Friday, December 27, 2013

Piranha Frenzy or just Media Frenzy?

Piranhas did not "attack" 70+ people in Argentina on Christmas day in a feeding frenzy; the only frenzy here is the news medias desire to report this story (ABC, Fox, Discovery, BBC, etc. have all reported it). From what I can gather, several people, one a young girl, were bitten in the Parana River near Rosario, Argentina. Some people may have lost parts of (and perhaps entire) digits according to some of the reports. The Parana River does have piranhas but none at the scene said it was piranhas, but rather ‘palometas.’ Piranhas in a feeding frenzy can consume animals as large as humans in seconds, but they are very picky about their food source and reports of human attacks are few (see paper here). Most people who lose a finger to a piranha have lost it after mishandling it on a hook or in a net out of the water. Piranhas in a frenzy will take off more than your finger tip. Several news agencies report the fishes are “palometas’ and show images or mention a common species of jack; however, all jacks are marine so they wouldn’t be in the freshwaters of the Parana River. Pygocentrus palometa was described as a Venezuelan piranha species that is likely not a valid species (see Catalog of Fishes), and not known from Argentina. My guess is a few people were bitten by other biting tetras common to the area (Hoplias?); these bites may have scared lots of other people out of the water.

[UPDATE: I do think these were piranha bites now, having talked to some fellow ichthyologists. These were probably defensive bites from one of the local species they call palometas - Serrasalmus maculatus, S. spilopleura, or Pygocentrus nattereri]

Piranha 3D is a great movie, but it is not real.

Given the high temperatures of the day perhaps more people were bathing than usual and if the area is dammed, as much of the Parana is, the fish may have felt trapped, especially if breeding. These fishes were likely biting as a defense from the many people in the crowded water. If piranhas want to eat something, they will do so quite thoroughly, they won't peck. They will bite to protect themselves and that is not what I would call an "attack."

How this became an international media story is another mystery, but the name of the river likely caused some to guess that piranhas were the culprits. That, and some good pics of people with bloody toes.

Unfortunately, it does sound like some people were hurt, I hope they recover quickly. However, the news media should be accountable for the many errors in this sensationalized story.

Monday, August 5, 2013

On Sarcopterygii


Sarcopterygii, or the lobe-finned fishes, includes the coelacanths, lungfishes, fishes involved in the transition to land, and all tetrapods (mammals, amphibians, and reptiles [the birds, turtles, crocodiles, and squamates]). The lobe-finned fishes are Devonian in age and the sister group to Actinopterygii, or ray-finned fishes. Actinopterygii and Sarcopterygii are nearly of equal size (c. 30,000 spp. each). Actinopterygii is dominated by the teleost fishes, just as Sarcopterygii is dominated by tetrapods. In this essay, the focus will be the non-tetrapod members of Sarcopterygii, as I study fishes; however, it is worth noting many of the skeletal elements and organ systems of tetrapods originated in our aquatic sarcopterygian ancestors.  Had actinopterygians been the group to take charge as the vertebrate class to dominate land, terrestrial vertebrates would look very different.  It is likely that we would breathe through our mouths alone or through our skin, be much smaller, and be hugging the ground with soft rays holding us up against gravity rather than digits and wrist bones. It was the advent of internal nostrils, or choanae, in aquatic sarcopterygians that permitted us to breathe through our noses;
The rare ray-finned fish that can "walk" on land, the mudskipper. Image from
likewise, our forelimb and hindlimb bones all originated with lobe-finned fishes. As it were, the story of the water to land transition is remarkably well known given an excellent series of transitional fossils that fill the steps in the gap between “fishes” and early tetrapods. Some of these intermediate fossils, like the famous Tiktallik rosea, tell us about the evolution of everything from the “neck” to the origin of sturdy ribs and limbs. Luckily for us, there are still extant aquatic lobe-finned fishes. Although they were not directly involved in the terrestrial transition, they can tell us a great deal about how ancient lobed-fins lived. Today only lungfishes and coelacanths survive as the aquatic members of this lineage. These two forms themselves have continued to evolve from our common ancestor, and they each have an amazing array of novelties.

Evolution and Systematics
            Coelacanths belong to Actinistia (or Coelacanthimorpha), which has a long fossil record (Mid-Devonian to Late Cretaceous) and that is species rich relative to the two species extant today (83 valid fossil species in nine worldwide families). Members of Actinistia are easily recognized by their tri-lobed diphycercal tail (the vertebral column enters the middle lobe). Known as fossils from both marine and freshwater deposits, they were thought to have gone extinct over 65 million years ago, until a living species was discovered in 1938 to much fanfare. (The discovery of both living species have spectacular stories behind them. See
          Lungfishes are members of Dipnoi (themselves part of the larger group Porolepimorpha, largely made up of extinct forms). This clade also evolved in Early Devonian freshwaters, and is represented in the fossil record by more than 100 species in more than 50 genera. Their great fossil record of lungfishes was likely aided by their ability to estivate. These fishes can protect themselves from drought by building a mucous-mud cocoon. They enter periods of estivation that in modern forms can last up to four years; many individuals in the past have expired waiting for that next rain. These individuals and their cocoons make for spectacular, if plaintive, fossils. From fossil forms, we see a trend toward the reduction of bone (in the skull, scales, and fins). Unique plate-like grinding toothplates easily help place extinct and extant forms as each other’s closest relatives.
            Tetrapodomorphs are the intermediate forms between the first tetrapods to conquer land and their piscine ancestors. They are all limbed, extinct early Devonian forms, and air-breathers. They include Osteolepimorpha (rhipidistians), Rhizodontiformes, and Elpistostegalians. It is the tetrapodomorphs, in particular the Elpistostegalians (which includes Tiktallik) and not coelacanths or lungfishes, that are the closest relatives to tetrapods.  

A modern day coelacanth, Latimeria chalumnae.

Physical Characteristics

Both lungfishes and coelacanths can reach large sizes, approaching 2 m, although lungfishes are much more slender bodied. Both groups have a number of derived features that make each group unique. Coelacanths have a special rostral electroreceptive organ, a vertebral column that is secondarily reduced, no maxilla, and an intercranial joint found in many extinct fish lineages but no other living species. Coelacanths have only external nostrils (no choanae) and a large fat-filled gas bladder (no lung). These two latter features have been used by some authors as evidence that these fishes are ancestral to lungfishes (which have both lungs and choanae), but these primitive features may have more to do with the current ecology of these animals than their biological history.

            There are three extant families of lungfishes: Ceratodontidae of Australia, Lepidosirenidae of South America, and Protopteridae of Africa.  Lungfishes are easily recognized by their continuous rear fins that connect their dorsal, caudal, and anal fins.  The Australian Lungfish (Neoceratodus forsteri) has a number of pleisiomorphic morphological features that resemble fossil forms more so than the other extant lineages. Instead of the tiny worm-like fins of the other species, the Australian form has broad flat fins, large scales, and unpaired lungs (versus small scales and paired lungs in the other taxa). Lungfishes eat both plant and animal material, including ray-finned fishes and invertebrates.

Reproductive Biology

              Coelacanths are ovoviviparous; they retain eggs in the body cavity. The young hatch and develop internally. African and South American lungfishes make nests where females lay eggs, and males guard the nests. The Australian species lays its eggs on aquatic plants. The African and South American forms have young with large external gills that often cause them to be mistaken for salamanders.


               The conservation status of most lungfishes is poorly known, but the Australian lungfish is uncommon, confined to just four rivers in Queensland.

Among coelacanths, Latimeria chalumnae is found off the eastern to southeastern coast of Africa and around the Comoros Islands and Madagascar, and L. menadoensis is only known from Sulawesi, Indonesia. Coelacanths are found at depths beyond the range of most artisanal fishermen (150 to 253m), but accidental capture occurs frequently enough that some estimate that as much as 5% of the adult population is captured annually. Coelacanths aggregate and rest in caves; they may be limited by the number of these sites that are available.  

Significance to Humans

               As Moyle and Cech state, “probably no single event in the history of ichthyology has received more public attention than the discovery of the coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae) in 1938.” The discovery of this large, deep sea, limbed, fish-link-to-man made for fantastic headlines.  Lungfishes, too, have a spectacular mix of features that make them popular aquarium fishes. Both sarcopterygian fish clades are important to humans for their unique position on the other side of the coin to the vertebrate transition to land.


Bemis, W.E, Burggren, W.W., Kemp, N.E. (1987) The biology and evolution of lungfishes. Alan R. Liss, Inc., New York.

Carroll, R.L. 1996. Vertebrate paleontology and evolution. W.H. Freeman. New York.

Helfman, G.S., Collette, B.B, Facey, D.E., Bowen, B.W. 2009. The diversity of fishes, 2nd ed. Wiley Blackwell, West Sussex, UK.

Moyle, P.B., and Cech Jr., J.J. (2004) Fishes, an introduction to ichthyology, 5th edition. Prentice Hall, New Jersey.

Musick, J.A., Bruton, M.N., Balon, E.K. (1991) The biology of Latimeria chalumnae and             evolution of coelacanths.  Environmental Biology of Fishes 32, 1-435.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Interview with Edward Drinker Cope and End Cheer at the Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists 2013 Banquet

The real E.D. Cope
The following is text from the final banquet of the Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists meeting in July 2013 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I was MC and brought up a very special guest played by Brian Sidlauskas. (PC: Prosanta Chakrabarty; Cope text in italics)

PC: On this 100th anniversary of our journal Copeia, I'd like to call our namesake, and Bruce Collette’s college roomate, Edward Drinker Cope.

PC: Dr. Cope what an absolute honor it is to have you up here with us. You look remarkably well preserved for someone who has been dead for more than 120yrs and sick for 150.

COPE: Yes, yes, it must be an honor for yall - not everyday that you get to meet the Neotype of your own species.

By the way has someone seen my skull The knucklehead that made me the Neotype borrowed it from the Academy in Philadelphia and never brought it back. I thought Lundberg and Sabaj would have found it by now. Has anyone checked Lundberg’s office?

PC: Well I'd like to ask you what you think about the the journal Copeia.

COPE: Well I am pleased by the honor but I wish our impact factor was a whole number. I mean my personal H-index is higher than all of Copeia! Couldn’t you have named a better journal after me like Science or Nature or maybe Herpetologica?

PC: How about the ASIH society are we living up to your name?

Well I would be remiss not to mention that I have still published more papers than everyone in this room combined.

Tom Near (Yale Professor): Othniel C. Marsh says they are mostly crap descriptions

COPE: Stuff it Yale boy, go cuddle with your grand pappy Marsh!

PC: Fellas, fellas, take it easy, let's get back to the questions here. Dr. Cope what do you think of the next generation of ichthyologists and herpetologists here today, the students. Can you speak directly to them.

COPE: Well I think they are bunch of sissies – that’s what I think if you really want to know. All I hear is "I'll never get a job, there are no curator positions, nah, nah, nah”

You think I had a job? I turned down jobs so I could do field work. I had to buy the house next to me to even have a place to store my specimens. Besides even Chakrabarty got a friggin job – obviously they’ll hire anyone these days.

The ghost of E.D. Cope as played by Brian Sidlauskas

PC: Uh thanks, I guess. They are supposedly making a movie called Bone Wars about your career and rivalry with Marsh. Marsh was set to be played by James Gandofini until his recent passing. What do you think of being played by Steve Carrel?

COPE: Just dandy I suppose. Marsh was going to be played by Tony Soprano and I get the 4th male lead in Anchorman 2. Maybe that Gandolfini is dead they can replace Marsh with an actor with a closer resemblance. Maybe Snooki from Jersey Shore or the chubby kid from Jerry McGuire.

I just hope they don’t say anything about all my STD’s like they did in the book.

PC: Well I gotta ask would you like to clear up the rumor that you regularly dipped your, uhh…member…in formaldehyde to ease the symptoms of syphilis.

COPE: That is an utter falsehood [slams fist on table!]

I only dipped half my penis in formaldehyde.....

Although it was the back half.

Okay then Dr. Cope thank for clearing that up I guess. Thank you again for being such an inspiration to the society.

COPE: By the way I have not seen a penny of the dues as royalties for that matter. You know the Academy didn’t want to pay me either and I’ve been cursing them since. If you ever want your impact factor to be above one I suggest you pay up. I accept payment in drinks remember my middle name is Drinker!

-      Now I’m afraid that this has gone on long enough. I actually submitted a 1/2 page species description to Copeia and I just got 18 pages of reviewer comments back, including accusations of character assassination, specimen theft, collecting without an approved IACUC protocol and destruction of field sites with dynamite. Lies, all of it!  I have a rebuttal to write.

-       I also have to go check my H-index. Anyway - adios for Albuquerque, and don’t forget those drinks later for Edward Drinker. 

Prosanta and E.D. Cope toasting and roasting.

LATER ON THAT EVENING....Cope's parts in italics

It has been a great meeting. At this time I want to bring up Dr. Cope once again….to help me with a toast, so please raise a glass and drink!

Here’s to 100yrs of Copeia

A hundred years of cheers, a hundred years of beers
A hundred years of graduate student tears

Here’s to Copeia..

Here’s to 15page reviews for 5 page species descriptions

Here’s to cold blooded lower vertebrates and mass extinctions

Here’s to Copeia, the finest fish and herp journal in the land

Here’s to Copeia the ONLY fish and herp journal in the land

Here’s to 100 more years of our beautiful journal being fresh and new

The first edition was stapled together, the last one will be too

TOGETHER: Well 3 cheers for Copeia. May you last forever and never die!

Nah, nah, nah, hey, hey, hey, goodbye!!!

Goodbye Albuquerque! 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Ichthyology trip to Japan: Conference Piggybacking

At the end of June, my PhD student Bill Ludt and I went to Okinawa for the 9th Indo-Pacific Fish Conference (IPFC), and then traveled to Tokyo to do a market survey and collection at the famous Tsukiji Market. The IPFC is held every 4 years and it is a mix of an ichthyology and evolution conferences that is important for everyone working on fishes in the region. This year’s conference was particularly important for me because it included a Percomorph Symposium that dealt with higher-level fish systematics and included a series of well-known and well-respected speakers (obviously I wasn’t invited to speak), and it was one of the most important single days in systematic ichthyology signaling in a paradigm shift in our discipline.
Bill Ludt:Tuna Hunter
        The meeting is typically held in an interesting and beautiful location that is usually a great spot for collecting fishes too. The last IPFC in 2009 was in Perth, Australia; at that meeting I was able to get away to collect cavefish from Exmouth in the northern part of the country. This year’s conference was relatively small, with only 500 people, but it is a great conference for networking with other like-minded scientists. Both Bill and I left with several new collaborations that we are truly excited about.
Okinawa is at the southern reaches of Japan, closer to Taipei, Taiwan than to Tokyo and with a rich history of its own. (It may be fighting for its independence as a sovereign nation in the near future.) The conference center was a few steps from a beach and a crystal clear blue ocean, but there was little time to enjoy it. The talks were fantastic and groundbreaking with lots of new systematic efforts highlighting new molecular techniques. The next generation of sequencing is here and I was very excited to talk about ultraconserved elements and our project on using massively parallel sequencing to resolve the basal relationships of Ostariophysi (a group of 10,000 species that includes catfishes, electric knifefishes, tetras, piranhas, goldfish, and over 70% of freshwater fishes; this lineage alone represents 1 in every 6 species of vertebrate). After a few years of giving talks about projects I had just recently published I loved talking about something so fresh that I didn’t have results to talk about until a week before we were set to leave. Bill on the other hand was much better prepared and he gave an excellent talk on Prionurus, a group of surgeonfishes (so named because of razor sharp barbs near their tail). This genus of seven species are distributed in cold waters in disjunct areas that are essentially anti-tropical. Bill presented a dated phylogeny that helped explain their evolutionary history and unusual distribution. Directly following his talk several very well known scientists approached him and I was proud of him as he began making a name for himself in the fish world.
Tsukiji Market.
Bluefin tuna auction.
After the conference Bill and I flew up to Tokyo, which was another world all together. As a New York City kid that thinks he is well traveled (Japan was my 24th country visited) I was surprised by how mesmerized I was by this ultramodern city that still had plenty of old world charm. The largest city in the world humbled me in its size, diversity and culture. Along with exploring a new city, our main goal was to collect as many species as we could at the world’s largest fish market, Tsukiji. This is home of the world famous bluefin tuna auction where last year a single individual sold for 1.7 million dollars. The bluefin is highly endangered and could go extinct by the next decade or so. Sought after for its crimson meat that is a result of a countercurrent circulation that endows this great species with the ability to travel at amazing speeds also has made it one of the most sought after national resources in the world. Bluefin are flown in from around the world and I’ve actually seen individuals collected in Sri Lanka that would quickly make their way to Tokyo via private jet. Bill and I couldn’t resist heading to the market at 3am to observe the proceedings. The auction doesn’t take place until 5am but in order to get in to see the trading of bluefin you need to be ahead of the pack. The auction itself is rather quaint despite the high stakes: gentlemen (I saw no female participants) with flashlights and dower faces looked closely at the exposed red meat of the tunas like a mechanic evaluating the engine of a Lamborghini. The huge fish sold quickly and we were ushered away just as fast. Tsukiji itself was a bit of a disappointment to me. As the world’s largest fish market I was expecting to find a large assortment of species that boatmen were delivering directly to the wholesalers. In large markets in Thailand and Taiwan I saw enormous ships bring in thousands (if not millions) of fish to the banks and saw sellers buying up what they could: what they didn’t want was discarded in large piles. These large piles hide an exceptionally diverse assortment of rare species and often included deep-sea creatures that would be very difficult to get otherwise. Deep-sea research vessels can charge upwards of $30K a day, but at the bycatch trash piles the fish are free and the hard work is done for you. Unfortunately, Tsukiji is a different monster all together. The market is only open to the public from 9-10am. The rest of the time from 5am, the wholesalers are packing up specimens that are being brought in from all over the world and setting them up to be shipped out to other locations around the world. It is more of a post office sorting center than the all-purpose warehouse I expected. So that meant I found no bycatch pile and only fish that are being eating and sold for a profit. Many of the vendors’ booths, and there were over 100 of them, would not sell to us because they only sold 10kg at a time or some other fixed weight. We had a bit more luck when we explained we were scientists but because we came when the annoying tourists were also there we got many strange looks and curt replies when we inquired about purchasing the different species. In the end we only ended up with about 30 species and perhaps 50 individuals. However, since most of them are new to our collection it was certainly worth it. It just wasn’t what we expected from what we had heard about the market in the past.
Processing fish in the middle of a crowded Tokyo street.
Overall it was a memorable and productive trip both in terms of collaborations made and fishes collected. I most certainly want to return to Japan to do some proper collecting in the future.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Ichthyological Adventures in Central America Part 2: Collecting Fishes in Guatemala

Caleb at some Mayan ruins in Yaxhá.
           From February 28th to March 12th my 3rd yr PhD student Caleb McMahan and I traveled to Guatemala to collect and study fishes for the museum. This trip was particularly exciting because we had worked on obtaining permits from Guatemala for over three years. It was only through the networking of Caleb and my former postdoc Dr. Wilfredo Matamoros at the Congreso Nacional de Ictiología conference in Chiapas, Mexico (2012) that we were able to finally get some contacts that could help us. The trip was also very exciting for me because with these collections it meant that my lab had been to every Central American country. We’ve sampled Costa Rica (2011), El Salvador (2011), Panama (2011), Nicaragua (2011) and Honduras (4 times since 2010). I traveled to Belize as part of my dissertation work in 2004. Guatemala would be a real prize because no outside ichthyologists have intensively sampled the native freshwater fishes since Donn Rosen and Reeve Bailey in 1974. Both of those gentlemen are my heroes. Rosen was a former curator at the American Museum of Natural History and was instrumental in founding the field of historical biogeography. Bailey was a curator of fishes at the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology and was collecting into his mid 90s while I was a there as a grad student (he passed away at age 100 a few years ago).
The Guatemala Fishing Team, from left to right, Diego Elias, Yasmin Quintana,
Prosanta Chakrabarty, Caleb McMahan and Christian Barrientos.
            In Guatemala, we were aided by Christian Barrientos who is currently a PhD student at the University of Florida and a Guatemalan native. A-soon-to-be finished undergraduate, Diego Elias, and a Guatemalan environmental agent, Yasmin Quintana, also joined us to complete the collecting team.
Thorichthys pasionis
            Guatemala has a notable geological history as well as a biological one. The northern portion of the country is part of the Yucatan Peninsula (the Maya Block that is the southern portion of geologic North America) that is primarily in southern Mexico and parts of Belize. The more southern portion of the country is part of the Chortis Block that includes El Salvador, Honduras and parts of Nicaragua; this block is geologically on the Caribbean tectonic plate. The North American and Caribbean plates are separated by the Motagua fault that runs through Guatemala. You can see the difference as you drive along the central highway passing from the mountainous, limestone-rich Yucatan to the flatter more earthy Chortis Block.  We spent most of our time sampling within the Yucatan portion (Peten) where cenotes, caves and other primary limestone habitats were abundant. The karstic landscape gives a notable blue green tint to much of the freshwaters in the Yucatan region so that you could get fooled into thinking you are collecting in the tropical ocean if were not for the fact that you were surrounded by lush green inland forests.
Early morning casting in Lago de Peten.
            We began our trip, as we often do, landing in the capital city airport, Guatemala City in this case – and, as is typically the case – site seeing was restricted to what could be viewed from the car window on the way out to the countryside.  Luckily, the rich Mayan history of Guatemala has left much behind and we even sampled in the shadows of some giant ruins in Yaxhá (where the reality show Survivor was filmed in 2005). The perpetual frightening growl of the otherwise adorable Howler monkey also seemed to add to the sense that we were in a mythical, prehistoric land. Among our primary targets were the cichlid fishes of the region - about 23 species. Many of these are very important to our continued studies of Central American fishes and their biogeographic history. We sampled first along the Caribbean Slope in Lago Izabal, waking each morning before dawn and sampling until dusk. It was exhausting but well worth it. We typically collected from a boat that took us along to various sites that were otherwise inaccessible by foot. Using castnets and seines we collected the black-belt cichlid, Vieja maculicauda and several other beautiful species of cichlids I had only seen as colorless specimens in jars or from aquarist photos. One of the species we were collecting was Paraneetroplus melanurus that Caleb had studied and synonymized with another popular species (i.e., he found that the two species were in fact just one - much to the chagrin of the cichlid aquarists).
A nice "blanco"
            One of my favorite sites was Lago de Peten. Ever since I started working with cichlids as a graduate student I always wanted to catch “blancos,” Petenia splendida from Lake Peten. Not only did we collect them, we had enough to eat (it’s always good when your study animal is as delicious as it is phylogenetically important). Our local hosts are doing several ecological studies on the fishes in these lakes and they were surprised to see us catch several species they had not seen before in that area. I told them that it was all based on Caleb’s fishing skills. Caleb has quickly become one of the best-known ichthyologists studying Central America. He worked there for his Master’s degree at Southeastern Louisiana University but his reputation has grown greatly in the past few years, and deservedly so. I would put his knowledge of the fishes of these regions up against anyone alive today. He was recently rewarded for his efforts in studying the region with a National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Grant. Caleb also won the prestigious Stoye Award at the Annual Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, this award is the highest prize a fish student can get as a graduate student.
Mouth of the Coban, flowing out of a cave.
            One of our last field sites was in Coban, an area we were eager to sample because it is a very different system than the Río Usumacinta system we had sampled most of the trip. Unfortunately, our first Coban site smelled like a sewer. After retrieving my first castnet throw all I managed to pull out of the water was some weird white filmy material. As a faux-Cajan I cast by putting one end of the net in my teeth: this technique has its drawbacks. Just as I put the cast in my teeth for the next throw I was informed that the white filmy material was toilet paper: a clear sign that this water was full of untreated sewage. After washing my mouth out thoroughly we decided to move on. Luckily we were able to get much better sites downstream where gringo tourists were happily inner tubing. Some of our best collections were actually from local kids that were snorkeling and spearing the fish with makeshift spear guns. I envied their skill and was glad they happily exchanged their haul for a few quetzales (the local currency, named after the national bird - a type of trogon).
Caleb and Prosanta and their makeshift back-of-the-truck fish laboratory.
            Overall the trip was a success. We collected over 59 species, nearly 600 tissue samples and about 2000 specimens. There is much of Guatemala left unexplored because permission has to be granted by local native communities who can be weary of outsiders (which include local non-native peoples). Despite my desire to go to those areas I’m glad they are protected by people who care about their land and freshwaters. Yasmin and Diego are set to work up our collection at LSU in May and we look forward to figuring out if we have any new species. We most certainly made collections that other Neotropical ichthyologists will be quite envious of.  

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Collecting Fishes for a Biodiversity Workshop in Singapore

PC and Bill Ludt in Singapore
From October 15th to November 2nd last year my PhD student Bill Ludt and I traveled to be part of the Singapore Jahore Strait Marine Biodiversity Workshop. I had traveled to Singapore in 2007 to collect but mainly spent all my time at markets where I purchased fish that were being sold. (Market collecting can barely be considered fieldwork, the fish are brought to you after all; however, it is an excellent way to get a lot of diversity quickly and cheaply.) In my previous trip to Singapore I had assumed that this tiny island nation was essentially a giant city with little wildlife or remaining forest. That is why I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that the workshop would take place on Pulau Ubin, a small island off the northern coast of “mainland” Singapore. Pulau Ubin is almost completely forested except for a few residents, bike paths for ecotourists, and an OBS (Outward Bound School) camp where we stayed most of the time.  The island is only 10sq km (about an 1/6 the size of Manhattan) but it is so densely forested that it sustains a large wild boar population that we saw frequently.
Fig 1: Anchovy, Coilia
This small island is also the location of the last reported tiger sighting (in the 1980s) on Singapore. (A tiger was famously shot under the Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel in 1902, that bar is also the birthplace of the notorious cocktail, the Singapore Sling.) We also saw wild otters a myriad of colorful birds (including an elusive Great Billed Heron), and of course, lots of cool fish. However, unlike my last Singapore trip we collected most of these fish ourselves and ended up collecting nearly 2,000 specimens from 250 species. We collected mostly using 15’ beach seines, but also using dipnets in mangroves, gillnets, and via trawls on a small ocean research vessel.
Fig 2. Stonefish
            This was a different experience than my previous collecting trips. I was invited to collect as the “fish expert” along with international experts in other groups including, bryozoans, anemones, isopods, copepods, etc. In all there were about 20 invited zoologists and dozens of local scientists and volunteers from the Raffles Museum and other local institutions. Each day we would sign up for one of three or four field trips to various parts of the island or mainland. Then we would go on a well-organized trip to that locality and collect alongside other experts for several hours before being returned to the lab at the OBS camp to sort, ID, photograph, tag and tissue the specimens. Bill and I would not only deal with the samples that we collected but also fishes that others collected for us. In the end we ended up having specimens from over 60 field sites in the nearly three weeks we were there.
            The OBS camp was an interesting place. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were served there in a regular schedule and in a regular pattern that we quickly grew tired of. The food wasn’t awful but we knew that just over the Serangoon Harbor there was the most delicious food in the world. Mainland Singapore has its own unique cuisine but also serves food from all over Asia. Bill and I savored each Roti Chennai, Chai Tea, and Chili Crab that we could get our hands on.
Fig 3
            In the end the trip was a wonderful success. We collected many species that were new to our LSU collections and that are rare in collections outside of Asia. Among the highlights is a specimen of Coilia, a bioluminescent anchovy (Fig1), a highly venomous and dangerous stonefish (Fig2) and several species of archerfishes (Fig3). The archerfish samples were particularly important. These fish hang out near the surface of the water and spit out a small squirt of water at leaves above them to make insects attached to those leaves fall into the water below. The fish then eat those insects. This unique behavior would make you think they are closely tied to the land but they have a rather wide distribution across several continents. My former labmate at the University of Michigan, Heok Hee Ng, who now works in Singapore and I will be working up the phylogeny of this group in the future.
            Besides establishing this collaboration and meeting many international experts this was also Bill’s first international field trip. He did an excellent job and he and I will be collecting again in Japan this summer. We can only hope that these future trips will be equally successful.