Monthly Archives: June 2009

Gould’s fishes

Innocent puffer in Sydney Aquarium. Photo S.O. Kullander CC-BY-NC

Flying a lot those days, I read a novel by Richard Flanagan, Gould’s Book of Fish (2001, Pan McMillan Australia). Of course, the reason for picking it up in the Perth airport bookshop was the combination of title, cover image (fish) and some fish plates inside. The book cover also said “Masterpiece” and “A work of significant genius”.

Whereas the “Book of Fishes” illustrated by William Gould exists, as well as its artist existed, the fish painter in Flanagan’s fiction is somebody else, the narrator echoing Flanagan’s exposure of the violence, cruelty, terror, lack of morale, and inhumanity reigning in the early history of Australia. It is also a tale of two ways of apprehending fish, and a layman’s mockery of 19th century exploratory science.

Whereas today’s “evil/mad scientists” are the ones constructing nuclear and biological weapons, and consequently mostly being engineers in service of politicians rather than true scientists, in those days, collecting, taxonomy, and the misguided study of phenotypical variability within Homo sapiens, along with the invention of the steam engine, textile factories with mechanical weaving machines, and other premonitory of the industrial revolution, contained considerable fuel for contemporary and subsequent flaming as pure evil.

The ‘evil’ scientist, however, is rarely, if ever, a scientist as scientists understand science: explaining how the world and everything in it works, using methods of observation that are relevant and repeatable, and reporting conclusions that are falsifiable at least in principle. This science permits us to understand why we have seasons, how to fly to the moon, why fish have scales or not, and that humans trace their ancestry to fish. Unfortunately, science is not very good at creating peace on Earth, something that is assumed to be the wish of all people. Peace is also not the task of science, but could benefit from more studies into the processes involved in human interaction, and the rational mind is better equipped to work for a world free from war and suffering.

In Flanagan’s novel, corruption, the companion of power, is at the forefront. Among other figures in the novel, the evil scientist strives foremost for academic recognition, and becomes the slave of other evil academics striving in the same direction. What was membership in an illustrious academy in the 19th Century, today has become “high impact” publication. It is only more murderous and so many people are involved that none will go to history on publication alone. Thousands of high-impact papers are published annually, without anyone noticing the impossibility of this bibliometric tool, and thousands upon thousands of research papers are disseminated without this stamp. Apparently more research is produced without the stamp than with and there is absolutely no difference in quality. We have seen earlier how Darwinius massiliae managed to reach a one-week long fame without really contributing anything exceptional, and so the show goes on. It is not enough to do research. It also has to be packaged, marketed, and sprayed over the masses. This is problematic, because with most research laymen cannot consume it directly. I cannot read a physics paper, I need it explained to me, which makes the explanation a crucial component of research. I cannot trust the scientist because of my own ignorance;, can I trust the popularizer, the journalist? Who makes the choices what to report and what not? Why was never the “link between monkey and Man” corrected? Where is the science?

Bill Gould, in Flanagan’s book, is a bad guy painting fish in a penitential settlement in Tasmania, hired for a while by the evil scientist who resorts to anything in order to have his academic membership, including cultivating a to-be smart pig, fish paintings, mollusk collecting, and beheading natives, all in the name of science in capital letters. Himself he is cheated by the Europe-located member of the academy using the collections to compete with rival academicians. There is no science here. The mere use of yardsticks, thermometers, and other instruments, the mere assembling of measurements and other numbers is not science. The mere assembling of specimens is not science. The wicked idea of beheading a fellow human to obtain academic tributes is absurd and repenting irrespective of at what time in history it occurred or for whatever political, religious, or scientific justification attached to the act. Yet, the “evil scientists”, who are not scientists, come with every corrupt government, and the scandals effected by these individuals stay in memory.

It is definitely true that colonialism put an end to human innocence. In the local exhibit in Botany Bay, there is a cartoon depicting two native Australians watching from shelter the Cook party landing in 1770. One of them says “Look, international terrorists!” We cannot rewrite history, only admit that what is wrong in science today was wrong then, because our earlier colleagues also had choices. Scientists, including another Gould (Stephen Jay), have already exposed the ridiculosity of craniometry and phrenology as a source of knowledge about intellectual and other characteristics of individuals or groups of individuals, based on scientific criteria. In ridiculing his exiled scientist in Tasmania, Flanagan, for that reason certain to be correct, shots another arrow through the black heart of phrenology with his parody of the penitentiary scientist, while at the same time giving a colourful hint at how colonialism and in particular the overseas prison colonies could create an atmosphere permitting these crimes.

Nevertheless, Flanagan is not a historian, his novel is fiction, and his dream is Rousseauan from the forebrain to the fingertips. His world is ruled by the weedy sea dragon and its conception of the universe. His message is clouded by clouds and dressed by fumes, drenched in body fluids sprayed over all pages, and most of the time reading I long for the proper use of sentences rational to the mind and true to the history behind the story. Indeed, I want the real William Buelow Gould (1801-1853) and history, because no matter how long I look at fish, I will never be one, and instead of giving up on humanity, I will live part of it, hopefully to the better of it. I would suggest “Finding Nemo” as an alternative to “Gould’s Book of Fish” if you have time to spend. But maybe you have to read “Gould’s Book of Fish” to get the point of this essay? Or you can read the more detailed review by Frances Devling Glass, revealing all including the end.

A day in Botany Bay

Botany Bay approximately where Solander, Banks and Cook first landed in 1770.
Photo: Sven O. Kullander. CC-BY-NC

Although claimed by the British, despite already being inhabited by other nations, to the outside world Australia was largely a Swedish discovery, by Daniel Solander (1733-1782), his boss Joseph Banks, and his captain James Cook, arriving to Botany Bay in 1770 for an eight day stop. That is when the last habitable continent on earth was finally incorporated in the world as we know it. Solander and Banks were essentially botanists, and did not mean anything to ichthyology, but anyway the terrestrial fauna and flora may be more special for Australia than the fishes, excepting then the remarkable Australian lungfish Neoceratodus forsteri discovered much later, described by Krefft in 1870, and the salamanderfish Lepidogalaxias salamandroides described as recently as 1961. Southern Australia, New Caledonia, and New Zealand should be marked for holding a group of fishes as interesting ever as the Araucaria trees, whose southern Gondwana distribution they track, namely the galaxiid fishes, with many species in this part of the world, and somewhat fewer in southern South America, and one in southern Africa.

Daniel Solander has a memorial by the shore of the first landing, erected by “countrymen” in 1914. I have to find out more details about this event. Because Solander lived all his professional life in Lindon, as a curator at the Natural History Museum, “countrymen” is ambiguous, but were likely Swedish.

Solander memorial, with plate. Photographed at wrong time of the day. Photo: Sven O Kullander. CC-BY-NC.

At the inlet to Botany Bay, the seaward sandstone extends into the Pacific as Cape Solander. That is where we today saw humpback whales blowing a little bit too far out to permit a good photograph. Cape Solander margins a whale sanctuary and there is a permanent whale observation post overlooking the sea at this point.

Cape Solander, NSW, Australia.
Photo: Sven O. Kullander. CC-BY-NC

It is good to make history, to discover, and to learn. Too often, however, in the era of colonisation this led to the demise or otherwise bad treatment of the local population, and damage to local fauna and flora by the introduction of exotic species, as happened to Australia. Australia today is of course well aware of all this, and has a large number of natural parks and active conservation programmes.

Fishes down under

The IPFC8 over, and number 9 probably located to Japan in 2011, it is soon time to bid farewell to Australia. Not much of fishes have we seen, but the Sydney Aquarium was interesting and had many fishes on exhibit both salt and fresh. I got my first closeup of a dugong, the real mermaid.

Mermaid: Dugong in Sydney Aquarium.
Photo Sven O. Kullander. CC-BY-NC
The local mall also had a nice assortment and tonight we dined on Macquairia maccullochi (hope I get this right because it is not easy to spell or remember) which was excellent. All the fish and chips and the fishburger in Pemberton were delicious but I am not sure what species is involved.

Barramundi, fish market in Sydney. Photo Sven O. Kullander, CC-BY-NC

Saturday and Sunday I was invited by Heiko Bleher, famous in the aquarium world for travelling everywhere in the world in search of interesting freshwater fishes, to come along on a trip to photograph Lepidogalaxias salamandroides.

We had a nice journey from Fremantle south, guided by a map with likely localities already marked. Lepidogalaxias salamandroides is a very special fish. It is the only fish that can turn its head in different directions, just like humans can move the head relative to the neck. In the fish, this is accomplished by an extended distance between the anterior vertebrae, providing room for muscle movements otherwise impeded by the relatively stiff normal fish vertebral column. It is confined to, but not uncommon in a relatively narrow stretch of coastline in southwestern Western Australia, and more precisely to swamp regions that dry out in the summer, and carry water only in the winter. The fish aestivates buried in the ground, and comes out only when it rains. Generally in is the only species in the pools where it is found, along with some freshwater crayfish.

And, yes, we were quite successful in finding the salamander fish, south of Northcliffe (population 200, in the middle of nowhere), where it was in all roadside pools, over white sand bottom, in clear, red-coloured water, with a typical vegetation I do not know to name. In one place we found it together with Galaxiella nigrostriata, which is also a small species, but probably not able to aestivate. Heiko will make available images and detailed information elsewhere, in the meantime enjoy the exclusive habitat of the species.

Habitat of Lepidogalaxias salamandroides near Northcliffe, Western Australia.
Photo Sven O. Kullander. CC-BY-NC

PS. No, it was Maccullochella macquariensis, locally called trout cod, difficult to spell in any case, and maybe should not have eaten because it is an endangered species, something I now have come to know.

8th Indo-Pacific Fish Conference over

The 8th Indo-Pacific Fish Conference is over here in Fremantle, and tonight is the closing banquet. It has all been very well arranged, and organisers must be content. The Swedish delegation of three, slightly outnumbering the Danish, of two, will gradually move back to the other side of the world.

What were the highlights then. Since I have not attended every one of the six concurrent series of sessions, I must be blamed for zooming in on those where I was present. Ralf Britz (Dracula fish) provided strong arguments for and examples of the use of developmental series in homologisations of morphological characters, and Dave Johnson presented a fascinating story of how Mirapinnidae (known only from larvae), Megalomycteridae (known only from males), and Cetomimidae (known only from females) reflect lifestages and sexes of one and the same family, the Cetomimidae (whalefishes).

Tatsuya Kaga gave a nice, concise presentation of the phylogeny of the Sillaginidae, and Tan Heok Hui presented new data on the systematically and biologically fascinating miniature peat swamp fishes, Paedocypris and Sundadanio.

Bill Eschmeyer received the Bleeker Award in Taxonomy, well deserved for his long-term work on the Catalog of Fishes, a tool ichthyologists refer to daily or at least weekly or they are not ichthyologists.

Yes, that was perhaps the biased view of a morphological systematist. I gave a presentation of a molecular phylogeny of South American cichlids, Te Yu Liao a snapshot of his PhD dissertation on the systematics of Rasbora, which was very nice, and Fang presented the first molecular outcome of the continuing analysis of danionin interrelationships.

I obtained from Martien van Oijen, Naturalis Museum in Leiden, a new, very heavy book: A translation to English of Bleeker’s Ichthyologiae Archipelagi Indici Prodromus. Volumen 1. Siluri. I am personally quite content with the Latin and Dutch version, but this is an important work making Bleeker’s text generally available to the majority of ichthyologists working on Indonesian catfishes. I was informed that the cyprinids are next.

At the 8th Indo-Pacific Fish Conference

The 8th Indo-Pacific Fish Conference is actually a gathering of people on a conference about fishes and not a gathering of Indo-Pacific fishes conferencing. At this meeting, in Fremantle, Western Australia, seemingly more ichthyologists than fish in the Swedish seas. It is a very well organised meeting, with excellent service and excellent setting in the Esplanade hotel which I am told has 4.5 stars. Yesterday’s buffet lunch, when 400 or more delegates suddenly swarmed out of the meeting rooms, was managed smoothly with engaged restaurant staff, several line-ups, and a rich selection of dishes. The lecture rooms are well equipped, and I sat a whole day experiencing every talk starting and stopping on time. All presentations are of outstanding professional quality.

Most talks concerned with taxonomy and ecology, here and at other meetings, include use of molecular sequencing as a method of investigation. This was not so five or so years ago, when molecular techniques were employed mainly for phylogenetic relationships. In the systematics talks one of the two IMPs (Improbable Molecular Phylogeny and Intriguing Morphological Phylogeny) form the basis of the presentation. Interestingly, non-taxonomists use molecular phylogenies to arrive at baselines for conservation or to check out some biogeographical patterns (phylogeography), but there is no real interest in checking against morphology or challenge previous systematic hypotheses. Very clear opportunities for deeper analysis tend to be left as-is, because the objectives of the research group are not systematic. After all, molecular phylogenies are supposed to make morphological work unnecessary, or ?. That is probably why morphological systematics has a better explanative platform (not necessarily better explanations, though). If morphological character transformations make sense, they provide better evolutionary explanations than non-lethal mutations in DNA sections that are only proxies for shifts in tokogenetic patterns. Morphological systematics tends to be more time consuming, however, with a steeper learning curve, and more dependence on expertise of a single individual scientist; and the resolving power at population levels remains doubtful for me – that is where systematics stops. I expect this morning’s plenary by Ralf Britz (him with the Dracula fish, again), followed by others in the Ontogeny and Systematics session, to inspire some fresh air into the perspectives for the neglected developmental approach to phylogenetic analysis. Or is it so neglected? In any case, the dialogue (which should be there) between more molecule oriented and more morphology oriented researcher is definitely a dialectic needed to carry systematics forward.

Now it is time to forage for breakfast.