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All hail the mighty Corroncho

My student group and I are waiting out one of the wettest Junes I’ve ever encountered in Ecuador. To date, we’ve aborted two major field excursions because of landslides. The mid-elevation, Amazonian gateway city of Zamorra is completely inaccessible from Loja. The street dogs are cultivating mobile gardens of green mold- they look like jacked-up sloths as they squelch down the avenue.

<-- Streets of Loja, AKA El Venice de los Vacas...


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So- to quote a certain Ango-Saxon professor (who was well accustomed to wet days)- what ‘Drowns on dry land, thinks an island is a mountain; thinks a fountain is a puff of air?’

Time for my ‘fish of the month’ entry. See last month's if you're at all interested in Ling Cod.

One of our ongoing projects in Ecuador involved assessing baseline conditions along a stream system in a Shuar community. The Shuar are an indigenous people- unfortunately most famous for head-shrinking***… but currently noteworthy for being very, very good stewards of some large tracts of mid-Amazonian forests.

*** see the end of this blog entry for some commentary on this

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We worked in a community called ‘El Qiim’, along a river of the same name. One day, while taking a break from counting aquatic bugs, we were treated to a wonderful local collation called ‘Ayumpaco’. A gargantuan rainforest leaf (looked like banana, but wasn’t) was stuffed with chicken, fish, yams, potatoes (local variants) seasoned with who knows what, and roasted over an open fire.

It was lush on the palette, to say the least. Of course, I wanted to know what I was eating. The local guys (including César, a community leader who was working on an environmental science degree) kept rhapsodizing about something called a ‘Corroncho’.


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This was a bit amusing… in that the only use of the word ‘Corroncho’ that I was familiar with stemmed from Columbia. The inland city dwellers use ‘Corroncho’ as a gibe against the coasties… it basically means ‘some who gets way, way too emotional over trivial things’.  In English, the closest equivalent might be ‘Spazz’ or ‘Drama queen’.

Naturally a bit confused, I asked the guys to draw a picture (half expecting to see an image of Enrique Iglesias emerge from the dust). Instead, I saw something that I recognized immediately as an old friend.

Who hasn’t seen one of these dudes rasping the scum off someone’s aquarium glass? An old girlfriend of mine had one that was a foot long lurking in a five gallon aquarium…


The most common species is Hypostomus plecostomus.  People refer to them as ‘Plecos’ . People seem to have a weird love-hate relationship with them. One blogger recently featured Plecos on her ‘ugly animals’ feature. The backlash in the comments section is pretty intense…

·      Pleco's are not ugly.
·      I love my Pleco i think they are lush…
·      UGLY animals?!? I happen to think that Plecos are among the most magnificent, beautiful, handsome (or shall I say finsome?) creatures I've ever observed...or owned/befriended! I ADORE them!! 8-D

I lean towards the ‘handsome’ side of the continuum. Look at those patterns! Tiger-like mottlings in shades of amber. Look at that arcing, magnificent dorsal fin. You can see where the Columbian usage of ‘corroncho’ may have originated. That’s one flamboyant fish. Should look good on a planter, once I get back from Ecuador and back into the studio.

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Sure- they have little, bumbling, beady eyes, and sure- they’re not at their best when crumpled up in a fisherman’s hand (or grazing pond scum beneath and endlessly circling pack of incontinent goldfish). Imagine a three-footer (yes- they do get that big) riding the whitewater in the aftermath of a páramo storm, though.

The Shuar trap them using woven cane traps- Plecos (or ‘corronchos’ as I’ll call them from here out) are essentially vegans, rendering hook and line useless.  Myth has it that vegans 'taste funny', but the Shuar  prefer the taste of corroncho to trout, to tilapia, to anything they’re familiar with in mid-elevation Amazonia. Do they recognize the beauty? You’d better believe it… although no-one ever looks at a fish the same way after they’ve de-boned and devoured it.


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It’s hard to believe that a ubiquitous aquarium fish could be in trouble in the wild… but a lot of rivers in Ecuador are getting hammered hard. Gold mining (both illegal and legal) is rampant, and generally leans on a drunken over-use of mercury and cyanide.

The Shuar guys that other told me that other nearby rivers (where the gravel has been stripped to the nub) are effectively corroncho-free. You could definitely see a qualitative difference between El Qiim and the next river southwards. The Qiim looked drinkable, the other river had a greasy cast.

(Really… can we get this gold fixation out of our species level DNA? It’s not doing anything or anyone any good).

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There’s really not a lot of empirical data on their demographic health or distribution, though… Andean rivers, from a scientific standpoint, are almost a tabula rasa.

Interestingly, Hypostomus plecostomus has become an invasive nuisance in Florida, where people keep dumping them into toilets and drainage ditches. Florida is currently ground zero for focused Darwinism… escapés from all over the world duking it out. The snakeheads are looking like winners at the moment (that’s a future entry)… but don’t rule the corronchos out.


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In the meantime, corroncho-eating seems to have migrated to the United States. An adventurous foodie sampled a local Pleco (stuffed with mango). He claims that it ‘tastes superb’.

I came down here to catch tilapia. But the pleco wins, hands down.”

So- corronchos may be ecological victim, ecological villain, hor d'oeuvres, or pet depending on your perspective.  Whatever the case may be, I’ll never be able to see one of those sucker-mouths kissing glass without experiencing flashbacks to twilight on El Qiim, and the smell of whitewater racing towards the Amazon.


 


Comments

06/23/2013 12:46

I my mother plecos in every aquarium in her Fish shop when I was growing up! Found them to be fascinating little critters!

Reply
David Roon
06/24/2013 23:43

Definitely loads of character for an aquatic vacuum cleaner! Thanks for the comment...

Reply



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