The office … ichthyology version

 Books, Fish, Ichthyology  Kommentarer inaktiverade för The office … ichthyology version
Dec 262012
 
Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum, London. Dome of sacred saloons of science

Marvel at those majestic buildings harbouring the biological heritage of nations. Natural history museums. Other research collections. The millions by the thousands of corpses and skins, leaves and stems, rocks and gems. Wondering about the shadows cast from time to time across the occasional window lit night after night. Dinosaur or Man, ghost or guard? Strolling through the galleries, what’s behind all those doors that remain locked? More treasures or just the junk? It is not so straightforward to explain what goes on in research collections, and difficult to imagine up. But for sure, there are collections safe in store rooms. And there are the scientists and the collection care staff. And, of course, some administrators. There is always something you can see of collections, and there are the reports, the scientific and not so scientific papers and web presentations, so nothing is really hidden.

Swedish Museum of Natural History. Magnificiently shelled science shelter

But have you ever had a glimpse of a professional abode therein? Is it roomy or squeezy, white-walled or padded with trophy heads? Is there always a Larson in lieu of less intelligible art? Coke or coffee? White coats or tees? When I was so much younger than today I had an idea but not all the imagination. Then, indeed a long, long time ago, I was led by Gordon Howes through a maze of corridors and through the one locked door after the other to arrive at the magical heart of the fish division of the British Museum (Natural History) – now known by a lesser name – and there it was, the air, perfused by alcohol fumes, the books, the microscope steady on the bench, and the uncmfrtbl (so they pronounce it) chair, the tall windows and the big men, books, books, and reprints, reprints, greasy jars, soft dead fish with their autographs helped to them by the wisest of ichthyologists, Günther, Boulenger, Regan. Enchanted, it was a revelation of what life ahead was to be like. And now it is all gone, all the smell, the patina, the deoxygenated atmosphere, the dirty windows, and the kind of yellow Wild microscopes. Everything is new and shining and the nervousness – or was there any – about that spark that would send the alcohol to flames and the building to a cloud of dust, it is no longer there, fire regulations everywhere. And all the other museums are going modern as well. Actually I like the new style too – the facelift is an expression of value and respect for the scientists and their working material. As I much later came to my museum in Stockholm, it was just like that, dirty, dark, dull, and a bit dumb. Now it is full of fresh fish, gas driven chair seats, top-end computers, motorized microscopes, and all the papers are becoming pdfs. As I started on this essay, it was because I were soon to move to new quarters, smaller, newer, and the present, acquired coziness would be part of history. I have been in this office since … 1980? and it was upgraded only once with a little paint and new floor. Since nothing of the classical ichthyological laboratories of the overladen, all-inclusive kind was saved elsewhere (or ?… challenge me!) I decided to photo-freeze a bit of ichthyological history, speaking for many a demolished scientist’s office as new times have moved in. End of the commercials, take a seat and enjoy my research workshop, something like six by three meters and the ceiling truly up in the sky almost. If you ever wondered what a classical fish researcher lab looked like a late afternoon in the winter of 2012, here are all the details (well, a good part of them). If you came upon this text my daily practice unbeknownst, you may wish a confirmation that I am a fish systematist – there it is.

What you see to left and right, front and back, upp the walls and on cabinets and desks – are books and reprints. A sine qua non for life and science alike. The books and reprints in my office are those that are required for ongoing projects and such that are needed for various office tasks such as identifying fish for the public, colleagues and whoever calls. Books that are needed for finding information fast. Highlights are of course the Scott Liddell Greek lexicon, and Erik Wikén’s fabulous Latin for botanists and zoologists (Latin för zoologer och botaniker), in Swedish. I certainly need that copy of Artedi all the time, and right now I am trying to speed learn about Tanganyika cichlids from Günther and Boulenger to Poll and a massmess of molecular writings. If the hand library fails, topping it is the department library which has one of the best collections of fish books, journals, and reprints. Would it not suffice, there are of course AnimalBase and the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Reprints used to be the blood running through the veins of ichthyology, and here they are still running across the walls.  Authors always procured a hundred or two of each of their publications and distributed them for free.  The point with reprints was that one would not need to subscribe to a journal, and one would not need to page through a whole volume of articles to find tiny scraps of information. Consequently, every footnote and misspelling was elegantly served by reprints, and so taxonomist could indulge in nitpicking ad libitum. It is only in taxonomy, in all of scientific publishing, that people comment on each other’s misprints, yes? The pdf option and Open Access have now killed the reprint collecting efficiently, but that’s all right as long as the printing errors remain …

It takes two (actually three) computers to keep things running, and all data are saved in paper format in three filing cabinets, a dossier for every species and dossiers for other data. Two microscopes may seem overkill, but one is dedicated for photography and one for fish examinations. So one can work in parallel. You will not find many jars in the study, because of fire regulations. Only lesser amounts of ethanol are permitted in offices those days, and the jars needed for the time being are assembled in trays on a cart for convenient transport back to the store rooms.

Stop the presses! Miraculously, this installation still remains. By a lucky chance the move was cancelled at the very last minute, and consequently change is not going to play with my order. Not now. I am happy. What about you? And, what’s your office like?

 

My office

Looking in from the corridor

Northeastern corner, journal shelves

lab bench

Midroom bench, all at hand

Lexicons

Reference books

Within arm’s reach

book shelf

Standing, leaning, lying, a diversity of books

File cabinets

File cabinet

A file for every species …

Microscope

Microscope for imaging

Imaging in action

Canned fish in trays

microscope staring at you

(Is this microscope staring at you?)

Photos: Sven Kullander, CC-BY-NC

Northern glowlights

 Aquarium fish, Danios, Fish, Ichthyology, taxonomy, Travel  Kommentarer inaktiverade för Northern glowlights
Dec 242012
 
My kitchen window

My kitchen window

Winter in Sweden, and that means darkness, cold, and snow covering all and everything. No wonder every window is lit, day and night, with glowing stars, moons, snowflakes, menorahs, or the new fashion little reindeer or bears lit by led from inside. Without all those warming winter lights darkness would bend our backs, and we would get swept away by depression. Or maybe not.

Nevertheless, I would like to take this window view to remind myself of another northern glowlight, recently named Dano flagrans. It is a little fish from warmer waters. From where it hails, however,  you can actually view the snow of the eastern outcrops of the Himalayas. It is certainly the most septentrional of the Myanmar Danio, but rivalled, apparently defeated in northerliness by Danio dangila which occurs in the Brahmaputra basin in India up to the Dibru River. No other species of Danio reaches so far north.

Looking northeast from Putao

Looking norwest from Putao

The scientific history of Danio flagrans begins in 1988, when I, in the company of Ralf Britz and our guide Thein Win arrived in Putao, the northernmost major city in Myanmar. Putao is close to the Chinese and Indian borders, on hills forming the headwaters of the Mali Hka, major tributary of the Ayeyarwaddy River which then runs through Myanmar as one big muddy aorta. Up in the Mali Hka, however, the water is clear, at least in the dry season, not very deep, and the river beds paved with stones and rocks. The fish fauna of northern Myanmar mountain streams is little known. Transportation in the area is relatively complicated, and a lot remains to be done up there in terms of ichthyological exploration.

Mali Hka in Putao

Mali Hka in Putao

Back to our story, our little team was quartered in the military camp and we immediately set out to fish, having only two full days at disposal. The Mali Hka itself was too big for fishing, although alright for sightseeing, but around the regiment there were several small streams with low water and convenient for seine and handnets. The streams were shallow, the water was clear, rather cool, and fish were plenty. Here we found Badis pyema which was promptly described already in 2002, and Puntius tiantian in 2005, but other fish have lasted longer to be worked up. Walking along one of the streams, we switched direction to follow a tickle of water, almost no water, coming down the left bank hill, and in there were little skittish fish, almost invisible against the beige earth and seen only as moving shadows. A number of them, certainly Danio choprae – such was the field identification – came into formalin and one made it to a tube of alcohol. Neither Ralf nor I was into danios at the time, so the fish we just hoped would be useful for Fang, and  we went on happily, catching Badis pyema and similar fish that had more of our attention those days.

Fresh collected northern glowlight danio, Putao 1998

Fresh collected northern glowlight danio, Putao 1998

One of the Putao danios was photographed but this was in times of film photography, with no immediate quality check, and much is to be regretted by the quality of the shot. Publishable it is not, but here it can be showed off as the first image ever taken of a Danio flagrans. The alcohol specimen was sequenced and appeared in a phylogenetic tree as Danio choprae (Fang et al., 2009), and by that time noone had looked at it closely (we had other specimens, true D. choprae for the morphological data). Time passed on. This was one species that Fang never worked on, but which obviously was somewhat different from the other samples of D. choprae, and I decided to give it a go in the Spring of 2012. The manuscript was already in hand as I again met Ralf in Belgium and we spoke about past achievements and plans for the future. As he had more of the danios from Putao from a later trip, and more D. choprae, he insisted that I include this material, and so it was. The paper had to be done from almost scratch but Ralf’s material certainly improved a lot on the description and conclusions. The description of Danio flagrans, the northern glowlight danio, eventually appeared in late 2012, 14 years after its discovery (Kullander, 2012). Incidentally, it is my first own danio paper, and it was fun to do. It was enjoyable in particular, because Danio flagrans and its sister species Danio choprae do not differ only in colour (in fact they are very similar in colours), but also present some very solid morphometric and meristic differences. I am otherwise much too used to cichlid species that differ by just some pigment spot. Danio flagrans has a shorter anal fin, with less fin-rays, and longer caudal peduncle compared to Danio choprae. Perhaps this relates to their environment. Danio choprae lives more to the south, near Myitkyina, and in warmer habitats; Danio flagrans in cool hillstreams. Beware that these species may not be correctly identified in the shops. Danio choprae, the glowlight danio may appear in the market as northern glowlights, a more expensive fish. I know, three of the false northerns are swimming in a tank in my garage. These changelings are beautiful fish decorated with orange stripes. Unfortunately, they never stay still, but are constantly on the move, and they move fast, so a good view of them remains an illusion of expectation. This brings me, by association, to the conclusion of this post: Besides lights in the windows, there is one more resource to overcome winter gloom. An aquarium with beautiful fishes (all fish are beautiful). Always something to see, to learn, to enjoy.

aquarium800

References

Fang, F., M. Norén, T.Y. Liao, M. Källersjö & S.O. Kullander. 2009. Molecular phylogenetic interrelationships of the South Asian cyprinid genera Danio, Devario and Microrasbora (Teleostei, Cyprinidae, Danioninae). Zoologica Scripta, 38: 237-256.

Kullander, S.O. 2012. Description of Danio flagrans, and redescription of D. choprae, two closely related species from the Ayeyarwaddy River drainage in northern Myanmar (Teleostei: Cyprinidae). Ichthyological Exploration of Freshwaters 23: 245-262. Open Access PDF from Verlag Dr. Friedrich Pfeil.

Kullander, S.O. & R. Britz. 2002. Revision of the family Badidae (Teleostei: Perciformes), with description of a new genus and ten new species. Ichthyological Exploration of Freshwaters, 13: 295-372.

Kullander, S.O. & F. Fang. 2005. Two new species of Puntius from northern Myanmar (Teleostei: Cyprinidae). Copeia, 2005: 290-302. Open Access PDF.

Photos: Sven O Kullander, CC-BY-NC

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