The Australian Museum Ichthyology collection contains over 13,000 type specimens* and is beaten in size only by the Smithsonian in Washington and the Natural History Museums of London and Paris.

Mark McGrouther is the scientist in charge of this priceless collection.

Mark McGrouther
Mark McGrouther with fish skeletons Image: R. pearce
© R. pearce

"We are documenting Australian’s fish fauna. We are documenting what occurs in our country. And without documentation how can you manage? There is on average about one species discovered every week in Australia so our fauna is still really growing."

"Sydney Harbour is, well, I like to describe it as a marine jewel. It really is extraordinary, there is nearly 600 species recorded from the harbour. And when you compare that with the Mediterranean, it has more species! It has more species that all north-western Europe combined. So we are sitting on a fish goldmine."

*Type specimens are the specimens on which the description and name of a new species is based.

Kim McKay: Welcome to AMplify, I'm Kim McKay, the director and CEO at the Australian Museum. And in this series of podcasts I get to talk to some of our fantastic scientists and collection managers and researchers here at the Australian Museum. We are the first museum in the nation. Next year we turn 190 years old. And someone who has been at the Museum for almost that length of time (now he's laughing at me) is Mark McGrouther. Mark manages our fish collection and it's the most extraordinary collection in Australia. We've got more than 1.8 million fish in jars and tanks at the Australian Museum and they are studied all the time. Mark McGrouther, welcome toAMplify.

Mark McGrouther: Thank you very much Kim.

Kim McKay: Now, how long have you been here?

Mark McGrouther: The first question is the killer, isn't it. Over three decades, I've been here about 35 years.

Kim McKay: You must love fish.

Mark McGrouther: I do and I love the museum, it's a great place to work, as you know. 35 years is a long, long time, and I've loved most of it.

Kim McKay: It's a complete generation actually.

Mark McGrouther: It is actually. In fact the changes that I've seen during that time has been amazing. What's the same of course is still the passion and the love for the place and the commitment and the drive to understand what animals we're working on. But what has changed is…well, perhaps I should say when I first came here there were no computers and there was a tea lady.

Kim McKay: The days of the tea lady long gone, but we've got a lovely new cafe on the rooftop, so that's something.

Mark McGrouther: That makes up for it.

Kim McKay: It does indeed. So you talked about that drive and passion that exists here at the museum and it is extraordinary. Where did your drive and passion for fish come from?

Mark McGrouther: Well, I've always been interested in the marine, in wildlife in general, and of course watching Jacques Cousteau and all those programs on television. I did a zoology degree and it wasn't so much fish that fascinated me initially, it was just animals in general, but I was always attracted to the marine. And my degree, I actually worked on crustaceans, but then the fickle finger of fate pointed in the direction of fish and I took it up and picked up the ball and ran with it, and I've loved it ever since.

Kim McKay: And I bet you love saying to people, 'I'm an ichthyologist.'

Mark McGrouther: I am and ichthyologist and I'm okay, I swim all night and I swim all day.

Kim McKay: What a great word, 'ichthyology', I love it.

Mark McGrouther: Most people have trouble spelling it though.

Kim McKay: Well, I've worked it out, I know what you are now. One of the great things, Mark, about the work you do is you deal with very, very little fish, very tiny fish, to very large fish, sharks, goblin sharks particularly. So you've got this huge array. So when you've got 1.8 million subjects to look after, why are they so important?

Mark McGrouther: What a challenging question. We actually are documenting Australia's fish fauna. The museum of course contains more than just fishes, and you notice I use the word 'fishes' for more than one species. People are going to complain about that, but look at up. Go to the website, refer to the website.

Kim McKay: That's right, it is 'fishes', the plural.

Mark McGrouther: For more than one species it's 'fishes', yes. Anyway, it's really important because we are documenting what occurs in our country. Without documentation, how can you manage? And we have nearly 5,000 species recorded from Australia and there is, on average, about one discovered every week, so our fauna is still really growing.

Kim McKay: I mean, given that the oceans have hardly been explored really, there's going to be a lot more discoveries in our marine environment. So it is an extraordinary place to be working within the museum. But apart from the sheer volume and the number of species, we also hold a fish type collection here at the museum. Can you explain to us what that means?

Mark McGrouther: Sure. Fish types…well, types of any kind are the name bearing specimens. When a scientist describes a new species of fish or bird or mammal or whatever, they have to allocate specimens in a museum collections somewhere and describe the new species in a paper based on those specimens, and those specimens which have a registration number and are listed specifically by number in that paper become the type specimen. And I won't go into it but there's a whole heap of different types of types. Again, refer to the website. But the Australian Museum collection is the fourth largest type collection of fishes in the world. It contains over 13,000 specimens and it's beaten in size only by the Smithsonian, the museum in London, the Natural History Museum and the museum in Paris, which just goes to show how big and how large and how important our type collection is. We of course have many, many types from Australia. It is in fact law now that if a species is described, the types have to be…some of the types have to be lodged in Australia, and we have people all over the world describing species of fishes from Australian waters, because we don't have enough ichthyologists (there's that word again) in Australia on staff, not only here at the museum but around the country. And so people from lots of different countries—Japan, the US, the UK, Spain, wherever—are describing species from Australian waters.

Kim McKay: In fact I think the last fish species identified in Sydney Harbour was found at Chowder Bay, and it of course is in our collection. I think he was a Japanese researcher, correct?

Mark McGrouther: Yes, in fact in 2004 the last newly described species from the harbour, with the wonderful name of Scorpaenopsis insperatusinsperatuswas named because the fellow was so surprised to find it in Sydney Harbour, the reason being it's a tropical genus, and in fact this particular species is found 600, 800 kilometres south of its nearest relative further up north. So yes, that was found at Chowder Bay in 2004. Sydney Harbour, I like to describe it as a marine jewel. It really is extraordinary. There is nearly 600 species recorded from the harbour, and when you compare that with the Mediterranean it's got more species than the Mediterranean, more species than all of north-western Europe combined. So yes, Sydney Harbour, we're sitting on a…well, a fish mine.

Kim McKay: And we're seeing now more tropical fish come down to Sydney Harbour, so Nemo is here, swimming down the coastline and now surviving our winter because the waters have warmed. So while we are seeing the impact of coral bleaching up on the Great Barrier Reef, we are also seeing the impact of some tropical fish moving south and in fact inhabiting Sydney Harbour for the first time.

Mark McGrouther: That's correct, it's been known for a long, long time that tropicals quite often come south. If you saw Finding Nemo, the East Australian Current, they ride the EAC down the coast. And quite often…it's very common for tropical fish, juveniles to end up down here and way south in southern New South Wales. What is less common is for them to be able to over-winter because what happens of course the water gets colder, the fish slow down, they get gobbled up by larger fish. Nowadays we are finding more tropical fishes over-wintering and growing to larger sizes, in fact not just small fish, we are getting reports of all sorts of weird fish, really full-on tropical fish occurring in New South Wales waters.

Kim McKay: It's extraordinary. When an extraordinary fish is found along the New South Wales coastline, you are often the first port of call, aren't you, to get that call. People send you a picture, they phone you up and say can you help us identify this fish and do you want it? And I see you're always putting out calls to say can we transport this fish back here quickly because there are some extraordinary species. What's the most extraordinary species that you've been called about?

Mark McGrouther: My goodness…that's tough, there's a whole range of them, but certainly a little while back we got a type of parrotfish that's a full-on coral reef chomping fish found off Forster, which is quite extraordinary. That was caught by a spear fisherman. He thought it was a snapper and then he shot it and went, 'What the heck is this?' And he was blown out of the water. But we are also seeing reports of blue groper. Now, blue groper is the New South Wales state fish emblem, being found now regularly in Tasmania. And in the 1920s there were some reports of this fish, this species in Tasmanian waters, it hasn't been seen there ever since, and now they are regularly being found in northern Tasmania.

Kim McKay: But you've also become known as Mr Goblin Shark too, haven't you.

Mark McGrouther: Some people call me that, yes. Yes, we had a goblin shark caught…we've actually got four or five of these things in our collection here at the Australian Museum, a couple of very large ones or parts of them.

Kim McKay: They are the spookiest looking fish, aren't they.

Mark McGrouther: I always think of Sigourney Weaver when I look at the goblin shark.

Kim McKay: Do you now? I'm sure she'd be thrilled to hear that!

Mark McGrouther: It's the teeth. No, it's the alien. These goblin sharks have the most extraordinary jaw mechanism where they, like in the film Alienthey can actually protrude the lower jaw, they've got this mouthful of very fine fang-like teeth and they can protrude that lower jaw so that it snaps forward. They've actually got a couple of tendons attached to their top jaw, and when the jaw is closed, retracted, the tendons are under tension. And when the jaw opens, it's like a slingshot, the jaw gets fired forwards so that they can grasp all kinds of organisms, whatever it is they are eating out of the soft bottom. They live anywhere between 300 to 900 metres down.

Kim McKay: Right, so that's why we don't see them very often if we are out swimming in the ocean, do we.

Mark McGrouther: Thank goodness for that.

Kim McKay: Thank God. It would scare the pants off you, absolutely.

Mark McGrouther: They are pretty cool animals. But occasionally they are caught in trawlers and we're offered them for the museum collection, and I absolutely will always take them because we want to know where they occur, we want to know what depths they occurring. As you said earlier, the deep sea is just the last frontier, and whatever we can find out about it is always very exciting. And that day goblin shark came in I was pretty excited.

Kim McKay: I remember. One of the great things you get to do here at the museum from time to time is go on a field expedition, to go out into the ocean, and I know you like scuba diving and I know you've dived all over the South Pacific. So where is your favourite spot? If you were just going out for a recreational dive, Mark McGrouther, on your day off, a rare day off, where would you go?

Mark McGrouther: On my day off? My goodness…

Kim McKay: You're one day off the year.

Mark McGrouther: You let me have that, don't you, boss. To be quite honest there's some great diving around Sydney. Everybody loves diving in coral reef waters, although now of course perhaps parts of it are not so great. I've done some fantastic diving, as you've said, in lots of places around the South Pacific, beautiful diving, clear water, beautiful coral, deep clear water, just fantastic. But Sydney diving is really underrated. Sure, the water is cooler and the water is not quite often as warm, but you can see some fantastic things. And to be quite honest, I'm just as happy going for a snorkel too, you can see lots of wonderful things snorkelling, it's great exercise, you have to hold your breath, and you can still film and see fishes. Even just in Clovelly in southern Sydney there's the inlets there, the Clovelly pool as they call it, you can see the blue gropers swimming around. It's safe for the kiddies. It's wonderful.

Kim McKay: You went on an expedition last year with the Australian Museum to the Kermadec Islands, correct?

Mark McGrouther: 2011.

Kim McKay: Oh, it was a few years ago.

Mark McGrouther: Last year we were in French Polynesia.

Kim McKay: French Polynesia last year. God, time flies, doesn't it. Oh, so exotic, 'last year I was in French Polynesia'.

Mark McGrouther: We weren't on the beach under the palm trees.

Kim McKay: No, I know, you were out on a boat and you were really working very hard because you brought back a lot of specimens from that expedition, didn't you.

Mark McGrouther: Indeed. In fact when you say French Polynesia you think Bora Bora and Tahiti, we were actually in southern French Polynesia. In the first time I got in the water I couldn't believe it, it was actually very cold, and people don't equate cold water…well, not cold water but cool water, so I actually had to put another layer of wetsuit on. There's algae down there as well as coral, so that shows you. So yes, we brought back quite a few specimens. The collection was done in conjunction with colleagues in New Zealand, and we did…I can't remember how many, 30 or 40 scuba dives in all kinds of different places and got some remarkable finds, new records for the area.

You mentioned the Kermadecs expedition a minute ago, and that was an extraordinary expedition. Kermadecs, for those who don't know, is the northernmost islands of New Zealand, in fact halfway between New Zealand and Tonga. They are volcanic islands, some of them are just shards like fangs of teeth pointing up out of the ocean, extraordinary.

Kim McKay: And I think we forget that, that there are these undersea volcanoes with incredibly steep sides, just like finding a mountain under the sea, right?

Mark McGrouther: And diving on those is quite a challenge at times. You jump into the water and the visibility is crystal clear, you can see for ages, and you're like on the side of a mountain, and you think, well, where on earth are we going to collect, it's rock. And in other places, on different parts of these islands you dive down to a sandy bottom and there would be gas bubbles, volcanic gas bubbling up through the sand. So really quite extraordinary places.

Kim McKay: So in your 35 years at the Australian Museum, Mark McGrouther, what has been your best day here? The day that you really remember, that you got so excited by a new specimen being delivered or something discovered?

Mark McGrouther: The goblin shark was pretty exciting. But, to be honest, one of the best days I've ever had was the day when I was told I got my job.

Kim McKay: That's great. Me too!

Mark McGrouther: I'll always remember that, and I walked into the boss's desk and said, 'Do I have a job?' And he looked at me and shook his head and paused and I went, 'Oh, I didn't get the job.' And he said, 'Yes, of course you do.' I said, 'You bastard.'

Kim McKay: Oh, bosses can be like that from time to time. Just kidding.

Mark McGrouther: It's a wonderful place to work.

Kim McKay: That's good to hear Mark. And I know you've got a really great project too where you are trying to list all of the fish in Australia and get the public to contribute to that. Can you tell us a bit about that online, what you're doing?

Mark McGrouther: Sure, yes, I'm collaborating with colleagues, and what we'd really like to do is put together a new website, a new exciting website, the name of it is yet to be decided, Oz Fish Picks or perhaps Fish Fish Fish, if you can say that fast three times. And basically people would be able to get online and query a fish by all kinds of parameters. If they were snorkelling down at Jervis Bay and they saw a pink fish with yellow spots at 5 metres at depth in August they could put those parameters and see what matches. If they couldn't find anything they could submit their own photograph and tag it with tags, a whole bunch of tags that says…

Kim McKay: And of course we have the Lizard Island research station up on the Great Barrier Reef where they have put a really great online website together of fish spotted around Lizard Island as well, so that would tie in very nicely.

Mark McGrouther: Yes, and in fact what we have on the Australian Museum's website already is over 1,400 facts about different species in Australia, so that's getting close to a third of the fish species listed. We've got something on our Australian Museum website and that's been a labour of love over many years, often done at night, at home, because as you know there's lots of other things to do here. But we get a lot of people referring to that website and saying how useful it is. It's very satisfying to do.

Kim McKay: Well, it's a great way to experience what the Australian Museum has from the comfort of your living room at night with your laptop open and going through our extraordinary website and looking at the database there of our collection, and certainly the fish, and understanding…I think it's really important that we understand more about the marine environment around Australia, it is so special, it's one of our definite unique elements of how we present ourselves to the world, and understanding the marine environment and how it's coping with climate change as well, and adapting to it I think is terribly important.

Mark McGrouther: Absolutely. It frightens me greatly to see what's happening worldwide. Well, it's not a political discussion here, so I won't go into that.

Kim McKay: It's not politics, it's science now that we're talking about.

Mark McGrouther: It's science but it needs a big solution as well, and I think Australia really needs…despite what some people might say, we are a wealthy country, I believe we need to stand up and take a moral stand and say, look, we believe this, this is really important, our science is saying this, climate change is real, it's going to affect us badly. You and I will be gone by the time it really kicks in, but for kids and grandkids it's going to be a shocker, and I think they will look back at us and say, 'What the hell were they thinking? Why didn't they do something about it?' And I think Australia as a wealthy country needs to stand up. Even if we only contribute 0.05 or whatever it is of the CO2emissions, we need to start to really lead and say this is how we do something about it, this is the way we can solve the problem, and export our technologies, at a price, to other countries.

Kim McKay: Spoken like a dedicated and passionate man who understands our marine environment perhaps better than anybody. Thank you so much Mark.

Mark McGrouther: Thank you Kim, that was great.