Journal archives for July 2019

July 24, 2019

The iNaturalist World Tour focuses on Australia and New Zealand

INaturalist recently started a 'world tour' of 'top contributing' countries. Australia and New Zealand are both included.
The Australian profile was posted on June 28. You'll be pleased to read that Australasian Fishes was given a big pat on the back.
The New Zealand profile was posted two days later on June 30.
Australia is now number 4 in total number of observations, behind the USA, Canada and Mexico. New Zealand is number 6 with South Africa 'separating us'.
Well done troops! Keep up the great work. :)
Posted on July 24, 2019 04:30 by markmcg markmcg | 0 comments | Leave a comment

July 26, 2019

Mark McGrouther- Member profile

Some in the Australian Fishes Project grew up in a pre-digital era, when the vast storehouses of knowledge of the natural world, were locked up and held by specialists. To see firsthand the wonders of wildlife or have any questions (beyond the scope of a library’s field guide or a picture book) answered, we had to access the traditional resource: a natural history museum. For today’s amateur naturalists whose phones can search all global databases, this must seem pre-historic. Museums were temples of knowledge, hallowed halls, storing the riches of the natural world which existed beyond our cities. In those days, “to Google” something, meant physically walking in to a museum and looking at racks, displays and rows of preserved creatures, until you found the one you were looking for. As youngsters, such places were almost over whelming, in the breadth and size of their collections. Everyone realised that for each fossil, preserved animal or mineral on the shelf, there were dozens more stored in the museum’s backrooms.
Times have changed, access to knowledge has changed and thus, the perception of museums, in the minds of the general population, is also changing. Museums will always have their less publicly visible role to the scientific community, in terms of both maintaining samples of unique species and conducting research, expanding our knowledge of Australia and the region.
Furthermore, as a setting for the public display of the wonders of nature, museums will always have a role for public presentation of significant collections, and as venues for unique, travelling, professionally staged, and theatrically designed exhibitions. It is clear however, that to maintain the interest of the public who financially support public institutions such as museums, they’ve needed to evolve, redesigning the front-end of the business to include the technology of the day. Some museums responded to this by replacing dusty static displays of stones and bones with high-tech, interactive displays of touch screens and computers, leveraging the strength of ambient technology and global communications.
There are some museum staff who envision other models of mixing museums, the public, science and available technology, creating something which still fulfils the traditional roles of the institutions (such as establishing collections and providing scientific data for research). Australasian Fishes, founded by this bio-blurb’s subject, Mark McGrouther, is an example of such a 21st Century blending of the traditional museum’s role, enabled by technology and fuelled by harnessing the energy of the scientific and general population. This is also a new role for a museum – creating communities of laypeople people with a similar interest in nature, through the citizen-science process. The new age of museums with a different way to engage the general population while keeping true to the mission of an institution, going back 200 years.
Even as a young child, Mark was interested in nature and enthralled by TV documentaries, especially those of Jacques Cousteau. Years spent in the Scouting movement meant he spent much time outdoors. His interest in fishes, however, came later, after an honours thesis on amphipods followed by jobs at Sydney University and the Australian Museum where he worked on bryozoans, crustacea, spiders and reptiles before a technical officer position was advertised at the museum in ichthyology. He became ichthyology collection manager three years later.
While working for the museum over time, Mark participated in numerous expeditions for the Museum, diving in remote places, inaccessible to the average person. It started with Sydney University’s Dive Club in the mid-70’s for which he eventually became club President. During his tenure he boosted membership enormously either through his leadership skills or as a result of offering free wine and cheese at lunchtime meetings. Perhaps it was both.
Understandably it was his work at the Australian Museum which took him on fish surveying trips to many places, including the Great Barrier Reef, the Philippines, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, French Polynesia and the Kermadec Islands. He says, “I’ve had some fantastic diving at some of these locations but it is offset by many shocking ‘muck dives’. For the Sydney-siders, you’ll get the idea if I tell you that Glebe Island Container Terminal, the Fish Market at Pyrmont and under Gladesville Bridge are not dive sites that I would recommend. I’ve rested on the sandy bottom watching volcanic gas bubble up through the seabed, crawled up onto the sand of a coral atoll after being chased from the water by sharks, seen a Queensland Groper that was so big it reminded me of an underwater Volkswagen, had my guts vibrated by the deep territorial ‘booming’ of a Black Rockcod and am a little ashamed to say, enjoyed seeing White Sharks from the safety of a cage in the Neptune Islands. My longest dive was 6 and a half hours and my deepest dive on air was to 60m - I was so narked I couldn’t even read my watch. I’ve had someone shut off my air at 20m; yes, buddy breathing does work. In short I did some pretty dumb things underwater when I was young (picture the sound of your tank clanging against rocks as you tumble blindly around while trying to exit on rocks in surf and cave diving without a pressure gauge) but fortunately luck smiled on me.”
As a result, he does not dive or snorkel as often has he’s done in the past, but still has his favourite places on the NSW South Coast, where to returns frequently.
Mark was never badly bitten by the photography bug, as his career centred on tangible fish more than digital images, however, he enjoys his GoPro Hero 4 and Olympus Tough TG5. It is not unusual to see Mark using the extendable arm for his GoPro, inserting the camera in to compact, rocky crevices or seagrass beds, to record what lives in these environments. While topside, he’ll later closely examine the videos for the expected and the unexpected. Such an approach provides him a unique view of the diversity and heath of the marine environment, with a few surprising creatures as well. Mark reminds us that not all images for the project needs to be National Geographic quality and encourages project participants to upload everything as long as the fish is recognisable and the associated data is accurate.
Mark’s philosophy derives from 37 years of working with fish and the recognition that while there are nearly 5,000 described species of fish in Australian waters, no one is an expert on all of them. He believes there remains many more new species which have not been yet identified and described, and perhaps all project participants could discover a new species. In fact, Mark has four species named after him, three fish and one crustacean, a fish parasite.
He recognises how vexing fish identification can be as an uncountable number of fishes have crossed his desk, over time. He recalls being told to never rely on colour to identify fishes, as colours can be misleading but for our project it is often an excellent identification character when looking at photos of live fishes. In his world, specimens are commonly identified using taxonomic keys that often use meristic (counts) and morphometric (measurements) characters. These characters are difficult to examine in the field, but he reminds us that years of observing fishes helps to build up a ‘gestalt’ of many species. Body shape, fin shapes and placement and colouration are all identification characters that concord, or don’t, with your mental image of the species.
Mark has collected thousands of fishes during his career, but as an environmentalist, always felt a touch of discomfort killing his sample subjects. He recognised, however, that without collecting voucher specimens, which are registered and lodged in a museum (mostly) collections, new species cannot be described (given scientific names), so the sampling has improved the knowledge of our fish fauna. This vast experience with the art of collecting, however, helped in the transition from working on fishes in alcohol to the digital fishes of the project. For Mark it started with a trip to Tokyo in 2004, during which Dr Keiichi Matsuura (@kmfishes), showed him Fishpix, an excellent website that contains over 130,000 images of fishes taken by divers in Japan. While at that time Mark could not find much support for his proposals to create a similar site in Australia, after considerable, coffee-fuelled discussions with Harry Rosenthal (@harryrosenthal) we decided to develop our own system. This was a longer than anticipated process with Mark travelling to Canberra on several occasions to discuss the idea with the staff at the Atlas of Living Australia. While progress was slow, Mark investigated other options, beyond Australia, and after an exhaustive analysis of existing sites, iNaturalist appeared to have many of the features he wanted, but there are still important items on the wish list. After discussion with Paul Flemons (@snomelf) and Geoff Shuetrim (@shuetrim), they agreed that Mark should set up a trial project in iNaturalist. The ‘trial’ took off like a rocket and the rest, as they say, is history.
The DNA of museums still runs through his blood and Mark is now an Australian Museum Senior Fellow and goes into the museum 3 days a week. On site he gets his required ‘fix’ of preserved specimens, but spends the vast majority of his volunteer ‘work’ time on Australasian Fishes. Mark says, “One of the really satisfying aspects of my work on Australasian Fishes has been to build an enthusiastic community of people who are all interested in Australian and New Zealand fishes. Despite infrequent disagreements on an identification, the vast majority of interactions between users have been friendly and supportive, which is fantastic.”
Seeing the birth and development of Australasian Fishes has been very rewarding for Mark. While he sees his role as project as a facilitator, he is critical in fish identification, acting as a not only a fish expert, but also as a project concierge, matching hard to identify images with a local and global network of fish experts. He spends considerable time maintaining the consistency and integrity of the project and inviting users to join the project. He considers community building to be a really important part of his role.
Finally, he’s responsible for keeping a file that documents discoveries that have resulted from observations submitted to the project. More than 130 observations of fishes photographed outside their recognised ranges have been uploaded; perhaps an indication of warming waters. He notes that the project is increasingly being cited in scientific publications, with data and images requested for external use.
As the project speeds towards 60,000 observations, it is important to recall the firm scientific foundation which underlies Australasian Fishes and that it is a part of the evolution of museums and public they serve. This is an amazing outcome considering the project started in October 2016 with an 'empty slate'. Mark offers his thanks and gratitude to the many people who have contributed and continue to contribute to make Australasian Fishes such a success.
This journal post was written by Australasian Fishes member, Harry Rosenthal.
Posted on July 26, 2019 09:57 by markmcg markmcg | 19 comments | Leave a comment