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!