March 30, 2021

Member profile - Alex Burton

There is no doubt we live in a Golden Age of Exploration, never before witnessed in history. Inexpensive technology has enabled almost everyone to become an explorer of the natural environment, at a very reasonable price and even from the comfort of their homes. For example, computer applications, such as Google Earth, have allowed people to explore isolated parts of the plant, from the comfort of their living rooms, often making interesting discoveries along the way. Several significant meteor impact craters have been found by armchair explorers, using Google Earth to scan the lesser travelled parts of the planet. We are aware of the availability of inexpensive drones, however, for those Explorers who wish to leave their living rooms and explore the 70% of the planet covered by water, anyone can buy DIY remotely operated underwater vehicles, which can explore the depths up to 100 meters or more. These kits are available to anyone who wishes to pilot a robot to the deep. For those who want to explore the underwater world first-hand, SCUBA and hookah diving is very popular and easily accessible. Exploration which was once restricted to the rich or to scientists, are now open to all. Of course, not to mention using resources such as iNaturalist and Australasian Fishes to help identify the fauna you encounter.
We introduce project participants to some of the professional scientists who assist our project in fish identification in our regular Meet the Scientist bio blurbs. These blurbs provide insight into the world of the professional scientist as well as an expression of our gratitude for their expertise and support. When we consider the availability of inexpensive exploration and looking back at past bios, it may be time to ask ourselves whether the role of scientist will significantly change over the near future? While we use the term “scientist” frequently in conversation and find it often in the media, it is one of those position descriptions which remains a little fuzzy. Unlike plumber, marketing manager or candlestick maker, the job “scientist” probably does not have the same meaning to everyone. For example, if you are not currently engaged in scientific research or development, are you still a scientist? If you are working in research, but do not have a recognised science degree, are you a scientist? The term “scientist” crates various images in the minds of the general population, ranging from the creator of the Frankenstein monster to the developers of COVID vaccines. A common definition is, “an expert in science, especially one of the physical or natural sciences.” This reads somewhat non-specific and open ended.
Perhaps the role of the professional scientist will be changing over time. Evidence of this is clear in the bio blurbs we have been running of scientists in training, PhD students. In this article we meet, Alex Burton @alexburton, who is currently a PhD student at Massey University in New Zealand, studying School Sharks (Galeorhinus galeus) in the Kaipara Harbour. He is looking at many different aspects of their ecology, including their movements around New Zealand (and Australia if they migrate across the ditch during his studies). He is originally from Auckland, and from a young age always held a fascination with the water and its inhabitants. His interest in sharks dates back to his primary school days, when he participated in a science project as part of a class. This interest was reinforced by family trips to locations which included local rockpools or fishing off of wharfs. He recalls frequent visits to the Coromandel where he would fish, swim, and explore local beaches and sea caves.
Alex’s studies and personal interests have joined to lay the foundation for a promising career as a scientist. Alex explains, “In late 2017 I was doing some fish, shark, and ray identification as part of a summer position I had, and my supervisor introduced me to iNat. When I initially started on iNat I focused on fish and sharks, however, as I got more experienced in ray ID, my focus changed to mostly elasmobranchs with the odd fish and holocephalan ID. As I carried on with identifications for other users’ observations and started to add my own observations, @markmcg sent me an invite to join the project in 2018 and I have been a part of it ever since. I used to go on iNat every day, however, in more recent times it has been when I get a free moment to jump on and contribute.”
It is clear that early in his scientific studies, Alex recognised the power of citizen science and the increased degree of exploration going on in the non-scientific community. He can relate to the project’s participants, although he has been snorkelling much longer than he has been diving. These days, due to the nature of his research, Alex reports spending more time on the water’s surface than under it, primarily capturing and releasing sharks. His favourite NZ dive spots includes Mathesons Bay and the Goat Island Marine Reserve. He tells us, “Both (locations) have a range of environments including kelp forests and sparse sandy areas, which are very different at night. I have never dived in Australia, however, from images of northern Australia (mainly the Queensland area) one of the main differences we have is that we don’t have coral reefs on mainland New Zealand. Instead, we have kelp forests which can be as fascinating as coral reefs e.g., the number of organisms that can be found in and around them. In the areas that I have been diving, we haven’t seen too many sharks (which is a shame), whereas from what I see from the project’s photo portfolio, sharks are observed very frequently in coastal areas of Australia especially the members of the wobbegong family. Instead, the two most common elasmobranchs that I have seen whilst diving, snorkelling, or during coastal walks are the short tail stingray (Bathytoshia brevicaudata) and New Zealand eagle ray (Myliobatis tenuicaudatus). A few of my diving friends have seen sharks whilst diving in New Zealand, including two friends that had a school shark swim straight past them (one of my observations).“
Like other PhD students we have featured, Alex sees great benefits of engaging the non-scientific community who are exploring the planet in their own way, often with advanced equipment. His engagement in citizen science, is demonstrated through his iNaturalist contributions, which is impressive. To date, Alex is ranked 13th in identifications for the Australian Fishes Project, having assisted in the identification of 3,829 AF observations. For iNat, he has assisted in 11,641 identifications. From this type of support, it is clear he will become one of those future professional scientists who will continuously engage citizen scientists as part of his research, paying them back by sharing his expertise in identification and in discussions.
While he is supportive of all fish types in our project, sharks are truly his passion. He says, “As mentioned previously, I have always loved marine species especially sharks. With this passion came fascination and the urge to learn more about them and the other marine species that they interact with. Something I still strive to do today, as there is always more to learn about various shark and marine species. As I gained more knowledge and experience around elasmobranchs and fish, I would and still love to share this knowledge with people where I can. This is to help with their understanding of various species that they are fascinated with, even if it is through helping people identify various species on iNaturalist or having conservations with interested individuals.”
The job of “scientist” has dramatically evolved over the many years. Perhaps the first scientists were professional/religious astronomers, who were dedicated to understanding the world through the movement of the stars. The next step in the development of the job might have been alchemists, who tried to change the world, by converting lead into gold, however, discovering much about chemistry and the nature of matter in the process. In western society we recall the age of the gentleman scientist, fairly affluent men, who regarded their area of science as a personal hobby or their avocation., not vocation. Today, in the latest stage of the evolution of the position description, scientists require the stamp of approval by universities, evidenced by their degrees, as bona fides of their status as actual scientists.
Future scientists will be trained in not only the methodology of their discipline, but also how to tap and harness the power of citizen scientist explorers. They will learn how, not only to access vast data points created by sensors and the studies of others, but also, how to organise, manage and direct the thousands of amateurs who are already exploring out in the field, collecting information for themselves and projects like Australasian Fishes. The non-professional, citizen scientists represent a vast resource, especially as funding for scientific exploration fails to keep up with mankind’s curiosity. Using such a resource, is not a natural skillset, and I forecast it will be taught as part of scientific methodology as part of the scientific community’s next evolution. Scientists like Alex will be well-versed in the cultivation and use of this asset and will introduce this next level of development to their community.
This journal post was written by Australasian Fishes member, Harry Rosenthal.
Posted on March 30, 2021 01:49 by markmcg markmcg | 4 comments | Leave a comment

March 19, 2021

Exciting news! Fish on the list.

The Red Wide-bodied Pipefish, Stigmatopora harastii, has been named by LifeWatch in the 2020 ten remarkable new marine species list. The list includes 9 invertebrates and a single fish species -the Red Wide-bodied Pipefish.
The species is named after Australasian Fishes member, Dr David Harasti, who is a Senior Marine Scientist at Fisheries NSW. Dave’s namesake is very difficult to find in Sydney's coastal waters, due to its incredible camouflage in red algae and sponges. Read more on the Australian Museum website.
Congratulations to Australian Museum Research Associate Graham Short and AM staff member Andrew Trevor-Jones , who named the species. Both Graham (@humuhumufish) and Andrew (@andrewtrevor-jones) are members of the Australasian Fishes Project.
Posted on March 19, 2021 04:49 by markmcg markmcg | 8 comments | Leave a comment

March 12, 2021

Emiko’s Observation of the Week

For those of you who missed it, I'll direct your attention to Emiko Kawamoto’s recent iNaturalist Observation of the Week. A member of the Australasian Fishes Project since December 2019, Emiko took some terrific photos of a mouthbrooding male Eastern Gobbleguts, Vincentia novaehollandiae. In the story Emiko talked about her diving ‘style’ and how it helps her to observe the small things.
In another of her observations, Emiko uploaded six wonderful photos of a pair of Eastern Gobbleguts spawning. She asked why half the egg mass was white and half orange. I didn’t know the answer to this question, so put it to my colleagues at the Australian Museum. Dr Doug Hoese sent me a paper (Vagelli, 2019) that had the answer for a different species of cardinalfish. Quoting from the paper, Vagelli stated, "The egg clutch of Quinca mirifica consisted of two distinct, but jointed sections, i.e., a smaller part composed of a compact white mass of small non-functional oocytes and a larger part composed of the bright orange mature ova".
Congratulations Emiko for scoring iNaturalist’s Observation of the Week, for asking your question (many of us have learned from it) and for your ongoing contribution to the Australasian Fishes Project. 😊
Reference
Vagelli, 2019. The Reproductive Biology and Embryology of Quinca mirifica, an Apogonid with Direct Development That Produces Non-Functional Oocytes. Copeia 107, 1:36-60.
Posted on March 12, 2021 02:26 by markmcg markmcg | 5 comments | Leave a comment

February 23, 2021

Scientist Member Profile – Glenn Moore

To continue our series started in 2020 that features scientists who have generously assisted the Australian Fishes project with their time and expertise, we introduce Dr Glenn Moore, Curator of Fishes at the Western Australian Museum. Glenn, who goes by the user name @gmoo, has been researching Western Australia’s fishes for more than 25 years and is recognised as an authority for the identification and taxonomy of both marine and freshwater fishes. Glenn is an experienced field-based researcher and his research involves taxonomy, genetics, biodiversity, biogeography, ecology and evolution. He regularly uses outreach opportunities to engage with the general public, raising awareness about fishes through popular publications, media, public enquiries and citizen science initiatives.
Q: I would be interested in the origins of your interest in nature, especially fish. A bit about your early areas of research. Did your interest in science begin at a young age?
A: I have been obsessed with the natural world, especially animals, for as long as I can remember. Our family often travelled around Australia, especially WA, and I was the kid who was always catching critters – lizards, frogs, spiders and insects. I got binoculars at about 10 years of age and added birds to my obsession. I was even the president of our local branch of the Gould League. I grew up fishing with my dad and loved the thrill of trying to figure out what we had caught, but I never really thought about studying them, because I couldn’t experience them the way I could with terrestrial fauna. That all changed when I learned to SCUBA dive in my mid-teens and I saw fish in a different way. Spending time with fish made them less of a mystery and I stopping seeing them as something on the end of a hook. I bought every fish book I could afford and I spent every weekend snorkelling or diving. When I got out of the water, I immediately went through the books and wrote down everything I saw (I still do). I really was obsessed – most of my spare time was taken up with reading fish books (pre-internet!) and learning how to identify them. In the late 1980s, I started studying Zoology at UWA and I also started to think more critically about fish behaviour, biology and evolution. My friends gave me the nickname ‘fishnut’, which has stuck to this day. I was hooked and did everything I could to get to new places to explore Western Australia’s fishes but as a young uni student, funds were limiting! So I volunteered for every PhD student project I could find, I got a research assistant job working on seagrass (really so I could see fish), I got heavily involved in the UWA dive club committee so I could get discounted boat trips and gear hire and I soon found myself becoming a SCUBA instructor with the local dive shop so I could get paid to be underwater (and watch fish while watching students 😊). I had found my calling and set about ensuring I could make a career out of it. Even then, I had earmarked the museum as the place I wanted to end up. I did an Honours project on Buffalo Bream and then a Masters on seahorses. Jobs in marine science were hard to get and so I ended up as the Community Education Manager at the Aquarium of Western Australia for a couple of years. I enjoyed it but it wasn’t for me – I wanted to do the science. In 2002 I got a contract as the Western Australian Museum fish technical officer. I was in the place I had wanted to be and working with one of my idols, Dr Barry Hutchins, who I proudly call my mentor now. After four years my contract ran out and I knew if I wanted to lead a research program, I needed a PhD so I signed up and did my PhD using genetics to explore the evolutionary history of the charismatic Australian Salmons. While doing my PhD, Barry retired and with perfect timing, the Curator of Fishes position was advertised as my thesis was being examined. I got the PhD, won the job and here I am.
Q: Why the interest in the Australasia Fishes project and are you contacted to assist with Identifications often? How did you first get involved with our project?
I was invited to join up by Mark McGrouther. At the time, I was reluctant because I was getting so many public enquires through the museum that the thought of adding more seemed overwhelming. Mark gave me a few friendly nudges and I jumped on board. Just as when I first started as a young naturalist, I still love the challenge of figuring out what something is and that keeps me coming back. However, I also love the fact that as a professional, I can now help citizen scientists with their exciting finds. I also learn a lot about distributions of fishes and of course, I learn a lot from all the other contributors. My engagement ebbs and flows with how much other work I have, but I’ll usually jump on if someone tags me.
Q: Could you tell us a little about your typical, fish identification process? What features to examine first? How difficult is this working from photographs? Are there some elements in taking a photo which would make it easier for identification? Perhaps we could tell members how to improve the images for your purposes.
In the bird world, they use the word jizz. This refers to the first general impression you have, including size, shape and movement and I think it’s the same for fishes. It’s really the first stage that any of use to identify anything. For most of us jizz can tell us if it is a shark or a trevally but as you get more and more knowledge and familiarity, the same set of discrimination skills can get an identification down closer and closer to species level as the first step. Of course, information on where the image was taken plays a big role in excluding certain species. From there, each group of fish requires a different set of characters to identify them. Photographs limit what characters are available, but we usually rely on some combination of colour/pattern and body proportions (both of which can be really variable). If the photo is really good, we might be able to count the rays in the fins, see the teeth or even count certain scales. One of the things about being a professional ichthyologist is that it is our job to follow the literature and the changes in taxonomy, so we tend to be acutely aware of what we don’t know. This often leads to us being more conservative with our identifications, so don’t be put off if we aren’t prepared to confidently put a name on your photo. While your fish might look a lot like species X, we know the only way to be 100% sure is to count the scales, or do an x-ray and count the vertebrae or something else that is impossible from a photo alone. What makes a good photo? For most fish it is important to have the fish as flat as possible on its side with its fins out (some things like rays, flatheads, flounders etc are best from top). Try to fill the frame with as much fish as possible and keep the resolution high. Wet fish out of the water reflect light so try to avoid big bright patches on the fish’s flanks. Take several photos from different angles and close ups of different parts of the fish. iNaturalist is great because you can post multiple images, so why not? Out of interest, you might notice that fish field guides using paintings or dead fish usually have the specimen oriented facing to the left – it’s just one of those standards we all use. But don’t worry about that for ID purposes.
Q: I would be interested in some of your experiences in remote area research. It must be very interesting. Do you do any underwater work as well as part of your field work?
I am lucky that I am the museum ichthyologist responsible for Western Australia (which is about one third of Australia!). We have extremely remote places that are very difficult to get to. My career has included expeditions to some of the most remote places – the Kimberley marine areas. I have worked in places that no human may ever have been before. We dive a lot and the fish communities are largely untouched and intact. However, these trips are challenging. We are days from the nearest emergency services and the Kimberley has enormous tides (up to 12m in places), sometimes very poor visibility, crocodiles and sharks so it is not for the inexperienced. I recognise that it is indeed a privilege to visit these areas and survey the incredible fish diversity.
Q: What do you think about the project? Are we making a contribution, and if so, in what areas do you believe the data we are collecting will ultimately be useful, in a scientific context? What advice would you give our participants or words of encouragement would you offer?
I think iNaturalist is a fantastic forum, for two reasons. Firstly, it is such a wonderful way to connect people who are interested in the same things. This includes connecting citizen scientists with professionals. From a scientific perspective, the ever-growing dataset contributes to our knowledge of species distributions, in particular. When I try to establish distributional boundaries for a given species, I always check on here to see if anyone has added a sighting outside of the known range. This has already been important for documenting shifts in the distribution of animals related to our warming seas. I am sure this will only continue, but I hope that it might help us pressure decision makers and find solutions to solve our worsening climate crisis. For too long, this has been the responsibility of professional scientists, but now everyone can do their part – keep going!
This journal post was written by Australasian Fishes member, Harry Rosenthal.
Posted on February 23, 2021 00:49 by markmcg markmcg | 3 comments | Leave a comment

February 09, 2021

Diving into the past…

Despite being a year where many people couldn’t get on, and in, the water as often as they may like, 2020 saw the Australasian Fishes project continue to grow in both the number of observations and the total number of species. Nearly 27,000 observations were added to the project in the last year, 4000 more than 2019, taking the total to over 100,000 observations (Figure 1). Approximately 1,400 species were observed in 2020 by Australasian Fishes users, including 97 previously unrecorded, increasing the total number of species in Australasian Fishes database to nearly 2,500 (Figure 2).
Figure 1: Number of Australasian Fishes observations per year between 1962 and 2020 excluding years with no observations.
Figure 2: Number of fish species observed per year (green bars) and the total number of species recorded by the Australasian Fishes project (black line) between 1962 and 2020.
One of the most striking trends from these graphs is that there are relatively few observations and species prior to 2018. This is hardly surprising, given the Australasian Fishes project started at the end of 2016, however, it highlights the huge potential for increasing the Australasian Fishes database through the addition of older observations.
We know the underwater world is a very dynamic environment. Reefs are constantly changing, species disappear, and new ones arrive in their place. Rocks are cleared of algae and sponges by big storms, and even whole new reefs can appear from the beneath the sand before eventually being buried again. Many Australasian Fishes contributors may have observed such changes, having visited the same sites over years or even decades.
Chris Roberts (@cj_roberts) is a PhD candidate at UNSW Sydney researching how underwater photos and videos can be used as an alternative data source to monitor reefs. The research is also looking at whether old photos can be used to document how reefs and the species inhabiting them have changed through time. In addition to fish, this research will also be looking at changes in mobile invertebrates, as well as the reef attached organisms such as algae and sponges. The main reason for the creation of a separate project to Australasian Fishes is to gather underwater observations of ALL marine life in one place.
To gather old underwater observations for this research we have set up an iNaturalist project called In Bygone Dives (https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/in-bygone-dives). If you have older underwater photos, you can assist this research by joining the In Bygone Dives project and upload some of your older observations (but don’t forget to also add your old fish observations to the Australasian Fishes project). If digging through your archives to find and upload your old photos seems like a daunting task, we would encourage you to start with your oldest photos, as these will be relatively more valuable as historical data simply due to their being less observations further back in time (although all observations are extremely valuable!). If you already have older observations on iNaturalist, you could also add them to the In Bygone Dives project (to add observations already on iNaturalist to new projects in bulk/batches, message @cj_roberts for instructions).
If you’re thinking ‘I don’t have old dive photos’, well, we all know ‘old’ is relative, and this research is looking at change through time using photos from pioneer diving days through to more recent years. So, you can enjoy looking back at diving memories, and by adding them to In Bygone Dives, you’ll also be helping our reefs and how we conserve and manage them in the future.
For more info about the project visit www.inbygonedives.com or message @cj_roberts directly on iNaturalist.
This journal post was written by Australasian Fishes member, Chris Roberts.
Posted on February 09, 2021 00:52 by markmcg markmcg | 3 comments | Leave a comment

January 30, 2021

Member profile - Tim Wilms

Looking back over the past bio blurbs of the project, a familiar sentiment expressed is that at some point, many participants wanted to be marine scientists. While many participants took different career paths, we try to feature in our Journal, individuals who became professional marine scientists. In this article, we meet someone who is well on the path to becoming a professional marine scientist, and a strong supporter of citizen science and Australasian Fishes. Tim Wilms (https://www.inaturalist.org/people/tim_wilms) is ranked #15 on the project fish identification leaderboard, with 3,712 identifications for Australasian Fishes. He has conducted over 24,000 identifications for iNat and is still going strong. His story is very inspirational and illustrates the global reach of citizen science.
Tim is a 33-year-old PhD candidate at the Technical University of Denmark. He originally come from the Netherlands and lives in Denmark with his wife and two children. While for Tim, changing countries for study was an easy transition, the weather in Denmark is equally as bad as the weather in Holland, his wife is from Manado in Indonesia. Northern Europe climate requires is taking time to adjust, not to mention the issues surrounding COVID.
Like many stories of international travel for study, Tim’s passion for marine science started with international travel. He says “Although I had always been fascinated by sharks from a young age, my real passion for the ocean started in 2006 after my Dad took my brother and me to the Red Sea in Egypt. After an introduction dive in the hotel pool, we started our PADI open water course and I found myself hooked immediately after taking my first few breaths underwater. The underwater life and colours were absolutely astonishing, and the visibility was unbelievable. Eventually, I even switched my career path entirely, going from studying Econometrics and Operations Research into Earth Science and eventually Marine Science. I have never once regretted that decision until this day and I now consider myself lucky to be working in a field that truly fascinates me.”
His current area of marine research regards marine habitat restoration in the Baltic Sea. From his description it is extremely interesting, and steeped in recent history, illustrating how man alters the natural environment, to the detriment of the marine habitat. It began in the early 20th century in Denmark, with the “stone-fishing industry”. He tells us, “Basically, stone-fishermen were extracting the rocks from the seabed, initially by hand in shallow water but they soon enough started to use more sophisticated technologies such as diving on surface-supplied air and using small cranes to extract the heaviest boulders. The stone-fishermen were selling the rocks to companies involved with the construction of harbors and bridges, and the Baltic Sea rocks were even used for the restoration of buildings in Western Europe after World War II. This activity of stone fishing was prohibited early on in Germany, but not until 2010 in Denmark, meaning that much of the reef habitat here has now been either degraded or completely removed. As such, many Baltic fish species have lost large parts of the habitat they are depending on for food and shelter, and we have seen a steady decline in commercially important fish stocks (such as Atlantic cod) for which habitat loss has undoubtedly been a major contributor (alongside systematic overfishing).”
Tim’s PhD project focuses on rocky reef habitat that is being restored in dedicated parts of Denmark. This is done by purchasing rocks from quarries in Norway and shipping them to Denmark as well as rocks that result from blasting during the construction of tunnels, which are usually shipped and dumped offshore. Reefs are constructed in various configurations to find out what design works best for different marine species. Then the project uses non-invasive sampling techniques that do not damage the habitat or marine species they want to monitor, such as baited underwater cameras and environmental DNA sampling, creating datasets and contributing to better knowledge on how to restore and preserve marine ecosystems.
With this focus on European marine life, how did this Baltic researcher get involved in the Australasian Fishes Project? Tim recalls, “I discovered iNat in late 2017 after I had been identifying fish on the “marine creature identification” page on Facebook. However, I felt that the Facebook page was lacking an overall structure to the observations. iNat, on the other hand, was a very robust tool that saved all observations on a global map together with the date of observation, allowing for a comparison of species seasonal occurrences across oceans. I also realized that, for some marine species, there were very few observations to be found on the general fish database websites whereas iNat often seemed to have at least a handful of observations for those species. I have been hooked to iNat ever since and still try to check out new observations of interest every day.
Another great feature of iNat are the projects, such as the Australasian fishes project, and the way in which they are linked to observations from a particular area. In my case, I came across the Australasian Fishes project because it was linked to many observations I was identifying. I personally have had a strong connection with Australia, ever since I decided to leave on a 2-year working holiday trip Down Under in 2010. My main goal was to get my advanced open water certificate and explore the Great Barrier and Ningaloo Reefs, but of course this all had to be financed somehow. And so, my working trip also brought me to Tully to pick bananas (hell of a job); to Bruce Rock (WA) to drive a tractor seeding wheat and barley; and to Kojonup to work as a shepherd for 3 months (which may just be the best job on this planet). I particularly enjoyed living in these remote outback villages and being able to disappear off the grid for a while, something we are just never able to experience here in Western Europe.”
In a way, Tim is paying back his debt to Australia for his experiences here and having Australasian Fishes support from someone in Northern Europe is one of the truly amazing aspects of our project. It is clear he is also a big fan and supporter of citizen science. In Denmark, he often works with local fishermen who kindly boat him around to different sampling locations. The fishermen have a huge amount of knowledge on local fish populations and are genuinely excited and curious about the research. Tim tells us, “In one of our fish tracking projects, the fishermen even contribute to the data collection process by bringing along manual receiver devices on their fishing trips to search for underwater signals from tagged fish. Every time a tagged fish is detected by the fishermen, a new data point with time and location of the fish is added to our database which improves our statistical power on which we base our conclusions. In a way, this is comparable to the contribution of citizen science to iNat. Every time an observation is added and assigned to “research grade” with help of the iNat community, we are adding a data point in space and time for that particular species. Many of my colleagues utilize fish distribution maps (e.g., AquaMaps from FishBase) for their publications, and by adding more and more observations here to iNat we are in effect creating similar species distribution maps of high resolution in particular for coastal areas (within range of our SCUBA and snorkeling community of course). Perhaps at some stage, large-scale marine observations (e.g., offshore fisheries data) can be effectively combined with fine-scaled data (e.g., from iNat) to create distribution maps of high resolution across the globe. I can definitely see these types of maps being increasingly used by the scientific community in the near future, especially to detect marine invasions or track shifting species distributions due to global warming. Without a doubt, every data point counts!”
I am sure many of us know about the challenges of being a PhD student, and how much of a personal struggle it can be. I came across many stereotypical, “starving” PhD candidates during my career in the university sector. Tim is fortunate where he has found a venue supportive of his work and family. He says, “I would say that Denmark is probably one of the better countries in Europe (or even globally) to be conducting a PhD in the natural sciences. In contrast to other countries (such as the U.K. for example), PhD candidates in Denmark are considered employees, not students and therefore receive a decent salary instead of monthly stipends. Another thing I found very appealing when entering Denmark was the way in which they treated my family situation with a wife and stepdaughter coming from Indonesia. I was told from day one that employees in Denmark should feel comfortable and be able to focus on their jobs without stress about their family situation, meaning that my wife was granted a residence permit right away and could start looking for a job as well. This would not have been possible in countries that do not consider PhD candidates to be employees.”
As he is brimming with optimism and support for our project, I ask Tim what he thinks the future holds for him and his work. He notes, “I’m expecting to finish the PhD by the end of next year. After that, I am hoping to continue some of the conservation and restoration work we are currently involved in, possibly through a postdoctoral position at the university. We have just received news last week that we have been granted funding to construct and study a “barrier reef” along a part of the Danish coastline that is experiencing a high degree of coastal erosion. The idea is that our future barrier reef will function as coastal protection by attenuating wave energy, while at the same time enhancing marine biodiversity locally and serving as a case study for similar future efforts. So, at the moment things are looking promising in terms of future work, but you just never really know in this competitive world of academia. In case things do not work out at the university in the end, I could certainly see myself filling some sort of consultancy role either within a governmental agency or at an NGO. In any case, I will always be looking to somehow contribute to our global effort of preserving the ocean for future generations and safeguarding the astonishing marine biodiversity it harbors against anthropogenic stressors.”
We are very grateful to our global supporters and take inspiration from the professional marine science community, who remind us of how important the project has been and will continue to be in the future. Who knows, one day we may be visiting the Great Rock Barrier Reef of Denmark.
This journal post was written by Australasian Fishes member, Harry Rosenthal.
Posted on January 30, 2021 03:46 by markmcg markmcg | 5 comments | Leave a comment

January 14, 2021

Member profile - Yann Kemper

One of the more delightful aspects of working on the Australasian Fishes project is that through the iNaturalist software, one can meet interesting people from all over the world. Occasionally you come across someone who is extremely impressive in their focus and dedication to natural science, and that is the case with the project member highlighted in this article, Yann Kemper (in the photo, above, with Scott Loarie during a visit to the iNaturalist offices with his younger brother). Yann’s name should be familiar to many in the project, he is listed as Number 6 on the project Leader Board of the 1,691 people who are helping with the identification of fish for our project. I can recall numerous times loading observations into the project, late at night, only to find Yann’s identifications waiting for me in the morning. His name, as well as @maractwin, aka Mark Rosenstein, (https://www.inaturalist.org/posts/27243-member-profile-mark-rosenstein#summary ) often greets participants when they first open their software in the morning to check identifications for recent observations. They are often the first of the day. Yann’s dedication and stellar performance is even more noteworthy when we learn that Yann is actually a high school student, living in the very land-locked city of Cincinnati, Ohio in the United States!
When I first learned about Yann, I immediately recalled the practice of several news magazines which run annual features called “Young Leaders of the Future.” In these stories, the editors highlight young individuals, who by their actions, contributions and dedication to a worthwhile cause, demonstrate the qualities which will likely make them future leaders in their discipline. A quick examination of Yann’s work indicates he is worthy of nomination for the title of “Future Leader in the Natural Sciences”. Just through our project alone, we can easily see how dedicated he is supporting citizen science. For Australasian Fishes he has recorded 8,547 identifications. To further support his “Future Leader” status, Yann is also participating in 42 other iNaturalist projects, to which he has contributed a total of 111,669 identifications. If that was not enough, he also Curates a project on iNat called Moths of the World (https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/moths-of-the-world)
It is easy to wonder what drives this high school student to be so deeply engaged in the study of nature in general and Australasian Fishes in particular? Yann says, “I've shown interest in your project due to my love of Australasian fish. My extensive interest in the natural world stems from the fact that I enjoy finding things I've never seen before. I divide my time across nature and my other hobbies.”
Yann’s interested in nature is also supported by his interest in photography. Not having visited Australia or even living near an ocean, he has not been in a position to add to our project’s observations. He notes, “I don't collect fish images often, seeing as I don't live nearby any seas or oceans. I have snorkel dived in the Florida Keys, although this was prior to purchasing my Olympus TG-5.”
Although far from an ocean, Yann’s interest in nature still has a local outlet. He says, “As for non-aquatic subjects, I usually hang around in a specific spot and sift through dirt to find smaller organisms.” This looking for local, smaller organisms has resulted in a total of 9,097 observations for iNat, including taxa such as birds, plants, insects, and, of course, moths. He is serious about his photography, saying, “I'm a high-school student, typically I don't have time to take photographs, save for the weekend. During Summer and vacations, I have ample time for photography. I visit Germany every few years to see my family, while there, I'm often on the lookout for birds, I also visit California often, which is where I take most of my fish photographs. Outside of iNaturalist, I'm interested in watching foreign films, and archiving websites with Archive Team. I use a Nikon P900 as well as an Olympus TG-5, although I have used the latter less since my purchase of the former. I only have a simple light-ring on my TG-5 that subsides for aquatic photography.”
Like many of the project leaders, Yann follows other leaders on iNaturalist. He currently follows 96 people, across numerous projects and scientific disciplines. It is interesting to note Yann follows Ken-ichi Ueda, one of the software’s founders, see our article at: (https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/australasian-fishes/journal/archives/2019/05 ) and who currently co-directs iNaturalist (See: kueda's Profile · https://www.inaturalist.org/people/1). Ken-ichi has recoded over 40,000 observations and has helped with over 92,000 identifications. You can tell a future leader by the people they associate with in both the real and cyber-naturalist sphere. Yann points out, “I like to follow people as a token of appreciation. I'll typically follow someone when I like their photography or work in the natural field.”
While I greatly appreciate the work Yann does for me and the project, I find it amazing that his knowledge of antipodean fish is so vast, especially for someone who lives 15,000 kilometres from Australia, in a landlocked part of the US. Yann explains, “I developed my skills in species identification through hours of reading old scientific documents and papers, as well as emailing different professors and meeting with some in person. One trick for identification I've grown fond of is comparing species to identification keys (this works particularly well on insects). Sci-Hub may be of use to you if you can't find an article anywhere. I think what specifically first interested me in iNaturalist, and by extension nature, was that my photographs could be used in research data and field guides. I kind of branched out and just overall became interested in Nature from there. My moth project is mostly a collection project. I noticed there wasn't any easy method to sort moth observations from butterfly observations, so I decided to create that project to fill that gap. I guess I could see a lepidopterologist using some of that data to show population systemics, for example, maybe showing the amount of moth observations in a particular area.”
So where does a future leader in Natural Science go after high school? Yann responds, “I'd say my career plans are currently either an entomologist, preferably a hemipterologist (leafhoppers, planthoppers, etc) or an ichthyologist. Ichthyology would be my preferred field, but I don't live anywhere near an ocean and freshwater fish are not my specialty. Ohio State University or the University of Cincinnati would likely be ideal, but a California University or perhaps a foreign one may be an option as well.”
Yann reflects on some of the challenges of taking the path of natural sciences. He notes, “Frankly, it's quite hard to find young people my age who share my interests in my area. I go birdwatching every other Sunday with a group of (mostly) senior citizens, but a few younger college students occasionally join in. Most of my photography adventures are in and around my neighbourhood as we have a large back forest and field. I do make many other observations in and around Cincinnati as well, though.” He reminds us that nature photography can be challenging as even more so, in a climate which experiences cold winters. He recalls, “I'd say my worst nature photography incident would probably be around January, at Burnet Woods (a local urban park). I'm rather skinny, and on top of that, I didn't exactly dress for the frigid weather, and my hands were going numb from the cold. Despite that, I did preserve and took plenty of photographs.”
Many project participants have been attracted to Australasian Fishes, as it has been an excellent learning tool to self-teach fish identification. This is an advantage of iNaturalist, as if you have an interest in any taxa of the living environment, there is probably a project which can act as a classroom for the ID of life on the planet. Yann reminds us, “I discovered Australasian Fishes around the time I started getting active on iNaturalist. My first category of taxa which I often identified and got to know was fishes, and I enjoyed focusing on fish of the Greater Caribbean and Australia.
Trying to identify future leaders is not easy, and there are many examples where news magazines, got it wrong, Their nominees were famous one day, then never heard from again. In natural sciences, future leadership is extremely important. It is easy to see that many of the current discipline leaders, in the research and academic communities, are, to be polite, getting older. There is a clear need for the next wave of scientific leaders to arrive on the scene, as the current crop heads toward retirement. It is motivating to find people like Yann in our project, who are willing to assist those with less experience and share their observation and experience with the rest of the iNat community. This is excellent training for a future leader and I see a future where such skills and dedication will benefit projects like ours and science in general.
This journal post was written by Australasian Fishes member, Harry Rosenthal.
Posted on January 14, 2021 02:34 by markmcg markmcg | 7 comments | Leave a comment

December 11, 2020

Woo-hoo! 100,000 observations and counting

It's time to give yourselves a pat on the back. The Australasian Fishes Project recently cracked 100,000 observations! That's incredible. What's more, the milestone was crossed on 24 November and since then nearly 2000 observations have been added. You guys are amazing. Thank you! :)
@joanna_chen, photographed above wearing her favourite pink mask, uploaded the lucky 100,000th observation - a Wobbegong. Joanna stated that, "The [photo of the] wobbie was captured at Split Solitary Island on a NSW east coast dive trip. It happened to be perched right on the corals." Congratulations Joanna and thank you for your ongoing contributions.
And speaking of contributions, you may be interested in the graphs below, which track the rise in the numbers of observations, species and project members.
It took four years to reach this milestone. Somehow, I can't see it taking another 4 to reach 200,000. :) Thanks again fish-fans!
Posted on December 11, 2020 00:23 by markmcg markmcg | 6 comments | Leave a comment

November 25, 2020

Spring BioBlitz Report

Introduction
One of the more interesting publishing phenomena of the 1980’s and early 1990’s was a book series titled, “A Day in The Life of…” This photojournalism series was organised by Rick Smolan, and each volume featured a selected location, examined over a 24-hour period. Over this time about 50 photographers were commissioned to record their assigned part of the country or state. The result was a series of 13 books, with titles such as Day in the Life of Australia, A Day in the Life of America, etc. The locations featured in the series included, America, the Soviet Union, Japan, California, Spain, Hawaii, Australia, Israel, Africa, China and Thailand. The results were coffee table size books of professional photos, all taken across the selected locale, documenting a single day. Each volume was a unique product, a snapshot of a single day in the lives of ordinary people, across the featured location. Of course, the photos were of professional quality, and selected to illustrate the lives of typical people in the course of a normal day.
It is interesting to look back at these books today, not only for their nostalgic or historic value, but to appreciate the herculean effort it took to organise this simple concept, capture one day in photos. As the years go by such books may be great interest to future generations, illustrating how normal people lived a typical life at a singular point in time.
The concept of a BioBlitz is similar, except the subject is the natural world, at a particular point in time. Our project software has been instrumental in furthering this concept of BioBlitz, providing a platform for such snapshots of nature, at a selected point in time. Looking through iNaturalist, there are 5,442 listings for projects with the word “BioBlitz”. Locations include national parks, schools, backyards and other exotic and less exotic local areas. While not only fun, according to the BioBlitz iNat sites, they also provide valuable information on various populations in nature at a certain point in time. It is useful information, and data which will serve the scientific community for many years.
Like A Day in the Life, organising a BioBlitz is a significant task, relying heavily on motivated individuals to raise awareness of the event and to take a leadership role in its organisation. This is especially true in the early stages of organisation. Think of Australia’s amazingly successful Clean Up Australia Day, which was founded in 1989 and has grown to a massive initiative across the country, and the world. In July, Australasian Fishes published an announcement about the upcoming Spring BioBlitz organised by Thomas Mesaglio (AKA the beachcomber) whose bio-blurb can be found here.
Thomas, always interested in the natural environment, has organised the official participation of Australia in this global event, for the first time. Below is his report of the event, with his thanks for the support of Australasian Fishes project members.
- Harry Rosenthal
Spring BioBlitz Report
In April earlier this year, Australia participated in the City Nature Challenge for the first time, with four cities ─ Greater Sydney, Greater Adelaide, Geelong and Redland City ─ all joining in. Notching up almost 17,000 observations in just 4 days, Australia’s debut was a successful one, especially given the event ran during our autumn when many flowers are no longer in bloom, migratory birds have left, and invertebrates are much harder to find.
The Australian City Nature Challenge organisers decided to build on this success by organising another major BioBlitz, but this time in September during our spring. Rather than limit the event to Australian cities, we decided to get as many Southern Hemisphere cities and regions involved as possible. Pitching the event as the Great Southern BioBlitz (GSB), we launched a broad social media campaign, promoting participation across all the usual channels, as well some handy advertising from Mark (https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/australasian-fishes/journal/38737-spring-bioblitz). Over the course of just a few months, interest in the GSB ballooned, with more and more cities signing up from all around the world until we had an incredible 137 regions or cities across 12 countries and 3 continents.
The event was a huge success. In just 4 days, over 3,000 participants contributed almost 91,000 observations across over 12,000 species! (https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/great-southern-bioblitz-umbrella) Fishes, sharks and rays were strongly represented in the GSB, with 217 species observed over the 4 days, including this awesome eastern cleaner clingfish observed by @harryrosenthal (https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/61281199) and a relatively rare Dunker’s pipehorse found by @tanikacs washed up onto a beach (https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/60696946).
Although Cape Town stormed home to secure another major BioBlitz victory after winning the City Nature Challenge earlier in the year, with Lima also excelling, Sydney put in an awesome effort, finishing in the top 10 for number of observations (2,818) and observers (139), and 4th for number of species seen (1,137). A whopping 41% of Sydney’s diversity was plants, followed by molluscs (16%) and insects (14%). Fishes came in at 10%, highlighting an area to build on for next year!
Although organising BioBlitzes and similar events takes a lot of time, effort and outreach, it’s certainly worth it to see the amazing observations posted, and awesome engagement by naturalists of all ages and from all walks of life. Given the benefits of connecting with nature, including for physical and mental health, BioBlitzes like the GSB are a great way of overcoming those COVID blues. There are also many scientific benefits, with increased efforts to search for organisms uncovering rare and interesting finds, such as this rare, endangered isopod (https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/60688593) found in Victoria by @smellmes.
We’re already starting to plan next year’s GSB, so pencil it into your diaries and expect an even bigger and more successful event!
- thebeachcomber
Posted on November 25, 2020 01:02 by markmcg markmcg | 3 comments | Leave a comment

November 04, 2020

Scientist Member Profile - Tom Trnski (Head of Natural Sciences, Auckland Museum)

Both images above taken during the 2011 Kermadec Islands expedition - ©Richard Robinson @depth.co.nz.
Left image - Tom Trnski @tomtrnski spreading rotenone.
Right image - Tom (centre) processing a fish catch with Mark McGrouther @markmcg (right) and Carl Struthers @cdstruthers.
Tom Trnski grew up at a beachside suburb in Melbourne and spent his summers exploring the local rockpools. Once he learnt how to snorkel his interest in marine life expanded and continues to this day. He now studies fishes of the southwest Pacific region, and he is a specialist on the larval stages of fishes – the stage between hatching from their egg to settlement into the juvenile habitat – including their identification and ecology. He spent over 20 years at the Australian Museum, Sydney, before moving to the Auckland Museum in 2007
Tom has published books and scientific papers describing fish larvae and their fascinating life history. He has also led and participated in many surveys of fishes throughout the Pacific, from Indonesia, the Great Barrier Reef, Coral Sea to French Polynesia. In 2011 he led a biodiscovery expedition to the Kermadec Islands with scientists from five different agencies collecting and documenting species. The expedition was the largest of its kind to the Kermadecs – one of the world’s most untouched marine environments – and included discoveries new to New Zealand and to science.
Q: Could you tell us a little about the origins of your interest in nature, especially fish?
A: My immigrant parents were wary of the Australian environment, so my exposure to nature started in my mid-teens through friends who I would bush walk with. This transformed my view of nature and I found an immediate connection; on reflection this was perhaps a spiritual connection that has stayed with me for the rest of my life. I still get a buzz out of being in a remote place in a pristine environment. An undergraduate field botany course in Tasmania helped me interpret landscapes and the drivers of biodiversity.
I was a really poor swimmer as a child and somewhat fearful of the ocean after a near-drowning experience when I was about seven. I grew up in bayside Melbourne and spent summers at the beach, but never too far from shore, but was fascinated by the critters in the rockpools (these same rockpools are now barren of most life!). It wasn't until I was 19 that I learnt to swim distance and SCUBA dive. I did my science degree in Townsville and in second year did a weeklong coral reef ecology subject based at Orpheus Island and this was the beginning of my understanding of marine ecosystems and the pleasure of diving. Diving provided me the opportunity to observe closely the diversity and behaviour of marine life. I didn't realise until I studied science that it was a good fit for me.
After I finished my degree, I moved to Sydney for a year. While working as a barman to make ends meet (what else to do with a marine biology degree?). I started volunteering at the Australian Museum on my days off to maintain my interest in marine science. This led to a few short-term contracts and then to a full-time job there with the fish team. It was this serendipity that aligned me with fishes for the rest of my career. I spent 22 years there supporting and leading research, taking lots of data on fishes, doing collection management, and developing new collection and research facilities. There I had the opportunity to participate in, and later lead, field expeditions to collect fishes, sometimes to remote areas such as Shoalwater Bay in Queensland, the far northern Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea, and French Polynesia. I have a logistician personality, so these expeditions were a good match to my natural abilities.
My first serious science job at the Australian Museum was working with my research mentor Jeff Leis, describing the development of fish larvae. It resulted in a book on the larvae of tropical Indo-Pacific fishes, which is still relevant today. I subsequently worked on another book describing larvae of southern Australia. After over 10 years of working at the museum, I undertook a PhD on the behaviour and ecology of larval and juvenile fishes.
Q: Why the interest in the Australasia Fishes project and are you contacted to assist with Identifications often? How did you first get involved with our project?
A: My former manager at the Australian Museum, Mark McGrouther, got me started, and hooked, on the Australasian Fishes project. The iNaturalist platform is fantastic, linking citizens to scientists. There are more eyes out there observing nature, and making great contributions to species distributions, behaviour and diversity. I can vicariously participate in these observations through my involvement in the Australasian Fishes project. I enjoy the challenge of identifying fishes, sometimes from imperfect images. I don't always get it right, but the community of experts narrows down the identification options to provide a good data set for analysis. I am quite time-challenged in my current job, so tend to respond to posts that I am linked to, rather than me being proactively searching for posts to identify.
Q: Could you tell us a little about your typical, fish identification process?
A: Interestingly, it is my exposure to larval fishes that has given me the knowledge to identify fishes. Fish larvae often look totally different to the adults. However, there are basic morphological consistencies of meristics (things that can be counted, like vertebrae and fin elements) and morphometrics (relative positions and size of anatomical features). Identifying fish larvae also requires a broad knowledge of the diversity of fishes, to help narrow down the options.
A good quality photograph can be the difference between a rough identification and an identification to species. Ideally a well-lit lateral shot with all fins visible is a winner. But this is not always possible, or only a part of the fish is available (for example some skeletal remains). The best images are also sharp enough to count the spines and rays of the fins; this certainly makes my identification task easier.
Q: Tell us about some of your experiences in remote area research.
A: I have been privileged to have had the opportunity to visit many islands in the South Pacific, often remote or uninhabited. Usually I am contributing to biodiversity surveys of the marine environment with a diverse array of other marine scientists. I have seen some pristine and degraded environments which has fuelled my interest in marine protection and recovery.
Even though I sometimes lead these remote area biodiversity surveys with scientists that have interests in marine mammals, algae or marine invertebrates, my passion is for the fishes. However, I recognise that all of these elements are connected, and I ensure that all interests are accommodated in expeditions.
Most of my survey work is undertaken snorkelling or diving or using ship-based capture methods such as nets, traps, dredges, videos or night lighting. Every method has its biases in what species are recorded so it is important to diversify methods to maximise species diversity.
The most exciting aspect of these surveys is either finding species that have not been recorded from an area before (range extensions) and finding new species. All of these increase our understanding of biogeography and the diversity of life.
I have been challenged many times to identify fishes. With about 20,000 marine species (and a similar number of freshwater species) there is always an unfamiliar species to deal with. Good descriptive guides written by experts are essential tools or the trade.
In identifying fishes for the Australasian Fishes project, I have sometimes made major errors if I have assumed the fish is marine rather than freshwater. So, it is imperative that the locality and habitat details are provided to assist with the identification. I had a recent fail when I assumed a fish was found in marine waters but in fact it was in freshwater, and I embarrassingly was nowhere near the correct identification (https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/23321818#activity_identification_130783987 ).
Q: What are your personal, current areas of research?
A: I moved to Auckland 13 years ago, initially to take up a curatorial role. My current role is as head of the natural sciences team at the Auckland Museum. I am the administrative leader of a team of curators and collection management staff. This means that I don't get a lot of time to do research. I manage to remain active mostly through collaboration with other scientists or through student supervision.
My varied research interests, at the moment, include the biodiversity of fishes in the South Pacific region, the drivers of biogeographic patterns, marine restoration, larval fish development and ecology, and the intersect of science and indigenous knowledge. The latter is challenging but also the most fulfilling part of my role. We were recently awarded a $13 million grant to enable an indigenous-led research program at the remote and pristine islands of Rangitahua / Kermadec Islands, which I have the privilege of co-leading.
I have been fortunate to have had a career in museums. Museums have an interesting profile, where research is undertaken, biodiversity is recorded, and the galleries can engage the public on topical issues.
Q: What do you think about the project? Are we making a contribution, and if so, in what areas do you believe the data we are collecting will ultimately be useful, in a scientific context?
A: The Australasian Fishes project is making a great contribution to our knowledge of species distribution ranges and new species records, and sometimes behaviour. The many additional observers have added new observations that would otherwise go undocumented.
This journal post was written by Australasian Fishes member, Harry Rosenthal.
Posted on November 04, 2020 03:56 by markmcg markmcg | 5 comments | Leave a comment