‘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.