Friday, September 15, 2017

Samaki! Samaki! Collecting Fishes in the Mangroves of Tanzania

I traveled to Tanzania this August to collect fishes for the 
Museum of Natural Science, and to help
A beautiful seine pull in low tide.
out folks from the LSU Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences (Drs. Mike Polito, Steve Midway and Victor Rivera-Monroy). Having spent the last year as a bureaucrat for the federal government (working as a Program Director for the National Science Foundation) I was eager for some adventure. A little over a year ago Dr. Michael Polito, Assistant Professor in Oceanography, mentioned he would be going to Tanzania and I asked, casually - but sincerely, if I could join him. It really wasn’t much more than that spontaneous self-invite, and the promise to help with vouchering and identifying fishes, that brought me to Tanzania.
       I must admit to being a bit nervous before the trip, there were a lot more unknowns than I am used to. It has been a long time since I went on a collecting trip where I wasn’t the lead, and where I was without other members of my own lab. I wanted to be sure not to get in the way of the research being conducting by Mike and his colleagues. I had also never collected in mainland Africa before; the closest I had ever been was Madagascar (which although close is very different). Perhaps the strangest thing about me going to this trip was the location within Tanzania. Most people interested in the fishes of the region would be headed straight to the famous East African Great Lakes – 85% of the fish landings from Tanzania are still from Lake Victoria. Ichthyologists interested in the marine fauna are more likely to go to Zanzibar (an island off the coast) – but since the Oceanography team was interested in studying mangroves, I would be studying the fishes of the mangroves. Knowing how few ichthyologists had ever collected in the area gave me high hopes that we might have the opportunity to discover new records and perhaps even new species.

The striking difference between low tide and high.

Team Samaki!
Beautiful shrimpfish collected by Mike Polito.
Although I am now a reasonably seasoned ichthyologist, I still don’t know all 40,000 species of fishes; and I knew next to nothing about the ichthyofauna of the region before the trip. Luckily, unlike me, the Oceanography folks like to be prepared. One of Mike’s students, Mario Hernandez, went to Tanzania last year and created a little summary slideshow of the fishes they encountered. Unfortunately for me, few of the fishes were vouchered from the previous expedition, which is one of the reasons I was going this year. Mario’s pictures had me salivating about what we might bring back to the LSUMNS Fish Collection. Unfortunately, the entire trip was nearly upended before we even got started.
 The original plan was to collect in a region called Rufiji – an area with high tides in a very remote area where we would be camping with little access to infrastructure. Unfortunately, some politically motivated problems arose: people were protesting police corruption resulting in some folks being killed. Even if we would likely be safe as foreigners, it would be impossible to get the boats and local help that we needed. The Oceanography team decided instead that they would return to an area they sampled previously: Pangani.
Pangani (specifically Kjongo Bay near the town of Kipumbwe) is a region across from the island of Zanzibar, and about seven hours north by car from the capital Dar es Salaam. Despite being remote as well, this area has quite a bit more infrastructure and creature comforts than Rufiji. In the end we were safe and had very agreeable accommodations, included three square meals a day. More importantly our hosts allowed us to spread dead fish specimens all over the place while we all took samples of otoliths, isotopes, DNA samples, and cores of mangrove mud.
We were traveling to Tanzania to allow the Oceanography team to better understand how the mangroves functioned in the larger ecosystem. Besides Mike and Mario there was Steve Midway and his student Matt Roberts filling out Team Samaki (‘samaki’ is Swahili for fish). There was also Team Mangrove led by Victor Rivera-Monroy and his lab who were taking core samples and other data to better understand the role of mangroves in general. Team Mangrove spent many hours a day out deep in the mangrove forest being tortured by insects and being cut by razor clams and other protruding organic weaponry. When they returned they spent many hours that could have been used for drinking cocktails to clean their equipment and organize their samples.
          The mangroves in Kjongo Bay have a tide that rises and sinks about three meters twice a day. Our boats could only go out while the tides were high enough to allow the boats in and out of the mangroves. Unfortunately, the best collecting time was near the lowest points of the tide when the boats would be stranded. There was always a race against the clock, and we were nearly always stuck somehow – either stuck waiting for the tide (to go up or down), or literally stuck in the mud. Our boats were often stranded when the tide went out. Sometimes we would chant, ‘samaki, samaki’ while rocking our vessel from side to side, trying to steer it into deeper waters.

At one site we suddenly hit a sand bank and the boat was stranded in a few inches of water, while we figured out what to do next I got stung in the temple by a bee, and then stung again on the face, as I swatting furiously Mario yelled out “bees!” and then another person yelled out while pushing us,  “jump into the water!”  We all dove into the shallow water but the bees kept stinging the back of our heads and necks – we swam to the other side of the riverbank to escape. When we looked back at the boat we could see hundreds of bees swarming it. We were each stung about a half dozen times. As we licked our wounds we decided to walk downriver to join another team while we waited for the tide to rise, and to free our boat to drift down river away from the bees.
      As luck would have it that other ‘bee-free site’ was remarkably diverse. We were seining different spots getting lots of different species. These included young grouper, snappers, but also species of a group I know well – the Leiognathidae (or ponyfishes). I had noticed that Mario had seen some of these ponyfishes in markets the previous year but I was still surprised to see ponyfishes in nearly every seine haul we made. I was surprised because adult ponyfishes can be collected nearly anywhere throughout the enormous Indian and Pacific oceans – but adults are bioluminescent and typically found at depths several hundred meters deep – what on Earth are juveniles doing in mangroves alongside mosquitofish and gobies? Part of what I hypothesize is happening is that ponyfishes spawn in shallow waters near the mangroves. Coastal Tanzania is known for its bioluminescencent bays; the light is caused by high concentrations of small glowing organisms. Perhaps ponyfishes ‘gets their glow’ from a bacterium that may be in high concentrations here? Only time, and a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, will tell.

       Some of my days were spent sorting the fishes others were collecting. My job those days were to help with IDs for the project goals of the Oceanography team. It was sometimes hard not to think of the fish collections I curate whenever we got something new. It caused me physical pain and mental anguish to see some rare specimens being torn up for isotope analysis rather than being preserved as pristine specimen for our museum. I had to remember that these specimens may help the Oceanography team better understand how to save these mangroves – and who would want to get in the way of that? In the end I still brought back nearly 500 samples from about 50 species, most new to the collection, and perhaps new to any collections – stay tuned for more on that.
              It was certainly an interesting time to be in Tanzania – a new leader is pushing out 
foreign  interests, trying to cut down on corruption (which also is cutting into the shadow 
economy that benefits many impoverished people). Tourism to Tanzania has also gone down 
dramatically because of increased violence. Despite our efforts to stay safe by choosing Pangani 
over Rafiji we sometimes found ourselves just at the periphery of deadly violence. We began and 
ended our trip in the capital city of Dar es Salaam. And although Dar has traditionally been rather 
safe we heard of several reports of gun violence. Near the end of our trip, a noted elephant 
conservation biologist Wayne Lotter was murdered just a few blocks from a place we were 
visiting. We learned of how he was killed (followed in his taxi from the airport, shot while he sat 
beside his wife) from reading the cover of the New York Times the next day, and not from the local
 news. The news shocked our colleague Lindsey West who runs a local NGO called Seasense. 
Lindsey, who is British, has lived in Tanzania for many years and has been dealing with the 
increase in violence daily. She is extremely efficient and she masterfully arranged for local help 
for us from her many Tanzanian contacts and colleagues. Less shocking to Lindsey was our
report that a corpse had washed up on the beach in Kijongo with its hands and feet cut off 
and a plastic bag around the head. ‘Oh that’s just witchcraft stuff’ nothing we needed to worry 
about. We learned to listen carefully to Lindsey, if she said not to worry, we did not. 
She was ‘dada mkubwa’ big sister, after all.
Perplexing ponies.
               Over the 10 days in Tanzania I was able to see a great many things and learn a few choice Swahili words from the locals that were helping us out. The locals endowed us with some great nicknames too like, “Mzungu mfupi” (‘short white guy’) for Mike, and “Sharobaro” (‘pretty boy’) for Steve. Since Mario, was already ‘the Indian’ (‘Mhindi’), I didn’t really get a name that stuck. I wish I had learned more Swahili but I am thankful to our museum Business Manager, Tammie Jackson, who taught me a few key phrases before I left. If I had learned more from her I might have avoided some mix-ups while trying to purchase everything from full strength formalin (you want 37% of 37%?), to rum and coke (‘coke and lime?’) to ice coffee with milk (for which we were served ice and milk and no coffee). Despite the language barriers it was an amazing time. I thank my Oceanography colleagues Mike, Steve, Victor, (and their students) for letting me tag along on their trip – Asante sana

Monday, May 30, 2016

Journey to the End of Central America – An Ichthyological Exploration of the Darién Gap

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darién. 
- from “On First Looking into Chapman's Homer” by John Keats

At the entrance of the Darién National Park
            From May 12-24th postdoctoral fellow Dr. Fernando Alda, graduate student A.J. Turner and I journeyed south to Panama to collect fishes. Specifically, we were targeting the fishes from the Darién Gap – a region I have hoped to visit since I was a graduate student over 10 years ago doing my PhD on the biogeography of Central American fishes.
            The Darién is one of the most forested areas in Central America, with the majority of forested area in the Darién National Park in the so-called “Darién Gap” – named so because it is the gap in the Pan-American Highway between the North and South American continents. The Darién Gap encompasses the borders between Colombia and Panama and is frequented by drug smugglers and illegal migrants – for that reason it is heavily protected by the armed military and it is difficult to get permits or even help to collect in the area. Fortunately Fernando is patient, hardworking and resourceful. With some difficulty he organized an entire trip for us working with the local Emberá people who are endemic to the region and who have been on this land for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Fernando also handled all the permits with STRI (the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute) and the Panamanian government. He did an amazing job arranging this trip. My lab has previously attempted to get into the Darién Gap and failed.
            Before we got into the Darién, we set up at STRI headquarters located in Panama City where we got our official Smithsonian badges and credentials. Our STRI-IDs (or “STRIdees” as we took to calling them) worked wonders around Panama. We were able to get big discounts on museums and entrance into the Panama Canal because of those IDs. We had some time to kill before we got out into the field as we waited for all our permits, so we did some educational sight-seeing. The Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal, and the newly opened Biomuseo were highlights. I read a book about the making of the canal, “I Took Panama: The Story of Philippe Bunau-Varilla” while we were in Panama and I recommend others to learn about the insane political events surrounding the creation of this engineering marvel – which also led to the creation of the country itself. A new set of expanded locks, which will make the canal almost twice its current size, was also visible in the distance.
            In those first few days we also visited the local fish market in Panama City – the Mercado de Marisco. We were able to get nearly 40 species of marine fishes from this market; these included several species of snook, parrotfishes and croakers. Unfortunately, we saw hundreds of shark bodies with their heads and fins cut off. They were all juveniles and according to A.J. he thought they were all taken from some nursery grounds – it was a sad sight. By sheer coincidence we met up with researchers from Conservation International working on the fisheries of this region while at a restaurant; they said they are working on this shark issue: I hope they get to it quickly.
We ran into lots of non-Panamanians in Panama City, which is unlike any other Central American city; it has a skyline that makes it look more like Dubai, and with a port and mangroves near it, it reminded me of it too. Many people spoke English, and we noted the strong American and European presence almost everywhere.
Although the city was interesting we wanted to get in the water. As we drove the five hours East to the Darién (there isn’t much of a North and South in Panama) we noted how different the rest of Panama is from Panama City. There are many rural communities strung together and lots of farmland. However, over 25% of Panama is protected forest. There are also many areas belonging to autonomous indigenous communities living independent of most Panamanian authority.
Fernando talking to the Embera about our fish.
We entered the town of Yaviza in the Darién province on the 17th of May and spent the day heading up and sampling along the Río Chico in our long wooden boat (called a “piragua”). At our first field site we unrolled our brand new cast nets and I hurriedly made my first toss – I wanted to catch the first fish – and I got a nice little cichlid. Cichlids are my favorite group of fishes and the focus of much of my research. There have been some trips to Central American where we don’t get cichlids for a few days, and here was one – right off the bat. After that I took to doing my regular job, taking notes, GPS coordinates etc. We collected plenty at this first site on the Chico and it was a good omen for the rest of the trip. We learned pretty quickly, that as usual, despite being professional ichthyologists, the locals are always the best fishermen. Throughout the trip we really enjoyed working with and interacting with the local people. I always love reading about historical explorers interacting with locals and how they treated each other, there were the kind ones like James Cook (kind to most native people, killed by natives on Hawaii), and awful ones like Hernán Cortés (killed lots of native people, died peacefully back in Spain of old age). Side note – “Cortez” as mentioned by John Keats in the poem above, should actually be “Balboa.” Vasco Núñez de Balboa was the one to establish the Darién, and the first European to see the Pacific from the Americas.
We spent the next few days penetrating the Darién National Park. This required us (and sometimes a small horse) to carry our gear and food through the forest trails. This was fun, but exhausting given the heat and mosquitoes. We hiked to most of our sites when we couldn’t boat. The canopy was thick making the forest shaded all manner of green from top to bottom except for the forest floor, which was matted down with damp brown leaves. It was very beautiful. We walked with our guides like leaf-cutter ants in formation, one behind the other, carrying our packs like so many bits of foliage. Living in Baton Rouge you tend to forget about topology. The ups and downs of the hike are something we aren’t accustomed to in this flat town of ours; the humidity and following someone carrying a machete might be a bit more familiar.
This was A.J. Turner’s first field trip, and I had to remind myself of that sometimes. It couldn’t have been easy for him to start his career as a tropical biologists hiking through the Darién Gap, but he did well, and I have no concerns that he will do many of these trips well into the future.
There were some scary moments in the field. At one site near a banana plantation I kept hearing the sounds of tree branches falling. We were sampling in very muddy water so I was barefoot in the mud when one of our guides whistled to me to stop, I saw two men come out of the jungle holding machetes. One walked towards me without looking up and then, thankfully, walked past to cut down some plantains. When they talked to our guides – in the Emberá language, not Spanish – they seemed to be giving a warning. Our guides shuffled us out pretty quickly, which was fine with us. The Emberá are friendly but there is still a lingering wariness of outsiders.
We stayed part of our time in the village of Pijibasal and we sampled with the locals in the Río Perresénico and even had an amazingly fun soccer match with dozens of local kids. They also loved seeing our fish specimens. One of our guides even taught us how to fish for some of the armored catfishes with our hands. By feeling around the rocks you could grab them as they were chewing off the algae. I was unable to do this successfully but the rest of the team all caught fish bare handed.
One of my favorite spots was on the Río Pirre. For some reason the rocks were all tinted a deep green, and others were so brittle they broke apart under your feet despite looking otherwise like ordinary stones. At this site Fernando caught one of the most beautiful fish I’ve ever seen, a big bull earth-eater cichlid, Geophagus crassilabris. This fish had giant fleshy red lips and had lost some of his scales – probably old war wounds from fights with other males for territory. He was a beauty.
I was still thinking about the green rocks when we headed to the Cascades near another one of our campsites – Rancho Frío, home of the giant Harpy Eagle. The river was cool, which was a much-wanted relief given how hot and humid it was. We went up to the base of the falls and although the fish weren’t as interesting as down river it was still an adventure. The guides and Fernando, the most dexterous of us, climbed along a steep (and very wet) rock cliff and got on a shelf above the lowest set of falls. They sampled in the pools above – but I wondered how they would get down. I found out when they slid down through the falls! It looked like fun and it was probably one of those things I would have done before I had kids.
On one night our guide Hayro Cunampio went out with my snorkel, diving flashlight and a spear. We watched while he shot spikey armored catfishes (Ancistrus) and big characins that we hadn’t seen earlier in the day. When we turned off our headlamps and watched him floating in the stream with his bright torch against the darkness it looked like he was floating in space. When he came up he mentioned seeing a striped “macana” – which is the local name for electricfishes. We hadn’t seen any of these yet so I asked Fernando which one he means – “Gymnotus” he said. “We better go get it” I replied. My colleague at University of Louisiana Lafayette mentioned that he hoped we get a Gymnotus – something I thought was a weird request because I didn’t think these were in Panama. It turns out that Fernando was the one that discovered they were there with the first record of its discovery in 2012 []. Fernando rushed out and A.J. and I followed to help. Using a cheap portable amplifier with cut wires we were able to translate these electric fish signals into sound. We stuck the cables under root mats and listened for their calls – Fernando understood their language – and could recognize their species by listening to the pattern – by the volume he could even determine their size. I was with him when he heard what he thought was a big Gymnotus deep in the roots, we missed a couple times with the dipnet, and then on one attempt we saw the characteristic striped patterns of Gymnotus. I’ve never seen anyone so happy to get a fish. Fernando leapt and danced across the stream as if Real Madrid had just one the Superbowl – or whatever Fernando’s favorite soccer club wins championships in. I was glad to see such passion for natural history. The fish was gorgeous too, a long dark-green headed relative of the electric eel; it was a fantastic fish and only the second record of the genus in Panama.
After a few more collecting days, we were back in Panama City – we were a disgusting mosquito bitten, unshaved, smelly lot – but happy. The edge of Central America was everything I had hoped for and more. Plus, I got to see my two newest lab members in the field and I couldn’t be happier to have Fernando and A.J. out there with me and back here at LSU.

Monday, July 6, 2015

On the Amazon and Tapajós rivers

Me and James with our former advisor's favorite fish.

In June of this year graduate student Bill Ludt and I went down to Brazil to attend the Evolution meetings and to do a little fieldwork. The Evolution meetings were in Guarajá but we decided to fly up to Santarém (about 6 hours north of Guarajá) to join the lab of Dr. James Albert from the University of Louisiana Lafayette. James and I both were PhD students in the lab of noted ichthyologist Dr. Bill Fink at the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology (UMMZ) but we didn’t overlap as students (he was there a little over 10 years before me). We actually met for the first time in Brazil in 2004 when I was a graduate student attending the Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists in Manaus. He was one of the first people I contacted when I found out I would be coming down to work at LSU. We are good friends and he is one of my favorite colleagues. We recently obtained a grant of nearly $800,000 from the National Science Foundation to work on the systematics of fishes from the Neotropics. We were in Santarém to collect fishes from two beautiful rivers that come together there: the clear waters of the Tapajós, and the brown silt and nutrient filled waters of the Amazon. This is a strange mixing of rivers and the fauna is odd here too, you can find sponges, sea gulls, terns, shrimp, and other organisms you would normally associate with being marine. However, the fish fauna is pure Amazonian and completely dominated by a group called the Ostariophysans. These are your catfishes, characins (things like tetras and piranhas) and electric knifefishes (Gymnotiformes), the latter being the group in which Dr. Albert is the world’s foremost expert; he recently had a paper in Science about the genome of the electric eel (which is not an eel at all, but a gymnotiform). There are also many cichlids down here – together there are more than 5000 species of freshwater fishes in the Amazon – about 1/3 of the world’s total! The catfishes alone are quite amazing – the old saying goes “any old fool knows a catfish” but you’ve never seen them like this before. There are nearly 1000 species down here and they include things like the candirú – the notorious parasite of other catfishes that on occasion has been known to swim up the urethra (yep) or anus of unsuspecting bathers. (We have some on display in the LSU MNS Fish exhibit.) There are actually many species of candirú including some freeliving forms and others that are scavengers. One of the species we collected is best known for being discovered inside human cadavers from some unfortunate souls who lost their lives in the Amazon River.
A species of candirú
            When Bill and I arrived in Santarém, Dr. Albert’s lab was just getting into the hotel from a three-day long boat trip. They looked disgusting and I was really jealous: they were muddy, smelly, and all had big smiles on their faces. The Albert lab had struck out the first two days but hit the jackpot on the last day (the day I saw them). They cleaned up and we headed out to get some caipirinhas to celebrate. Santarém is a sleepy river city that besides being the meeting point of the Tapajós and Amazon rivers is also notable for being next to Henry Ford’s abandoned utopian suburbia, Fordlandia. He created an American style village there for rubber plantation fieldworkers under his imagined idyllic conditions – good English schooling, no drinking, and no women – obviously it didn’t last.
The next morning we first headed out to the local fish market. This was a rather large market with four rows of stalls with fish ranging from small anchovies to giant pirarucu (the bonytongue, arapaima). This was in a large outdoor stall and one of the vendors was even able to call in the famous pink river dolphins with a few fish treats. (There is an old Brazilian myth about how these dolphins don hats at night and hit on the women.) We purchased some of the more notable species and headed out to the water. We walked on to a little chartered boat, “The Calypso,” so named because the captain of the boat was obsessed with this kind of music and about a tenth of the boat was filled by a giant set of speakers and a strobe-light disco ball. James got a great deal on the boat and it fit their trawling net they brought from Lafayette. The captain was also quite knowledgeable about fishing in the area. Besides Bill and I, there was James and four of his students, plus the captain and two helpful staff. It may sound like a lot for a 30ft boat but it was rather comfy. We set up a large trawl net at the back end of the boat and sometimes we would take a smaller boat to set out a long (almost 100ft gill net). The captain always picked me to go out and pull in these gill nets. I felt like the kid in the classroom that the teacher always pushed to test their limits. But I soon realized he picked me because I was the only one who could cast net so he wanted me to cast while we waited for the fish to hit the gillnet. We had a successful first day and Bill and I had a fun time interacting with the Albert lab and the staff on the boat. We headed back to the hotel that night and James and one of his students left the next day for some pre-meeting organizing in São Paulo. (James ran a Parametric Biogeography session for the Evolution Meetings.) It was just me and the students on the boat for the next few days and it was a great time. We teased each other giving each other nicknames – Jack from Los Angeles who showered twice a day was “Hollywood,” Max was YCE because he was a “young Clint Eastwood” – and the rest of the pseudonyms I’ll keep a secret between the fishing crew of the Calypso. Besides the teasing we had a lot of amazing samples come in: piranhas, arowanas, cichlids and of course lots of catfish, knifefish, and tetras.
            The first night we strung up our hammocks and were rudely awakened to a violent storm surge. The winds knocked our hammocks together and the Captain and crew were calm but clearly concerned, they had to “batten down the hatches” on our little 30ft’er and sailed us into safer waters. Around 5am he started getting phone calls on a regular basis as we learned a larger boat owned by the captain’s friend had sank. A similar swell happened the next day, with lightening and thunder forcing us to take cover again. It was a bit disconcerting knowing that you are a bit of a sitting duck in the middle of the remote Amazon far from any other people. We were surprised by the strength of the storms, luckily neither lasted long and we were able to get along with our business.
     I loved fishing for little small things on our little side boat we were pulling along the Calypso. We collected many of the cichlids and bony tongues this way and some other rare things. One of my favorites times was going out at night with just a dinky flashlight to small patches of reeds, we were often remarkable successful with just a dipnet and a castnet. Often while I was out on the little boat the rest of the group used hook-and-line to pull in a catch. The crew of the boat, particularly “Donnie” our cook, was quite adept at catching large piranha. One of these, the black piranha (Serrasalmus rhombeus) was such a nice specimen with beautiful interlocking teeth that without thinking I tagged it and sank it into formalin; I realized later that Donnie had intended to cook that fish that night. I felt awful but hopefully made up for it by bringing in other fishes for dinner.
    On our last night out we were pleasantly surprised by the captain finally putting on his speakers and setting the volume to 11. Luckily we were in such a remote place that there was no one that could complain about the noise. He even put on his strobe-light disco ball. We brought some caipirinhas and beers to the roof of the boat and watched the stars and the dense forest around us.
After a few days of not showering and getting muddy and smelly we were glad to be brought back on shore in Santarém. I was ecstatic for our adventures and still feel so lucky to get to do this for a living as part of my job at the LSU MNS.

Monday, May 18, 2015

On Being A Natural History Curator

I’ve wanted to be a curator ever since I learned that it was a real job. What I’ve learned since is that “curator” can mean many things depending on where it is being applied. At the Natural History Museum in London for instance the people called “curators” are what most people at a U.S. museum would call “collection’s managers” while they call “researchers” those who we would call “curators.” (Don’t worry it will get more confusing.) Most people in the academic museum community (I include in “museum” things like herbariums, etc.) view curatorial positions as generally doing some or all of the following: (1) managing (overseeing) a collection, (2) doing collections-based research (3) building a collection via fieldwork, (4) managing loans and gifts from these collections, (5) maintaining these collections (everything from replacing old jars and labels to upgrading the data-basing software). Most curators do some but not all these things because some of these duties fall on the collection’s staff including collection’s managers and graduate curatorial assistants (if they have the luxury of having such help). Most curators are doing collections-based research, which can include everything from range expansion documentation, to taxonomy (descriptions of new species, revisionary systematics), to cutting-edge evolutionary or ecological studies.
            Curatorial positions are often highly sought after because, as oppose to many other academic positions, they can require little or no teaching, can include time for fieldwork, and are often viewed as more fun than your typical arm-chair or strictly lab-based science. It should be noted that many people do fieldwork that aren’t curators, and some curators do little fieldwork (shame on them). Also some curatorial positions have the same teaching load as “regular” professors, but most have a reduced load. We curators sometimes joke that our duties include 50% research, 50% teaching and 50% curation. It is true that we receive little credit for good curation, but the same may be said about teaching well. It is really nearly 100% research that is being evaluated for someone on the tenure-track; however, rather than being a burden, a collection for a curator is a major research tool. A curator can use the products of fieldwork and past collections to investigate deep Earth history or broad biological questions. When stable isotope researchers investigating pollution in the Great Lakes need samples of whitefish from the past 150 years, they can do so knowing that the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology has many such specimens. When someone thinks they may have a new species of woodpecker they can visit the many museums that have closely related species to their putative new taxon for comparison. The geographic variation, color morphs, sexual dimorphism, ontogenetic variation, etc., present in many of the species on Earth are housed in collections somewhere. Not to mention that much of the DNA and RNA based work being done on animal, plant, fungal and microbial life is based on collections. Because curators are the experts on a particular taxon, they are often insuring that the correct scientific identification is connected to the specimen. Without collections and curators a lab tech that doesn’t know a coelacanth from a goldfish might report scientific findings from the wrong species. (This happens more often that you think as tissue samples from specimens that are not vouchered in a collection get used more and more often – see more on that HERE]
            Some curators at university-based museums (like LSU, Michigan, Berkeley, Yale, Harvard to name a few) are professors in academic departments at those universities. These can be 100% academic appointments where the curator is seen as a full time member of both the museum and the department, or part time appointments (e.g., 50%). These appointments typically mean part or all of the pay, teaching and service obligations rest within the larger academic department. Some university-based museums are completely autonomous and are their own separate unit (usually with some adjunct status with another academic department). Some museums are completely public without any official connection to a university (e.g., Smithsonian, American Museum of Natural History). The role curators are playing at each of these institutions can be highly variable but generally include the five duties described above.
            I’m still not exactly sure how I lucked out at getting a curatorial position. I suppose if I were to give advice to someone wanting to become a curator that I would say a few things I did might have put me on the right track. Training at a museum as an undergrad, grad student or postdoc will put you in touch with the relatively small museum community. There aren’t that many jobs in museums, but there are fewer people qualified and competing for a position like “curator of amphibians and reptiles” than say “ecologist.” The latter may get hundreds of applications at a typical university, curatorial positions typically have less than 50 applicants, and of those maybe 10 have the collections-based research experience to be considered. Doing fieldwork, publishing work based on collections, and being a curatorial assistant as a grad student can help you get that collections-based experience. As with applying for any job publishing lots of good papers, speaking at conferences and getting grants will certainly get you on the fast track to a job. However, papers alone won’t get you a curatorial position unless you also have a collections-based research program to promote.

I was lucky enough to give a TEDx talk about natural history collections recently, view it here Also is you want to learn more about curation or collections, please feel free to contact me for advice, I will try my give you a frank answer or point you in the direction of a real expert.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Back to the Middle East for more Fishes

Some fish identified and labelled in English and Arabic by students.
Bill Ludt and I returned to the Middle East this April going back to Kuwait and adding Abu Dhabi to make our regional collections. Again, we had the wonderful LSU alum Dr. Jim Bishop host us.  Jim organized and had specimens waiting for us collected by Kuwaiti research vessels in advance of our arrival. We also were asked to present a five-day short course at the Kuwait Institute of Scientific Research (KISR) titled “Taxonomy and Identification of Fishes from the Arabian Gulf” – teaching this course allowed us to pay for this trip and make our collections which otherwise would have been impossible. Each morning we lectured from 9 to 11:30, and each afternoon we held two-hour labs. It was exhausting but fulfilling work, for both the instructors and students. In the lectures we covered topics ranging from taxonomy, systematics, and museum studies of fishes, to early explorers of the region (Jim’s section) and the geology of the Arabian Gulf (Bill’s section). In the lab we sorted the collections made in the previous weeks by a KISR research vessel, and the students learned to use keys and identification guides to put scientific names on each specimen. They also created their own characters to help with identification. There were 19 students in all, many of them from KISR but some coming from as far away as Oman and the United Arab Emirates. The first language of all the students was Arabic, and although they all spoke English, the language used in field guides can be quite obscure even to a native English speaker. My job was to help them understand the regional guides and to help them personalize their own guide to fishes from the region. I pointed out to them the oddity that an American was teaching them about their fishes, but LSU has one of the best recent collections of Persian Gulf fishes in the world (thanks to our past efforts). I also pressed upon them the need to create a reference collection of vouchered fishes somewhere in Kuwait. No natural history collection exists anywhere in the Arabian Peninsula (the nearest one is in Iran). I pointed out to them that if there is loss of species from an oil spill or climate change, that there is only institutional memory to make note of the shifting or declining diversity. A reference collection could help keep better track of the changing diversity.

Students seining in Kuwait Bay.                                                      Dissection of a butterflyray.

            We went through nearly 100 species from the Gulf during the class. Bill and I brought back hundreds of specimens and tissue samples to LSU, many of which are new to collections (we sampled 100 different species last year). With Kuwait having only about 350 species, we now have many of those at LSU.
Early morning fish market.
The High Line at NYU Abu Dhabi.
            After the course was completed Bill and I flew to the United Arab Emirates to the newly built New York University, Abu Dhabi (NYU) campus. As a New Yorker I spent much of my teenage years loafing around lower Manhattan trying to decide what fun thing to do. The area around NYU was where all the cool college kids hung around and as an awkward high schooler it looked like paradise. Now as a grizzled, rapidly aging professor, NYU Abu Dhabi looked a lot like academic paradise. It was a relatively small campus (<25 buildings) but arranged in a beautiful way with the top floors connected by an overpass walkway that was a replica of the famous High Line in New York. The dorms, labs, and classrooms had an ultramodern design and it appeared that no expense was spared. No expense, it seemed, was ever spared in Abu Dhabi; buildings were being put up as fast as weeds in a Louisiana garden. We saw the sites of new Louvre and Guggenheim museums being built along with dozens of new skyscrapers. It was a sight to behold. We were hosted by the lab of Dr. John Bert an NYU faculty member who works on the local marine fauna (mostly corals). Each day Bill and I ventured out to the local fish market, which was luckily quite expansive, and got a fair sampling of the regional fauna (around 40 species) over the course of several days. One day we ventured out at 5am to see the fish come in and it was quite an amazing sight. There were many hundreds of groupers, butterfish, mackerel, and other important food fishes being auctioned off for sale throughout the region. Unfortunately for us, there was little bycatch (the left over unsold and undesirable fish that typically have a great diversity from which to sample). Many of the fishes being sold were caught by traps and so there is a limit to the range of species being collected. This limit may be good for the environment but not so great for a visiting ichthyologist. Bill and I spent our afternoons sorting, identifying and prepping the specimens, which we did in a beautiful shared molecular lab space. In past trips we are often stuck stinking up a hotel bathroom with formalin and rapidly decomposing fish; in this luxurious lab setting we wore fresh new white lab coats and prepped under a fume hood.
            Teaching the fish course and getting the collections from Abu Dhabi and Kuwait led Bill and I to come up with some pretty good ideas for additional research projects. We are again in discussions to return to the region for sometime next year. Stay tuned for more about our Middle Eastern adventures in the future.
Jim showing some beautiful fish plates from a historical regional book.
            None of this again would be possible without the help of Jim Bishop, who not only was extraordinary in his efforts to get us fish and the right connections throughout the region, but with his wife Ginni put us up at their home and fed us like we were part of their family. Thanks Jim and Ginni!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Caving in Northern Alabama

     In May I felt the twinge of wanderlust that sometimes takes over me: I needed to get out into the wilderness, and see things others had not seen. Luckily I received an invite to do just that, even though it was in perhaps the most ordinary place on Earth - Scottsboro, Alabama. It was a place I knew little about, that perhaps few besides its own residents know much about. But this was a wonderful place; home to the southern most stretch of the Appalachians, it looks like something closer to the Smoky Mountains than the bayou. The fog is thick, the mountains tall and verdant, the air a refreshing cool. I was here to go caving and, of course, to look for cavefish.
            Louisiana has caves, but no cavefish - a great disappointment. Alabama has caves, and perhaps an undescribed diversity of cavefishes - a great surprise. I’d fallen in love with caves in Madagascar, where I had first encountered them. I had been wholly unprepared then. Those Malagasy caves, full of strange life – odd birds, angry eels, giant-white-hairy spiders, big snappy crustaceans - was so new and unknown that I thought I was in Conan Doyle’s ‘Lost World.’ Madagascar got me hooked on caves for life. When Dr. Matthew Niemiller, one of the world’s preeminent young cave biologists, invited me to “no-where Alabama,” I happily accepted.
A little blind cave crawfish. I did not eat it, but I thought about it.
            Scottsboro is relatively close to Tuscaloosa; home to our LSU football (if not academic rivals) at the University of Alabama. I stopped over to visit their Museum of Natural History on my drive up from Baton Rouge. I found their museum quite beautiful, and their fish collections (in another building) in a much better housing than my own. I was glad to see our rivals on their own turf; and I was quite envious of their collections space and the wonderful Randy Singer, their collections manager, who was showing me around. After that brief visit I continued my drive to northern Alabama. I knew I was in cave country when the thick fog rolled in, I started to see limestone in the rock formations, and my car was pushing the limits climbing steep mountain passes.
            Our target was Limrock Cave, and Dr. Niemiller and colleagues from Auburn joined me near there in Scottsboro. Auburn recently provided their fish curator, Jon Armbruster, with a new building of which I am also extremely envious. (I hope someone out there is getting the hint.) Jon brought along his students Pam Hart and Charles Stephen. I met up with them that first night and was amazed to learn that Charles had not only also went to McGill University like me for undergrad, but also the same tiny Macdonald College campus. He studies pseudoscorpions, of which I know nothing, to his and my great disappointment. These little critters are very cool, especially, like most other things, the cave adapted forms.
            After gearing up and a short hike we were at our target, Limrock Blowing Cave. It was pretty amazing. Rather than the homogenous setting I expected from a North American cave there was quite a lot of habitat diversity, with deep mud in some spots, long windy paths, cool clear water in streams and pools, boulders in collapsed sections (“breakdowns”), narrow passages we could barely squeeze through and great big stalagmite and stalactite chandeliers in large open spaces - and always that utterly complete darkness and silence. Thank goodness for our headlamps and spare batteries. I would occasionally turn off the light and sit quietly just to take in how very dark, cold and quiet it was. The entire cave was nearly 10,000 feet in length, with lots of odd turns, tight crawls, high waters, and cold temperatures to give you enough of a thrill to make you feel like you are on an adventure. But there were also a great many cave animals, wholly unfamiliar to me. We looked for everything, insects, crawfish, spiders, salamanders and fish. We found a great many of these. What we didn’t find are bats; there was plenty of evidence that they were once there in great numbers but they became extirpated due to the scourge of the deadly white-nose syndrome.
Charles in a tight spot.
            Earlier this year Matthew and I described a new species of cavefish from Indiana, that we named Amblyopisis hoosieri, the Hoosier Cavefish. This odd creature garnered us some press because according to some reporters it looks like the human male’s reproductive organ. It is also the first cavefish described from the U.S. in 40 years and its anus is positioned directly behind its head – an odd place even for a fish (some reporters dubbed this a “neck anus”). North America actually has a great many cavefish species, at least compared to the poorly known stygobitic fauna of the rest of the globe. Matthew, on the strength of DNA evidence noted that the cavefish from north of the Ohio River (in Indiana) were quite distinct from those from south of the river (in Kentucky). This evidence set up an easy species description based on morphology of the new Indiana species to distinguish it from the species in Kentucky. It was also pleasing to name a new fish species after the birthplace of American ichthyology. We named the new species, Amblyopsis hoosieri after the “Hoosiers” of Indiana University because the new species is found very close to IU and because David Starr Jordan had once been university president. Jordan is also the most recent common academic ancestor to most, if not all, practicing North American ichthyologists. (He also was a social Darwinist, and may have killed off the founder of Stanford University shortly after he took over as president of that university.) In addition, the first female ichthyologist, Rosa Smith Eigenmann, wife of another noted Indiana ichthyologist, Carl Eigenmann, were also at IU. We named the new Indiana species to make note of the strong influence of IU on American ichthyology. I wanted to collect some of these North American cavefish for the first time so I travelled to Scottsboro, Alabama.
Target organism captured.
            Again we saw a great many cave adapted species from salamanders, to blind pigment-free crawfish, to Charles’s pseudoscorpions, to machete-wielding-Alabama hill people. I wore a double-layered wet suit with kneepads, helmet and lamp and I was sort of prepared for the cold and darkness of the cave, still I was having too much fun to notice any discomfort. We were after Typhlichthys subterraneus, which oddly for a cavefish is found in a rather wide and disjunct distribution. We found only three specimens all within an hour time span of the five hours we were in the cave. Each capture was thrilling. These blind depigmented thumb-sized fish were not hard to capture once you found them: a quick flick of the dip net was enough to bag one. Being blind and not used to predators chasing them, they were basically sitting ducks. I had the privilege of being there when two of them were caught. (I can claim only a single assist when I whiffed after kicking up one cavefish out of the depths with my boots, and which Jon Armbruster deftly captured– he caught all three.) It was a great deal of cold, wet, fun.
            Scientifically, it is unclear the significance of these specimens as of yet and I should say this is a Master’s students project at Auburn. I can say I am hooked again on cavefish and have some interesting Mexican material I can’t wait to tell you about. I’ll save that for another time…..