New research project: diversity in Wallacea

A few weeks ago I wrote about starting an exciting new project at the University of Leeds. At the time I didn’t go into details, but now that I’m a few months in and I am starting to understand what is going, so it’s time to enlighten you as well.

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Coral reef critter research coming up!

For the next two years I’m part of a team that will study marine biodiversity on coral reefs in central Indonesia. The overarching goal of of the project is to improve the management and conservation of coral reefs by discovering how impacts such as pollution or overfishing change the way coral reefs function. After all, the best way to start solving a problem is by properly understanding it.

Obviously, there’s a lot more to it than the lofty big goal as the title of the project indicates: “Gradients of marine biodiversity and linkages with eDNA across the Wallacea Region”. There are two components to the project: traditional visual surveys and environmental DNA (“eDNA”) surveys. We will use both methods to create ecological networks and see how they differ when they are threatened by different impacts.

At this point you might be asking a few (logical) questions:

  • Where is the Wallacea region and why do you go there?
  • What is eDNA?
  • What is an ecological network?
  • Why should I care? I came to this site to read about critters!

The Wallacea region is the central part of Indonesia, from Lombok eastward almost all the way to Papua, and up all the way to Halmahera (check out the map below). It was named after Alfred Russel Wallace, the scientist who, together with Darwin, developed the theory of evolution. The region represents an interesting boundary area where fauna and flora from the Asian and Australian continents meet. So it is home to some amazing wildlife, but also to a large human population that depends on natural resources to survive. The marine diversity in the region has not been studied very well (except for a few local exceptions), so finding out how healthy the marine ecosystems are is quite important.

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The Wallacea Region

Environmental DNA (eDNA for short), is a relatively new method to detect species. I have written about it extensively here if you want a long explanation and background. The method detects tiny fragments of DNA in the water column that are shed through poop, mucus, etc. By filtering and analysing a scoop of water, we can tell what animals (and plants, microbes, etc) live in the water nearby. It’s pretty powerful and very exciting, but still needs a lot of additional testing to know just how precise it is compared to other survey methods.

I will then build ecological network models with all the data we collect. The easiest way to imagine what those are, is to see them as a different kind of food web. Where food webs focus on who eats who, we are more interested in who lives close to who, and who interacts with who. In the ideal situation I will include all the information on fish, corals, algae, invertebrates (crabs, sea stars, etc.) in one big model which will show how they rely on each other. More importantly, it will also show what happens with the networks if sites are overfished or polluted and how that differs from untouched sites.

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Example of an interaction network on land, figure by Bohal et al. 2013. Source here.

So yes, my job for the next few years is less critter-focused than before, but it doesn’t mean I will be ignoring them! Besides the obvious fact that there’s a lot of cool critters to be found on the coral reefs I’ll be visiting, I am still involved in a few very cool projects on the side. It’s too early to go into details, but more seahorse and seadragon work is coming up, and even some exciting pygmy seahorse news as well! I’ll regularly be posting updates on the Wallacea project, as well as more critter features, so stay tuned 🙂

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Wondering about mimics?

I have been meaning to write a blog about the Mimic octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus) and Wunderpus (Wunderpus photogenicus) for ages, but inspiration has eluded me until I was revisiting some of my earlier research on charismatic muck dive species. Both the mimic octopus and the wunderpus are very popular with critter enthusiasts, but we know surprisingly little about them. Time to change that or at the very least tell you some of the things we know about them!

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A wunderpus (Wunderpus photogenicus) checks out my camera

If you’re not a diver or you have never heard of them, the Mimic and the Wunderpus are very (very!) funky species of octopus. They have a wide range of interesting behaviour, they look amazing, and both are found on sandy habitats in the tropics. What they also have in common is that both were only recognised as new species fairly recently (2005 and 2006).

Just by reading their scientific names you could imagine these are not your average cephalopod. The wunderpus’ species name “Wunderpus photogenicus” says it all and  is probably also one of the easiest scientific names to remember (except maybe for the brilliantly named “Boops boops“). “Thaumoctopus mimicus” tells you that this particular species is good at mimicry, even for octopus standards.

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Mimic octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus) foraging on the sand

Both species live on soft sediment (mostly sand) habitats and they have evolved to be perfectly adapted to this lifestyle. They live in holes in the sand, are small, have longer arms than your average octopus, and their colours are quite drab. There are a few subtle physical and behavioural differences between the two though.

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Wunderpus partially in its hidey-hole

One of the things I noticed is that their hunting strategies vary slightly. Wunderpus have more extensive “webbing” between their arms than mimics and they use this webbing when hunting. Crabs are a favourite prey of wunderpus and they catch them by spreading their mantle (the “web” between their arms) over rocks, holes, or other objects like a big parachute. They then use the tips of their arms to poke the crabs out of their holes, after which they run into the parachute-web and are easily collected with one of the other arms.

Mimic octopus seem to forage more actively and (in my experience) use the parachute-technique less often. Instead they poke their long arms into holes in the sand, scaring out any critter that’s in there and then grabbing it directly. This means that mimics spend even more time moving over the sand than wunderpus do, which might be why they evolved some very particular behaviour.

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Trying to mimic?

Whenever you search for information about the mimic octopus, one of the first things to come up is that they mimic all kinds of other animals. Unlike other octopuses, it does not just mimic colour, but also the behaviour of up to 6 (or 8 or 12 depending on who you ask). The question is, does a mimic really mimic? Their mimicry is supposed to deter or fool predators or prey, but I wonder if this is really the case, or whether we are over-interpreting things from our human perspective.

Many of the behaviours that have been called mimicry could also be explained by simple logic or physics. Take for instance the idea that they mimic toxic flounders/soles while swimming. Yes, they do look very similar when they swim, but it is also a fast and energy-efficient way to swim over any flat area. Which is undoubtedly why this type of swimming is used by most octopus species living in the sand. Another example is the lionfish-mimic, which could also be explained as a way to look as big as possible when threatened. It’s a very common tactic used throughout the animal kingdom, and if you happen to be an octopus with long arms, you’ll look like a spiky lionfish when spreading them out. Other behaviours can similarly be explained, but I wouldn’t want to bore you with long lists right now.

Does this mean they do not mimic or that I am just a mopey cynical bastard who refuses to be amazed by a fantastic animal? Of course not! I love mimics and they show some  of the most extraordinary behaviour in the ocean. It just means that I want to learn more about them to find out what causes it.

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Close up of a mimic octopus

To study them properly, you first need to be able to tell the wunderpus and mimic octopus apart though! These critters look very similar (stripey), so it’s easy to get confused. Here is what to look for:

  • Arm patterns I: The black/white patterns on the arms of Wunderpus are very sharply defined, compared to more blurry with the mimic. Imagine the patterns on the wunderpus were drawn by a German painter using a pen and ruler, and the ones of the mimic by me with some crayons.
  • Arm patterns II: Mimic octopus have a continuous white outline along the border of each arm. The wunderpus does not have this, instead the band-pattern continues across the border.
  • Head: Mimics have a “U-“-shape on the back of their head, where wunderpus have a white patch.
  • Colour: Wunderpus usually have more of a red/brown colour shade to them than mimics, which are almost always black and white. Careful though, they can both change colour so this is not the best way of telling them apart.
  • Behaviour: The hunting behaviour I described earlier is a hint, though not always consistent. From my experience, wunderpus live in areas where the sand is more coarse (gravelly) than mimic octopus, which could also explain why they have slightly different hunting methods.

Finally, because you made it this far, here is a video I took of mating mimic octopus in Indonesia:

Closing one chapter and opening another

It is time to share some very big news. My time in Australia has officially come to an end and I am starting a new and exciting chapter on the other side of the world. From April onward I will officially become a “Research Fellow in Quantitative Tropical Marine Ecology” at the University of Leeds in the UK. In other words, for the next two years I will work as a postdoctoral researcher on a very exciting new project.

I will write about the new project in more detail soon, but right now I am feeling a bit nostalgic about the past 6 years of living and becoming a scientist in Australia .

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Celebrating the end of an experiment on the Great Barrier Reef

I arrived in Australia as a dive instructor, thinking I’d be there for a few months to help out a good friend with a research project on cleaner wrasses in the Great Barrier Reef. Working and living on Lizard Island Research Station gave me the chance to meet some amazing marine scientists passionate about their research. More than anything else, the people I met there are what pushed me in the direction of becoming a marine scientist.

A series of fortunate events lead me to Perth and I somehow managed to convince Professor Euan Harvey that taking on a semi-nomadic beach bum for a student would be a great idea. To this day I still do not know if  Euan was being very wise or very stupid, but once I got my foot in the door of the Fish Ecology Lab it took them about 6 years to get me out again.

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The amazing team of the Fish Ecology Lab, all of you will be missed!

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Happy sunset drinks by the beach

While I never planned on spending a long time in Australia, it didn’t take me long to appreciate the beauty of the place. Western Australia in particular is basically a Europe-sized playground for people who love the outdoors. I can’t count how many camping trips, dives, surf sessions, ocean swims, hikes, … I’ve done in recent years and I still haven’t seen half of what I’d want to see. Some of the highlights that come to mind include camping on remote beaches, diving with seadragons, snorkeling with sea lions, and sunrise surf sessions with friends. I won’t even begin to write about the many wine tasting sessions down south 🙂

I was lucky enough to meet some amazing people along my journey. Almost without noticing it, I built up a group of colleagues and friends. I love the typical Australian easy-going, honest (sometimes in-your-face) style of communication. Even if it could not be more different from what I was used to in Indonesia (or even Belgium). The people more than anything is what make or break a place, and I will miss the ones I left behind in Perth dearly.

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Exploring the coastline in southern Western Australia

When I arrived in Australia I never expected that it would become a second home, but that is exactly what happened. The people, the wildlife, the landscapes, all of it have found a spot in my heart, and I am grateful for my time there. I am very much looking forward to starting a new chapter, if it’s even half as good as the last one it is going to be fantastic.

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See you next time Australia!

New publication: Flash photography impacts on fish – To flash or not to flash?

The final paper of my PhD thesis has just been published online in the journal Scientific Reports. The paper, titled “Behavioural and pathomorphological impacts of flash photography on benthic fishes” explains the effects of typical diver behaviour while photographing small critters such as seahorses or frogfishes.

The paper itself can be a tad technical, so with the help of two co-authors (Dr. Ben Saunders and Tanika Shalders), I wrote this summary of the research, which was published first at The Conversation (original article here).


We all enjoy watching animals, whether they’re our own pets, birds in the garden, or elephants on a safari during our holidays. People take pictures during many of these wildlife encounters, but not all of these photographic episodes are harmless.

There is no shortage of stories where the quest for the perfect animal picture results in wildlife harassment. Just taking photos is believed to cause harm in some cases – flash photography is banned in many aquariums as a result.

But it’s not always clear how bright camera flashes affect eyes that are so different from our own. Our latest research, published in Nature Scientific Reports, shows that flash photography does not damage the eyes of seahorses, but touching seahorses and other fish can alter their behaviour.

Look but don’t touch

In the ocean it is often easier to get close to your subject than on land. Slow-moving species such as seahorses rely on camouflage rather than flight responses. This makes it very easy for divers to approach within touching distance of the animals.

Previous research has shown that many divers cannot resist touching animals to encourage them to move so as to get a better shot. Additionally, the high-powered strobes used by keen underwater photographers frequently raise questions about the welfare of the animal being photographed. Do they cause eye damage or even blindness?

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Does flash harm fishes? Photo: Luke Gordon

Aquariums all around the world have taken well-meaning precautionary action. Most of us will have seen the signs that prohibit the use of flash photography.

Similarly, a variety of guidelines and laws exist in the scuba-diving community. In the United Kingdom, flash photography is prohibited around seahorses. Dive centres around the world have guidelines that include prohibiting flash or limiting the number of flashes per fish.

While all these guidelines are well-intended, none are based on scientific research. Proof of any damage is lacking. Our research investigated the effects of flash photography on slow-moving fish using three different experiments.

What our research found

During the first experiment we tested how different fish react to the typical behaviour of scuba-diving photographers. The results showed very clearly that touching has a very strong effect on seahorses, frogfishes and ghost pipefishes. The fish moved much more, either by turning away from the diver, or by swimming away to escape the poorly behaving divers. Flash photography, on the other hand, had no more effect than the presence of a diver simply watching the fishes.

For slow-moving fishes, every extra movement they make means a huge expense of energy. In the wild, seahorses need to hunt almost non-stop due to their primitive digestive system, so frequent interruptions by divers could lead to chronic stress or malnutrition.

The goal of the second experiment was to test how seahorses react to flash without humans present. To do this we kept 36 West Australian seahorses (Hippocampus subelongatus) in the aquarium facility at Curtin University. During the experiment we fed the seahorses with artemia (“sea monkeys”) and tested for changes in their behaviour, including how successful seahorses were at catching their prey while being flashed with underwater camera strobes.

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The aquaria were the seahorses were housed during the experiment

An important caveat to this experiment: the underwater strobes we used were much stronger than the flashes of normal cameras or phones. The strobes were used at maximum strength, which is not usually done while photographing small animals at close range. So our results represent a worst-case scenario that is unlikely to happen in the real world.

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West Australian seahorses (Hippocampus subelongatus) in their aquarium at Curtin University

The conclusive, yet somewhat surprising, result of this experiment was that even the highest flash treatment did not affect the feeding success of the seahorses. “Unflashed” seahorses spent just as much time hunting and catching prey as the flashed seahorses. These results are important, as they show that flashing a seahorse is not likely to change the short-term hunting success (or food intake) of seahorses.

We only observed a difference in the highest flash treatment (four flashes per minute, for ten minutes). Seahorses in this group spent less time resting and sometimes showed “startled” reactions. These reactions looked like the start of an escape reaction, but since the seahorses were in an aquarium, escape was impossible. In the ocean or a large aquarium seahorses would simply move away, which would end the disturbance.

Our last experiment tested if seahorses indeed “go blind” by being exposed to strong flashes. In scientific lingo: we tested if flash photography caused any “pathomorphological” impacts. To do this we euthanised (following strict ethical protocols) some of the unflashed and highly flashed seahorses from the previous experiments. The eyes of the seahorses were then investigated to look for any potential damage.

The results? We found no effects in any of the variables we tested. After more than 4,600 flashes, we can confidently say that the seahorses in our experiments suffered no negative consequences to their visual system.

What this means for scuba divers

A potential explanation as to why flash has no negative impact is the ripple effect caused by sunlight focusing through waves or wavelets on a sunny day. These bands of light are of a very short duration, but very high intensity (up to 100 times stronger than without the ripple effect). Fish living in such conditions would have evolved to deal with such rapidly changing light conditions.

This of course raises the question: would our results be the same for deep-water species? That’s a question for another study, perhaps.

So what does this mean for aquariums and scuba diving? We really should focus on not touching animals, rather than worrying about the flash.

Flash photography does not make seahorses blind or stop them from catching their prey. The strobes we used had a higher intensity than those usually used by aquarium visitors or divers, so it is highly unlikely that normal flashes will cause any damage. Touching, on the other hand, has a big effect on the well-being of marine life, so scuba divers should always keep their hands to themselves.

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Look, take pictures, but don’t touch!


NOTE: I realise that this is a controversial topic in underwater photography. If you have relevant questions, comments, or thoughts you want to share, feel free to add them in the comment section below. If you are interested, I would highly advise you to read the original research paper via this link. The paper is open access, so anyone can read and download it. If you have specific questions about the paper, you can always contact me via email here.