Saint Louis University

Rick Mayden fishes with students in Kashmir.
Richard Mayden (left) fishes with a couple of students in Kashmir.

From remote areas of Mexico to the heights of the Himalayas, noted Saint Louis University biologist Richard Mayden, Ph.D., often takes the road less traveled in his quest to discover fish that have never been described in science before.

His efforts to find these new species and to understand their evolution has earned him both international acclaim and significant federal funding.

Mayden, who holds the W. S. Barnickle Endowed Chair of Natural Sciences at SLU, recently received $2.7 million from the National Science Foundation's highly coveted and competitive Planetary Biodiversity Inventory Program to conduct a global inventory of Cypriniformes.

Found on nearly every continent and known by less scientific names like minnows, shiners, chubs and carps, Cypriniformes make up a majority of the fish species in most freshwater ecosystems around the world.

"They form a critical protein base for many cultures and hold many treasures to unanswered questions in biology," Mayden said. "As we discover and describe new species over the next few years, we'll find they are more important than we ever thought."


During the course of his nearly 30-year academic career, Mayden has discovered and described several dozen new fish species.

In Thailand, Mayden found this likely new species of Cypriniformes.

Early on, Mayden started collecting fish tissue samples. His small collection has grown into one of the largest and most diverse repositories in the world.

Recently, the NSF awarded Mayden $1 million to purchase state-of-the-art equipment for the long-term care of the massive collection, which can help research efforts in evolution, ecology and many other areas.

"I started the repository in the early 1980s when others were not even considering the potential of this great resource," Mayden said. "I decided that I better begin collecting them while they were still in existence. The key thing is to obtain the diversity because it won't always be there."


Although he travels the globe for his research, Mayden netted two of his latest finds just three hours from St. Louis while conducting field studies in Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas and Oklahoma.

Mayden officially describes the two species of darters that are new to science in the latest issue of Copeia, the international journal for the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists.

One of the perks of discovering and describing new species is that you get to name them. In this instance, Mayden found the new fish in an area commonly known as the Trail of Tears.

As tribute to the Native Americans who lost their lives on the trail, Mayden gave one of his finds the scientific name Etheostoma mihileze, which is derived from an Osage word that essentially means "sun on the horizon."

Mayden said his latest discoveries are further evidence that there are plenty of new species waiting to be found in our own "backyards."

"There are many species to be discovered and described in tropical areas," Mayden said. "But there are also all types of life forms to be found right here in the United States."


Cypriniformes range from a tiny transparent fish that's the size of a large mosquito when fully grown to a 100-pound fish that has earned the nickname "Tiger of the Water" among sport fisherman.

But it's not just their great diversity that makes these fish interesting to Mayden. It's their importance to the planet and to mankind.

The zebrafish is used in gene research worldwide.

The zebrafish, for example, is one of only a few model organisms used worldwide in gene research for medical advancements.

"Our studies of these fishes have provided findings critical to tracing genetic and anatomical abnormalities from the fish directly to humans because of shared genes," he said.

At the other end of the spectrum, he added, researchers are using phylogenetics -- the study how organisms are related in terms of evolution -- to see if there is a link between the formation of continents and the development of these major fish groups.

In 2004, Mayden's expertise on the species led to a $3 million grant from the NSF's prestigious "Assembling the Tree of Life" program.

The goal is to reconstruct the evolutionary, biological and geographic history of Cypriniformes. The massive project is ongoing and involves researchers from around the world.


Mayden's research has attracted a lot of international attention. For example, he was one of only five people in the world invited to speak during a special symposium in Sweden marking the 300th anniversary of the birth of Petrus Artedi, the father of modern ichthyology (the study of fish).

In November, Mayden was one of the featured speakers at a conference focused on a fairly new a way of rapidly identifying species.

Mayden's presentation was one of several aimed at convincing the Indian government to invest in the system known as DNA barcoding. In January, the Indian Council on Agricultural Research announced that it would spend $10 million for barcoding projects.

"India is renowned as one of the greatest biodiversity hotspots in the world," Mayden said. "DNA barcoding methods will give scientists more insights into the origins of that diversity and ultimately its conservation."


Rick Mayden and students in Bangladesh
Locals surround Mayden at a fish market in Bangladesh.

Both undergraduate and graduate students work in Mayden's lab. They also join him on international excursions to places like Guatemala, India, China and Bangladesh.

Whether in the lab or the field, these hands-on research opportunities have made his former students more marketable after graduation.

"If done right, research experience can be one of the most impressive attributes on students' future applications," Mayden said. "It can also be life-changing."

That was the case for John Michael Ryan, who graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences in 2007 and who filmed Mayden's work as part of an internship. The project inspired him to form his own multi-media production company Tangent Mind.

"Working with Dr. Mayden completely changed my life," Ryan said.

Some of Mayden's former interns are in medical school. Others are teachers and researchers in major labs. There's even a boat captain and professional fisherman in the mix.

"My former students are living rewarding and diverse lives," Mayden said. "To me, that's what it's all about, and I am humbled to be able to help them through life in this way."

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