nothern Athens, near the Ayioi Anargyri Hospital). 

The three-man team beyond N. Koutsikos and myself included Dimitris Kommatas, one of the most seasoned electrofishing experts in Greece. We caught our fish, collected about 120 specimens of fresh barbels & chub on ice (for the lab work Nicholas and colleagues are doing) and also screened for other alien/native species. We found nothing more than the very high abundances of Vardar chub and Sperchios barbel (roughly at an 80:20 abundance ratio). A few of the chub were really large older fish (one or two over 45 cm, Total Length). No one knows exactly when these fish were first introduced here- but we wager they were not here in the '60s or perhaps early '70s when Dr. Alexander Stephanidis was active in his ichthyological explorations in the wider area. Finally we were really surprised to find 6 large eels in the 150 m. of stream we sampled, most of them larger specimens, probably older than 7 or 10 years old.

Not finding other alien or invasive fish species was also important and although our survey was rapid and targeted "collecting" specimens for lab analysis - we did not detect any other species (negative result=good result!). And this is news too. Also we did not find the local endemic Marathon minnow (why is it missing?). Several mass fish kills have been reported in the river due to illegal bouts of highly toxic pollution from industry, illegal dumping etc. Despite this, the stretch of peri-urban stream we surveyed was absolutely beautiful!  

The Kifissos valley at Ayioi Anargyri Hospital (Lykovrisi-Menidi) in the upper part of its basin. 

The "Irish pass" as we call these concrete stream fords in Greece. 

Dimitris was checking all the habitats carefully (using three dip nets, the Smith-Root 24L electrofisher anode has no netting - good for observing through the bottom). This is a riffle zone, home to most barbels. 
Vardar chub and Sperchios barbel. We were carefully looking for other species too (despite the rapid survey technique we use).

These are "young-of-the-year barbels, most under 5 cm (Total Length).

Yes this is the largest chub we caught! 

One of six beautiful native European eels. This one was strong and displayed a "biting" behaviour - it makes a gasping ticking noise with its mouth and will bite...(these individuals have bitten me several times in the past, but rather few specimens exhibit this behaviour). Of course a fish like this, Critically Endangered and native, is not collected. 
I'm fascinated by algae in polluted rivers. Note how these pebbles are choked in green-brown muck and quite embedded in the stream-bed....not healthy.

Typical situation with loads-and-loads of plastic: Do the fish ingest it?

Note the olive treas in the background: The Landscape of Attiki my friends: Legendary yet totally neglected!
The Smith-Root electrofisher wieghs about 15 kgs.
Nick counts his barbels. 

Three-man team expedition kit and stuff. 
Yes, these are wild and native oriental planes Platanus orientalis!

Low water now but already an autumn flood has swept through this year. A wonderful environment for education and eco-sensitization.

 Yes, when we became famous in Athens....

Spring 2010 when we first found the Vardar Chubs in the Kifissos. And the fish was measured, it was 34 cm. We definitely did not expect it. After much DNA barcoding and measurements we established that they are Squalius vardarensis - the closest location of their native range, the Sperchios river 300 kms to the north.  (From, photo by our man in Kalamata, Leonidas Vardakas).

A much younger Nicholas Koutsikos, he and D. Kommatas have been working with us since 2006. He wears our older Hans-Grassl electrofisher.- This as seen on Greek Newspapers reporting the Kifissos' fishes in 2010 (But the photo with the huge Petasites leaves is probably not from the Kifissos -I think). Glory days indeed - BUT this publicity never landed us any project. (Care of:

Putting the Kifissos on the map! Another interview, this time by our own Leonidas Vardakas who helped make the fish almost as important as the birds on this Newspaper spread at the time of the Kifissos chub discovery (from "Ta Nea" Newspaper in 2010; located at: I dislike the copy-pasting of several photos from well-known books by the journalists, however this kind of "merchandising" sticks.