Journal archives for October 2019

October 25, 2019

Member profile - David Muirhead

In the May 2019 journal article, we discussed the history and origins of the iNaturalist software, hosting the Australasia Fishes project. This free software and its app have powered the success and growth of our project, and many more similar projects across the globe. To most of us in the project, the software is simply a user-friendly, convenient place to store our observations, as we contribute photos of creatures we encounter in the marine environment. It further functions as a website where experts will identify the fish we encounter while contributing to a global nature data base. To others, however, the software works as a tool to test interesting theories or hypothesis about an ecosystem or region. It serves as repository of data which, over time, should reveal larger insights in to a species or an area. Such an application of the software is usually a three-step process:
1. Develop a theory or hypothesis about the natural environment.
2. Collect relevant data through observations to support or disprove the hypothesis.
3. Analyse the data and publish the findings for examination by the rest of the naturalist community.
To illustrate this application of the software, we discussed iNaturalist with one of the project’s leading contributors, Dr David Muirhead from South Australia. Dave is a retired physician, living in a small, coastal community south of Adelaide, called Normanville. He practiced medicine for many years in Adelaide, finding snorkelling and diving to be a successful way to combat the pressures and stresses involved in the full-time practice of medicine. With the support of his family, he was able to turn his scientifically trained intellect to the underwater world, as time and schedule allowed, where he found both relaxation in nature and an outlet for his natural curiosity of the world around him. This has made him the keen observer he is today, but like most people with scientific training, he sought out frameworks, structures, theories and viewpoints to fuel his understanding and exploration of the marine environment, as a citizen scientist.
Dave is regarded as a project leader due to his ranking on the Leader Board. At the time of this writing, Dave has recorded over 7,306 observations for iNaturalist (now 8.245!), with 2,069 of them dedicated to Australasia Fishes (now 2229). As a result, Dr Muirhead, is ranked Number 5 in the Australasian Fishes project, after joining less than three years ago. He has helped iNaturalist with more than 4,800 identifications and judging by the numbers alone, it is clear that Dave has a passion for exploration and that iNaturalist has become his leading repository for data collection.
For many in the project, interest in the marine environment was sparked by television shows, documentaries or university classes. For Dave, his natural championing of the unique biodiversity of his region was ignited after reading the book, Wirra, the Bush that was Adelaide. It was a small publication by the Nature Conservation society of S.A. published in 1986 which, he reports, changed his life as it reinforced what seemed obvious to him, but hadn't been put in print. Dave says, “Its crux was that the Adelaide Plains is a global biodiversity hotspot with more local native plants than all of the UK, and that led to the fauna which evolved alongside the plants to be as diverse and highly endemic. It says that a wirra is the ONLY garden that reflects the true nature of a place, even from one backyard to the one over the road every few square meters is unique.” This observation provided Dave with the beginning of his hypothesis, on the unique attributes of the South Australian region in general and its marine environment, in particular. It transformed him from a casual naturalist, to a very dedicated citizen scientist. A passion which has allowed him to read, learn and dedicate much of his retirement time to the unique natural environment of South Australia and the secrets of its biodiversity.
Rather than sit back and simply admire the beauty of this unique environment, Dave has worked to substantiate the premise of Wirra, the Bush that was Adelaide through his own citizen science network and personal observations, harnessing the power of iNaturalist. To flesh out his views of the South Australian region and to collect the baseline data needed to expand his hypothesis of the unique qualities of his region, Dave participates in a total of 10 iNaturalist projects, as follows:
1. South Australian iNaturalist :
2. Seahorses, sea dragons and pipefish of South Australia
3. Port Noarlunga, South Australia
4. Lady Bay to Wirrina Cove, South Australia
5. Temperate Marine Cleaners of South Australia
6. South Australian Conversation Research Divers
7. Marine Life Society of South Australia Administrator,
8. Kangaroo Island (North Coast), South Australia
9. Rapid Bay, South Australia
10. As well as Australasian Fishes
This is not the only work he conducts through iNaturalist, but it does indicate the scope of his data gathering focus, and his dedication to the natural environment of South Australia. It also demonstrates the utility of our software as a way to create a more holistic view of a region, examining its biosphere from several different angles. Australasian Fish has benefited from his dedication to the marine aspects of his enquiry, but it is only part of the picture Dave is creating.
Dave’s research reveals his views about the southern coastline and the potential of its marine environment. He reminds us that when people all over the globe, think of the rich, marine environment of Australia, their first thoughts are of the World Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef (GBR). It is regarded as the country’s leading repository in marine biodiversity and as a result has attracted a great deal of attention. He notes that it is relatively easy to obtain funding to study the GBR. For example, the government’s recent $444 million reef grant to a small charity for projects on the GBR has focused attention on this marine ecosystem. Dave’s hypothesis includes the existence of a similar marine environment which he calls, The Great Rocky Reef. This is an underwater feature, created by the continent’s eroding coastline, extending from Wollongong to Shark Bay. While not composed of the skeletons of once-living organisms, such as corals, it was created by the forces of nature alone, the Great Rocky Reef is a marine environment, larger, as diverse (if not more!) and perhaps as environmentally significant as the more famous GBR.
While he does not begrudge the attention and research funding going to the GBR, he strongly believes the overlooked Great Rocky Reef, offers a much greater opportunity for new discoveries benefiting both science and Australia. He cites, for example, ascidians, where he believes as few as only one third of the species in the world have been identified and recorded. Dave suspects that the many of the remaining two/thirds of them remain to be discovered along the Great Rocky Reef, rather than in tropical climes.
Dave also exhibits a trait not unusual in the project, a love of place. Looking at his list of projects, above, they all take place in South Australia, where he resides. For some project members, their passion for the ocean is meshed with their passion for their location. Reading the journal posts, you will note that many of the participants express a genuine interest in a particular geographic area. Often an area near their homes, where they can and do visit frequently, becoming an extension of their living space. Dave feels Adelaide is located at the buckle of the belt of the Great Rocky Reef, and serves as a good starting point for his research. As a result, he is a strong advocate for his state and its current and potential ability to contribute to science. He quickly points out that the best shore diving in the world is found in SA. This is not an empty observation, but Dave is fully convinced that, for example, iconic fish like leafy seadragons and a wide array of unique marine plants have evolved in isolation in South Australia, rather like the southwest Western Australian wildflowers that have also followed a unique evolutionary path. He says, “This long isolation has generated fantastic endemism and unique biodiversity levels, not found elsewhere.... the connection between the global peak of botanical diversity in SA inshore marine (algae and grasses) and the accompanying inevitable huge endemism rates of the temperate fish and other critters. Garden of Eden, right here. Like the Daintree underwater.“
The data gathering process has also yielded his own rewards. For example, Dave is the site founder and Administrator of Temperate Marine Cleaners of South Australia. He founded the site as a result of a revelation which struck him while diving and photographing fish. Looking back at his experience taking underwater images, he noticed that some of his best images, were the result of unusual or freakish fish behaviour. Several of the species he’d captured, have been traditionally hard to photograph, as once they saw a human, they quickly swam away. Dave noted that his best pictures, where taken when the fish were acting uncharacteristically, seeing him but not rapidly swimming away. They stayed in place, with fins fully open, allowing a cautious Dave, an opportunity to take excellent photos for the project, giving valuable details for the database.
Initially grateful for these fateful encounters, he began to wonder if the fish were having a bad day, or suddenly of a different disposition. He went back to some of his older images, enlarged the photos, and realised that the fish were hosting cleaners at the time of the photo. This experience is quite common in tropical reefs, but his pictures showed tiny clingfish working on the relaxed camera subjects, in the waters of South Australia. So, fascinated by this, and fuelled by his literature search, which revealed little written on this topic, he decided to employ the iNaturalist tool, in his own area of research, recording and compiling temperate waters marine cleaning behaviour.
The final, missing piece of the puzzle is step three, the publishing of results. We look forward to Dave’s conclusions, which we are confident are somewhere in the pipeline. Up until now, however, Dave has demonstrated the power of iNaturalist to fuel citizen science initiatives while collecting data on the general environment. We are grateful for his demonstration of these principles and showing project participants the wonders of the Great Rocky Reef, a place where we all hope to visit as part of our travels.
This journal post was written by Australasian Fishes member, Harry Rosenthal.
Thank you Harry! :)
Posted on October 25, 2019 02:34 by markmcg markmcg | 5 comments | Leave a comment