Anatomy of a fish taxonomist: Helen Larson

Interviewed by Ebb
June 2014

Dr Larson, welcome to the Lair, how would you be?

Thanks for the lairy welcome. Although that open-mouthed moray in the banner doesn’t quite look like you – it’s very good to have a website for fabulous fish tales.

When we last caught up you were heading off with your husband to help out with a nearby school group. Can you tell us a little more about what that involved?

The Mission Beach School has adopted the wetland beside it (part of Wheatley Creek) – the creek was choked with dense weeds and grass and it kept flooding the neighbouring grounds and caravan park in the wet season. So the school is restoring it with the help of local council, Girringun rangers and a collection of volunteers. The first workshop got all the groups together – I gave a talk about fish and creeks and what they all needed to thrive well and a number of us locals sat on a panel for the students to have a Q&A (the headmistress subbed for Tony Jones). The school has had two planting workshops, with Girringun workers doing the heavy clearing and re-planting of the banks. This June the very first monitoring day by students happened. We showed students how to collect data on water quality, fish, birds and aquatic macroinvertebrates. It was great fun, as the students are just buzzing with enthusiasm for their wetland/creek and what lives in it.


Dr Larson

So what have been the big differences for you moving from Darwin to Mission Beach? I see you have not slowed down with publishing or reviewing manuscripts.

I have lost my quick access to a fabulous collection of fishes – instead of walking across the parking lot from my room at the NT Museum I now have to get on a plane and fly to Darwin first. So I have to plan what I am doing a bit more carefully. Luckily the Museum hired Michael Hammer to take over my old job as curator up there, and he loves gobies. Yes, he does like cutting bits off them for genetic analysis but he has a good eye and loves catching and keeping gobies. I am trying to teach him how to look at pickled goby features which has been a bit of an uphill battle until he rigged up a camera to his microscope so he can see what I am doing and I can show him certain characters or specific tooth forms. I think he has been spying on Doug Hoese with the same method recently.

One good thing about being a retired ichthyologist is that I am no longer a public servant and can hit the delete button on emails I don’t wish to know about – with no qualms at all.

Helen, you are world renowned for taxonomic revisions of gobies and descriptions of new species. Which group or groups are you currently attending to?

I do like to work on generic reviews because so many goby genera exist by general consensus with no or only vague supporting characters. Am presently still trying to sort out the gobionellines – the fascinating mangrove/estuarine gobies such as Pandaka, Brachygobius, Pseudogobius, Oligolepis and their cousins. There are lots of names used and mis-used out there. Generic revisions take up a lot of time as type specimens must be examined as well as specimens from all over, but they are very satisfying to do.

Also Doug Hoese and I have finally started on our mega-book “Gobioids of the World” – an illustrated guide to all the gobies and gudgeons and mudskippers etc. Doing this makes one realise how poor some species descriptions are (and I mean modern ones too) and reminds us how essential it is to examine type specimens. Mind you, some of the old goby types are pretty battered and it takes some practice to interpret what you see – sometimes you just cannot work out what this beaten-up brown fish is and it goes in the “too hard” basket for a while. For example – it took some years between my examining Nichol’s 1951-vintage types of Gobius tigrellus from Mamberamo River in West Papua (they looked like someone had sat upon them then left them in the sun to dry) and working out that they were a spectacular species of Pseudogobiopsis – after Gerry Allen sent me photos of live fish from Mamberamo.

Our audience are mainly of a freshwater persuasion, so are you able to give us some insight into your relevant goby and fish achievements and experiences? And don’t leave out the Blind cave gudgeon stuff, or you won’t be asked back.

Freshwater gobies are a little bit “simpler” than marine ones in Australia only because there are fewer of them – but there are still many problems to be unkinked. There are some chaps who like climbing up steep slopes and getting into remote Far North Queensland streams and finding sicydiine gobies all over the place, when the books say they aren’t there.

And yes, the Milyeringa or Cave gudgeons are very amazing and wonderful fish – and I did enjoy working up the Barrow Island new species description as it was just so different from M. veritas though very tiny. Having co-authors Bill Humphries and Ralph Foster was terrific – the cave fauna ecology and genetic data just made the paper much better. I would really like to know how the Barrow fish actually gets around – all the known specimens have come up in bores. As long as someone else does the looking – I am not particularly fond of caves. I dived in Marbo Cave on Guam many years ago searching for additional specimens of a blind white Eleotris, and that was spooky diving, with the scuba tank knocking bits of the ceiling off onto you. The only Eleotris we found had eyes and brown colouring.

Clearly, you have spent some time observing certain goby groups, such as Redigobius spp., that occupy marine, estuarine and freshwater habitats. Are you able to give us any insights into the morphology and function of these groups that has facilitated their success across biomes?

My sex-obsessed colleague Kassi Cole (I must point out that she is obsessed with sexual function in gobioids, not sex in general) has found that all the estuarine gobies, the gobionellines, don’t change sex, as do most gobiines (typical gobies as you’d find on a coral reef). Maybe this has something to do with their success in such a range of habitats? They are also very tolerant of a wide range of conditions and some have worked out how to live well in an urban ditch full of unpleasant nutrients just as well as in a healthy mangrove. Some of them have long larval stages (months) while others have hardly any. Gobionellines seem to have experimented with a very wide range of life-styles.

Righteo, things have been getting progressively intense. How about I get to some of the nougat that is Helen Larson: can you tell us a little about how you got into this game? And if you had any mentors in your time, if that is not sticking my beak in too much?

In the 1960-70s I attended the University of Guam (in the Mariana Islands, for those geographically challenged) for my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees and worked part-time at the new Marine Laboratory there, built beside Togcha Bay. And there was Bob Jones, a coral reef fish ecologist, who recognised that I was very partial to fish – I was his first master’s degree student. Bob set me to work assisting him in carrying out fish transect surveys, which meant I had to learn to recognise a lot of species quickly and try not to laugh while using the tape-recorders duct-taped to our horrible double-hose regulators (otherwise you choked). He encouraged me when I told him that I thought I’d collected a new species of Eviota and suggested I send the manuscript I’d written to his university buddy Doug Hoese. Doug politely pointed out all the mistakes I’d made and suggested how to fix it. The paper was accepted in Copeia in 1976 and was my first goby description. When my family left Guam Bob wrote a recommendation to Doug for me – six months after we moved back to Sydney I had Connie Allen’s (Gerry’s wife) old job as Doug’s assistant (Gerry and Connie were then on their way to WAM for his new job). Doug and I have a partnership/friendship that has lasted since then. So I have been very lucky in fish mentors.

And would you be so kind as to share a tale or two from some of your more memorable fishy days?

Doug Hoese and I collected gobies in many places and worked together at the Australian Museum for over 7 years. We are rather different people but both love gobies, science fiction, gobies, good food and gobies. Doug made an interesting companion in the field as he is very good at finding accidents to happen to him. Such as going out to check a gill net across the Wickham River in a dinghy by himself, some distance from camp, becoming impaled upon a forktailed catfish wrapped in the net and having to sit there and call out like a lost sheep until I happened to come down to the river bank. So I had to swim out to him with wire-cutters trying not to think what else was swimming near me. I have had the good fortune to have collected and dived in some amazingly wonderful places, from reefs in the Coral Sea inhabited by fish that apparently had never seen humans, to snorkelling in clear tectonic lakes in Sulawesi full of telmatherinids (Celebes sailfish) dancing in the sunlight, to climbing and slithering through a Brunei Nypa forest to finally get to see a live Brachygobius xanthozona (a giant bumble-bee goby).

Right, that’s enough of the deep and meaningful for the moment. I have borne the brunt of your red pen occasionally. For which journals do you typically serve in an editorial and reviewing capacity?

I am now on only two journal boards: aqua, International Journal of Ichthyology and Ichthyological Exploration of Freshwaters. I like editorial work but it takes up a great deal of time and nobody ever acknowledges the work you’ve done. But I review papers for Zootaxa, Copeia, Ichthyological Research, Zoological Studies, Raffles Bulletin of Zoology and others – I get sent taxonomic goby papers usually. I am kindest with my red pen towards people for whom English is not their first langauge. And I share my hate of misplaced apostrophes with a great many others.

What are some of the common mistakes or pet dislikes you have with manuscripts that you review?

People who describe new species without examining relevant type specimens and just rely on what someone else said about them. This is understandable if you live in a third-world country but not when you have access to funds and aeroplanes.

I get most annoyed at those who describe new species or genera of gobies but do the minimal possible amount of work – omitting important information such as tooth form and arrangement, scalation, sensory pore and papillae patterns. There have been some recent papers published in which the fish being described apparently don’t have jaws or teeth as these are never mentioned – and belong to a group in which teeth are useful features and are sexually dimorphic.

Do you have any favourite papers that inspired or inspire you?

Some of my favourite works are pretty old. I am amazed at how Pieter Bleeker managed to do all the goby work that he did, nearly 200 years ago with an elderly microscope that was probably not in the best shape after being in Jakarta under less than ideal conditions. His 1874 Esquisse d’un système naturel des Gobioïdes, although very dated today (though not always inaccurate), is an amazing summary of characters he considered to be useful in distinguishing all gobies, gudgeons, mudskippers and worm-gobies etc. When I was an undergraduate I came across Fowler’s 1928 The Fishes of Oceania, which was chock-full of species names, descriptions, locations and references for marine and freshwater Pacific fishes. I found it a fascinating work – at the time I was at the University of Guam with access to very few goby references. Of course now I know that Fowler was famous for making lots of mistakes. But his book taught me how to hunt literature and to follow up original references.

Any chance that you can find time to do some more goby work with me?
(Whoops, that was entirely unprofessional, I must have been thinking out loud again). What I meant to say was, I realise you are very busy and your skills are in demand. How do you prioritize what you work on, and what are your longer-term aspirations in fish taxonomy and especially if there is any relevance to the groups involving Australian freshwater representatives?

I have a list on my wall of things I want to work on or actually started ages ago then stopped for various reasons. There’s 18 projects on the list and it doesn’t include some of the things I am working on right now. The projects include things like the fabulous scaleless goby Schismatogobius, that hide in gravel in swift streams – I would like to sort them out. I am watching what various people do with the various sicydiines (stream-gobies) with interest – they are difficult fish to work on and their names are rather a mess. And again, there’s these ecology-minded chaps who keep finding more and more sicydiines in FNQ and trying to confuse us innocent taxonomists. Long-term – I want to get all the Indo-Pacific gobionellines solved to some sort of satisfaction – the bumble-bee gobies and Pandaka and their relatives. And finish the Big Goby Book.

Helen, clearly we are short on fish taxonomists at the present time, and yet Australian freshwater fishes are showing little sign of slowing with regard to the discovery of new critters. Crystal ball things for me, where do you see things heading – what are the ramifications of insufficient numbers of ichthyos and how do we train up a new brigade? Seriously, even Hammer is no spring chicken any more.

That’s a difficult one to answer as we presently have a very conservative government that is moving funding away from research and science in general. Institutions that used to provide jobs for young scientists are no longer able to do so – positions are lost in all museums around the country (and the world) and university research being more and more focussed on what makes money or medical-relevant. Long-term work on our landscape and sea is slowing at a time when it should not be – as there’s so much yet unknown and more of us humans getting in the way. There are some very good younger minds out there but there’s no way that they can get jobs working with fish, especially taxonomy. So much money goes to fund genetic work but nothing to support the taxonomists who have to identify the organisms the geneticists are working on (because the geneticists can’t identify anything). It means that people like me must talk to younglings about what we do and why.

Helen, nearing the end of this interrogation, I feel it is only polite to give you 50 words or less to explain why gobies are your group of choice. Bear in mind that this is my chance to counter red pen you, should you step one word over the limit.

Because they are small, beautiful and have charming faces. Not because they are an immense phylogenetic problem waiting to be solved. The first goby I fell in love with was Asterropteryx semipunctatus, as it was gorgeous and would come right up to me and almost sit on my fingers.

I’ve also asked you to provide a photograph that means something to you. Care to talk us through it?

Ocean Spray Guam_Small

It’s a scan of a slightly mouldy colour slide taken on Guam in 1972. I’m sitting on one of the raised cut bench reef flats on the eastern side of the island not far from the University of Guam Marine Laboratory, counting gobies in a metre-square grid (gathering data as part of my master’s thesis). I had a tiny taperecorder and spent many many hours crouched over tiny fish muttering into it, to the bemusement of passing reef fishermen. Notice my lack of safety equipment other than a shady hat. More than once the waves snuck up on me and picked me up and knocked me over or flung me against the limestone cliff behind. I absolutely loved sitting out on those reef flats and cut benches – focussed on the gobies and their behaviour, as well as passing birds, blennies, whales, etc. My husband, who I met and married on Guam, learned that I am easy to entertain: just provide a tropical island with reef and rocks to sit on and fish and birds to look at. Luckily he is easy to entertain also. He took the photo.

Thanks again for you and Jeff having me down to your spectacular Mission Beach retreat, again; the laid back feel, balcony view of Dunk Island and simply the best cup of teas that I ever get these days; and as always the warmest of people and witty charm. I realise that I am not the only budding fish ecologist that has received your taxonomic support over the years. Best of luck and I’ll bug you again soon enough, no doubt.

You are welcome to come and have another goby-lesson day!

HelenJamesYoda copy Reduced Res

James Donaldson receiving the Blue eye lesson