History of the unit

The early years

The study of African fishes has been an important task in the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren since its foundation in 1898. It was even one of the main reasons for the foundation of the museum as a scientific institute.

In 1897, King Leopold II organised the first temporary exhibition in Tervuren, on the Congo-Freestate. The exhibition was held in order to familiarise the Belgian public with the Congo-Freestate. In a subterranean passage fishes from Central Congo were exhibited, hung in formalin-filled aquaria.

View of the formalin-filled aquaria during the first exhibition in the museum in 1897
(© HP.1960.5.1620, collection MRAC Tervuren; photo Alexandre, 1897)


MRAC P1-6 is the first record in the RMCA fish collection and consists of six specimens at present identified as Periophthalmus barbatus
(Photo T. Musschoot  © RMCA)

A Belgian ichthyologist, George A. Boulenger, who was then an associate of the Natural History Museum in London, visited the exhibition and immediately recognised that most species and genera were unknown to science. He requested permission to examine the fishes after the exhibition.
The authorities decided to develop the exhibition into a permanent museum with scientific tasks. Thus, in 1898 the CongoMuseum was founded. In the same year, Boulenger published the first scientific document in the series "Annales du Musée du Congo", entitled "Matériaux pour la faune du Congo. Poissons nouveaux du Congo". This was one of his long list of contributions to the fishes of the Congo, including a book in 1901 of more than 500 pages on this fauna.
The administration of the museum sponsored the exploration of Central-Africa and the colonial officials received instructions to send fishes to Tervuren for scientific studies. Field expeditions were organised, amongst others by P. Delhez (Lower and Central Congo, 1898-1899), Lt. Lemaire (Lakes Moero and Tanganyika, 1899-1900) and Dr. Christy (Central Congo and Uele, 1912-1915). All fishes collected during these expeditions were sent by H. Schouteden, responsible for the zoological collections in Tervuren, to G. A. Boulenger for study. Consequently, the particular fish fauna from the Congo basin was gradually scientifically documented. At the same time, H. Schouteden obtained fishes from other African regions, either by exchange or by purchase. These new collections contained a.o. specimens from Portuguese Guinea (Collection Ansorge, 1910) and from Cameroun (Collection Bates, 1910-1914).
After the first World War, H. Schouteden organised two expeditions to Africa (1920-1921 and 1924-1926) and collected several fishes from different rivers and lakes. In 1920, G. A. Boulenger retired from ichthyological science and H. Schouteden appealed to J. Pellegrin, working at the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris, to continue the study of the fish collections from Tervuren.


An ichthyologist in Tervuren

During his visits to Africa H. Schouteden noticed the importance of fish as food for the local population and, in 1927, when he became Director of the museum in Tervuren, he requested a full-time fish specialist for the museum. Hence, in 1932, Max Poll was the first ichthyologist employed by the museum.
Due to the work of M. Poll, the knowledge of fishes from Central Africa increased enormously. A large network of volunteers, organised by H. Schouteden, together with various new scientific expeditions, such as those of G.F. De Witte (Lakes Edward and Kivu, 1933-1936), H. Damas (Rwandese Lakes, 1935- 1936) and P. Brien (Upemba Territory, 1934-1936), enabled M. Poll and his collaborators to describe many regional faunas. Subsequently, systematic revisions were made which, for the first time, took into account phylogenetic aspects; two examples are the revision of the Polypteridae by M. Poll (1941), and the revision of the clariid catfishes by L. David (1935).
After 1945, studies of fish in the museum were no longer restricted to systematics but also included aspects of fisheries and aquaculture. M. Poll participated in two expeditions for the study of the fishery potential of Lake Tanganyika (1945-1947) and the West African coastal waters (1949-1951).
Later, when fisheries and aquaculture were further developed in Central Africa, many students came to M. Poll to follow a training course in African ichthyology, such as A. Hulot, who participated in the "Mission Piscicole du Katanga" (1945-1949) and later initiated the fishculture station at Yaekama-Yangambi; J.P. Gosse, who, after a career in Africa, worked as an ichthyologist at the Royal Belgian Institute for Natural Sciences; M. Chardon, who later became professor at the University of Liège and worked on the anatomy of lungfishes and catfishes; C. Reizer, who was associated initially to the CTFT (Centre Technique Forestier Tropicale) in Africa and subsequently to the 'Fondation Universitaire Luxembourgoise' in Arlon. H. Matthes also worked in the laboratory for ichthyology in Tervuren from 1962 to 1964. M. Poll participated, between 1956 and 1958, in a few other expeditions to study the fishes of the Stanley Pool.


Ichthyology expanding

In 1962, D. Thys van den Audenaerde was employed as the second ichthyologist of the museum. He studied for about ten years tilapia systematics. From 1964, the research in the laboratory for ichthyology in Tervuren was focused on the study of West African fishes, mostly based on collections made by D. Thys van den Audenaerde. Several field expeditions were undertaken, especially to Senegal, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Cameroun and Gabon. These expeditions enabled to collect material for Pan-African studies, such as those on tilapia cichlids (Thys van den Audenaerde, 1964-1970), Serranochromis cichlids (Trewavas, 1964), dwarf characids (Poll, 1967), Synodontis catfishes (Poll, 1969), pelmatochromine cichlids (Thys van den Audenaerde, 1968) and others.
This work attracted the attention of other research institutes which led to the study of the fishes from Angola (Poll, 1967) and Upper Volta (Roman, 1966). In 1977 M. Poll retired from the Museum. The trend towards Pan-African studies was continued by students of D. Thys van den Audenaerde: G. Teugels (Clarias catfishes), L. Risch (Chrysichthys catfishes), L. De Vos (Schilbeidae catfishes), whereas J. Snoeks studied the haplochromine cichlids from Lake Kivu. Special attention was given to groups of economic importance.
Meanwhile, a specialised bibliographical documentation center was erected and updated in the museum. This library became one of the pillars for the production of major reference-books such as the CLOFFA (Checklist of the fresh-water fishes of Africa, volumes I-IV, 1984-1991).




The eighties and nineties

Part of the collection from the National Park Garamba (D.R.Congo),
largely identified but not yet registered.

(Photo T. Musschoot  © RMCA)

In 1980, D. Thys van den Audenaerde became the Director of the Tervuren Museum; in 1988, G. Teugels, since 1984 associated assistant-director at the Fish Section of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, was appointed as ichthyologist in Tervuren. In 1996, J. Snoeks, who from 1984 was attached to the lab through various temporary contracts, became employed as the second ichthyologist.
Responsibilities in the lab were split between the two curators along the lines of their respective research interests. G. Teugels assumed general responsibility for the collections from West and Central Africa, while J. Snoeks was responsible for the East African collections and in particular the cichlids. From July 1996 to 1999, J. Snoeks was on secondment to the SADC/GEF Lake Malawi/Nyasa biodiversity conservation project as senior systematist.


A new millenium

Also in the new century, ichthyological activities in the Museum keep on expanding. However, 2003 became a disaster year for ichthyology. First Luc (Tuur) De Vos who had been a very close collaborator from the early eighties and a large contributor of recent collections died on 13 June 2003. Only a few weeks later on 22 July, one of the curators, G. Teugels, passed away. Two Belgian ichthyologists with a combined expertise of about half a century in contemporary African ichthyology and both very active in various international projects were suddenly gone. As a measure to deal with this loss, Emmanuel Vreven, a collaborator since 1993, got a contract to help in continuing the Museum's research and training activities in ichthyology.

The laboratory is visited by twenty-five to fifty national and international scientists per year to consult the specialised library and study the large collections. In addition, there is a continuous in- and outflow of students and trainees. Each year, between thirty and seventy new collections arrive in the lab and many specimens are sent on loan to colleagues in other research institutes.


The laboratory participated and still participates in various national and international projects on fish and fisheries. This resulted, amongst others, in :

Cover of the faunal guide to the fishes of West Africa,
a publication in two volumes

    • the publication of the 'Faune des poissons d'eaux douces et saumâtres de l'Afrique de l'Ouest' (two volumes, 1991-1992, and a second edition in 2004) in collaboration with the IRD (Institut de Recherche pour le Développement, ex-ORSTOM) in France;
    • a study of the biology of the fishes of Rwanda (collaboration with the ’Institut National de Recherche Scientifique’ of Rwanda);
    • the study of the fishes from Lake Tanganyika (collaboration with the University of Leuven, the Royal Belgian Institute for Natural Sciences, and various governmental and research institutes in Burundi, Tanzania and Zambia);
    • the exploration of nature reserves and the evaluation of threats to their ecology in the Congo Republic (Brazzaville) and in Cameroon (collaboration with UNESCO - United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation - and WWF - World Wildlife Fund);
    • the study of hybridisations in catfish culture;
    • the multidisciplinary characterisation of species, populations and strains used in fishculture (collaboration with IRD – ex ORSTOM, France);
    • a study of the demersal fishes of Lake Malawi (collaboration with five other European and three African Institutes).


The laboratory of Ichthyology provides training courses for Belgian and foreign students and contributes to inter-university programs on fish and fisheries. These include collaborations with the Facultés Universitaires Notre-Dame de la Paix in Namur, and the Universities of Ghent and Leuven. One of the curators, Jos Snoeks, is lecturer at the Leuven University and associated with the Laboratory of Animal Diversity and Systematics, continuing hence the long-time collaborative network of the Museum with the University

The laboratory is also involved in the organization of international meetings on African fishes, such as the International Symposium on the biological diversity of African Fresh- and Brackish Water fishes (Dakar, Senegal, 1993), the International Symposium on the Biological Bases for the culture of catfishes (Montpellier, France, 1994), and the various International Symposia on African fish and Fisheries: diversity and utilisation (Grahamstown, South Africa, 1998; Cotonou, Benin, 2003; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2008).

A look at the current display of fish at the museum (Photo T. Musschoot  © RMCA)


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