John S. Sparks

Curator, Department of Ichthyology, Division of Vertebrate Zoology

Principal Investigator, Institute for Comparative Genomics

Professor, Richard Gilder Graduate School



  • University of Michigan, Ph.D., 2001
  • University of Michigan, M.Sc., 1997
  • University of Michigan, B.A., 1987

Research Interests

Dr. Sparks’s research focuses on the systematics, evolution, and biogeography of freshwater and both nearshore and deep-sea marine fishes. Current projects include the evolution and function of sexually-dimorphic bioluminescent signaling systems in ponyfishes (Leiognathidae) and other bioluminescent marine fish clades, the origin(s) and biogeography of Madagascar’s freshwater and nearshore marine fishes, and synthetic studies investigating the evolution of biofluorescence and biogeographic history of the Western Indian Ocean. Dr. Sparks is also conducting phylogenetic studies, combining both morphological and molecular evidence, of cichlids, atheriniforms (silversides), and cave gobies. He is collaborating with microbiologists to investigate host-symbiont coevolution in ponyfishes in which light is produced by symbiotic luminescent bacteria housed in a complex circumesophageal light organ. Recent fieldwork includes biotic surveys and inventories of both freshwater and marine fishes in Madagascar, the Indo-Pacific region, South America, and the Caribbean.  


Sparks Website

Division of Vertebrate Zoology

Division of Ichthyology

Institute for Comparative Genomics

Richard Gilder Graduate School



Divakaran Prathapan, K.,R. Pethiyagoda, K.S. Bawa, P.H. Raven, P.D. Rajan, ...J.S. Sparks, S., ... et al. 2018. When the cure kills—CBD limits biodiversity research. National laws fearing biopiracy squelch taxonomy studies. Science 360: 1405– 1406. 

Gruber, D.F., B.T. Phillips, L. Marsh, and J.S. Sparks. 2018. In situ observations of the Meso-Bathypelagic Scyphozoan, Deepstaria enigmatica (Semaeostomeae: Ulmaridae). American Museum Novitates 3900: 1–14. 

Kuang, T., L. Tornabene, L. Jingyan, J. Jiang, P. Chakrabarty, J.S. Sparks, G.J.P. Naylor, and L. Chenhong. 2018. Phylogenomic analysis on the exceptionally diverse fish clade Gobioidei (Actinopterygii: Gobiiformes) and data-filtering based on molecular clocklikeness. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 128: 192–202. 

Ravelomanana, T., L. Máiz-Tomé, W. Darwall, C. Sayer, and J.S. Sparks. 2018. The status and distribution of freshwater fishes. In: L. Máiz-Tomé, C. Sayer, and W. Darwall (editors), The Status and distribution of freshwater biodiversity in Madagascar and the Indian Ocean islands Hotspot. IUCN Freshwater Biodiversity Unit, Global Species Programme: 13–28. Cambridge, UK: IUCN in collaboration with IUCN Gland, Switzerland. 

Sparks, J.S., and T. Ravelomanana. 2018. Freshwater fishes of Madagascar and the Indian Ocean islands Hotspot IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2018–2. <>


Martinez, C.M., and J.S. Sparks. 2017. Malagasy cichlids differentially limit impacts of body shape evolution on oral jaw functional morphology. Evolution 71(9): 2219– 2229. [doi: 10.1111/evo.13298] 


Ceriaco, L.M.P., et al. (493 co-authors, including J. Arroyave, L. Prendini, J.S. Sparks, and M.L.J. Stiassny.) 2016. Photography-based taxonomy is inadequate, unnecessary, and potentially harmful for biological sciences. Zootaxa 4196 (3): 435–445. 

Davis, M.P.,J.S. Sparks, and W.L. Smith. 2016. Repeated and widespread evolution of bioluminescence in marine fishes. PLoS ONE 11(6): e0155154. 

Gruber, D.F., E.R. Loew, D.D. Deheyn, J.P. Gaffney, W.L. Smith, M.P. Davis, J.H. Stern, D. Akkaynak, V.A. Pieribone, and J.S. Sparks. 2016. Biofluorescence in catsharks (Scyliorhinidae): assessment of elasmobranch fluorescence with relevance to visual ecology. Nature Scientific Reports 6: 24751. 

Phillips, B.T., D.F. Gruber, G. Vasan, C.N. Roman, V.A. Pieribone, and J.S. Sparks. 2016. Observations of in situ deep-sea marine bioluminescence with a high-speed, high resolution sCMOS camera. Deep-Sea Research I 111(2016): 102–109. 

Phillips, B.T.,D.F. Gruber, G. Vasan, C.N. Roman, V.A. Pieribone, and J.S. Sparks. 2016. First evidence of bioluminescence on a “Black Smoker” hydrothermal chimney. Oceanography 29(2): 10–11. 

Wilmé, L., P.O. Waeber, F. Moutou, C. Gardner, O. Razafindratsima, J.S. Sparks, C.A. Kull, B. Ferguson, W.R. Lourenço, P.D. Jenkins, L. Ramamonjisoa, D.A. Burney, and P. Lowry II. 2016. A proposal for ethical conduct in research in and on Madagascar. Madagascar Conservation and Development 11(1): 36–39. 


Chakrabarty, P., and J.S. Sparks. 2015. Formalizing the names of subfamilies and tribes of ponyfishes (Teleostei: Leiognathidae). ZooTaxa 3964(2): 298–299. 

Gruber, D.F., and J.S. Sparks. 2015. First observation of fluorescence in marine turtles. American Museum Novitates 3485: 1–7.

Gruber, D.F., G.P. Gaffney, S. Mehr, R. DeSalle,J.S. Sparks, J. Platisa, and V. Pieribone. 2015. Adaptive evolution of eel fluorescent proteins from fatty acid binding proteins produces bright fluorescence in the marine environment. PLoS ONE 10(11): e0140972. 

Martinez, C.M.,J. Arroyave, and J.S. Sparks. 2015. A new species of Ptychochromis from southeastern Madagascar (Teleostei: Cichlidae). ZooTaxa 4044: 79–92. 

Mehr, S., A. Verdes, R. DeSalle, J.S. Sparks, V. Pieribone, and D.F. Gruber.2015. Transcriptome sequencing and annotation of the polychaete Hermodice carunculata (Annelida, Amphinomidae). BMC Genomics 16: 445. 

Sparks, J.S., and P. Chakrabarty. 2015. Description of a new genus of ponyfishes (Teleostei: Leiognathidae), with a review of the current generic-level composition of the family. ZooTaxa 3947(2): 181–190.

Teaching Experience

Faculty Appointments

  • Adjunct Professor, Columbia University

Courses Taught

  • Richard Gilder Graduate School, AMNH 2012 Grantsmanship and Ethics course (Fall 2012)
  • Fish Biodiversity: Systematics and Evolution, Graduate level, Columbia University, Winter 2004, 2007

Graduate Advisees

  • Dawn Roje, AMNH/RGGS
  • John Denton, AMNH/RGGS
  • Jairo Arroyave, AMNH/CUNY
  • Molly McCargar, Columbia
  • William Leo Smith, AMNH/Columbia University
  • Robert Schelly, AMNH/Columbia University 

Graduate Committees

  • Dawn Roje, AMNH/RGGS
  • John Denton, AMNH/RGGS
  • Jairo Arroyave, AMNH/CUNY
  • Molly McCargar, Columbia
  • William Leo Smith, AMNH/Columbia University
  • Robert Schelly, AMNH/Columbia University