Time for something new

I never liked going to school. Not as a kid, not as a teenager, and not even as a young adult. Maybe I just disliked being bored so often? Even in the classes I was interested in, I felt that just absorbing all the knowledge in world was not exciting. My impression was that science already knew everything and that new discoveries were pretty much impossible. That science had somehow “stopped”.

Well, let me tell you one thing, it most definitely has not! I was not learning “all the knowledge in the world”, in fact LOTS of new things are discovered all the time! Since this blog is about ocean critters, let’s look at some of the critters that have recently been discovered. In the last year alone, new seahorses, frogfishes, gobies, jawfishes, and many other species have been discovered. So if you thought you’d seen it all, think again 😉

Seahorses and relatives

A new species of pygmy seahorse was described 3 months ago by Graham Short and colleagues. This ridiculously cute little seahorse lives in Japan and is called Hippocampus japapigu (=Japanese pig seahorse). These little wonders are less than 2cm in size and have a wonderful honeycomb colour pattern. Unlike some other pygmy seahorses, the Japanese pygmy seahorse does not live in seafans, instead it can be found in hydroids, algae, or soft corals.

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The newly describe Japanese pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus japapigu). Photo: Richard Smith

Even more recently, less than a month ago, another new pygmy seahorse species was discovered in South Africa. The first ever pygmy seahorse in South Africa! Dive operators in the Sodwana Bay region had found this small seahorse and asked pygmy seahorse expert Richard Smith about it. Together with IUCN seahorse expert Louw Claassens he went for an expedition and has confirmed the new species. It has not got a name just yet, but should be officially described sometime next year.

During the same expedition, Richard and Louw also found a new species of pygmy pipehorse! You might have never heard of pipehorses, but they are just fantastic. Sort of like a seahorse that disguised itself as a pipefish, or maybe the other way around?

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A newly discovered, still unnamed pygmy pipehorse from South Africa. Photo: Richard Smith

Frogfish

Big news from Australia as well! A new frogfish species was described in the journal Copeia this week. The Narungga frogfish (Histiophryne narungga) is found in South and West Australia, and was named after the indigenous people living in the area. The beautiful new frogfish lives mostly in shallow water, where it does what frogfishes does best: mimicking sponges or other benthic organisms, hoping to catch unsuspecting prey that swims by. This small (less than 10cm), new frogfish is very much on my “critters to see before I leave Australia”-wish list!

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Narungga frogfish (Histiophryne narungga): A new Australian frogfish species. Photo: Rudie Kuiter

The researchers describing the Narungga frogfish, Rachel Arnold and Theodore Pietsch, are pretty much the rock stars of the frogfish world. Together they have described 9 new frogfish species in the last 10 years, the most famous of which is the Psychedelic frogfish!

Gobies

I’ll be honest, for someone who studies cryptobenthic fishes, I don’t know nearly enough about gobies. Luckily, other researcher do know a lot about gobies and they seem to be good at finding new species as well. This year a new species was discovered from the west Pacific Ocean. The polkadot dwarf goby (Eviota maculosa) lives in Indonesia, Australia and Pohnpei. Its small size, less than 2cm, probably explains why it has taken researchers so long to realise this was an undescribed species.

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Eviota maculosa, a new goby species from the west Pacific. Photo Mark Erdmann

Jawfishes

If you are not a keen muck diver or underwater photographer, you can be forgiven for not knowing about jawfishes. These cryptic fish live in holes in the sand and don’t venture out very often. Most notably, they are “mouthbrooders“, fish that hatch their eggs in their mouths. This week, two new jawfishes were described from Brazil. Thiony’s jawfish (Opistognathus thionyi) and the Brazilian dusky jawfish (Opistognathus vicinus) both seem to be endemic to Brazil, meaning they do not occur anywhere else. Thiony’s jawfish seems to live deeper than the Brazilian dusky jawfish, but otherwise, not much else is known about these new species.

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Thiony’s jawfish (Opistognathus thionyi) from Brazil. Photo: Raphael M. Macieira

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Brazilian dusky jawfish (Opistognathus vicinus) from Brazil. Photo: Raphael M. Macieira

This list of new critters is by no means complete. Many more species have been recently discovered, and many more will be discovered in the future. I find it very exciting that science isn’t ready yet and that there is so much more of the amazing natural world left to discover. If that doesn’t make you want to become a scientist, I don’t know what will… (We often have cookies in the office if that’s more your thing?)

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Does climate change create damsels in distress? – Guestblog by Tanika Shalders

TanikaThe latest guestblog on Critter Research is by Tanika Shalders. Tanika is a Technical Officer for the Marine Science Program at the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation, and Attractions in Australia. Her current work entails diving on some of the most amazing reefs in Australia and video analyses of surveys in Australian marine parks. In this guestblog she describes her recently published research on the effects of climate change on damselfishes.


It is currently spring in Australia, a lovely time to be outdoors. Nice temperatures (average maximum of 22), plants in full bloom, perfect picnic weather… just find a nice patch of grass, a cold beverage and some snacks.

Heatwave dogSummer is just around the corner and here in Perth it can get very warm, with an average maximum of 31 degrees (although temperatures up to 40 degrees are not unheard of). Unfortunately, picnics are not as pleasant this time of year. It’s hard to find shade, you’ll likely get sunburnt and your drinks will get warm.

What do you do when the temperatures become unbearable? Head to the coast to cool off in the ocean? Hide in the air-conditioning? Increase your ice-cream consumption? We try to make ourselves as comfortable as possible, moving to a cooler environment where we have everything we need – food, water and shelter.

With this in mind, it is no surprise to learn that other animals are doing exactly the same thing when ocean temperatures rise. Over the past 5 decades ocean temperatures have been increasing due to climate change. There has also been an increase in heat waves.

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Heat waves are becoming increasingly common across the world

Many people connect these events to coral reefs, so it may come to some surprise that the ocean in temperate (southern/cool-water) Australia is warming at least twice as fast than the global average.

In 2011, the south-west of Australia experienced a heat wave. The heat wave lasted more than 10 weeks and temperatures increased up to 5 degrees above normal. This event caused massive changes to the marine environment of south-west Australia. One of the most significant documented impacts was the loss of kelp along the south-west coast. In the warmest area (north) kelp disappeared completely. Changes have also been seen in other organisms such as fish and crustaceans.

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Ecklonia radiata, the kelp species which was greatly affected by the 2011 heatwave. Source: foragersyear.wordpress.com

After the heat wave, we decided to investigate if fish had also been impacted by the extreme temperatures. We chose to look at territorial damselfish since they are ‘site attached’. Much like the Hobbits of Middle Earth, they don’t like to leave home. These damselfish farm and protect algae which they use for food and reproduction. This trait makes them a good species to indicate of change as it is unlikely individual fish will move from their home to a new location. However, juvenile fish (recruits) may set up camp in new locations.

Using diver operated stereo-video (DOV), we investigated where these damselfish lived before and after the 2011 heat wave, and how many there were.

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The damselfishes in this study. A) Parma occidentalis; B) Pomacentrus milleri; C) Parma mccullochi; D) Parma victoriae. Sources: Fishbase and Reef Life Survey

The main result was that the two (northern) warm-water damselfish became more common in the (southern) cooler waters. The two cooler-water damselfish showed less change.

We also saw a change in algae habitat. The kelp that dominated in 2006 had often been replaced by smaller forms of algae by 2015. This included the turfing algae such as those farmed by the damselfish.

So what does this mean?

These results show that both fish and their habitat are changing due to climate change. When warm water fish move to cooler water, they might push out the local cool water fish on their way south.

This process of warm water fish moving into cooler environments is known to the science world as tropicalisation – previously explained in a guest blog by the wonderful Dr Joseph DiBattista so I won’t go into detail here. Instead I will delve into one of the flow-on effects of tropicalisation: increased competition.

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Tanika collecting Diver Operated stereo-Video (DOV) footage. Photo: Will Robbins, DBCA

Competition happens everywhere in the natural world. Plants compete for sunlight, lions compete for antelopes, and high school boys compete for the same girl. Usually competition occurs over food, water, shelter, or booty. Any additional players entering such a highly competitive environment can have devastating effects.

The movement of warm water fish into cooler waters could increase competition for the local fish populations. Since these damsels eat the same food and are very territorial, this means they not only have to compete with each other, but also with new damsel species. It’s hard enough to compete with your siblings for the last helping of dinner – imagine having to compete with your whole street!

Often this means that the local species will have retreat from an area once the invading species starts competing with them for food. Fortunately in this case, it looks like the change in habitat meant there was more food for the damselfish. It is likely that this helped to support a larger number of damselfish by reducing competition.

Most people are starting to become aware that climate change is an issue, sadly it’s a much bigger problem than most believe. Scientists are just being to scratch the surface of understanding the full reach of its impacts. If you would like to learn more about climate change and what you can do to help, please visit this site to find out more.

 

Tanika Shalders

Technical Officer, Marine Science Program

Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions

Twitter: @TanikaCShalders

Instagram: tanikacs

Research Gate: Tanika Shalders

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Climate change might increase competition in the oceans. Photo Will Robbins, DBCA

Finding the Knysna Seahorse: Mini-blog 6

I feel like I only just arrived in South Africa to look for endangered seahorses, but instead I am flying to Johannesburg where I will catch a connecting flight to Perth. This trip was no different than other fieldwork trips in that regard: what looks like a long time of sampling at the planning stage just flies by before you know it.

Louw and me have been busy since the last mini-blog. Most importantly, we successfully finished sampling! The last locations were less explored areas than the first ones, which is very exciting. Even if we do not find seahorses in these spots, they give inspiration to come back for new research projects.

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Cormorant in Jongensfontein

After wrapping up the sampling we visited Stellenbosch University. The university is the home to the von der Heyden Lab, which specialises on genetic research for conservation and biodiversity planning. They also have an eDNA project which investigates fish diversity in South Africa. During our visit I gave a talk about my own research to the marine students in the university. It was great to share my love for strange critters, especially since the students had some very relevant questions at the end of the talk. As much as I enjoy talking (or writing) about my research, it’s even more fun to have a conversation about it and getting a fresh look through someone else’s eyes.

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South African penguins (Spheniscus demersus) taking a stroll

In the last two days of the trip we relaxed, caught up with friends, and explored Cape Town and False Bay. The highlights were definitely diving in the kelp forests of Simonstown and visiting the nearby African penguin (Spheniscus demersus) colony. While I have dived in cold water before, I never had the pleasure of seeing this particular ecosystem. If you ever have the opportunity, I can highly recommend it!

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Kelp diving

If a coral reef dive is like swimming through an underwater flower garden, kelp diving would be the equivalent of walking through a forest. There’s something very special about weaving your way through underwater plants that reach from he bottom all the way to the surface. The sunlight is filtered and the canopy above creates shadows you just do not get in other kinds of diving. On top of that, the bottom is very rich with all kinds of life. There are plenty of invertebrates like sea urchins, featherstars and nudibranchs. The fish life is very different than what I am used to, the small pufadder shysharks (Haploblepharus edwardsii) only live in South Africa area and are the cutest little things. To top it off, two southern right whales passe by close to shore as we were exiting the water. Louw even managed to snorkel out and catch a glimpse of them!

I guess it’s safe to say that this trip has been a successful one. It will be another few months before we will have all the results, but I am very excited to discover in which places we found the elusive Knysna seahorse!

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Not a bad spot for a dive…

 

Finding the Knysna Seahorse: Mini-blog 5

It’s already been a week since I arrived in South Africa to study the endangered Knysna seahorse with Dr. Louw Claassens from the Knysna Basin Project. Together we are testing if environmental DNA (eDNA) can be used to find rare seahorses and pipefishes.

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eDNA filtering in progress

To do this, we have been travelling along the southern coast of South Africa, taking water samples along the way in estuaries where our focal species lives, where it used to live, or where it might live. Yesterday we left Knysna to sample water in Klein Brak and Groot Brak. We are especially interested in the Klein Brak estuary, since there are multiple anecdotes that the Knysna seahorse (Hippocampus capensis) used to live here. Nobody has checked recently if it really was the Knysna seahorses and it seems that the most recent sighting has been many years ago. Because of this, it is usually assumed that there are no more Knysna seahorses in Klein Brak.

This brings me to a very important (maybe the most important?) question about this whole endeavour: WHY are we actually doing this? It’s all good an well to say that we want to help these endangered animals, but what exactly are we hoping to achieve? What will our results mean for managing the endangered Knysna seahorse, the critically endangered Estuarine pipefish, or any other endangered small fish for that matter?

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Knysna estuary, just imagine all the seahorses down there!

What we are hoping to achieve can be summarised in three main points.

  1. We want to test if the eDNA method can really be used to find small, endangered fishes (particularly seahorses and their relatives). So far, previous research has shown that eDNA work on large fishes such as sawfish, but it is not sure yet if this will work for seahorses, which are obviously much smaller.
  2. The best case scenario would be that we could also find seahorses in estuaries where it was thought to have disappeared. This would be great news for the conservation status for the species, as it would mean that it occurs in a wider area than we thought, which would mean that it is less likely to go extinct.
  3. If this would happen, it would mean two things. First of all, the new locations would have to be studied, so we can find out how many live in these estuaries. It would also mean that those new places need extra protection and monitoring to ensure the species do not disappear from their newly discovered homes.

Ultimately, if the eDNA method works for small, endangered seahorses (or their relatives), it could be used to monitor small fishes worldwide. This would help solving one of the biggest problems with studying small species, especially those that are rare or hard to find.

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Louw looking for Knysna seahorses in the Thesen Island Marina (she found 3!)