Reflections from Mark McGrouther
As the former Collection Manager of the Fish section, Mark McGrouther discusses his career highlights, the importance of museum collections and impact of climate change on ecology.
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Mark McGrouther joined the Australian Museum in 1981 and became the Collection Manager of the Fish section in 1987, staying in that role until his retirement in 2018.
He is currently a Senior Fellow in the Ichthyology section of the Australian Museum Research Institute and continues to work on Australasian Fishes and iNaturalist citizen science projects.
Over the course of his career, Mark McGrouther participated in over 30 collecting trips across Australia and Pacific, described two new species, had six species named after him, given numerous presentations and written many papers.
Listen to Mark talk about some of his highlights working at the Australian Museum over the course of nearly forty years.
Probably one of the most extraordinary things I've done as far as work with the collection goes, was filming the Goblin Shark. Mark McGrouther
Well, my highlight of working at the Museum, it's a hard question to answer. Certainly, working with good people has been fantastic. I've worked in the fish department for 37 years and working all that time with all those people, you know, you'd expect natural human instinct, there'd be clashes and problems. Well, there's the occasional disagreement, but overall it's worked remarkably well for all that time.
We've been a really cohesive unit and in fact, people have actually referred to the Ichthyology department as happy fish. For that reason, it's been a wonderful thing. In the field, my career highlights, it's very hard to say because as you say I've done so many field trips to so many amazing places. There have been some incredible finds. I remember diving to 30 meters on one occasion on a vertical coral wall in the Great Barrier Reef, northern Great Barrier Reef, and we were using rotenone and I just wafted my hand over this algae thinking there might be a little fish in it and the algae broke up. It was this filamentous orange algae. It broke up and started sinking down into deeper water, and I felt awful because damaging the environment is something I'm very concerned about. And as I watched this orange algae float down into deeper water I saw an eye. I thought, What the hell is that? So I sort of ignored regulations and went a little bit deeper and caught this fish. And it was the first Australian Museum record of an orange hairy ghost pipefish, which is like a seahorse. But well, I'll just say like a seahorse, but it's covered in orange hair, and as I put it carefully into a plastic bag and carried it up, and as I went up one of the experts on this group was swimming down for her turn to collect specimens. She looked at it, and I've never seen somebody's eyes nearly bulge out against the mask. She was so thrilled.
I've also swum with a Whale Shark on a field trip. This was before the regulations. You couldn't touch them, and it was quite amazing because somebody, we were all getting geared up to get in the water, had a wetsuits on a mask and snorkel, and somebody yelled "Whale Shark!" We looked out and there's this big bow wave approaching the boat, and I was lucky enough to be geared up. I jumped in and had this awesome ride on the back of this Whale Shark. That was just incredible.
But there also have been difficult times too, like being chased out of the water by sharks at Malta quay. That was quite incredible. I mean, we did everything wrong. It was night time, dusk. It was a turtle nesting colony, there were all these things wrong. We were collecting and on that dive, we saw this massive Queensland grouper that was the size of a VW, you know, it was just this massive thing and there were sharks going everywhere. We ended up aborting the dive and crawling up onto this beach and laughing our heads off as fins are going everywhere. So fieldwork, there's all kinds of amazing things that I've been very privileged to do. In the collection, every time you go down there, you see something amazing. The one that really blows me away is some of the deep sea fish. They're not necessarily very large. In fact, some of them are quite small. But there are some remarkable things where, you know, obviously big toothy fish that you know, they hang around there in the deep ocean, the food is scarce. And there are some that the females are little blobs, but the males are parasites on the females. And every time I go down there, I look at this fish and think, how remarkable.
Probably one of the most extraordinary things I've done as far as work with the collection goes was filming the Goblin Shark. When we got a baby Goblin Shark arrive at the Museum. We'd already had a couple of big Goblin Sharks, and there's a photograph of me in the early '80s, standing beside a goblin shark being held up on a gantry, and I'm there in my shorts and stubbies. It was a really classic photo. Anyway, we got this small Goblin Shark about just over a meter long, and it came into the Museum and Claire the publicist arranged for a videographer to come in and we did this story about this Goblin Shark. And it was incredible. Claire waited a little while until the time was right to put this out on the web, and it just went viral. It's still climbing now, there's over 1.1 million hits on that particular video. So yeah, that was that was pretty good, too.
So it's hard to say what the career highlight is, because it's been so long and so varied but I've been very privileged. I've enjoyed it nearly all immensely. Now, I've got six species named after me, which is a real honour, one of which is a parasitic crustacean. So obviously five a fish one's a parasite. And somebody said to me once, How do you feel about having a parasite named after you? I said, I'm honoured, of course. And so yeah, there's six named after me now.
Type specimens and citizen science
Hear Mark discuss some of the standout elements of the Australian Museum that have allowed the institution to thrive over the past century, including its collections of type specimens and its reputation as an 'honest broker'.
Here at the Australian Museum, we have the fourth biggest fish type collection in the world after the museums in Paris, London and Washington, DC. And it's an immensely important part of the collection. Mark McGrouther
What's enabled the Australian Museum to keep on going over all that time, is well, number of things. There's an Act of Parliament, obviously better collections to look after our collections, that the collections are the core of the whole museum in a way. The collections are why we're here. The collections represent snapshots in time and space, of natural history and anthropology, of course, as well, there are other areas, but I'm not qualified to talk about those. Certainly the fish collection, and other natural history collections. All those 1.8 million specimens in the fish collection represent an animal that was caught in a particular place at a particular time. And we've got the database to support that. So we can answer all kinds of questions about where species occur, when they occurred, distributions changing this this kind of thing.
Unlike other institutions, like fisheries, or universities, which may do fantastic research, ecological research, whatever. They don't have the collections to back up their research, which means that if anybody questions whether, in fact it was species 'Ayus beaus', that was being worked on, or whether or in fact 'Ayus beaus', through taxonomic work, we realised is now three species. What's that going to do to the research that was based on these specimens that are no longer kept? So having the specimens is vital, they are the backbone of the museum.
And our research, of those the most important, of course, are the type specimens. And a type specimen is the specimen used in a formal description of a new species. So if you go into the harbor tomorrow, and you catch three fish that turned out to be new species, a new species, one of those will be designated the holotype, and that is the name bearing specimen. The other two are paratypes, which are if you like backups, and quite often sent to other institutions in case there's a disaster at our institution. But that one specimen, the holotype is the name bearing specimen for that species and that documents that species.
And the museum, here at the Australian Museum, we have the fourth biggest type fish type collection in the world, after the museums in Paris, London, and Washington, DC. And it's an immensely important part of the collection. Here at the Museum, we are an honest broker. And I've never been told you may not speak about this, if there's something controversial, and I have an opinion, and the Museum is backed up with research, no problems, go for it. So the media, they know what they're getting with the Australian Museum. It's on honesty and truth. And, you know, as far as we can tell, the latest information.
There's also questions from the public. We are the place to go we are geared to public inquiries, we're geared to helping the public and as I say, being an honest broker about it. And this is where my current project, the Australasian Fishes Project is doing really well to on iNaturalist because anybody from around the world if they see a fish washed up on the beach, or they've been diving or snorkeling and they photograph a fish, or they're angling or spear fishing or doing deep sea research with the ROV, if they photograph a fish, and they don't know what it is, they can stick it up on Australasian Fishes Project, and somebody will identify it for them.
So this is where the power of again, the getting back to the public the power of citizen science comes in. We've only got so many scientists here. And in fact, the number of scientists is diminishing in a way. We're utilizing all those eyes of the public, in all those different places around Australia and New Zealand where the project works. That's one of the things that does concern me too, as as our museum population, the research staff population ages, we're like getting to the point where I'm very concerned that we will lose expertise. And in Australia, we don't have the university courses that teach taxonomy, other parts of the world, they still do that. But we're going to lose this expertise and so we're going to become essentially dumber than we were, as these people start to retire and we lose their knowledge.
Climate change and ecology
Mark explains why ongoing funding for public institutions like the Australian Museum is important, especially in the context of climate change and its impact on ecology.
As the world is increasingly suffering from the effects of climate change, we're finding species are possibly going extinct. Mark McGrouther
I think it's vital that the public purse funds these sorts of institutions, museums, collection institutions, because these collections represent, as I mentioned previously, a snapshot in space and time of where things occur or have occurred at that particular place and time. As the world is increasingly suffering from the effects of climate issues, climate change, we're finding species are possibly going extinct. Species are certainly shifting in their ranges. As the waters warm, there's a southward migration of species. We're seeing that quite often, certainly through Australasian Fishes Project.
Other quite devastating changes have occurred, for example, this is nothing to do with fish, but the giant sea kelp off the east coast of Tasmania is virtually gone now and that's because of the warm water currents that come down the east Australian current sweeping the east coast of Tasmania. They used to be a very important diving industry, diving in the giant kelp - gone. So the west coast of Tasmania where that warm water flowing down the east coast of Australia doesn't sweep up west coast, I believe there's still giant kelp over there, but the east coast, gone. So it's really important that we have these collections and we document these changes. The museum has a research station, as we know, on Lizard Island, has had for many years and with the coral bleaching that's occurring up there, there's all kinds of changes that are occurring and in fact these changes are occurring faster in some cases than we can really document, and I think having museum collections is vital to looking at that sort of thing.
There's all kinds of other things that museum collections are good for, too. We know, for example, 2004, there was a new species of scorpion fish found right here in Sydney Harbour, and people have dived the harbour for years, and it wasn't till a Japanese ichthyologist became an expert on scorpion fishes, and he looked at these collections that we'd made. The Museum had made these collections, but we didn't recognise this new species of fish and it's still only known from Sydney Harbour. So there's still a great deal to learn. As we know with biology, it's a web of life and one species supports another species, preys on another species, interacts with another species, relies on the blooming of flowers to supply food and what have you. Ecology is a complex beast, and without being able to know what we have, how can we know about the ecology and documenting the species that we actually have on our earth? Certainly in the Australian Museum'ss case in Australia and Indo-pacific in particular, it's really, really important. Otherwise without knowing something, without knowing how it works, without knowing the basic information, how do we know how it works? How do we know what we're preserving, what's happening, what's changing? And so the Museum, of course, is a vital place where we store this information, not only as specimens but also data that goes with the specimens.
One of the other things about the Museum collection is that it has great depth of time chronologically. The oldest specimen in the collection is from the mid 1800s and of course we're still collecting now. So we have these specimens we can go back to. We can look at where things occurred in rivers in Australia where they no longer occur, and we can say okay, in 1960 this species did occur in this river, it no longer occurs there. Can we look at introductions now? That sort of thing is not my area at all, and yet we can provide the basic information about that. Some of the freshwater perches, Percichthyids, may have occurred in particular river systems where they're no longer found, now the museum can document that looking at our collections. Each of the major cities around the Australia, the capital certainly, and a couple of other smaller centres, have museum ichthyology collections and we all work together as a team, Oz Fishnet is the group that we termed, and we all work together very, very well, share information and if something's found at a particular location, we'll encourage the other museums to be involved and what have you. There's been group field work, so yeah, it's worked well. It's good team effort.