Scientist Member Profile - Jeff Johnson

The Australasian Fishes project is extremely fortunate to have the support of many professional scientists, who assist not only with fish identification, but also in maintaining the integrity of the rapidly growing database. This article is the second in our series of profiles of scientists who are kind enough to participate in and support Australasian Fishes. In this article we meet Jeff Johnson, Ichthyologist and fish collections manager at Queensland Museum (QM), Brisbane.
Jeff has been employed in Ichthyology at Queensland Museum since 1977, arriving under their cadetship system and then working as a museum technician. When the former Curator of Fishes retired in 1995, he took on the dual role of Senior Collection Manager and Research Ichthyologist. His aim was to maintain research output and promote Ichthyology at QM as best he could through individual and collaborative taxonomic research. Most will know Jeff from his project support, he had helped with over 4,000 identifications (see: At the time of writing this article, Jeff was mostly working from home because the QM was right in the middle of major renovations, and at the same time the entire collection of alcohol preserved specimens was being prepped for a move to a new facility 12 km away. He said, "This move involves lots of planning and meetings with architects, engineers and factoring in OH&S concerns with all that alcohol!"
Question: Our Members would be interested in the origins of your interest in nature, especially fish. Did your interest in science begin at a young age?
Jeff: Over many years my extended family maintained a long tradition of taking vacations to fish throughout northern Australia, often in far-away places. This often involved very long drives and rough roads, towing and launching boats to explore renowned marine and freshwaters hotspots, from Windorah in far western Qld to Princess Charlotte Bay on Cape York. I became more involved in underwater pursuits and in the 1970s, the Queensland government had a cadetship program whereby successful appointees worked in particular departments during the day, while attaining academic qualifications at university 3 or 4 nights per week. In 1977 I was shortlisted for such a vacancy. I was asked if I had any experience in camping in remote areas, had spent time at sea, in the maintenance and operation of boats, outboard motors and 4WD vehicles, or an interest in fishes. It seemed like the job was designed especially for me! My response must have been acceptable as the museum’s deputy director advised that I had the job that afternoon.
Question: Why the interest in the Australasian Fishes project? How did you get involved with our iNaturalist project?
Jeff: I have been very pleased to be involved in the Australasian Fishes Project. As the number and diversity of logged species escalate, they prove increasingly valuable for research, providing a variety of information such as locality records, colour variation within and between species, and basically what fish was where on temporal scales. On a personal level, the project also provides an excellent opportunity to give back to the community by sharing my expertise in either confirming or correcting IDs, and by adding comments or details that may assist others with future identifications.
Question: Could you tell us a little about your typical, fish identification process using photos?
Jeff: Only with experience can an observer instantly recognise the features that signal broad groups of fishes. The identification process is so much easier if you can say that’s a tropical snapper, a wrasse, a mullet, or a goby, without resorting to long involved taxonomic keys to families! For professionals or newcomers alike, The Fishes of Australia site ( is an invaluable resource, with multiple images of many Australian species at your fingertips, should you need to check that you’re on track. Once I have resolved the identity of a photographed species to the best level, I can be confident with, I will look for the features known to distinguish it from its closest relatives.
Question: Do you go into the water much these days. Scuba, snorkel, etc.?
Jeff: I have no skill in underwater photography worth mentioning, but still snorkel at every available opportunity, especially in Moreton Bay near my home, to keep an eye on the fish populations. Most trips incorporate destinations that have diving opportunities, even if that is only a secondary objective of the trip. In the last decade I have snorkelled or dived in Sri Lanka, New Zealand, Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands (my favourite), Lord Howe and Norfolk Islands, as well as Western Australia, Tasmania and NSW. Over the last 20 years in Qld I have spent 3 to 6 weeks every year based at the same two locations investigating inner and outer reefs on the northern section of the GBR.

You always see more fish if you take it slowly, pause, and avoid jerky movements or splashing at the surface. I’d like a dollar for every spearfisherman that has relayed his frustration to me at seeing only a couple of decent fish during an hour or mores swim, when I have observed many times more in virtually the same time and area. To some extent fish are able to sense whether you present a serious threat, based on how you look and behave. I have a few favourite snorkelling spots only a few hundred metres away from home where I can take a breath, sit motionless on the bottom and have several large rockcod, a bunch of sweetlips, bream and other species gradually come closer and closer until they are milling around curiously within only a metre or so. Fish can be more intelligent than many people give them credit for. I like to recall my experience in 2015 with a large Spangled Emperor at Ned’s Beach on Lord Howe Island, easily recognised by a small scar on its flank and an imperfection to its lower caudal fin lobe. After a few days, this individual would recognise me, swim straight over, take food from my hand and follow me around, whereas the other half dozen or so of the same size and species would show little interest, keep their distance at all times and not follow me away from the shallow sandy area where tourists are permitted to feed the fish. Three years later in 2018 I returned to the island and was surprised to find the same individual (but no others) immediately swam over and followed me around, even in the absence of food.
Question: What was the most difficult fish you had to identify? Why was it difficult?
Jeff: At the museum we get a huge range of public enquiries about fishes from anglers, commercial fishers, beachcombers and naturalists. Many requests for ids are quite easy as they are species that simply look odd and hence repeatedly pique the interest of many people. The most difficult fish items to identify tend to be skeletal remains washed up on beaches. Many consist only of fragments, often eroded by wave action. The skulls, jaws and otoliths of many species gradually become familiar and we have a large reference collection to draw comparison, but there are always odd ones that take a lot of trial and error to determine. For some reason many members of the public imagine the skull of large snapper complete with swollen hyperostosis to be that of a cassowary, and the rotting cartilaginous skulls and vertebral columns of sharks and rays are of course bound to be the remains of mysterious deep sea creatures!

Several fish spring to mind when I think of those most difficult to identify. The first is a juvenile sweetlips that we collected in a large rockpool on Sweers Island, in the Gulf of Carpentaria. It was clearly among the group of Plectorhinchus that have striped juvenile phases, but some of the counts, or meristic data, did not quite match any of the likely suspects. I was very familiar with all the members of this group and the amazing transformation in colour pattern that they go through, having examined most available striped sweetlips specimens in Australian and many overseas collections, leading to a paper being published on the subject with Jack Randall some years earlier. For the purposes of a report Tony Gill and I published on the fishes of Sweers Island, we put it down as closest to P. albovittatus, and it remained on a museum shelf for a few years before things became clearer. A fly fisherman from Weipa later sent in great photos of two large fish that he had caught on the flats, one clearly a Painted Sweetlips, Diagramma pictum labiosum, and the other very similar in colour, but clearly an unidentified Plectorhinchus, based on the dorsal fin spine count. The second fish was known in the fly angling community in northern and north-western Australia as the Blue Bastard, due to it having a blue-grey sheen and being reluctant to take a fly, hence a bastard to catch. It had always been referred to as a northern colour form of the common Painted Sweetlips, but I was suspicious and had never had the opportunity to examine one or get an accurate dorsal spine count to validate whether that was true. The angler set about catching several more and arranged to have them sent to Brisbane for me. The search was then on for intermediate growth phases and in the ensuing year these were found variously misidentified as 3 other Plectorhinchus species in fish collections in Perth, Darwin and Hobart. Some of about 10 cm in length, misidentified as P. polytaenia, were collected during a fish survey from off the Kimberley in WA that I had been part of. The counts and proportional measurements were collated and the gradual changes in colouration from small juvenile through to large adult noted, but the clincher came with genetic samples of juveniles from Darwin, which turned out to be a perfect match to the adults from Weipa and distinct from all other sweetlips species. It was satisfying to finally get a positive id on that juvenile from Sweers Island, and to describe a new species that is quite common, is widespread, reaches a large size, and is of interest to anglers.
Question: 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?
Jeff: I am impressed with the results and spirit of co-operation among the respondents of the project to date. As the number and variety of records increases, their value and significance grow exponentially. It is great to see many early and regular contributors maintaining their interest, as well as new people joining in and adding material when they get the chance. Detailed scientific surveys of fishes have not been conducted in all areas throughout the Australasian region, and of course those that have been are rarely repeated regularly to detect temporal changes. The project will help to fill in gaps, provide an ongoing record of occurrences over time and likely present good evidence to support expanding or contracting ranges due to climatic or other variables. I would like to see a continuation along similar lines. For each dive site, gradually accumulate all species that you can get, until it becomes increasingly hard to find anything new. In particular, try to capture the shot if you spot anything rare or out of the ordinary in your regular dive site. Photos of species do not have to be perfect, but in all cases, they should be of sufficient quality so that they have the potential to be identified. I will be pleased if I can help out with that task from time to time.
This journal post was written by Australasian Fishes member, Harry Rosenthal.
Posted by markmcg markmcg, July 16, 2020 02:05



Many thanks to Jeff (and the others) for working on some of my imperfect photos.

Posted by nyoni-pete 3 months ago (Flag)

Jeff, Well done.
Thank you for explaining the worth of our contributions. Also thank you for your many identifications.

Posted by fiftygrit 3 months ago (Flag)

A another great interview Harry and good to learn more about Jeff and the wonderful work he does.

Posted by nigelmarsh 3 months ago (Flag)

Thank you Jeff! Always nice to learn a little more about members :)

Posted by amandahay 3 months ago (Flag)

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