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

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….

Moving on

It has been a while since the last blog, mostly since we’ve spent the last week in places with very limited internet access. Here’s what we’ve been up to…

We left Lembeh last week.  Having done 5 weeks worth of research in a muck divers’ paradise, it was to move on. During our time in Lembeh we spent more than 100 hours under water, collected nearly 100 sediment samples, did 70 transects, built a coral nursery, wrote a small fish-ID guide, took well over 2000 photos, collected dozens of surveys, talked to divers and diveguides and had an ab-so-lutely amazing time! You would think that after all of that diving over sand we might have been ready for a break. So the first thing we did when we left Critters@Lembeh, was head straight to another island for some more diving.

Part of the team in Critters@Lembeh

Part of the team in Critters@Lembeh

As it happens, good friends of Luke (Sophie and Simon) own Nomad Divers, a small dive resort on Bangka Island. Bangka is a 3 hour boatride away from Lembeh, and is a relatively un-explored dive destination. It is close to both Lembeh Strait and Bunaken, two of the world’s most renowned dive destinations, but it can hold its own between those bigshots. With loads of pygmy seahorses, great reefs, access to muck dive sites and even the occasional dugong, it’s not a bad place to dive 😉

Sophie, Luke, Max, Simon and me

Sophie, Luke, Max, Simon and me

Pygmy Seahorse

Pygmy Seahorse (Hippocampus bargibanti)

You might have heard about Bangka recently, as it has been in dive and conservation-news a fair bit. A tin mine had been built illegally on the island a few years ago, and multiple NGO’s and divecentres have been fighting a long legal battle to close it down. With success, as last week the mining company lost the court case, effectively shutting down further mining. Which made our dives there even more enjoyable. Besides pygmy seahorses, we obviously had to check out the muck dives Bangka had to offer. We weren’t disappointed, as we found some beautiful little critters, some of which we hadn’t even seen in Lembeh.

Tarsier (or a Gremlin, not entirely sure)

Tarsier (or a Gremlin, I’m not entirely sure)

We said goodbye to Sophie, Simon and their (very cute) 3-months old son Max yesterday. Since we can’t dive before flying, we made decided to make the most of our forced terrestrial time, by visiting the Tangkoko National Park. The park is home to Crested macaques (endemic to Sulawesi!), Tarsiers and apparently a lot of birds as well. Which we only noticed by the swarms of bird watchers in the guesthouse where we were staying. If you think I am going overboard in my passion for marine critters, I invite you to come to Tangkoko and have a look at these bird-people, it’s rather entertaining really (and something of a terrestrial mirror for me as well). In any case, I guess we were not sophisticated enough for the bird watchers, but Luke and me did have a great time watching a large troop of macaques and 4 tiny little tarsiers.

Luke and black crested macaques

Luke and black crested macaques

The next stop is Bali, where more critters are waiting to be surveyed. We will also be deploying SMURFs in the water, more about them in a next blog!

The beauty of Scorpionfishes

Time to ramp up the critter section after the Winged Pipefish and juvenile Batfish. Both of the previous critters are generally considered to look pretty or at least kind of cute, which is often not the case for members of the Scorpionfish family.

Flasher Scorpionfish (Scorpaenopsis macrochir)

Flasher Scorpionfish (Scorpaenopsis macrochir)

Ever since I’ve started diving I’ve been intrigued by Scorpionfishes and I never get bored looking at them. They are well camouflaged predatory fishes that lay on the bottom (true “benthic” critters!), waiting for unsuspecting prey to pass by. Or maybe they just use that as an excuse to chill out most of the time. The benefit of this lazy behaviour is that they are easy to photograph, provided you can find them of course.

What I’d like to do with this post is prove to you how beautiful Scorpionfishes can be. They often get a bad reputation because of their venomous spines and (supposedly) ugly looks, which is demonstrated by some of their common names: Devilfish, Dragonhead-fish (in German: “Drachenkopf”), Stingfish, Waspfish, … While it is undeniably true that you’d best avoid planting your feet or hands on species of the Scorpaenid-family, they are not aggressive at all. So if you keep a safe distance, you can take all the time you want to watch and/or photograph them.

Algal growth anyone?

Flasher Scorpionfish

Once you start really observing them, you will find out that they are absolutely amazing. There are many species (>300 worldwide), but you’ll commonly encounter about 10 of them while diving in the Coral Triangle. Lionfishes are also a part of this family, but they already get loads of attention, so I won’t talk about them here. Scorpionfishes are well camouflaged, but that does not mean they look boring or always have drab colours. I’ve seen them in all shades ranging from white, to red, green, yellow, pink and black. Most species rely on their colour (which they can change) to blend in with their environment. Others grow filaments resembling algae or get covered in actual algae and/or hydroids to blend in even better.

All of this would already be enough to classify them as pretty cool critters, but there is more. The main reason I like them so much is that they look as if they have very strong and (at least so I imagine) cantankerous personalities. Their big heads and grumpy, down-turned mouths just give them that extra charisma that most fish lack. Combined with their armoured heads that have spines all over them, it makes them look like rather bad-ass bottom crawlers.

Very tired looking baby Scorpionfish

Very tired looking baby Scorpionfish

Here are some of the more commonly fond species and how to tell them apart. There is quite a lot of text, so if you don’t have time, just watch the pretty pictures:

  • Tasseled Scorpion Fish (Scorpaenopsis oxycephala): A large fish (up to 35cm), pronounced skin tassels on the chin and a long, “humped” snout. Usually found close to corals, or even laying on top of them.
Tasseled Scorpionfish (Scorpaenopsis oxycephala)

Tasseled Scorpionfish (Scorpaenopsis oxycephala)

  • Raggy Scorpionfish (Scorpaenopsis venosa): Similar to the Bearded Scorpionfish, but smaller (up to 20cm). The Raggy Scoropinfish has a lot more filaments growing over its body, and usually has big cirri (skin filaments) above the eyes. Furthermore, their snouts are not as long as those of their bearded cousins. They are often found near or on algae covered objects such as mooring blocks, ropes or wrecks.
Raggy Scorpionfish (Scorpaenopsis venosa)

Raggy Scorpionfish (Scorpaenopsis venosa)

  • Flasher Scorpionfish (Scorpaenopsis macrochir): Flashers are smaller still (up to 15cm) and have a pronounced hump on their back. Devil Scorpionfish share this feature, but are larger and have an even bigger hump. The inner surface of the pectoral fins of Flashers are bright yellow to orange with a dark, black band on the edge (which also sets them apart from the Devil Scorpionfish). You’ll find Flasher Scorpionfishes on sandy and rubbly areas.
Flasher Scorpiofish (Scorpaenopsis macrochir)

Flasher Scorpiofish (Scorpaenopsis macrochir)

  • Whiteface Waspfish (Richardsonichthys leucogaster): A small scorpaenid (max 10 cm), which is often red to brown, with a white face. Their dorsal fins have deep incisions, setting them apart from other Waspfishes. They are usually found on sand or mud bottoms.
Whiteface Waspfish (Richardsonichthys leacogaster)

Whiteface Waspfish (Richardsonichthys leacogaster)

  • Ambon Scorpionfish (Pteroidichthys amboinensis): These guys take camouflage to the next level, with even more algal growth and hairlike filaments growing on them than the Raggy Scorpionfish. They have very long, arching cirri above the eyes, and big pectoral fins, which are often transparent. Ambons are small (up to 12cm) and are only found on sandy and muddy substrates, often in areas with a lot of algal growth.
Ambon Scorpionfish

Ambon Scorpionfish (Pteroidichthys amboinensis)

  • Indian Ocean Walkman / Spiny Devilfish (Inimicus didactylus): This is one of my favourites, it is a medium sized (max 18cm) fish mostly made up of spines and other sharp bits, with a big, upturned mouth and eyes that are elevated. The front of their pectoral fins has evolved into 3 “fingers” which they use to walk over the bottom. Like the Flasher Scorpionfish, the inside of their pectoral fins is brightly coloured and used as a warning signal to potential predators. They spend a lot of time buried in sand or rubble near reefs, with only the eyes, mouth and spines sticking out.
Indian Ocean Walkman (Inimicus didactylus)

Indian Ocean Walkman (Inimicus didactylus)

  • Stonefish (Synanceia verrucosa): Stonefishes often get confused with Scorpionfishes, but there are some key differences. To start with, they are WAY better camouflaged than any Scorpionfish around. Chances are, if you found it yourself (as opposed to your diveguide), it was mostly likely NOT a Stonefish. They get a larger than most scorpionfishes here (up to 35cm). The best ways to ID them are: a completely upturned mouth on the TOP of its head, a shape that does not even closely resemble a normal fish (a crumpled up cardboard box or a big blob are better comparisons), and very large, thick pectoral fins. To make finding them even harder, they often bury themselves in the sand, just like the Spiny Devilfish. Stonefishes are found on sand and rubble close to coral reefs.
Stonefish (Synanceia verrucosa)

Stonefish (Synanceia verrucosa)

Enjoy the selection of photos (most of them by Luke Gordon) and next time you go diving, take your time to really look at any scorpionfish you might find.