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!