Girl Power!! The Ladies of the Fish Systematics and Biodiversity Lab Receive Funding for their Research

The start of 2018 has been busy, but also productive, for the members of the Fish Systematics and Biodiversity Lab. While Luke enjoyed teaching Biology of Fishes solo for the first time,  his students cashed-in on some big grants and scholarships. The following is what lab members Dara Yui (senior undergrad), Marta Gómez-Buckley (Ph.D. student), and myself, Sarah Yerrace (junior undergrad) have spent the last several months working on.

Dara received the Mary Gates Research Scholarship in the fall of 2017. She was awarded $5,000 to support her genetic research on the dwarfgoby genus Eviota. Thanks to wide-spread use of DNA sequencing and molecular phylogenetic analyses in coral-reef fish taxonomy over the last decade, the description of new Eviotaspecies has exploded in recent years. The genus now comprises 113 species - an almost 500% increase from the 19 species that had been described before the 1970’s. Dara will be focusing on the Eviota atriventrisspecies complexPreliminary analyses show that within this species there are two different lineages showing subtly different color morphs from Cenderawasih Bay (Indonesia) and Milne Bay (Papua New Guinea). To clarify the taxonomy of the two lineages, Dara has been sequencing mitochondrial and nuclear genes for all available specimens as well as examining morphology. Her research will provide insights on the mechanisms of speciation in this rapidly diverging group of fishes. 

  Eviota atriventris , photo by Jack Randall. 

Eviota atriventris, photo by Jack Randall. 

Marta received $6000 from the Hall Conservation Genetics Research Fund. As the name suggests, this fund is specifically for graduate students working on conservation genetics. Combining systematics, phylogenetics, conservation genetics, and community ecology, Marta will be evaluating the dynamics of coral reef ecosystems. She will do this by focusing on cryptobenthic reef fishes, as they contribute disproportionately to the overall diversity and energy transfer on a reef. 

Marta will be comparing environmental DNA (eDNA) and cryptobenthic reef-fish surveys to see if eDNA can accurately inform us about the diversity and community composition of cryptobenthic fishes. If eDNA can be used to monitor ecologically sensitive cryptobenthic communities, it would be a good indicator for reef degradation and habitat loss. This method could be more cost- and time-effective than surveying populations through destructive sampling.

 Cryptobenthic reef fishes of Tonga, collected and photographed by Marta Gómez-Buckley.

Cryptobenthic reef fishes of Tonga, collected and photographed by Marta Gómez-Buckley.

Like Dara, I also received $5,000 from the Mary Gates Endowment. My research is also focusing on a small goby, Risor ruber. The common name for this fish, the tusked goby, comes from the two to four outward-facing canines on the upper and lower jaws of the fish. Preliminary genetic data indicates that there are eight different genetic lineages and ecological data shows that these lineages have species-specific commensal relationships with different sponge hosts. Host specialization could be the mechanism for the reproductive isolation causing genetic divergence, and ultimately speciation. I will be using a combination of fresh and preserved photos, cleared and stained specimens, and CT scans to analyze geometric morphometrics and meristic differences between lineages, and ultimately determine whether there are morphological differences that correspond to the genetic and ecological data within this group. 

  Risor ruber , the Tusked Goby.  Photo by Carole C. Baldwin. 

Risor ruber, the Tusked Goby.  Photo by Carole C. Baldwin. 

Finally, in other Girl-Power related news, the Fish Systematics and Biodiversity lab was part of another female-led collaboration that also recently received research funding. The Deep Reef Observation Project, or DROP, is a program that is leading the way in exploring deep-reefs of the Caribbean. Carole Baldwin, Curator of Fishes at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and Director of DROP, teamed up with Luke and Ross Robertson (Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute) to acquire funding to help establish a new base of operations for DROP in Roatan, Honduras.  The team will conduct 20 submersible dives on the Idabelmanned submersible over the next two years, collecting samples that will help us understand the evolution and connectivity of deep-reef fish communities.

  Idabel  submersible, located at Roatan, Honduras. 

Idabel submersible, located at Roatan, Honduras. 

Stay tuned for more updates from the members of the Fish Systematics and Biodiversity lab! 2018 is shaping up to be a big year full of discoveries.

UW Fish Collection shows off its selection of Halloween Horrors

By Emily McFarland
When October comes through and the sky gets dark and the fog rolls in, the time comes to celebrate the creepy crawler critters that lurk in the shadows. That’s just what we did on Friday, October 20th, at the Burke Museum for an event called Creepy Crawly Cocktails. Biologists of all sorts selected the creepiest, crawliest specimen from our collection to put on display for the public, and I was lucky enough to participate in showcasing some terrifically terrifying individuals from the fish collection. As much as ichthyologists may love fishes, nobody can deny that some true terrors lurk in the depths—and sometimes even in the shallows!


     We gathered an impressive array of horrors of all sorts, from the bizarre, like the oozing hagfish and strangely modified ratfish, to the downright fearsome, like the gnarly teeth of the lancetfish and alien-esque jaws of the moray eel. We even presented the handsome lionfish. Although its quills and toxins may be nasty, the true horror of the lionfish is more of an environmental sort—these voracious hunters are an invasive species in the Caribbean, and with no natural predators, they’re impacting the natural biodiversity of the area before we can even discover it! A true nightmare for ichthyologists everywhere.


     The event was a grand success! Loaded with questions, participants flocked to our table. They marveled at the bizarre reproductive strategy of the ratfish, clad with not one, not two, but four sex organs, one of which being located on the forehead. They carefully examined a bottle of wine, confiscated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services for its unusual ingredient profile: ginseng, goji berries, shaving of elk and antlers, and most shockingly of all, whole seahorses. They recoiled with disgust and swore off swimming at the sight of the jawless, many-toothed mouth of the lamprey. Most importantly, they got the opportunity to engage with our underwater world and catch a glimpse of just how incredible—though occasionally frightening—it can be.


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     Pictured: Our bone-chilling display

Pictured: Our bone-chilling display


GIRLS IN SCIENCE! Katherine, Sarah and Jalene train the next generation of women ichthyologists!

Story by Sarah Yerrace

For two hours every Monday, from April 17th to May 22nd, the UW Ichthyology Collection was busy with 16 girls, each working on describing a ‘new’ species. The girls —all from different Seattle high schools and all part of the Burke Museum's Girls In Science program — split into small groups to not only measure and count features on their ‘new’ species (Hexagrammos stelleri, Icelinus filamentosus, Artedius lateralis, Xeneretmus leiops, or Pholis clemensi) but also compare these measurements and counts from two other species within the same genus. Jessica Heide, a scientific illustrator, helped the groups draw a key morphological feature that varied between the three species. The Icelinus group, for example, chose to illustrate the unique dorsal fins of their three species while the Pholis group decided to draw the pigment patterns on the body of their fishes. By the end of the six weeks, the groups produced a poster, complete with a full write-up from the introduction to the acknowledgements.

 UW Fish Collection staff members and part of the Girls in Science training team, Jalene Weatherholt and Sarah Yerrace.

UW Fish Collection staff members and part of the Girls in Science training team, Jalene Weatherholt and Sarah Yerrace.

The first session started off with a tour of the collection and an introduction to basic fish anatomy. The girls got their hands on some preserved specimens and practiced using keys to identify the fishes down to the family. While they may have been hesitant at first, none of the girls were squeamish around the preserved fishes and things picked up by the second session. They readily looked into a gaping mouth of a gadid to see its pharyngeal teeth and gill rakers. The teams worked great together to get the measurements done efficiently with every member assigned to a specific set of measurements for consistency across the three fishes. When it came time to create the poster, some of the teams got creative and themed their posters around a personality they saw in their fish. The Xeneretmus group, for example, saw poachers as a dragon like creature. They drew dragons on their poster and used an old script font. The new Latin name for their fish was Xeneretmus draco. While the format of the posters may not have been traditional to science, the girl’s enthusiasm was encouraging to see. At the end of the six weeks, the girls received some pins with fishes on them to remind them of the experience. Some of the groups even exchanged contact information to stay in touch. A mother said she has never seen her daughter more outgoing and comfortable around others. She said that when her daughter saw other women doing science, she felt like she could do it too. That is ultimately the goal of the Girls in Science program: to inspire young women and increase accessibility to STEM fields. 


Expedition to St. Eustatius

Last month our lab teamed up with with Smithsonian for the first-ever submersible exploration off St. Eustatius, one of six islands in the Dutch Caribbean.  St. Eustatius, or "Statia" as its known to the locals, is a tiny island with just a few thousand permanent residents in the Eastern Caribbean.

Upon arrival in Statia on April 14th, 2017 the DROP team boarded the R/V Chapman – a 127’ research vessel and mothership to the manned submersible Curasub (Substation Curacao). The goal of this trip was to explore deep reefs between 50 and 300 m and, for the first time, describe the communities that live at these depths off St. Eustatius. Reefs and other hard-bottom areas between 50 and 300 m are too deep for conventional scuba diving and are rarely surveyed by deep-diving submersibles or ROVS, making this diverse zone an area of the ocean that science has largely missed.  Using the Curasub, our team made five dives off the west coast of Statia, recorded more than 2000 visual observations of fishes and their depths of occurrence, and collected more than 350 samples of deep-reef fishes and invertebrates. Highlights from this trip are remarkable—at least eight species of fishes that are new to science and have yet to be formally described! These include two species of gobies (small, bottom-dwelling reef fishes) that are currently known only from Statia.  A total of 38 species observed on our dives have never before been recorded from St. Eustatius—a number that is even more impressive considering that the most comprehensive review of the fishes of St. Eustatius was just published in 2016. This means that the plethora of new records from this trip is not simply due to scarcity of published data from St. Eustatius, but instead, highlights the importance of sampling from hard-to-reach habitats like deep reefs.

In addition to finding new species or new records from St. Eustatius, the DROP team is also interested in finding out which deep-reef species are widely distributed and common in the Caribbean.  For example, deep-reefs off Statia were home to large numbers of Pugnose Bass (Bullisichthys caribbaeus), Sabre Goby (Antilligobius nikkiae) and Bicolor Basslet (Lipogramma klayi). These three species have also been recorded in large numbers from deep reefs off Curacao, Bonaire, Dominica, and Roatan Island. By collecting DNA samples of these species from each locality, DROP researchers can use cutting-edge population genetic analyses to begin to learn how deep reefs are connected across long distances, and ultimately understand whether distant localities can serve as a ‘refuge’ for local populations that experience declines due to habitat degradation or invasive lionfish.

The DROP team also measured water temperatures along the deep-reef slope in an attempt to understand whether temperature is correlated with how deep fishes live on the reef slope. Preliminary data suggest that fishes living in the warm water off St. Eustatius occupied deeper depths than they did off the cooler waters of Curacao, Bonaire and Roatan. This may mean that fishes are indeed choosing their preferred depths based on temperature differences. The implications of this finding are paramount, as sea-surface temperatures are projected to rise in response to climate change, and fish may seek these poorly-studied deep-reef habitats in search of cooler temperatures in the future.  Finally, a smaller DROP team remained on board to sample small to tiny fishes and invertebrates that inhabit sponges, more than 60 of which were brought to the surface by the Sirenas research team during five days of sub diving to depths of 50-250 m. Among the highlights of this collection were a weird shrimp, possibly a shell-less snail called a nudibranch, and one yellow organism with a soft exterior and hard interior that scientists couldn’t identify at all!

We are grateful to the crew of Substation Curacao and the R/V Chapman for this amazing opportunity. Sub diving in choppy seas such as those encountered in Statia is challenging, and it requires talented and dedicated teams in the sub, on the surface boat, and on the ship. As owner of Substation Curacao and the R/V Chapman, Adrian “Dutch” Schrier, is fond of saying, “if this were easy, everybody would be doing it.” It is not easy. Thank you!

Pictures up from Behind the Scenes Night at the Burke Museum

Last month the Burke Museum held a special Behind the Scenes night for members of the museum. The even was well attended, with several hundred guests touring the ethnology, biology and paleontology collections.  The Fish Collection was well represented, showcasing the Five Facets of Familiar Fishes at Burke (cleared/stained collection, alcohol specimens, otoliths, skeletons, and eggs/larvae). Videos of our recent submersible expeditions were also featured on the large projector in the Burke Room, with specimens of representative Caribbean deep-reef fauna for visitors to see first hand.  Students Sarah Yerrace, Rachel Manning, Sam Ghods, and their friends/family came out to help Katherine and Luke showcase the collection and educate the public on the importance of natural history collections.  Overall the night was an incredible success, and we cannot wait to do it again next year!

Submersible-diving expedition to Bonaire!

The Fish Systematics and Evolution lab just returned from a six day expedition to Bonaire, where we explored deep reefs using the manned submeresible Curasub ( The trip was the first of many joint expeditions between UW-SAFS and the Smithsonian Institution.  

There were so many incredible highlights from this trip! There were at least three new species of fishes discovered from reefs between 450-600 ft.  We also collected many specimens of species that were previously known only from single locations, or in one case (Psilotris laurae), only from a single specimen found inside a gin bottle!  

Overall, we collected over 1000 specimens of fishes and inverts from 11 submersible dives, plus nearly 50 hours of high-def video.  The deep reefs of Bonaire were unique from those of nearby Curaçao, both in appearance and in their diversity. Many species present in Bonaire have not been observed in Curacao, and vice versa.  But why?! What is the extent of genetic and demographic connectivity between nearby deep reefs?  Do deep reefs harbor more endemic species than shallow reefs?  

 Carole Baldwin (Smithsonian) and Katherine Maslenikov (UW) photograph and tissue sample the catch.    Photo by Barry B. Brown. 

Carole Baldwin (Smithsonian) and Katherine Maslenikov (UW) photograph and tissue sample the catch. 

Photo by Barry B. Brown. 

 Luke readying for a dive.   Photo by Barry B. Brown.

Luke readying for a dive. 

Photo by Barry B. Brown.

 Katherine's first trip in the Curasub!   Photo by Barry B. Brown. 

Katherine's first trip in the Curasub!

Photo by Barry B. Brown. 

  Psilotris laurae , only the second known specimen, and the first one observed in its natural habitat.   Photo by Barry B. Brown. 

Psilotris laurae, only the second known specimen, and the first one observed in its natural habitat.  
Photo by Barry B. Brown.