Friday, December 29, 2023

Kiwi Fishes: LSU Ichthyology in New Zealand

Prosanta and Dave Boyd representing LSU.

Late in November of 2023, my collections manager David Boyd and I travelled to New Zealand for a little bit of collecting and to give presentations at the 11th Indo-Pacific Fish Conference in Auckland. This conference typically takes place every four years but was pushed back twice because of COVID. (Embarrassingly, I nearly bought tickets in 2022 for this conference before the organizer reminded me that we had another year to go.) The delays were actually somewhat fruitful for me, because my colleagues and I were able to gather enough data from my 2019 Thailand trip focusing on the genomics and functional mechanics of the “Waterfall climbing cave angel fish” (Cryptotora thamicola) that was the focus of my presentation. I was excited to talk about that project that was a large part of our “Understanding Rules of Life” NSF grant that looked at the convergence between our walking cavefish and some of the first fishes that walked on land in the Devonian (like the 400-million-year-old “fishapod” Tiktaalik). Our work included a UCE phylogeny put together by my former student Pam Hart (now a PI herself at the University of Alabama), and whole genome sequencing led by my LSU colleague Brant Faircloth. The kinematic work was by Brooke Flammang’s lab at the New Jersey Institute of Technology largely led by her then grad student Callie Crawford (now a PI at Coastal Carolina University; see two papers on this subject here 1, 2); and all of the CT scanning/anatomy work was done by Larry Page’s lab at the University of Florida (with the work being led by Zach Randall). I’m excited to tell you more about the unusual “hip” morphology of Cryptotora and its hillstream loach (Balitoridae) relatives but I’ll focus this post on our New Zealand trip.
At the IPFC, me left representing the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, April Croxton, President of the American Fisheries Society and Gretchen Grammer, President of the Australian Society of Fish Biology.    

We were hosted by one of the main conference organizers, Tom Trinski, who is Head of Natural Sciences at the Auckland Museum. (A 1st rate museum with wonderful research space that we got to use briefly
when we came back from the field with our collections.) The day after we arrived, jetlagged and confused, we were met by Tom and several of his colleagues, as well as Kevin Conway, my brilliant ichthyology colleague from Texas A&M. Tom and Kevin are also two of the funniest people I’ve ever met so I always enjoy hanging with them. It was also my first time in the field with David Boyd since he joined the LSU MNS as the herp and fish Collections Manager in 2021. I actually met Dave in the field in Thailand when he was doing his Master’s with Larry Page at the University of Florida. Dave typically does freshwater collecting in streams in Thailand and the Southeast US. For this trip I was asking Dave to prepare for a marine collecting-trip that involved diving in the ocean (or so we thought). Dave got his certification for diving just before this trip in preparation, but we ended up only snorkeling above divers who had a higher certification level than Dave or I have (rescue diver status). I must admit I was not completely disappointed to not go diving when I saw the choppy cold waters of our first field site. Tom and his crew would be using rotenone – a fish poison discovered by indigenous people in Amazonia3. Using rotenone is banned in many countries because commercial fisherman often use it indiscriminately or carelessly as a fish poison for commercial purposes. That was not the case with Tom and his crew of careful and caring naturalists. They were using small amounts that dissipated quickly and so as he released it while diving beneath; the fishes that were in contact with the rotenone would float up drugged and dazed towards us snorkelers above (if not already captured below). It took about 30 minutes or so to swim off from shore to where the divers were, and it was not an easy swim in cold and choppy waters (16C or about 60F). The visibility was very low so I was glad to be floating at the top of the water rather than beneath the waves. Every so often (but not very often) a drunk fish would pop up from below and we would scoop it up in our nets; after about an hour we were cold and tired and the bobbing up and down in the waves which left us a little green. We headed back to shore with a pretty good haul of big-eyed purple sweepers (Pempheridae), as well as blennies and gobies, and Kevin’s specialty, clingfishes.

We were still freezing when we headed to lunch but recuperated enough to get some more gobies (there are over 2000 species in the Gobiidae so every sweep of the net seemed to give us something new) and other critters on a large tidal mudflat. I was glad to have my tight-fitting dive booties and trusty metal dipnet for this messy excursion which reminded me of all the little fishes we often overlook when the water is more than ankle deep. In these shallows live many small creatures that live in that temporary zone between land and the open ocean in the intertidal. Once cleaning off and organizing our collections at the Auckland Museum (in an attempt to not track mud everywhere while inside Dave went barefoot), we headed back to our hotel to sort, ID, photograph, and preserve our haul. We made a “toilet room fish lab” which was what we turned our AirBNB bathroom into so it could house our preserved fish for the rest of the trip.

The next morning, we headed to “Sanford and Son’s Fish Mongers.” I am old enough to have watched reruns of a popular TV program called “Sanford and Son” starring the Comedian Redd Foxx, and I also love the term “Fish Monger” because there are only two things people ever monger – fish and war: so the name of this store attracted me immediately. The store front had rows and rows of beautiful fish displayed on ice, we were there as soon as it opened so we had our pick of the litter, unfortunately, many of the fish were way too large for us to bring home so I talked to the owner about our scientific goals (i.e., get lots of diversity of these market fish, within a certain size range) to see what smaller sizes were available. By the end she was keen to help us and even gave us just the heads of some of the larger species - and for free to boot. There were also imported fish like salmon that people seem to like everywhere but we were after natives and we were lucky to get some galaxiids and members of the Latridae (a group that one of my former students, Bill Ludt worked on for his PhD). One of my favorite interactions was me texting Bill that morning, as we was also at the conference, and after a picture of a fish we just brought and calling it a “Morwong” he reminded me that he and I (as a senior author) had changed the name of that group. I simply replied “like I’m supposed to remember that.” Despite my ignorance of my own work, I was happy to get these and other creatures that were new to our collections.

Dave and I were also able to do a little excursion to the Waitomo region famous for their glowworm caves. I study bioluminescence, and I study caves, but really the only places where those converge is in a few caves in New Zealand. There are no bioluminescent cavefish that we know of, but I’m always on the hunt for them. I actually got the idea to look for them from some text linked to me in my AAAS award which stated that I won the award for “focusing on the bioluminescent systems and historical biogeography of freshwater fishes” – which makes it sound like I’ve been studying these non-existent bioluminescent freshwater fishes. But I was keen on seeing these glowing caves, fish or no fish. 

Due to unexpected traffic, Dave and I arrived too late for the last cave tour of the day, dejected we were about to head back from the closed front gate when I noticed the gift shop was still open. In a move that brought me back to my days being a bratty kid growing up in Queens and sneaking into places I didn’t belong, I walked straight through the shop into the path that leads to the back of the cave, passing two signs that said, “Do not Enter.” Dave followed close behind and he and I got a glimpse of the cave exit. It looked glorious but also beyond our reach on foot, so unless we swam in, we weren’t going any further. Crestfallen, we once again started walking towards the exit when I ran into a young guide and explained our situation in the most folksy aww-shucks I-wish-there-was-something-we-could-do way. Luckily, the young man was agreeable (as many Kiwis are) he went for it and brought us through the cave in the boat that the last tour of the day just alighted. Dave and I were treated to a private and very beautiful sight of thousands and thousands of green-blue glowworms hanging from the ceiling of the cave. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. The kid giving us a tour, who was a university student, got a hardy tip and it was well worth it. 

The remainder of the trip was the IndoPacific Fish Conference (IPFC) which I always find delightful. My regular annual conference is the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists which meets as part of the Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, and I (as the current ASIH President) brought up the possibility that IPFC meet with ASIH as part of that Joint Meeting – but in the end it turned out that Taipei, Taiwan would host the next meeting in 2026. Both my talk and Dave’s went well, and I met a number of old and new collaborators and colleagues who I can’t wait to talk to again. I’m actually thinking ahead to the next IPFC, not sure what I’ll talk about but perhaps some of the collections we made during this trip, currently pickled in the LSU Museum of Natural Science will be part of the talk.

As a happy accident, the last night of the conference and closing party coincided with the start of my 45th birthday. I stayed up as late as I could for that closing party (about 1:30 am) on my birthday, with the party still in full swing. I treated myself to a late-night veggie burger at the “White Lady” and headed to bed. Next morning, Dave and I went to a cute little farmer’s market where I picked up some souvenirs. We headed to the airport and after a fifteen-and-a-half-hour flight (in one which Dave did not stand or get up once, luckily, I was in the aisle seat) from Auckland to Dallas we arrived earlier in the day than when we left (we left Auckland at 1:30pm and arrived at 8am the same day, November 25th). We were in Dallas long enough to watch the beginning of a very exciting Michigan versus Ohio State football game (both teams were undefeated and I went to UM for grad school #GoBlue), by the time the game was ending with a Michigan victory I was listening to it in Baton Rouge on the way to dropping off Dave at his house. I was even home in time to enjoy a birthday party with my family. It was an epic 43-hour birthday, and one that started in beautiful New Zealand. The barrel of fishes Dave and I brought back did the journey with us and seeing them in the collections will always be a reminder of that great birthday and awesome trip to Te Waipounamu (the Māori-language name for the North Island of New Zealand).

1 Crawford, Callie H., Zachary S. Randall, Pamela B. Hart, Lawrence M. Page, Prosanta Chakrabarty, Apinun Suvarnaraksha, and Brooke E. Flammang. "Skeletal and muscular pelvic morphology of hillstream loaches (Cypriniformes: Balitoridae)." Journal of Morphology 281, no. 10 (2020): 1280-1295.

2 Crawford, Callie H., Amani Webber-Schultz, Pamela B. Hart, Zachary S. Randall, Cristian Cerrato-Morales, Audrey B. Kellogg, Haley E. Amplo et al. "They like to move it (move it): walking kinematics of balitorid loaches of Thailand." Journal of Experimental Biology 225, no. 6 (2022): jeb242906.

3 Prance, G., 1999. The poisons and narcotics of the Amazonian Indians. Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of London, 33(4), p.368.

Many thanks to my 12-year old Chaya Nöel for editing this blogpost, all remaining grammatical errors are her fault.

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