Work in progress….

I am currently in the final stages of writing up my PhD-thesis, so not much time to blog. I’ll be back soon, but in the mean time, here are some fresh critter pictures from Raja Ampat to keep you happy!

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Hunting cuttlefish (Sepia sp.) in Raja Ampat

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Goby (Bryaninops amplus) in gorgonian seafan

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Curious octopus checking out my camera

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Bargibant’s pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus bargibanti) chilling out in its gorgonian seafan home

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Orange anemonefish (Amphiprion sandaracinos) posing for the camera

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Interlude

It has been quiet on the blog, mostly because I spent a few weeks recharging my batteries in Europe. But it’s action time again now and there is lots of cool stuff going on! So a short blog to bring you up to speed.

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Getting ready to hop into the Silfra fissure

The last weeks I’ve had the pleasure of exploring some new places in Europe and meeting up with friends I had’t seen for too long. One of the highlights of the trip was that I’ve finally managed to snorkel Silfra fissure in Iceland. Silfra is a gorge in the Thingvellir national park, a rift valley between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. So snorkeling in the Silfra fissure means that you are basically snorkeling between two tectonic plates, and it’s quite the experience. Besides being very cold (it was -12°C outside and 2°C in the water), it has the coolest topography and amazing visibility, up to 100m!

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Silfra Fissure landscape

The Europe trip ended with a visit to the University of Tubingen, where I met up with people that do some exciting research on fish biofluorescence. The lab does some very cool work, like investigating how fish see the world, whether or not they can see fluorescence, etc. It was very interesting to talk with them and learn about their research, and fun to share my work with them.

Which brings me to what’s happening my research. I am now at the very last push of my PhD, with less than 3 months to go before submitting my thesis. There is still work to be done, but I’m happy that multiple papers are currently in review, and will hopefully be published this year. Two of those papers will be of big interest to scuba divers and photographers. One of them might even cause some commotion all the way into zoos and aquaria. I will share them here as soon as they have gone through the review process.

Lastly, some really exciting news about future work. Last month I received a grant from the Mohammed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund to run a project that will benefit one of the world’s most endangered seahorses. Together with my friend Louw, which you might remember from her guestblog, we will be looking at new ways to detect the endangered Knysna Seahorse (Hippocampus capensis). Louw and me will be collaborating with the TrEnD lab in Perth to make a difference in the conservation of this beautiful critter. This project will start immediately after handing in the PhD, so I will be able to share new critter insights for a while longer.

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The endangered Knysna seahorse (Hippocampus capensis) – Photo: Louw Claassens

Fish nerds, critters, sharks and shirts

As I have written before, attending scientific conferences is an important aspect of working as a researcher. One of the benefits of being a marine scientist is that these conferences tend to take you to nice places (Hawaii for example), and this was proven once again at the 10th Indo-Pacific Fish Conference (IPFC), which just finished in Tahiti.

IMG_7936IPFC is the largest fish-focused conference in the Indo-Pacific region, and is held once every 4 years. This year was the 10th time it was organised, with more than 500 fish nerds scientists joining the fray. It is hard to explain to non-scientists just why these conferences (IPFC in particular) are such interesting events. They’re obviously good for learning about the newest research in your field, but it is also a great chance to catch up with old friends, or to meet the experienced researchers whose research you might know inside out, but have never actually met. It feels a bit like getting to mingle with the “celebrities” of the marine biology world. Besides celebrities and old friends, fish conferences are also THE BEST excuse in the world to whip out your finest/loudest fish themed shirts!

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Fish nerds rocking the fish-themed clothing at IPFC in Tahiti!

From a scientific point of view, some of my conference highlights were:

  • A big session with multiple talks dedicated to cryptobenthic fishes. It was fantastic to meet more people who study similar oddballs as I do, learn more about their research, and discuss important future research steps.
  • Hearing really bad news about how we are still overfishing most fish-stocks and how government subsidies make this problem much worse.
  • Then hearing good news on how well-managed marine protected areas have helped shark numbers in Australia recover from overfishing.
  • Plenty of new  and exciting developments in understanding the behaviour of fish larvae (I’m not even being ironic here, it’s awesome science, trust me!).
  • Learning more about why deep sea fishes look so weird and how their looks change with depth.
  • Thought-provoking questions on how to deal with oil and gas platforms in the sea after the wells run dry.
  • Finding out that parrotfish are a bit like hamsters, storing excess food in their cheeks while they’re feeding.
  • An important and super-interesting session that focused on women in marine science, which are (unfortunately) still underrepresented in our field.
  • The enormous kindness and willingness of experienced scientists to help and encourage the new generation.

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Squadron of blacktip reef sharks

Obviously while we were in Tahiti, we did more than just sit and talk about fish. We also went exploring to see what Tahiti had to offer and to find some actual fish. And oh boy, the fish we found!!! I might find a lot of very cool small critters for my research, but I rarely come across big sharks. During a shark dive just off Tahiti we saw 3 big tiger sharks, joined by a whole lot of other sharks for good measure. While tiger sharks are obviously not quite as interesting as small critters, they are impressive, awesome, and beautiful beasts! And while they get big (close to 4 meter), I did not feel worried about getting attacked at any point. They are undoubtedly top predators, but far from the monsters the media would like to make them out to be.

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Two tiger sharks and a blacktip reef shark

Besides sharks, we were also lucky to see humpback whales (from the boat), and went exploring on land. I’m sure you won’t be surprised if I tell you that Tahiti is a stunning place. Waterfalls all around, jungle, ocean, waves, super friendly people,… So you can imagine that this week I was mostly wandering around with a big grin on my face. On top of this, Tahiti is also a great place if you like tattoos, and I was very (very!) tempted to get a new one done here, but managed to stop myself. Only just though, so it’s probably a good thing that I am leaving tomorrow 😉

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Happy fish nerds exploring Tahiti’s beaches

So what next? I am writing up the last chapters of my PhD-thesis, so the search for new challenges (postdoctoral research!) is slowly getting started. There is more good news as well, an article on my biofluorescence research just got accepted in the journal Conservation Biology, so you can expect a new blog about that paper soon. But before that, a new guestblog is coming up that delves deep into the world of frogfishes…

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View over Moorea

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).

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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!