Cameron is a Research Scientist at CSIRO Atherton, where he works with Ebb. He is an interdisciplinary scientist with a PhD in physics, who jumped ship over ten years ago to study a wide range of human-managed ecological systems. In addition to being dragged in to many of Brendan’s other crazy schemes, Cameron provides the back-end and technical support for The Moray’s Lair website. Cameron is also an enthusiastic nature photographer, focusing particularly on birds in flight. Some of this photography is on display at www.spontaneousnature.com.
Thoughts by Ebb, January 2014
Some combinations are powerhouses of our field. After completing Honours in marine biology in Townsville and being especially interested in fish feeding ecology, I went flicking lures and drifted away from fish science before some year and a half later obtaining my first job in freshwater fish ecology in the Murray-Darling Basin. There, I drove a desk. I was on a steep learning curve having exclusively been interested in marine fish up until that point. I was familiar with research by marine fish duos such as Choat and Bellwood but knew nothing of the gurus in the freshwater fish world.
I was fortunate to meet a number of Basin big names in that first year, including John Harris, since he was a steering committee member on the project that I had been assigned to. My job involved plenty of literature review and I quickly became aware of papers authored by John Harris and papers authored by Peter Gehrke, as well as papers written in concert by Harris and Gehrke. They were the first dynamic duo that I was aware of in Australian freshwater fish ecology.
I then started reading about freshwater fishes beyond what it seemed was a country known as the Murray-Darling Basin. At the same time I was gravitating back toward an interest in fish feeding ecology. Trophic papers were popping up by Pusey and Kennard, and I realised the emergence of another dynamic duo was well underway.
A decade on, I heard a Kimberley centric presentation by a guy named David Morgan during an Australian Society for Fish Biology (ASFB) conference by the Glenelg seashore. Bailed him up outside whilst he polished off a durry, and went home and read up on a few of his papers. In recent time I’ve watched the emergence of the Morgan and Beatty duo. If you’re an East-coaster you may not be overly aware of their work. But in time you will be.
So these are the three dynamic duos that come to my mind in Australian freshwater fish ecology. There are no women in my examples, which is a shame. A shame because we have got to shed the boys club era. If I have overlooked such an example, I am ashamed. Perhaps it is inevitable that there are not any female dynamic duos that leap to my mind, given the low frequency of women relative to males that have been in our profession historically. I guess Angela Arthington might argue that she was part of a dynamic trio, and anyone that has read Pusey, Kennard and Arthington (2004) the book, might mount such a contention on the spot.
So what are the fundamentals that underpin these great double acts? From an outsider’s perspective it is interesting that Pusey was Kennard’s MSc and PhD supervisor, as was Morgan one of Beatty’s Honours and PhD supervisors. Postgraduate supervision can make or break the professional bond; such is the intensity of the postgraduate experience. Last year in a bar in downtown Okinawa, Pusey told me that Mark (Kennard) was his best mate and that Mark had already surpassed him as a researcher. Pusey and I were sharing a few deserved rums, so it is possible his quote was off the record.
Fast-forward. I rang Mark up the other day, late on a Friday afternoon, and asked him straight out, ‘What has been the secret to the success that is Pusey and Kennard?’ He answered immediately, ‘friendship’. I probed a little further and asked as to any skills they each had that complemented or conflicted, and he said, ‘Brad is a great ideas man – a big picture thinker. And perhaps I bring a quantitative element to the game.’ I was working back late that Friday, in what is a rarity for me these days. A message comes through on my email reading: ‘This is a message from the phone of Mark Kennard’. It says: ‘Oh yeh, and Brad and I both enjoy each others camp cooking.’ In the fisho world, maybe with the exception of the modellers, most of us tip the hat to that one.
Similarly, I know that Dr Morgan speaks highly of Dr Beatty, though this was extracted from the former, carefully in a Dr Phil moment. A touch of the 4.8% ethanol solution helps with him, I’ve found. When asked what makes them click, Dave Morgan spat out, ‘Similar principles in life, and honesty.’ He pauses and then adds, ‘We are both conservation minded, and also how we treat people.’ Clearly, Morgan and Beatty are mates.
I couldn’t help myself, my self-promoted status as fish science journalist had me reaching to see if it could be three from three. I knew Harris had not supervised Peter Gehrke for postgraduate studies, however, I was more than curious to find out if they were friends. They had come together as a powerhouse at New South Wales Fisheries, which culminated in the epic NSW Rivers Survey. I tried to contact Gehrke and got trapped in a holding pattern by one of those virtual secretaries. After several attempts and being kept on hold to the point that virtual secretary’s voice was sounding more familiar to me than my wife’s voice, I cut my losses and made a play for Dr Harris. No harm, Gehrke would have been hard to get a word out of anyway! Then bingo, hooked a Dr Harris first cast. ‘I can’t speak now I am driving, but you can call me back in fifteen,’ he says. Ever reliable JH, as I remember him from those early steering committee days. I give him 25 minutes to be sure and then shoot from the hip.
So what did Dr Harris unveil about their complementarity combination? First let me say, it’s not just what John says that pulls you in. It’s how he says it. Put simply he speaks with two parts calm and one part the underlying joy of a thirteen year old, off down the river with a brand new fishing rod (In fact he was just back from bagging some bream in the Manning). It went pretty much like this:
Me – You didn’t supervise Peter for postgraduate study did you?
JH – No. That’s right. In fact I gave him the job [at NSW Fisheries] and he had just come back from studies in British Columbia. I actually had never met the guy until he started working with us.
Me – Did your skills complement each other and what did you each bring to the table?
JH – We were lucky. Really fortunate and we had a big responsibility. Peter is a good guy, productive, energetic. We had a good team and Peter was imaginative combined with good analytical skills.
Me – Yeh, but what about you, what did you bring to the combination?
JH – I guess I had a background, and I was also enthusiastic. [he paused for a little]. I had a population dynamics background, and that was quiet new in Australia [in freshwater fish ecology] at that time. With the exception of Richard Tilzey’s work from Eucumbene no one else was pushing the population dynamics angle in the Australian freshwater fish arena back then. Peter is a good friend. We were really fortunate.
Bidding John farewell on the phone I felt a little like the hobbit parting ways with Gandalf. Spiritual stuff indeed, having again crossing paths with the soothing Dr Harris.
Where does that leave my thinking on the dynamic duos of our field? Well I’ve spent all this time reading papers and reports, and even trying to write the odd one myself. Yep, I’ve read a fair bit of freshwater fish literature to this point. I should also mention that I have a morbid fascination with methodological studies. Therein, I come across written discussions of better ways to sample fish communities, or analyse survey data or how it is more cost effective to plan for conservation of rivers this way or that way. In browsing all these thousands of ecology papers and reports, it hits me. I’ve never read about the topic of friendship in fish science journals.
Perhaps friendships are just a by-product of scientific endeavour. But maybe, just maybe, on occasion, friendships are actually the optimal scientific method − three out of three speaks to me. And for those of us who aren’t necessarily going to make it to the status of dynamic duo any time soon, surely many of us can be consoled by some really great friendships that have sprouted on the job. Either way, the terrestrial world has its stars: Superman, the Flash, and Wonder Woman. And by convention we have Aquaman. But the submerged world of Australian freshwater fish ecology is not without the occasional Batman and Robin.
Literature that inspires
Gehrke, P. C, & Harris, J. H. (2000). Large-scale patterns in species richness and composition of temperate riverine fish communities. Marine and Freshwater Research 51, 165–182.
Pusey, B. J. & Kennard, M. J. (1996). Species richness and geographic variation in assemblage structure of the freshwater fish fauna of the wet tropics region of northern Queensland. Marine and Freshwater Research, 47, 563–573.
Pusey, B. J., Kennard, M. J., & Arthington,A.H. (2004). ‘Freshwater Fishes of North-eastern Australia.’ (CSIRO Publishing: Melbourne)
‘Fish? In the desert?’ The most common response to the news that for the last three years, my PhD research has indeed centred on an unlikely candidate: the desert goby (Chlamydogobius eremius). In some ways, this species is the most unassuming member of the community of freshwater fishes found in the Lake Eyre Basin of arid Australia. In others, it is the most remarkable. And both my answer to that original query and my thinking on the science of what I do – exploring how an animal interacts with a changing environment via behaviour, genetics, and ecology – continues to be shaped by a series of small revelations. In fact, this is an experience probably reflective of why most scientists do what we do: to find out things.
Some of those discoveries happen in the form of small moments that drive inspiration and optimism: both particularly important given the many challenges to the conservation of biodiversity and natural systems. One such moment – tiny, but significant – happened after three years of staring at gobies in tanks, analysing hours of footage to explore mating behaviour, and tramping around desert waterholes and springs in search of this little fish. During night fishing, where slumbering gobies make for easy and gently caught targets, the endless mosquitoes have a field day with the unweathered flesh of distracted biologists. But, wading slowly through thigh deep water, my bare foot nudges a larger-than-usual rock; it wobbles lethargically, obviously uneven. We’re after adults tonight – the best candidates for a current experiment – but something tells me this is worth a detour. The water is cold, and there’s a hum of excitement from the mozzies at the rolling up of sleeves, but it barely registers. The mud is silky cold as I sink my fingers under the rocks edges, and then it’s free. I’m anticipating an expanse of mud-covered underside and nothing more, but there, nestled in a cozy crevice, is a bundle of treasures. A clutch of wild goby eggs, mid-way through their development thanks to the careful attention of the parental male, who will attentively guard the eggs from would-be predators and fans them continually to maintain the flow of oxygenated water. While desert gobies are relatively easy to rear in captivity, their eggs have only rarely been observed in the field, making this an exciting moment for building knowledge of their mating system, and an informative one for the experiments we run in a lab setting. So after a quick happy snap, I return the clutch carefully, and energised, leave them to continue on their way.
On a final note, I have been both professionally and personally privileged to have the opportunity to work in the area surrounding Kati Thanda – Lake Eyre. I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the Country here and their deep spiritual and cultural connection to this incredibly beautiful area. In particular, thank you to Reg Dodd of the Arabunna people for his patience in imparting to me a strong impression of the region and its environment. Thanks also to Jodie and Nathan at the Peake Station for their friendly reception and help in allowing us to access the station.
Krys is a PhD candidate based at Monash University, Melbourne. Her early fascination with ‘anything that moves’ was later honed by a particular interest in aquatic environments and their inhabitants. Previously, Krys worked on the elaborate mating system of the sex-role reversed Zeus bug and the ecology of sessile marine invertebrates. Her current project on the desert goby combines behavioural, genetic and ecological approaches to examine the role of environmental change in an increasingly anthropogenic world.
Email: [email protected]
Interviewed by Ebb January 2014
Gidday Adam, welcome to The Lair, how are you?
‘Pretty good. I don’t think I’ve offended anyone too much in the last few weeks and all my small battles with government agencies finally seem to be bearing fruit’.
I have to ask, what led you to publish your book: ’Kerezsy in the Desert’?
Before I became involved in science I’d never read a science paper but was still interested and read lots of other things. I figured there were other people out there who were similar – curious but not in-deep enough to trawl the literature. All the people I ran into during field trips seemed fairly interested, and so did anglers, but again, they’re not connected with the science world and are unlikely to download a paper. Also I’m lucky because I had plenty of stories, enjoy writing and had a good editor
It must be nice to have a bunch of people read your words as distinct from what seems to happen in science journal world. Any plans for another book?
I think we’re all in the same boat really. Whenever somebody puts a lot of work into a piece of writing and makes it available for public consumption it’s always better if people actually read it. The good thing about a natural history book as opposed to a paper is that it reaches a wider audience. In science departments and agencies there’s a lot of talk about improving science communication, but despite the courses and consultant’s fees I’m not convinced we’re getting that much better at it, so this is my attempt.
With regard to another book, there are certainly ideas floating around but books take ages (a lot longer than a paper) and the publishing industry is pretty depressed, so there’s not a lot of incentive. That said, back in the nineties James Woodford (he’s written books about Wollemi pines and wombats) and I spent two months in complete isolation exploring the Berkeley River in the east Kimberley, and we’re finally getting around to putting that down – not 100% fish-related but a pretty crazy story.
Can you briefly tell us about your main interests in Australian freshwater fish ecology?
I’m pretty basic. Australia’s the driest inhabited continent, and if you look at a map there’s that really big dry section in the middle. How do fish manage to live there when even Homo sapiens have a hard time? That pretty much sums it up – no rocket science, I’m just interested in how the arid zone works.
You came to fish ecological research relatively late in life. How do you think that helps you operate differently, from say someone like me that went almost straight through from school to university to research?
As you’d expect at first it was really intimidating because it involves learning a whole new discipline when you’re over 30. But after you get the degrees and the feelings of inadequacy out of the way it’s good because you realise you have plenty of skills that have been acquired in other areas that can be put to good use. So for me that’s things like photography, writing and presenting. It’s also handy because you end up with what might be termed ‘career security blankets’ – things you’ve done that you know you can go back to if everything stuffs up.
From what I have seen, you have the gift of the gab. Care to elaborate on your experiences with public speaking and communicating fish ecology and specifically fish conservation messages?
Public speaking (and more accurately doing any performance in front of other people) is not easy and I think we all still get nervous before doing a presentation or a lecture – but that’s the way it should be. I’ve been lucky because I’ve had a lot of practice – things like teaching and playing music – and that definitely helps. Also I do a lot of talks to non-science audiences which means keeping everything straight-forward and on-message rather than getting too mired in detail.
I think the formulaic way we (as a group) present at conferences has the potential to be pretty dull, and I’m sure we’ve all seen senior researchers do a crap talk and students do a really good one. Presenting really is a completely different skill or discipline to research and writing, and it has the potential to be far more immediate and powerful. If the universities and agencies want to get messages out there – especially given how competitive news cycles and media in-general is/are nowadays – putting more effort into communications is probably the way to go. The best research in the world means diddley-squat if nobody can understand it.
Given that you were a school-teacher prior to becoming a fish ecologist, would you jump at the opportunity to lecture aquatic ecology at a university?
I’d like to give it a try one day. The best day teaching is about the best work day you’ll ever have. Unfortunately the opposite is also true. But if there’s a theme emerging from these questions it’s definitely the value of communication, and teaching pretty-much epitomises everything to do with it.
Your best, known work is centred on understanding fish populations or assemblages in the context of our desert country. Are there any past or contemporary Australian or overseas based fish ecologists that have influenced your research, and what do you think are some of the next steps in studying fishes in Australian desert systems?
Jim Puckridge’s work is what originally inspired me to work in the desert. He did a great job of looking at the flood-pulse concept – which was basically a northern hemisphere/temperate idea – and picking it apart by pointing out why it didn’t apply in our highly variable and unpredictable inland systems. Unfortunately I never had the opportunity to meet him, but I’ve come to know a lot of his colleagues and we often talk about him. To be honest I’m inspired by my other colleagues in the arid country as much as I am by fish people. Jen Silcock is probably the best arid zone botanist our country will ever know, and Max Tischler is the same with terrestrial fauna. Then there’s Angus Emmott, a grazier from south-west of Longreach who’s had about six or seven species named after him. Because there’s comparatively few of us working in the desert we all know each other and often work together rather than being solely fish or bug or plant people – in fact it’s probably not a bad model for other areas. It certainly keeps everything interesting because you keep learning from everyone else.
Next steps for the desert? Take your pick. We’re still way, way back. We have these wonderful systems that are un-regulated and as close to natural as you’ll find anywhere on the planet and we really don’t know much about them. That said, I’m pretty-much fixated on the most immediate arid-zone-fishy management challenge at present, which is trying to stop gambusia wiping out the last few populations of red-finned blue-eye. Getting there, but it’s like taking two steps forward and three back a lot of the time.
Righteo, the questions were never all going to be easy. I’ll soften you up and then hit you hard good sir. One of the things I admire about you is that you speak your mind. What are we doing well in fish ecology in Australia at the moment, and where do you suggest we need to really improve in say the next 5-10 years?
This will sound like a predictable answer given the rest of this interview. Collectively we produce some of the best biology and ecology in the world. I’m sure we’ve all had the same problem of getting our papers back from reviewers when they want more of a global focus and realising that 95% of the work has been done in Australia, and usually by people we know and respect. This is probably why all our best PhDs end up in the US or Scandinavia.
But we’re watching the government sector go into freefall – so there’ll be no jobs, and currently we don’t even have a science minister, so the demand for science jobs is likely to fall rather than rise. So our best PhDs will have no choice but to re-locate to the US and Scandinavia.
So we can sit around blaming the government or the funding bodies or the economy or we can get out there and sell ourselves better, make ourselves visible, and raise our profile. It certainly can’t hurt. Improving our communication and our ability to make our science resonate in wider society is the number one thing we have to do better if we are to retain a vibrant research community.
Many may not know that you are a handy musician, with a surprisingly rich voice. If you ever get to organise an Australian Society for Fish Biology annual conference, which all time act would you have play at the conference dinner, and throw in a support act while your at it.
Don’t know about an act but the best song would be the original version of My Island Home, which (rather ironically) was written by the only white member of the Warumpi Band, Neil Murray. So we could ask Neil along, and for a support act Listy Ellis’s mob from Mildura would have to be a walk-up start given they won some golden-oldies ABC comp recently.
Adam, thanks for taking the time. Look forward to chasing catties with you in a waterhole sometime soon.
Wayne Koster is a fish ecologist based at the Arthur Rylah Institute in Victoria. Much of his work relates to spawning, recruitment and movement of native fishes in regulated rivers and has implications for conservation and management.
By Wayne Koster
18 December 2013
Why I really like this species – I like the smell of cucumbers, nah just kidding. I really like the Australian grayling because they can be such an elusive fish and their ecology has long puzzled researchers, starting with the work of Allport and Saville-Kent way back in the late 1800′s.
The Australian grayling is a nationally threatened amphidromous fish species that inhabits coastal streams in south-eastern Australia (Crook et al 2006). The species has a strong cucumber odour and grows to a length of about 300 mm.
The New Zealand grayling (Prototroctes oxyrhynchus), the only other member of the genus, appears to be extinct (McDowall 1976). For many years, the spawning and movement behaviours of adult Australian grayling remained a mystery. However, recent research using novel approaches (egg/larval surveys combined with acoustic telemetry) has provided some important insights. In particular, adult Australian grayling have been shown to undertake large (e.g. 30 km) downstream spawning migrations to the lower reaches of rivers in autumn coinciding with increases in river flow (Koster et al. 2013). This downstream spawning migration strategy appears to be relatively rare among the amphidromous fishes. Interestingly, following downstream migration, adult Australian grayling also tend to migrate back upstream to the same area they previously occupied. The Australian grayling can be a difficult-to-find species at times. In smaller, clear rivers a useful technique, especially on sunny days, can be to walk or drive along the river bank and polaroid for schools of fish. The Australian grayling sometimes displays surface activity, especially in the early morning, which can also be a useful technique for locating fish. The migratory behaviours of juvenile Australian grayling, including the importance of river flow as an upstream migration cue, are poorly understood and is an important area for future research. The Australian grayling is a delicate species and does not tolerate handling well.
Allport, M. (1870). No title. Monthly Notices of Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania for 1869 6.
Crook, D. A., Macdonald, J. I., O’Connor, J. P. and Barry, B. (2006). Use of otolith chemistry to examine patterns of diadromy in the threatened Australian grayling Prototroctes maraena. Journal of Fish Biology 69, 1330–1344.
Koster, W.M., Dawson, D.R. and Crook, D.A. (2013). Downstream spawning migration by the amphidromous Australian grayling (Prototroctes maraena) in a coastal river in south-eastern Australia. Marine and Freshwater Research 64, 31–41.
McDowall, R.M. (1976). Fishes of the family Prototroctidae (Salmoniformes). Marine and Freshwater Research 27, 641–659.
Saville-Kent, W. (1885). Fisheries Department. Report for the year terminating 31st July, 1885. Tasmanian Parliamentary Paper No. 90.