Fieldwork 2.0

It’s that time again, after a few months of hiding behind my computer I’m starting the second big fieldwork season to collect data! I just arrived in Bali to sort out the last preparations for what will hopefully be a productive three and a half months of data collecting. I’m pretty excited about this trip, as I will be visiting some amazing places again where I’ll be working with great people!

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Home for the next 2 weeks

It all kicks off early tomorrow morning, when I’m leaving on a liveaboard trip to Komodo for two weeks. Safari Bali has once again kindly offered me a place on the Sea Safari VII, so I should be very comfortable while I’m trying to find frogfishesghostpipefishes and maybe the occasional manta ray or dragon. Once I get back from Komodo, I’ll be spending a fair bit of time in Bali again before heading to Lembeh Strait. The main thing I’m trying to figure out in Indonesia this year, is which human factors have the biggest impact on muck critters.

Like last year, I will again be doing presentations about marine biology and having long conversations with divers while I’m on the boat and staying at dive resorts. Some people might see this as a time consuming interruption of valuable research-time, but I really enjoy this aspect of my fieldwork. I feel it’s important as a researcher to share what you are doing with people who aren’t in academia themselves. What would the point be of all the work we do, if only a very select group of other researchers get to know about it?

ADEX

Which is why I am looking forward to the next stop after Lembeh: ADEX in Singapore. ADEX is the largest dive expo in Asia, with thousand of divers coming over to try to decide where to go for their next trip or what the newest trends are in the scuba diving world. I am very excited to have been invited to give a few talks about my research. In line with the theme of ADEX this year (Seahorses), I’ll be talking about pygmy seahorses, which I haven’t really done yet on this blog…

For the final leg of this trip I am heading back to Dauin in Philippines. Those of you who have been following the blog, will understand that I am rather happy that my good friend Luke (aka the Science Hobbit) is joining me again! Together we will be trying to figure out the best methods to study newly settled (=baby) critters. If you want to know how we’re planning to achieve that and whether or not we’ll succeed, keep an eye on the blog 😉

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Baby frogfish (A. pictus), finger for scale

On the move again: Dauin

After a few weeks of visiting my family in Belgium and loading up on chocolate, beer and hugs of my little niece, it was time to get going again. Just over a week ago I flew back to Asia and the first stop was a small town in Philippines called Dauin.

IMG_4430-p-web-logoSome of you might have already heard about Dauin. You might have heard/read me ranting on about how great the muck diving is, dived there yourself or maybe you’ve seen some of the many underwater photos appearing on various social media.  For those of you who haven’t heard of it, Dauin is a small town of about 25000 inhabitants in the south of Negros. The place is close to the city Dumaguete and sometimes the two are used as synonyms in dive circles (they are not). Dauin is a sleepy coastal town where most people used to make a living from fishing or farming. “used to”, because it’s rapidly getting renowned for its awesome muck diving.

In all fairness, the story actually began with coral reef diving. Facing Dauin lies a small island called Apo. The reefs around Apo were the very first MPA (Marine Protect Area) in the Philippines and have been a poster child for MPAs in developing countries ever since. The fame of Apo brought in divers and it did not take too long before people discovered that the shore dives off Dauin were something quite special.

DauinThe beaches of Dauin are mostly made up of volcanic sand, though they are not as black as the ones you find in Lembeh. While there are a few small coral patch reefs, the real treasures are found in the sand. It’s muck diving at its best: you’ll find frogfishes, seahorses, mimic octopuses, flamboyant cuttlefishes, … The fact that most sites are easily reached and that there is a growing muck dive industry makes it an ideal area for me to conduct research.

Last year I spent most of May in Dauin, doing a lot of diving and a lot of running around between divecentres to talk to people about dive tourism. This time I just went back for 5 days to talk to a few more people to fill in some gaps in my data on the socio-economic value of muck dive tourism. So unfortunately no research dives this time. Luckily I did manage to meet up with my good friend Dragos, who uses Dauin as a base to take some pretty sweet underwater photos. The underwater pictures in this post are his. If you want to see more of his (award winning) work, check out his site here.

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The small trip to Dauin was the end of a productive, exhausting and entertaining research trip. I am writing this post in Manila airport, as I’m finally on my way back to Perth. After nearly 8 months of fieldwork and traveling it’ll be great to see my colleagues again and to start writing up some of my results. So keep an eye out on the blog for updates of what is going on. Or if you’re in Singapore in April, come and have a chat at the ADEX Dive expo, I am giving a talk and will be presenting some of my results.

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Ornate Ghostpipefish

So far most of the critters I’ve written about were true benthic ones; Frogfishes, Scorpionfishes, Pipefishes, they all spend the vast majority of their time laying on the bottom. The next little guys are a bit different, they are (only slightly) less lazy and spend their time hovering close the bottom. May I present to you the Ornate Ghostpipefish!

Ornate Ghostpipefish (Solenostomus paradoxus)

Ornate Ghostpipefish (Solenostomus paradoxus)

The Ornate Ghostpipefish (Solenostomus paradoxus) is another one of those truly bizarre creatures you can find when you have a good look around you while diving. They look very flamboyant and ornate, but they are remarkably hard to spot. The fact that they don’t get bigger than 12cm might have something to do with that. So if you’ve never seen them before, it might take the help of a friendly diveguide to have the pleasure of seeing them.

Ghostpipefishes belong to the order (=one level up from family) of “Syngnathiformes”, which is the same order in which you’ll find seahorses and pipefishes, but also razorfishes and even trumpetfishes and cornetfishes! So all these weirdly shaped critters are related in one way or another.

Male Ornate Ghostpipefish

Male Ornate Ghostpipefish

Male Ornate Ghostpipefish (Picture by Luke Gordon)

Male Ornate Ghostpipefish (Picture by Luke Gordon)

There still is a lot of confusion about how many species of Ghostpipefish actually exist, but there seem to be at least four. For this post, I’m sticking to the best known and most flashy one. Describing an Ornate Ghostpipefish to someone who’s never seen one is interesting. Usually it goes a bit like this:  “It’s a fish that swims upside down, with the head of a seahorse, a wide fan-like tail, a pouch like a kangaroo and it has got little filaments growing all over its body….Oh, and it also changes colour, any colour you’d like. Really, it’s a thing that actually exists!!!” Luckily there are plenty of photos to prove it.

While Ghostpipefishes are closely related to seahorses, there are a few major differences. As you may or may not know, in seahorses it’s the male that gets pregnant and gives birth. Ghostpipefishes are a bit more old-fashioned and don’t want anything to do with that modern male kind of stuff. With them, it’s the female that has a brooding pouch, gets pregnant and gives birth. Although there might be a little twist…Very little is known about them, but it is believed (not proven) that all Ghostpipefishes start out as males and later change sex to become female.

Juvenile Ornate Ghostpipefish - Still partially transparant

Juvenile Ornate Ghostpipefish – Still partially transparant

There is a LOT more we don’t know about Ghostpipefishes. For example, we don’t have a clue how long they live and it’s unknown how long they float in the open ocean as larvae. It looks like these animals spent most of their lives as larvae, floating around and then only “settle” to mate, after which they supposedly die. None of this has been properly tested, as Ghostpipefishes are notoriously difficult to keep alive in aquaria, let alone breed them in captivity, making close observations or experiments to test these hypotheses very difficult.

Social group of Ornate Ghostpipefish

Social group of Ornate Ghostpipefish

If you do want to see them for yourself, or maybe you are even ambitious enough to solve these riddles in the name of science, here is where you’ll find them. They are mostly tropical species which can be found from the east coast of Africa all the way to Fiji, but they are spotted most frequently in Indonesia and Philippines. During the last months of surveying, we found the highest numbers in Dauin with Lembeh Strait a close second. They are usually found in areas with some current and always hide in larger objects such as featherstars. You can also look for them in seafans, black corals or even rubbish. Ghostpipefishes often hang out in small social groups, so if you find one have a close look around to maybe find some more.

Pair of Ornate Ghostpipefish - If you look closely, you can see the eggs in the pouch (Picture by Luke Gordon)

Pair of Ornate Ghostpipefish – If you look closely, you can see the eggs in the pouch (Picture by Luke Gordon)

Once you’ve found them, try to see if there is a female, she’ll be the one with the brooding pouch. The pouch is formed by the pelvic fins and if you are lucky, you might be able to see eggs inside it. Unlike other brooding fish species, ghostpipefishes will have eggs in all stages of development, so at the same time there might be freshly laid eggs in there and eggs that are ready to hatch. As far as I am aware no photos or videos exists of the little ones hatching (let me know if you do!). But what really interests me is what happens to the little guys after they hatch and start drifting in the water column….