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 by markmcg markmcg, March 30, 2021 01:49



Great Bio. Really interesting. It’s terrific to see & hear about someone who regularly identifies quite a few of my observations. Thanks & all the best Alex. Ken

Posted by ken_flan about 1 month ago (Flag)

I too am grateful to Alex for a large number of identifications. He puts in a lot of overtime.

Posted by harryrosenthal about 1 month ago (Flag)

Thank you for both for your kind words!
Moreover, thank you for uploading so many observations to identify

On another note, thank you very much Harry for writing this profile, it is fantastic!

Posted by alexburton about 1 month ago (Flag)

Ditto your comment Alex about Harry's writing. :)

Posted by markmcg about 1 month ago (Flag)

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