Member profile - Joe Rowlett

There are few natural environments as varied and amazing as the marine environment. Its major attraction, located close and highly accessible for most of our project participants. This extensive variation and close proximity are key drivers in making the Australasian Fishes project such a success. That said, at the risk of being branded a heretic and drummed out of the Australasia Fishes project, I would like to point out there are other things underwater, than fish. If you are still reading, please bear with me for a few minutes before you commence boiling the tar and plucking feathers, to punish my heresy. I have not lost my passion for fish, however, from past bio blurbs it is clear many of us who spend time underwater find the environment itself enchanting on a number of levels. It is clear many project participants find beauty, enjoyment, adventure and relaxation while contributing to the valuable science in the project.
When I hear others speak about how much their time underwater means to them, in some ways it reminds me of friends who say similar things about their bushwalking or birdwatching activities. They love the scenery as well as the hazards the outdoors present. While the outdoors (especially underwater) can be uncomfortably wet and cold, they longingly seek the challenges found in going to a new area, learning the local conditions, navigating unknown hazards and possibly seeing something for the first time. In some ways, searching underwater, in the name of citizen science, is quite a bit like bushwalking. The sea offers a completely new environment, with new hazards and challenges, as well as unique vistas. On the other hand, while bushwalking in terrestrial environments, you can easily tell the difference between a plant and an animal. Even the least seasoned bushwalker would not confuse flora from fauna, as they walk through both familiar and unfamiliar terrestrial environment. There are no stories of vegetarian bushwalkers, searching for bush tucker and eating a cockroach or snake by mistake. The underwater environment is extremely different. Putting aside that you can’t breathe without mechanical assistance or that you can’t yell out a “coo-ee” when you’ve lost contact with your friends, another characteristic of the underwater world is that it is very difficult to tell the plants from the animals.
Thus, participating in our project, with the exception of the cryptic species, it is usually somewhat easy to tell what a fish is. However, it is also only natural that while underwater, looking at fish, that some of the other attractions draw your attention. We know this because looking at the observations of marine life, that many of the project’s participants record items other than fish, in different iNat projects. I confess, I too have photographed and submitted observations of things which are not actually fish and have found that the community which assists with identification appears to be smaller than the fish world. As a result, I have been extremely grateful to those experts who have provided identifications for these unique and fascinating sea creatures.
Of those who are acting as our guides to the non-fish aspect of the marine environment, the name of Joe Rowlett, AKA, Joe Fish, (https://www.inaturalist.org/people/630365) is a familiar source of identification support. Joe is the subject of this month’s bio blurb. By way of introduction, Joe’s online bio reads, “He is classically trained in the zoological arts and sciences, with a particular focus on the esoterica of invertebrate taxonomy and evolution. He’s written for several aquarium publications and for many years lorded over the marine life at Chicago’s venerable Old Town Aquarium. He currently studies prairie insect ecology at the Field Museum of Natural History and fish phylogenetics at the University of Chicago.”
Growing up in suburban Chicago, where he discovered, marine life is in tragically short supply, his earliest interests in the natural world were of the entomological sort, however, he describes himself as a bit of a schizophrenic zoologist, wherein much of his published research is in marine biology, his employment has been related to insect ecology. Joe describes his interest in the marine environment thusly, “I used to regularly write articles for aquarium blogs (reef builders, reefs.com). The subject matter tended to focus on obscure or challenging taxa of reef-associated animals, particularly as it relates to their speciation. My earliest IDs on iNaturalist were of the Chrysiptera parasema complex, for an article I was writing at the time, but many of the observations on here were misidentified and in need of curation. Most of my early efforts on here were focused on curating a few Indo-Pacific fish taxa that I had a particular interest in (Amphiprion, Canthigaster, Cirrhilabrus), but that shifted more towards corals as I was researching for my book. Despite being an entomologist, I haven't put nearly as much time into identifying insects.”
Joe’s research for aquarium blogs clearly showed him there's a lack of taxonomic expertise, especially for some coral groups. He reminds us, “Species are often known only from brief, antiquated descriptions that are difficult or impossible to apply. Take a group like Dendronephthya, which has something like ~200 taxa according to WoRMS, whereas the actual biodiversity in this group seems to be closer to 10% of that number. And many corals are challenging to identify without high-quality photos illustrating the necessary morphological traits—this is especially true for the stalked xeniids, which can't even be reliably determined to genus-level in most cases.”
It is possible to see how this need of improved taxonomic expertise developed into Joe becoming a leader in this area. For those of us, who have always wanted to write a book about our favourite aspects of the marine environment, Joe actually has done that, a definitive field guide for Indo-Pacific corals. He tells us that it was the culmination of two years’ work and the sourcing of over four thousand photos of soft corals, stony corals, anemones, sea pens and hydroids. Not only satisfied with classification and description, but Joe also used the opportunity to update traditional reef builders classification, based on the most recent genetic analysis. The end result was an 800-page coral guide, titled Indo-Pacific Corals (ISBN-13: 979-8686565975, see: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08KPXLYT5?ref_=pe_3052080_397514860 ). He notes, “On face value, it seems a bit preposterous for an entomologist from the Midwest (who has never even dived in the region) to attempt such a gargantuan project. The Indo-Pacific coral fauna has never had an adequate field guide covering it in its entirety, despite the considerable interest there is in the subject from divers, aquarists, researchers, etc. And there's also been a considerable need for a single publication featuring all of the changes to coral taxonomy that have appeared over the past couple decades.”
How does one approach a writing project on this scale? Joe says, “I was initially approached by a prolific diver and author, Andrey Ryanskiy, to help him in identifying corals for a book he was working on, but the project eventually grew in scope such that I ended up writing the book myself, over the course of about 2 years. My goal was to source photos of every genus in the region, which proved to be a monumental challenge. The book includes what are likely the first published in situ photos for many taxa (Clavactinia, Cladangia, Monoxenia, Sibogella, etc) and iNaturalist proved instrumental in pulling this off. I'm going to try to get a second edition out later this year which will include a couple more obscure taxa that I recently found photos of.”
Moving into his true discipline of passion, Joe tells us, “In recent years, I've been involved with an ongoing project at the Field Museum studying the changes that take place to the insect communities of restored prairies here in Illinois. It's a specialized fauna that has largely been wiped out over the last couple hundred years, due to agriculture and introduced species. I'm also working on a molecular phylogeny of the pseudocheilin wrasses with Mark Westneat at the University of Chicago, which should be wrapped up later this year. And I've got a review/reclassification of the Chrysiptera cyanea group currently working its way to publication (which relied heavily on iNaturalist observations).”
Joe’s contribution to iNaturalist has been impressive, with 50,950 identifications, made to grateful people like me, who have benefited from his expertise. He is also impressed with projects like Australasian Fishes, reminding us, “Aussies have done a great job of documenting their fish fauna, but the same can't be said for corals, particularly those from the subtropics. This is more a failing of the taxonomic community, as the divers on iNaturalist have now contributed many excellent observations, but much of the taxonomic work dates to the 19th or early 20th century. For example, Australopsammia aurea is a species that I reclassified in my book, based largely on the photos contributed by citizen scientists. It was described from Port Jackson in 1834, but it soon became confused with a superficially similar tropical species, Tubastraea coccinea. Thus far, it has only been documented from areas around Sydney, but it might occur elsewhere along the southern coastline (though it seems suspiciously absent from the well-documented waters around Adelaide). Like much of the marine fauna in this region, it is imperilled by climate change, which is why resolving these taxonomic issues is so pressing. You can't conserve a species if it isn't being recognized by taxonomists.”
Personally, I am very grateful to Joe for being kind enough to identify many of the non-fish images I post on iNaturalist and while researching this bio blurb, I now realise that I am one of many, divers, photographers, scientists and aquarium enthusiasts who have benefited from his generosity and spirit of sharing knowledge. He works in a very complex environment of taxonomy, the never-ending challenge of better defining life on Earth, which not only improve our enjoyment as we explore the marine environment but will also be crucial to future scientists and ecologists who try to understand the shifting of life in the sea and on the planet.
This journal post was written by Australasian Fishes member, Harry Rosenthal.
Posted by markmcg markmcg, June 03, 2021 02:16

Comments

Thanks Harry & Mark. Keep the coral (and fish) observations coming.

Posted by joe_fish 5 months ago (Flag)

Thank you Harry. I, personally, am incredibly grateful to @joe_fish for his assistance. I first approached him in December 2020 to ask for some further information about his book (before iNaturalist had really impinged on my horizon apart from one algae that I had posted). My question was did his book cover Norfolk Island species?
I live on Norfolk Island and had been photographing our underwater environment inside the lagoons for just a year. From a standing start (as in no knowledge of the marine environment at all) I had accumulated some 20,000 images by that stage and was trying to collate them all and ID the best images for a website I decided to create. It was joe_fish who helped me with the ID of a few corals, made me realise I had some anemones mixed up on my draft coral page, too, and recommended that I start uploading to iNaturalist. Which I did.
So thank you to Joe for properly introducing me to this site, and to the fantastic community of people on here so willing to give their time and expertise. Thank you for the IDs, Joe. And thank you to Harry for this great profile.
I should add, because of Joe's encouragement back in December of 'why don't you post on iNaturalist?' a great deal has happened! I have now co-authored a paper with a conchologist on a rare mollusc found in our lagoons (yet to be published, but slated for August). And researchers from James Cook University have shown some interest in my coral images, having been researching at Lord Howe for some eight years.

Posted by susanprior 5 months ago (Flag)

Hi Susan. Congrats on your upcoming paper and thanks for the kind words.

Posted by joe_fish 5 months ago (Flag)

@susanprior So good to hear that you have embraced iNaturalist, or perhaps it might be closer to the truth to say that iNaturalist has figuratively sunk its teeth into you (along with the resto f us!). :)

Posted by markmcg 5 months ago (Flag)

I am glad you like the bio blurb Joe. I have been very grateful for your identifications.

Posted by harryrosenthal 4 months ago (Flag)

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