Writing, Seahorse conferences, and Australian coral reef talks

I’ve had a busy few weeks, so it has been a bit quiet on the blog. To make up for it, here is what I have been doing lately instead of writing blogs…

This might surprise you, but doing a PhD in marine biology is about more than just going to tropical beaches, diving and looking at cool ocean critters. By now I have collected all the data I need to write up my PhD, so what is left is mostly sitting at my desk, analysing data and writing that data into something that will eventually become a  doctoral thesis. At the moment I’ve written about 40 thousand words (~90 pages), which might seem like a lot, but in reality I’ve still got a lot of work to do (just have a look at the figure below by Beck on R is my friend).

Length thesis

Median length of a PhD thesis per field.  Link to original source.

Besides writing, there’s a lot of statistical analysis to do. I never expected to write this, but doing stats is actually quite fun (and excruciatingly painful at the same time). There is just something about having collected data, then getting to test your hypotheses and turning all of that into graphs and results. To me, the feeling of turning your ideas into new, real information is probably one of the most gratifying aspects of doing research. That, and sharing your fresh results with people and listening to other people share their new work.

That is where scientific conferences come into play. Over the last years I have attended a few big and not so big conferences, which were always good fun. Last May and July I presented different aspects of my research at two smaller, but very interesting conferences: SyngBio 2017 and the ACRS 2017 conference.

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Participants of SyngBio 2017 (Tampa, Florida)

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Tagging workshop at SyngBio 2017

Syngbio stands for Syngnathid Biology, but it really should be called seahorse camp. Syngbio is a global conference solely focused on Syngnathid fishes (=seahorses, pipefishes and their relatives). The conference was held at the University of Tampa in Florida (USA). For the duration of the conference we had accommodation in a dorm on campus, which contributed to the “summer camp”-feel and additionally made it a lot easier to socialize (read: “drink alcoholic beverages”) with other researchers at the end of the day. I must say that this conference was the most fun conference I’ve done so far, even if I leave out the social events. Hanging out with a group of people who are all passionate about the species you study is great, especially since I usually work with people who study very different species than I do. There was so much to learn from experts on all kind of topics ranging from conservation, to physiology, husbandry, ecology, evolution, etc. I was also lucky enough to attend a meeting of the IUCN Syngnathid Specialist Group, which are the people who decide on global conservation priorities for these animals. During the conference I presented my own research on the impacts of flash photography on seahorses. The writing on that chapter isn’t entirely finished yet, but I will make sure to share results here as soon as they are published.

The other conference I attended was organised by the Australian Coral Reef Society (ACRS), who kindly sponsored my flights to Townsville (Australia) to attend the conference. Townsville  is the home city of James Cook University (JCU), one of the world’s leading marine biology universities. Over the years I have met a lot of JCU researchers in the field and on other conferences, so it was great to finally visit the place and catch up with everyone. The conference had a strong focus on the recent coral bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef and how it eventually effects far more than just the corals. While certain (uniformed) people still claim otherwise, climate change was one of the main reason this happened, and will probably happen even more in the future. This isn’t the blog post to go into depressing details, but seeing the destructive effects for yourself and talking to the scientists who do the research really drives homes the message of how important it is to take action to slow down climate change.

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A Tambja nudibranch (Tambja sp.), winner of “public’s choice”-award at ACRS 2017

I presented some of my biofluorescence research at the ACRS conference and was very happy to win an “Outstanding presentation award” for my talk! The work I presented is in review at the moment and will hopefully be published within the next 3 months. During the conference I also submitted a few of my photos for a conference photo competition. I am quite proud that one of the photos won the “Public’s choice” award! 🙂

So what are the plans in the near future? I will definitely try to write blogs more regularly, although I have a pretty busy schedule. I am tutoring a few classes (Functional Biology) to 1st year students, and I will be doing a lot more writing and analysing.  I might get some short relief from the cold Perth winter to do another trip to Coral Bay with the 3rd year students as well, which would be good fun. Finally, I’ve got three papers which are in review, so hopefully I will be able to share more news about new publications soon!

 

 

 

Answering questions

During the last three months, I have been lucky enough to be based in Lembeh Strait in Indonesia. While most of my time there was spent writing, I also managed to get a fair few dives in so I wouldn’t forget why I started this PhD-project in the first place. What motivated me to go back to university after 7 years of working across the world, was curiosity about the marine life I love so much.

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What is a Bobbit worm’s (Eunice aphroditois) place in the food chain?

While working as a dive instructor, I would constantly wonder about what I saw. Why did certain animals only appear in some spots or at certain times of the year? How long do frogfish/pygmy seahorses/other-fish-of-choice live? Do camouflaged fish choose a place to live depending on their own colour, or do they change their colour depending on where they live? What eats nudibranchs? What do nudibranchs eat? …? A few guide books offered answers to some of my questions, but most remained unanswered. Over the years, it slowly became clear that the answers were not locked up in some dusty university-dungeon or inside an even dustier professor’s brain. The truth is, science didn’t know the answers to many of the questions I had.

Many divers would be astonished by how little we really know about the ocean. As anyone who has heard me talk about my research will tell you, I answer a lot of questions with “I don’t know”. Even many of the most basic questions still haven’t been answered. There is a lot of great research going on, but there is even more ocean out there to be studied. When it started to dawn on me that hardly anyone was trying to find the answers to my questions, I decided to try to find them myself.

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Why do frogfish (Antennarius spp.) yawn?

Of course it wasn’t as quick and straightforward as I write it here. But in the end (mostly through stubbornness and dumb luck) I managed to get myself into a project where I could spend multiple years trying to find out some answers myself. Turns out finding answers isn’t as easy as you’d think! But it also turns out that it is an even better way to spend one’s time than traipsing across the world as a dive instructor. The result is that after 3 years I have answered a fraction of my initial questions, while simultaneously tripling (quadrupling? quintupling?) the number of questions I had in the start!

What I am planning to do with those new questions is a matter for another post, but this final field trip definitely motivated me to keep searching for answers…

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Do Ghostpipefish (Solenostomus spp.) change sex? These are 3 males together

 

Seahorse and pipefish blog collection

syngbioI am currently in Florida at the University of Tampa, to attend Syngbio 2017. Syngbio is the global conference about Syngnathidae. “Syngnathidae” is the scientific name for the group of animals that consists of seahorses, pipefishes, etc. The conference is being attended by over 100 experts from across the world, who are discussing topics ranging from behaviour, to genetics, husbandry and conservation.

Once the conference is over, I will write a blog about the main conclusions of the conference. But since I am currently in a syngnathid mind-set, I figured it made sense to have a look at previous blog posts I wrote about seahorses and their relatives and combine them for anyone interested to learn more about these fascinating animals.

  • Little known seahorse facts: an overview of interesting facts about seahorses you might not have heard of before
  • Winged pipefish: one of my favourite pipefish species that I feel deserves more attention
  • Seadragons and other critters found in the cold waters around Sydney
  • Ruby seadragons, deep sea seahorses and other critters beyond the reach of divers
  • Keeping seahorses in tanks: a rant on how I struggled keeping West Australian seahorses in tanks. Read this blog if you are considering keeping seahorses in tanks yourself
  • Ornate ghostpipefish: ghostpipefishes are gorgeous animals, but very understudied. This blog is an overview of what we know about the ornate ghostpipefish.
  • Fluo seahorses: A photo compilation of some of the fluoresence work I’ve done, including fluo seahorse shots

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Critter getaway in Bangka

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Mangroves at Bangka Island

At the moment I am back in Lembeh Strait for what will be the last visit to Indonesia during my PhD. So I am making the most of it, enjoying every moment and taking time to visit friends spread out across the archipelago. A few days ago I went to Bangka Island to visit Sophie and Simon, who own Nomad Divers, a very pleasant small dive resort. I wrote about Bangka before, so check it out here if you want to know what the island is all about.

I enjoyed a few very relaxed days, playing (and losing ) board games, teaching their kids how to behave badly and philosophising about science while enjoying gin-tonics. But I also got to appreciate the abundant critters that live in the mangroves and jungle of Bangka Island. Those few days of not working (not a single dive done and no computer in sight), and just enjoying nature reminded me why I fell in love with the tropics in the first place. The beauty of Indonesia (and much of the tropics by extension) is that there is so much wildlife all around you, as long as you just keep your eyes open…or just get plain lucky.

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Tarsier in the ceiling! I never realised how long their tails were…

On my first night, while we were catching up and sharing stories about science hobbits, a small tarsier decided to have his dinner in the restaurant. These small primates are rare and vulnerable to extinction, they are only active at night and are usually very shy. If you want to see them in the wild, your best bet is to find yourself a good guide who knows where they roost during the day, so you can see them waking up and moving out to hunt when night falls. Just seeing one is great, having one sitting just above you, while eating a gecko is dumb luck and freaking amazing. For Sophie and Simon, this was a first in 4 years on Bangka!

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Nomnomnom. Tarsier (Tarsius Tarsier) eating a gecko (Hemidactylus frenatus) in Bangka Island

There was plenty to see by day as well. I had a great time wandering through the mangroves, looking around for interesting crittersAs you may or may not know, mangroves are important nursery areas for all kind of fish, so it was no surprise to see lots of baby snappers, damsels and other small fish darting around in the shallows. But there was a lot more, loads of mudskippers (skipping around in the mud, as they do), kingfishers in the trees, and the always busy fiddler crabs in the intertidal zone.

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Two male fiddler crabs facing off

Fiddler crabs are colourful little crabs, and are named for the males’ disproportionally large claw. One claw is small and used like any other crab uses its claws, the huge claw is used to show off (what did you expect?). The males wave their big claw around to get the attention of females, and to ward of other males encroaching on their territory. If you  ever find yourself in a mangrove with plenty of time on your hands, I can highly advise watching these little guys at work for a while, it’s pretty captivating and highly entertaining.

While I didn’t go into the jungle, there were plenty of little lizards to spot while strolling along the beach or heading to my room. Apparently, there are quite a few snakes to find in the jungle, and legend has it there’s even deer around, maybe I’ll have to bring shoes next time and go have a look.  If mangroves or jungle or jungle trekking aren’t your thing, you can always just chill out, have a beer and watch the geckos on the wall eating bugs or fighting each other. The tropics really are accommodating for any life style 😉

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Sophie and Max enjoying the ocean view