The plight of Tasmania’s handfish

The cold waters of Tasmania might seem like a far cry from Indonesia’s treasured critter-dive locations, but for those willing to brave the cold, they hold some amazing treasures. Put on your drysuit, grab your camera, take the plunge, and you just might discover some of the rarest fish on the planet.

Tasmanian dive sites are home to seadragons, multiple seahorse species, but the critters that will convince me to shiver my ass off are the handfishes. Handfish are relatives of the better-known frogfishes, which means to have a similar fishing lure (adapted dorsal fin spines) on top of their head. As the name implies, they also have adapted pectoral fins which resemble hands. Like their frogfish cousins, handfish spend most of their life on the seafloor, waiting for unsuspecting prey to swim by and gobble up.

There are 14 known handfish species, all of which are found only in southern Australia. Unfortunately, 8 out of the 14 species are endangered. One species, the Smooth handfish (Sympterichthys unipennis) even has the unfortunate distinction of being the first marine fish to have gone extinct.

What a fish! The red Handfish (Thymichthys politus) is critically endangered. Photo credit: Tyson Bessell

Other handfish species are not doing much better and might follow in the Smooth Handfish’s unfortunate footsteps all too soon. The Red Handfish (Thymichthys politus), Spotted Handfish (Brachionichthys hirsutus), and Ziebell’s Handfish (Brachiopsilus ziebelli) are all considered to be Critically Endangered. The fate of the Ziebell’s handfish in particular is looking very grim since no confirmed sightings have been reported in 14 years 😦

The sad state of handfish is ironic as, not unlike other endangered or extinct species, they used to be very common. So common in fact, that less than 50 years ago, the local university used them as a model animal for dissections in zoology classes! Early Tasmanian settlers and convicts even considered eating them because they were found everywhere and were easy to collect, but decided against it because they were too small (less than 10cm).

So what went so wrong that we now fear they might go extinct? The main reason for their issues is habitat destruction and degradation. The combined effects of destructive fishing pressures, coastal development, increased pollution and silt runoff means that much of the places they used to thrive are no longer suitable. To add insult to injury, the waters home to handfish have been invaded by the Northern Pacific Seastar (Asterias amurensis). There are now millions of them in prime handfish habitat, and they love to eat handfish eggs and the stalked ascidians the Spotted handfish lay their eggs on. Without a proper place to attach their eggs, the handfish can’t reproduce anymore, with a crashing population as a result.

The critically endangered Spotted Handfish (Brachionichthys hirsutus). Photo credit: Rick Stuart-Smith

Luckily for the handfish, a dedicated group of people are trying their very best to turn its fortunes around. The Handfish Conservation Project is a team of researchers and conservationists that is working hard to save these amazing species. The project has mapped out recovery plans, does research on handfish to better understand how we can help them, and has a citizen science portal to report handfish sightings. In a very cool recent project, science and art were combined successfully to make ceramic egg habitats that are unpalatable for the invasive seastars, but acceptable for handfish to lay eggs on.

If, like me, you want to help conserve these fantastic critters, there’s a few things you can do. If you see Red or Ziebell’s handfish, please report it here, ideally accompanied by pictures. If you can and want to, you can donate to the project here. If you are really keen, you can even name an endangered handfish! For more general info on handfish conservation, the Handfish Conservation Project website is a good place to start.

The Red Handfish (Thymichthys politus) has good reasons to look grumpy. Photo credit: Tyson Bessell

New publication: Critter diversity on the sand

It turns out that moving halfway across the world and diving into a new job is more time consuming than I expected, so I haven’t been keeping up with the blog recently. I’m slowly starting to get more organised and in the coming weeks I will try to catch up with summaries of papers that I’ve published recently.

The paper “High diversity, but low abundance of cryptobenthic fishes on soft sediment habitats in Southeast Asia” was published almost a year ago in the journal Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science. It was one of the key papers of my PhD and describes the diversity of critters on sandy habitats in Indonesia and the Philippines.

If you have ever been muck diving it won’t come as a surprise to you that there is some very exciting marine life to be found on sandy bottoms. When you mention places like Lembeh Strait, Anilao, or Dauin to keen divers – especially photographers – they either get lyrical about the amazing pictures they took there, or will tell you about their plans for visiting any of the above places to go see some crazy marine life.

Froggie yawning

Species like this painted frogfish (Antennarius pictus) are popular with muck divers

In fact, the popularity of these sandy critters is so great, that the divers visiting Southeast Asia for muck diving bring in more than $150 million of revenue each year, supporting thousands of sustainable jobs! With so much money and jobs involved, it would be normal to expect researchers and conservationists to be interested in knowing which animals live on tropical sandy slopes. Unfortunately, that assumption would be wrong, surprisingly little is known about soft sediment (=sandy) habitats in the tropics. Even basic knowledge such as which animals live where is often unknown.

Luckily things are changing! Scientific interest in “cryptobenthic species” – the small, camouflaged critters this site is all about – is definitely increasing, with excellent work being doing on coral reefs by colleagues from across the world. We are starting to understand just how important they are for coral reefs and how very diverse cryptobenthic species can be.

What I am interested in though, is what is going on with the critters that live away from reefs. Are the critters living on the sand as diverse as those one coral reefs? Which species are most common? What causes species to live in one area, but not another? To answer these questions I set of with my good friend Luke for a 3 month dive survey trip that took us to Lembeh Strait, the north coast of Bali, and the sandy slopes of Dauin.

Maarten Smile

Surveying soft sediment critters in Dauin. Photo: Luke Gordon

During our survey dives, we not only counted and identified the fish we saw, we also measured a bunch of other factors that could have an effect on the presence of critters. We wanted to know whether depth, benthic cover (growth of algae, coral, sponges etc), or the characteristics of the sediment played a role in which species we found.

So what did we find?

One of the most interesting results is that the diversity (number of species) of cryptobenthic species was very high, higher in fact than the cryptobenthic fish diversity on many coral reefs! In contrast, the abundance (number of individuals) was much, much lower than what is found on coral reefs. To put it in perspective, if a normal coral reef would be an aquarium with 300 cryptobenthic fish of 15 different species crammed inside, soft sediment habitats would be the same aquarium with 30 fish of 16 species.

When looking at environmental factors, one of the most important factors that influenced where species lived, was the characteristics of the sediment. For small critters it makes a big difference whether the sand is powdery fine, or coarse like gravel. There seems to be a middle ground where the size of the sediment seems ideal for many critters. The tricky part is that the characteristics of sediment are in a large part determined by other processes such as currents or wave action. For now it is too early to conclude whether critters are found in these places because of the type of sediment or because of other factors that shape the sediment!

The amount of growth on the bottom played a role as well, particularly when algae or sponges were present, which makes sense as it offers variation in the habitat and potential hiding places for some species. Depth differences played a minor role in some regions (Daiun, Bali), but did not make a real difference in Lembeh. The limited effect of depth could partially be due to the fact that we did not survey deeper than 16m (university diving regulations are quite restrictive). It would be a great follow-up study to compare with deeper depths, as I am sure they will give very different results.

What does it all mean?

This study was (as far as I know) the first one ever to investigate the cryptobenthic fish in soft sediment habitats. The unexpectedly high diversity and very low abundance means there is a lot more  species out there than what was assumed, but that we have to look much harder to find them. I mostly see our results as a starting point to guide further research. We have only uncovered a fraction of what is out there and are not even close to really understanding how tropical soft sediment systems function. While this provides an exciting opportunity for scientists like me to new research, it also means that we do not yet know how environmental threats such climate change or overfishing will impact  species living on soft sediment. We do not know yet if the species that muck dive tourism depends on need protection, or how to best protect them if they do.

Whiteface whaspfish

We might not know yet what the future holds for sand-specialists like this whiteface waspfish (Richardsonichthys leaucogaster), but I am hoping to find out!

Wondering about mimics?

I have been meaning to write a blog about the Mimic octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus) and Wunderpus (Wunderpus photogenicus) for ages, but inspiration has eluded me until I was revisiting some of my earlier research on charismatic muck dive species. Both the mimic octopus and the wunderpus are very popular with critter enthusiasts, but we know surprisingly little about them. Time to change that or at the very least tell you some of the things we know about them!


A wunderpus (Wunderpus photogenicus) checks out my camera

If you’re not a diver or you have never heard of them, the Mimic and the Wunderpus are very (very!) funky species of octopus. They have a wide range of interesting behaviour, they look amazing, and both are found on sandy habitats in the tropics. What they also have in common is that both were only recognised as new species fairly recently (2005 and 2006).

Just by reading their scientific names you could imagine these are not your average cephalopod. The wunderpus’ species name “Wunderpus photogenicus” says it all and  is probably also one of the easiest scientific names to remember (except maybe for the brilliantly named “Boops boops“). “Thaumoctopus mimicus” tells you that this particular species is good at mimicry, even for octopus standards.

Best of Dauin_Cephalopod_OctopusMimic

Mimic octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus) foraging on the sand

Both species live on soft sediment (mostly sand) habitats and they have evolved to be perfectly adapted to this lifestyle. They live in holes in the sand, are small, have longer arms than your average octopus, and their colours are quite drab. There are a few subtle physical and behavioural differences between the two though.

Wunderpus (2)

Wunderpus partially in its hidey-hole

One of the things I noticed is that their hunting strategies vary slightly. Wunderpus have more extensive “webbing” between their arms than mimics and they use this webbing when hunting. Crabs are a favourite prey of wunderpus and they catch them by spreading their mantle (the “web” between their arms) over rocks, holes, or other objects like a big parachute. They then use the tips of their arms to poke the crabs out of their holes, after which they run into the parachute-web and are easily collected with one of the other arms.

Mimic octopus seem to forage more actively and (in my experience) use the parachute-technique less often. Instead they poke their long arms into holes in the sand, scaring out any critter that’s in there and then grabbing it directly. This means that mimics spend even more time moving over the sand than wunderpus do, which might be why they evolved some very particular behaviour.


Trying to mimic?

Whenever you search for information about the mimic octopus, one of the first things to come up is that they mimic all kinds of other animals. Unlike other octopuses, it does not just mimic colour, but also the behaviour of up to 6 (or 8 or 12 depending on who you ask). The question is, does a mimic really mimic? Their mimicry is supposed to deter or fool predators or prey, but I wonder if this is really the case, or whether we are over-interpreting things from our human perspective.

Many of the behaviours that have been called mimicry could also be explained by simple logic or physics. Take for instance the idea that they mimic toxic flounders/soles while swimming. Yes, they do look very similar when they swim, but it is also a fast and energy-efficient way to swim over any flat area. Which is undoubtedly why this type of swimming is used by most octopus species living in the sand. Another example is the lionfish-mimic, which could also be explained as a way to look as big as possible when threatened. It’s a very common tactic used throughout the animal kingdom, and if you happen to be an octopus with long arms, you’ll look like a spiky lionfish when spreading them out. Other behaviours can similarly be explained, but I wouldn’t want to bore you with long lists right now.

Does this mean they do not mimic or that I am just a mopey cynical bastard who refuses to be amazed by a fantastic animal? Of course not! I love mimics and they show some  of the most extraordinary behaviour in the ocean. It just means that I want to learn more about them to find out what causes it.


Close up of a mimic octopus

To study them properly, you first need to be able to tell the wunderpus and mimic octopus apart though! These critters look very similar (stripey), so it’s easy to get confused. Here is what to look for:

  • Arm patterns I: The black/white patterns on the arms of Wunderpus are very sharply defined, compared to more blurry with the mimic. Imagine the patterns on the wunderpus were drawn by a German painter using a pen and ruler, and the ones of the mimic by me with some crayons.
  • Arm patterns II: Mimic octopus have a continuous white outline along the border of each arm. The wunderpus does not have this, instead the band-pattern continues across the border.
  • Head: Mimics have a “U-“-shape on the back of their head, where wunderpus have a white patch.
  • Colour: Wunderpus usually have more of a red/brown colour shade to them than mimics, which are almost always black and white. Careful though, they can both change colour so this is not the best way of telling them apart.
  • Behaviour: The hunting behaviour I described earlier is a hint, though not always consistent. From my experience, wunderpus live in areas where the sand is more coarse (gravelly) than mimic octopus, which could also explain why they have slightly different hunting methods.

Finally, because you made it this far, here is a video I took of mating mimic octopus in Indonesia:

New publication: Flash photography impacts on fish – To flash or not to flash?

The final paper of my PhD thesis has just been published online in the journal Scientific Reports. The paper, titled “Behavioural and pathomorphological impacts of flash photography on benthic fishes” explains the effects of typical diver behaviour while photographing small critters such as seahorses or frogfishes.

The paper itself can be a tad technical, so with the help of two co-authors (Dr. Ben Saunders and Tanika Shalders), I wrote this summary of the research, which was published first at The Conversation (original article here).

We all enjoy watching animals, whether they’re our own pets, birds in the garden, or elephants on a safari during our holidays. People take pictures during many of these wildlife encounters, but not all of these photographic episodes are harmless.

There is no shortage of stories where the quest for the perfect animal picture results in wildlife harassment. Just taking photos is believed to cause harm in some cases – flash photography is banned in many aquariums as a result.

But it’s not always clear how bright camera flashes affect eyes that are so different from our own. Our latest research, published in Nature Scientific Reports, shows that flash photography does not damage the eyes of seahorses, but touching seahorses and other fish can alter their behaviour.

Look but don’t touch

In the ocean it is often easier to get close to your subject than on land. Slow-moving species such as seahorses rely on camouflage rather than flight responses. This makes it very easy for divers to approach within touching distance of the animals.

Previous research has shown that many divers cannot resist touching animals to encourage them to move so as to get a better shot. Additionally, the high-powered strobes used by keen underwater photographers frequently raise questions about the welfare of the animal being photographed. Do they cause eye damage or even blindness?


Does flash harm fishes? Photo: Luke Gordon

Aquariums all around the world have taken well-meaning precautionary action. Most of us will have seen the signs that prohibit the use of flash photography.

Similarly, a variety of guidelines and laws exist in the scuba-diving community. In the United Kingdom, flash photography is prohibited around seahorses. Dive centres around the world have guidelines that include prohibiting flash or limiting the number of flashes per fish.

While all these guidelines are well-intended, none are based on scientific research. Proof of any damage is lacking. Our research investigated the effects of flash photography on slow-moving fish using three different experiments.

What our research found

During the first experiment we tested how different fish react to the typical behaviour of scuba-diving photographers. The results showed very clearly that touching has a very strong effect on seahorses, frogfishes and ghost pipefishes. The fish moved much more, either by turning away from the diver, or by swimming away to escape the poorly behaving divers. Flash photography, on the other hand, had no more effect than the presence of a diver simply watching the fishes.

For slow-moving fishes, every extra movement they make means a huge expense of energy. In the wild, seahorses need to hunt almost non-stop due to their primitive digestive system, so frequent interruptions by divers could lead to chronic stress or malnutrition.

The goal of the second experiment was to test how seahorses react to flash without humans present. To do this we kept 36 West Australian seahorses (Hippocampus subelongatus) in the aquarium facility at Curtin University. During the experiment we fed the seahorses with artemia (“sea monkeys”) and tested for changes in their behaviour, including how successful seahorses were at catching their prey while being flashed with underwater camera strobes.


The aquaria were the seahorses were housed during the experiment

An important caveat to this experiment: the underwater strobes we used were much stronger than the flashes of normal cameras or phones. The strobes were used at maximum strength, which is not usually done while photographing small animals at close range. So our results represent a worst-case scenario that is unlikely to happen in the real world.


West Australian seahorses (Hippocampus subelongatus) in their aquarium at Curtin University

The conclusive, yet somewhat surprising, result of this experiment was that even the highest flash treatment did not affect the feeding success of the seahorses. “Unflashed” seahorses spent just as much time hunting and catching prey as the flashed seahorses. These results are important, as they show that flashing a seahorse is not likely to change the short-term hunting success (or food intake) of seahorses.

We only observed a difference in the highest flash treatment (four flashes per minute, for ten minutes). Seahorses in this group spent less time resting and sometimes showed “startled” reactions. These reactions looked like the start of an escape reaction, but since the seahorses were in an aquarium, escape was impossible. In the ocean or a large aquarium seahorses would simply move away, which would end the disturbance.

Our last experiment tested if seahorses indeed “go blind” by being exposed to strong flashes. In scientific lingo: we tested if flash photography caused any “pathomorphological” impacts. To do this we euthanised (following strict ethical protocols) some of the unflashed and highly flashed seahorses from the previous experiments. The eyes of the seahorses were then investigated to look for any potential damage.

The results? We found no effects in any of the variables we tested. After more than 4,600 flashes, we can confidently say that the seahorses in our experiments suffered no negative consequences to their visual system.

What this means for scuba divers

A potential explanation as to why flash has no negative impact is the ripple effect caused by sunlight focusing through waves or wavelets on a sunny day. These bands of light are of a very short duration, but very high intensity (up to 100 times stronger than without the ripple effect). Fish living in such conditions would have evolved to deal with such rapidly changing light conditions.

This of course raises the question: would our results be the same for deep-water species? That’s a question for another study, perhaps.

So what does this mean for aquariums and scuba diving? We really should focus on not touching animals, rather than worrying about the flash.

Flash photography does not make seahorses blind or stop them from catching their prey. The strobes we used had a higher intensity than those usually used by aquarium visitors or divers, so it is highly unlikely that normal flashes will cause any damage. Touching, on the other hand, has a big effect on the well-being of marine life, so scuba divers should always keep their hands to themselves.

Luke_Snoot_Black Hairy

Look, take pictures, but don’t touch!

NOTE: I realise that this is a controversial topic in underwater photography. If you have relevant questions, comments, or thoughts you want to share, feel free to add them in the comment section below. If you are interested, I would highly advise you to read the original research paper via this link. The paper is open access, so anyone can read and download it. If you have specific questions about the paper, you can always contact me via email here.