Monday, June 30, 2014

Can’t wait to get back to Kuwait: Fishes from the Arabian Gulf

Bill Ludt, Jim Bishop and me in downtown Kuwait City.
From June 13th to the 22nd my PhD student, Bill Ludt, and I travelled to Kuwait to collect fishes for the LSU Museum of Natural Science ichthyology collection. (This was the 3rd trip that Bill and I have now made to Asia in the last two years.) Over my career I’ve made collections from much of the Indo-West Pacific but am lacking some critical Middle East collections. The Middle East is underrepresented in most fish collections worldwide and because many of the species from the region are poorly known there is a potential that some of them are new to science. When Dr. Jim Bishop invited us to go to Kuwait last year I knew it would be an opportunity we shouldn’t pass up.
            Jim Bishop is familiar to many people in the LSU community; he is an alumnus and a great sponsor of art and research at Louisiana State University. Jim has a wonderful enthusiasm about the work being done at the museum, and he has provided many specimens to our collections in the past. He is also one of the most cultured, kind, and energetic individuals I have ever met. Bill and I were lucky enough to stay with Jim and his wonderful wife Virginia at their home in Kuwait City. We frankly could not have figured our way out of the local airport without them, let alone find the fishes we were targeting. Kuwait is an interesting country with a rich and ancient history that was transformed by the unimaginable wealth that came about through the oil industry. All throughout the places we visited you can see this dichotomy between an ancient desert civilization and a transitioning modern society. The temperature was rarely below 100 degrees even at night, and frequently much higher - this was the desert after all, but the roadways were green with introduced shrubbery that was irrigated with desalinated seawater. Locals wore traditional Islamic garbs (abbeys for women, dishdashas for men) but there were also many expats from India, Syria and the West. It wasn’t always clear when we were seeing the real Kuwait or just the veneer around it.
Bill Ludt rocking the guitarfish.
            Our first days were spent going through the many collections Jim had already obtained for us. Through his work at KISR (Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research) he was able to arrange for specimens of notable material to be held for our visit. These specimens were collected by boat trawls in and around the Arabian Gulf (what we call the Persian Gulf) over the past few years. By the end of the first day we had already gone through hundreds of samples that were a very good representation of Kuwait’s ichthyofauna. Jim had meticulous notes for these materials and much of it was preserved in alcohol (rather than fixed in formalin) so we were able to take DNA samples as well. The majority of the materials that we brought back to LSU are these collections from KISR. We also made substantial collections from the local fish markets, which included material from Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The local fishmongers sold an amazing variety of species on a daily basis. Although the exact localities of this material will remain unknown it was nice to get additional material from around region. We also did some collecting of samples from the oceans ourselves going out at low tide to collect blennies, gobies and toadfishes from the sandy intertidal zone.
Mudskipper: a fish that doesn't mind being out of water.
We were also able to catch a few mudskippers on one of our last collecting days; these fishes are among my favorite animals to catch, and my least favorite fish to anesthetize. These fishes, which spend most of their time out of the water, are incredibly cute, with big bulgy eyes at the top of their heads and an expressive “face” that makes them look like muppets. They live in muddy areas and keep water trapped in their gills while they scurry about the surface building territories and escape routes. The mud they live in is hard to traverse and the larger individuals were in waist deep mud that made it impossible for us to catch them. We stuck mostly to the shoreline trying to catch smaller individuals. Even these small ones are amazingly adept at getting away. We saw hundreds of these mudskippers and ended up catching only about ten. We were covered in mud by the end of the day and the incredible heat made the conditions rather harsh but ‘mudskippering’ is always great fun.
            All in all we brought back close to 80 species from Kuwait and the Arabian Gulf and roughly 300 new tissue samples and close to 500 specimens. We also built an important relationship with the folks at KISR. Jim invited me to give a presentation there and my talk, “What We Learned from the 2010 Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill: and other projects from Louisiana State University” was well received.  We have also started some collaborative projects with researchers at KISR. We are trying to arrange making a short course in ichthyology that Bill and I would teach sometime in the spring at KISR, and hopefully we will try to sample from other parts of the Middle East as well. In fact this article is hopefully just the first of many we will produce from these trips to the birthplace of civilization.
A stonefish, the most venomous of all fishes.