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!

Fishy shirts

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.


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.


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 😉


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…


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).

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.


Participants of SyngBio 2017 (Tampa, Florida)

workshop syngnbio2

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.


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.

Bobbit worm_MDB

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.

Froggie yawn_name

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…

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