New publication: Parasites on the Great Barrier Reef

This is blog is a story about more than just a new publication, it is also the story of how I became a full time marine biologist. The publication might have come out only last month, but its story began more than 5 years ago on an expedition site in the Philippines…

It is on that site where I met my good friend Eva, who asked me at the end of the expedition if I wanted to join her on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) for a couple of months of fieldwork. At that point I had no idea that we would be studying cleaner wrasses and parasites, but who would say no to such an offer?

Male adult Gnathiid parasite

A male gnathiid parasite

So November 2012 found Eva and me in a tiny plane, on our way to Lizard Island while  enjoying the amazing views over the GBR. The fantastic research station on Lizard Island would be our home for more than three months while we were conducting a series of experiments designed by Dr. Lexa Grutter, one of the world’s experts on cleaner wrasses and fish parasites.

Lizard Island

Lizard Island in the Great Barrier Reef

The experiments we were doing are part of a much larger project that’s been ongoing since the year 2000. The base of the project are 16 small patch reefs, half of which have had their cleaner wrasse removed from the start of the project, and the other half was left alone. To make sure the “removal reefs” stay cleaner wrasse-free, they are regularly checked for new cleaner wrasse, which are removed when found. This amazing setup makes it possible to see how reefs without cleaner wrasse are different from reefs with cleaner wrasse.

Eva and Hemigymnus

Eva and one of our “Hemis” (Thicklip wrasse / Hemigymnus melapterus)

Our particular experiment was designed to test if the number of gnathiid parasites (basically the mosquitos of the sea) were different when there are no cleaner wrasses on a reef. Cleaner wrasse eat the parasites off fish, but it’s unclear if they eat that many that it has an effect on the total number of parasites on coral reefs. The best way to count parasites is by using living fish as bait, Eva and me used the beautiful thicklip wrasse (Hemigymnus melapterus – aka “Hemis”). Our lovely hemis were put in traps which were placed on the different reefs for 12 hours. The traps are specifically designed containers that let the smell of fish out, and would allow parasites to enter, but not to escape.

We did two main sampling periods, each three weeks long, centered around the full moon. During sampling, our daily routine was to get up well before sunrise, collect the fish that were put out the night before, and deposit a new batch of fish. The main part of the day we would collect the parasites from the traps, and tend to our Hemis and their aquaria. At sunset we would collect the morning traps + fish and deposit a new batch of traps + fish. The days ended with collecting the daytime parasites. I can say in all honesty that I haven’t done such a tiring, but simultaneously exciting fieldwork experiment since.

End of traps celebrations

The end of a big experiment: time to celebrate!

The work we did provided only half of the data, more data was collected from similar experiments conducted by other colleagues, using different fish species. Afterwards there was a lot of lab work done by yet other collaborators, who counted and identified all the parasites. Only then could the data by analysed and written up. Sometimes experiments are quick and easy, sometimes they take a massive team effort!

Sentinel trap reef

Parasite trap on the reef

So the results are in now, and they are very cool. The main story is that when cleaner wrasse are present on a coral reef, they indeed have an effect on how many parasites infest fishes. But… The effect only happened by day, and only for big fish species such as our thicklip wrasses. For smaller fish species like damsel fish, there was no difference whether or not cleaner wrasse were present on the reef. Also very interesting is that cleaner wrasse only have an effect on the parasites that are active by day.

 

What does this all mean? In short, it seems to indicate that cleaner wrasse not only directly remove parasites from fish, but they do it so efficiently that it keeps the parasite numbers down in the areas where they clean fish. This is in turn good news for all the other fish on the reef, as living in an area with less parasites is much better for your health than living in a place full of parasites. Just think about it, how much would you enjoy living in a mosquito-ridden swamp? This experiments shows that cleaner wrasse are at least partially responsible for removing the mozzies from your swamp!

This paper means more than that to me, it means very fond memories of tiring sampling sessions, crazy-pants parties, beach runs, sunset drinks, meeting some fantastic people,… But more than that, the work involved made me realise how much I enjoy doing research, and it is what made me decide to pursue a PhD in marine science. So being able to write a blog about this paper while I am in the final stages of writing up my PhD thesis very much feels like things have come full circle.

 

Advertisements

New publication: Finding fluorescent critters

Great news! I can finally share the reason why I was playing around with fluorescent torches for the last three years. The main biofluorescence paper I have been working on was published two weeks ago in the journal Conservation biology, happy days!

Previously I have written blog posts about funky biofluorescing fish, publications on frogfish that might be using fluorescence to attract prey, or just some funky fluo pictures to keep you you entertained. This particular story is about why I started working on biofluorescence in the first place and how the results of the research might help to protect little critters.

A pictus_fluo profile_MDB

Biofluorescent painted frogfish (Antennarius pictus)

As anyone who has ever tried to find small or camouflaged critters during a dive will be able to tell you, the little guys are pretty hard to find! This isn’t just a problem for a dive guide who wants to show pygmy seahorses or small frogfish to his divers, it is also a very real and well-known problem for marine biologists trying to study them. Finding these “cryptic” critters might be a headache for divers, but there is much more at stake when you are trying to collect data about critters that might be endangered with extinction.

If you are trying to figure out if an animal is endangered, the obvious first thing you want to know is “how many of them are out there?”. All good and well when you are studying elephants or giraffes, but slightly more tricky when you’re studying pygmy seahorses or a tiny goby that’s less than 3cm long! Not finding any pygmy seahorses or gobies could just mean that you didn’t look hard enough.

Moray_MDB

Biofluorescent moray eel (Gymnothorax zonipectis)

Scientists have three different ways of coping with this issue:

  • First option: Ignoring the problem by not counting small, cryptic animals when doing surveys. After all, if you weren’t looking it’s only normal you didn’t find any.
  • Second option: Adapting standard “visual surveys”. Usually by going slower or looking harder at a smaller area than when looking for big fish. This way you find more cryptic critters, but a lot still depends on how good a researcher is at spotting small fish.
  • Third option: (you might not like this one) Using chemicals that either stun or kill all the fish in a small area, after which all the fish are collected and counted. This method is very efficient and gives a good idea of which fish were living in that area. Unfortunately using methods that kill fish are not ideal, especially when you might be dealing with rare species.
Hippocampus subelongatus_couple_MDB

Two fluorescent seahorses (Hippocampus subelongatus)

This is where biofluorescence could come in to help. If you are confused about what biofluorescence is, definitely check out this post or this website. But briefly, biofluorescence happens when fish first absorb light and then reflect it in a different colour. Importantly, biofluorescence is  not the same as bioluminescence, where animals produce their own light.

So what has biofluorescence to do with finding cryptic fishes? A few years ago, a paper was published that stated that biofluorescence is common in camouflaged fishes. The work looked into evolutionary history, but the main idea triggered a little light bulb. I had previously seen coral researchers use biofluorescence to find baby corals (which are tiny, transparent, and VERY hard to see), so I wondered if the same technique could be used on cryptic fish.

Bandtail_MDB

The same bandtail scorpionfish (Scorpaenopsis neglecta), with and without fluorescence

So I decided to test it as a part of my PhD. I was very lucky to get support from multiple divecentres which helped me to go fluo-diving all across Indonesia and the Philippines. In the last 3 years I did over 200 dives observing, investigating, counting, and cursing fluo-and non-fluorescent fish. The results are published here, but the answer is: Yes, you can use biofluorescence to count cryptic fishes.

The vast majority (87%) of cryptic fishes I tested showed biofluorescence, compared to a small fraction (9%) of the non-cryptic fishes. A cryptic fish is 70.9 times more likely to be biofluorescent than a non-cryptic one! When comparing normal surveys with fluorescence surveys, I found three times as many triplefins (a small cryptic fish species) when using fluo surveys than during comparable normal surveys.

What was also really exciting (to me at least) is that I discovered that pygmy seahorses are fluorescent as well! Using fluorescence I found twice as many Bargibant’s pygmy seahorses than without the fluo torch. As if they weren’t cute enough already, these little guys are fluo pink when you look at them with the right tools!

Fluorescing seahorses are not the only reason why I am excited about this new publication…although it probably plays a bigger role than it should in order to call myself a serious scientist 😉 The great thing is that this is an easy and cheap technique that could help researchers study and conserve small fishes more efficiently than before. And in the end, that’s what it’s all about for me, making sure the oceans remain an amazing place full of critters to enjoy looking at…

Solenostomus cyanopterus_Fluo_MDB

Robust ghostpipefish (Solenostomus cyanopterus) are biofluorescent too!

 

On the origin of muck diving

The last 3 years of my life have been dedicated to intensely studying critters and socio-economics related to “muck diving”. While this is a relatively common term in the scuba diving world, the vast majority of people haven’t got a clue what muck diving is. I can’t count the number of times people at conferences, meetings, drinks, etc. have gone: “You study what diving???”. Marine scientists seem to prefer hearing “Cryptobenthic fish assemblages on tropical sublittoral soft sediment habitats” than “Critters in the muck”. Each to its own I guess?

Seahorse_muck

Classic muck diving scene (Photo: Dragos Dumitrescu)

It’s not just scientists who are confused, a lot of divers have questions about muck, or at the very least are curious about how it started and where the name came from, so I decided to dig a bit deeper and find out some interesting facts about the origins of muck diving. If you have never heard of muck diving or just aren’t sure what it is, here is how I defined it in my last paper:

“Scuba diving in soft sediment habitats with limited landscape features, with
the explicit goal to observe or photograph rare, unusual, or cryptic species that are seldom seen on coral reefs.”

Or easier: Diving on sand/mud/rubble to find cool animals you don’t see on normal divesites. The word “muck” means either “Dirt, rubbish, or waste matter” or even worse “Farmyard manure, widely used as fertilizer”. In British English it is also used for “Something regarded as distasteful, unpleasant, or of poor quality”. I would guess that it’s the combination of the first and last meanings that inspired the people who started this type of diving.

Muck diving in its current shape has its origins in Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea. On a site called Dinah’s beach,  where Bob Halstead decided to try to do a dive on the site where their boat (the MV Telita) was anchored. The divers were skeptical at first as the site was mostly sand and did not look very appealing, but after discovering tonnes of creatures they had never seen before they were sold and muck diving was born. From its origins in Papua New Guinea, muck diving caught on and became popular across the world, but no place is as well known for muck diving as Lembeh Strait in Indonesia.

Map Milne Bay

Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea, where it all started

It is clear why Lembeh is famous with muck divers, as it really is a great place to dive and find some of the world’s most amazing critters. But how did muck diving in Lembeh kick off? What many people don’t know, is that Lembeh’s origin-story as the world’s most famous muck dive destination is pretty grim. The first resort in Lembeh (Kungkungan Bay Resort) was built in 1994, but the owners did not build their resort with critters in mind….

Back in those days, Lembeh was one of the best sites in the region to watch the big stuff. The plankton-rich waters of Lembeh Strait attracted scores of manta rays, dolphins, sharks,… Until 1996, when mankind showed just how destructive it could be. In March of that year, foreign fishermen came in and (illegally) installed the “Curtains of death”. These were huge nets, placed across the migratory routes of the large fish near Lembeh Strait. The nets were deadly efficient, during the 11 months they were used they caught:

  • 1424 manta rays
  • 577 pilot whales
  • 18 whales
  • 257 dolphins
  • 326 sharks (including whale sharks)
  • 84 turtles
  • many other animals including turtles and marlins

The original article about the curtains of death can’t be found online, but if you are interested, send me an email and I can send a copy. If you want to know more about destructive fishing in Indonesia, this is an interesting source start with.

Rainbow2

Peaceful Lembeh Strait has a turbulent history

The numbers are staggering, and for the few tourism operators in the area it must have been quite a shock. Until they discovered that Lembeh had much more to offer than just the big stuff. While there are no records of it, the story goes that muck diving in the area only properly got started when people started looking down at the sand instead of up at the manta rays. It makes me wonder what the area would have looked liked otherwise, and if muck diving would exist in the way it does now…

As it is now, muck diving is big, it attracts divers from across the globe and new critter hot spots keep on being discovered far beyond from where it all started. It’s exciting to think about how much more we will discover in the future! For me, one of the changes I would like to see, is the actual term “muck diving”. The name coined by Bob Halstead stuck, but I think most people in the diving (and academic) world agree that it isn’t really the most inviting name. I’d like to hear your suggestions (below in comments) on more suitable names for this type of diving and the divers doing it. If I get enough suggestions, I’ll organise a poll later to see what is preferred by divers around the world!

2_MDeBrauwer_JuvenileFrogfish_MDB

It’s all about finding the small stuff – baby Painted frogfish (Antennarius pictus)

PS: Originally I wanted the full title of this blog to be “On the origin of muck diving by Means of Photographer Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured divesites in the search for Critters”. But the long title might have put off those readers who didn’t immediately get the very nerdy biology pun.

What is a species?

As promised in a previous blogpost, it is time to get into another hotly debated topic in biology that most non-biologists wouldn’t even think was an issue at all. This is a big one, as it underpins pretty much all biology: “What is a species?”. I would argue that this question needs two important additional questions: “Why does it matter?” and “To whom does it matter?”. Since I am only human and like postponing difficult tasks at hand, let’s start with the follow-up questions.

speciesTo whom does it matter that we are capable of telling one species from another? Besides looking like a smart cookie when telling your fellow divers/birdwatchers/plant enthusiasts which species you’ve just seen, it doesn’t matter very much to be honest. We are no longer hunter-gatherers, so being able to tell which species you can eat, and which ones will will eat/kill you, doesn’t matter that much anymore. In other words, the discussion in the rest of this blog is mostly an issue for taxonomists, but it gives an interesting insight in how simple concepts can be quite complicated when you look closer.

Why does it matter then? For two reasons:

  1. People in general and scientists in particular like putting labels on objects around them, it helps us structure and understand the world we see.
  2. Being able to tell two species apart that look very similar can have big consequences for conservation action: Two birds/fish/plant might look similar, but they could be different species, one of which reasonably common, but the other one rare and on the brink of going extinct. If we don’t realise they are different, we might lose that species.

A logical follow-up question (in my mind) would be: “what does it matter if one species that looks a lot like the next goes extinct?”. This is a valid question, but would require a long (and interesting) scientific and philosophical discussion.

charlesdarwin1

Struggling to define what a species is? Don’t worry, so did Charles Darwin (photo source: www.brainpickings.org)

Back to the species concept, which seems obvious, but really is not. The question has been asked for centuries by many renowned scientists. Two of which were none other than Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. It could even be claimed that this question is what eventually led to the theory of evolution, which essentially tries to explain how different species come into existence. It is obvious that you need to know what a species is before you can answer that question. Sometimes it is easy: the majority of people can tell the difference between a cat and a dog, but it becomes a lot more difficult when species look very similar. Try asking a marine biologist what the difference is between a Slingjaw wrasse (Epibulus insidiator) and a Latent slingjaw wrasse (Epibulus brevis), or between a Thin Ghostpipefish (Solenostomus leptosoma) and a Robust Ghostpipefish (Solenostomus cyanopterus). Go on, give it a go, it’ll be fun to see them struggle! (Smart-ass tip: a spot on the dorsal fin & smaller adult size / No difference, they are most likely the same species).

chi_dane

They might look different, but are the same species. Photo source: www.dogguide.net

The problem is how do you define a species? At what point is an individual that looks different than “the norm” a different species, rather than just natural variation? Dogs can look as different as Danish dogs and (rats) Chihuahuas but are all the same species. Compared to those two, lions and tigers look much more alike, yet they are very different species. The classic definition of a species (if they cannot have fertile offspring they are different species) works in most cases. Lion + Tiger = Liger, but ligers are infertile. I don’t know what Danish dog + Chihuahua would look like and I wouldn’t get ethics approval from my university to test it, but presumably the result would be a fertile dog.

So far the normal situation, but what happens when different species mate and have fertile offspring (hybrids)? This is surprisingly common in the ocean. Hybridising fish are not that rare if you know what to look for. I have personally seen it in Clownfish and Surgeonfish and almost certainly in Frogfish and Ghostpipefish. But is has also been recorded in groupers, manta rays, butterflyfish, angelfish and wrasses.

hybrid_surgeonfish

Hybridising surgeonfish: r: Acanthurus lineatus s: Acanthurus sohal t: A. lineatus x A. Sohal hybrid (Source)

In this case, can we say the parents are different species because they look different, behave differently, and typically live in different regions? Or are they a single, highly variable species, the way dogs are? Traditional taxonomy focused on what species looked like, would say they are different species, but not everyone agrees with this. A recent example from the pygmy seahorse world: Hippocampus severnsi and Hippocampus pontohi were described as two different species. However, new (yet unpublished) research shows that they are genetically identical, so the name H. severnsi was removed and they are now all called H. pontohi. I’d imagine much to the annoyance of Mike Severns, who no longer has a cool animal with his name on it.

Is genetics the solution to the problem? Depends on who you ask. Geneticists tend to say yes, old-school taxonomists tend to be a bit less convinced. Each side has very valid arguments, one of which is how genetically different do individuals have to be before they are considered different species (sound familiar?). Different cut-offs have been proposed, but as far as I know, there is no real consensus (please correct me if I am wrong geneticist-readers). Another serious issue is how to classify small life forms like microbes, this article has a great summary on that if you are interested.

If you think this is getting too complicated, it might be best not to become an evolutionary biologist or taxonomist, because things actually get a lot more complicated than what I described. Suffice to say, for biologists the term “species” is still not a clearly defined concept. But luckily for non-specialists, the essence of the debate is about such fine details that it really shouldn’t be keep you up at night.