“Fish are squidgy and stupid- why would you study them?” (My beloved granny)

I guess I have always been a bit different from the other members of my family…picking up slugs from the streets, kissing earthworms and petting jellyfish (outch sometimes).

While my granny was not very impressed by the idea of dedicating my life to study “squidgy, stupid” fish, I am actually thrilled about it. Fish can be surprisingly clever, social and curious. Apropos curious, fish even show personality! Frankly, I didn’t tell my granny I was studying fish personality since that would have been too much for her to take but, in fact, this is what I do.

Since August 2018, I am conducting a project on cichlid fishes of Lake Tanganyika, one of the Great African Lakes. These cichlids are unbelievably good in producing new species and we want to find out why. By studying this outburst of evolution, we aim to get deep insights into the mechanisms of speciation, the process that is responsible for the breathtaking biodiversity of our planet.

Collecting behavioural data in Africa

My part of the story is the collection of behavioural data, more precisely, testing different cichlid species for their tendency to explore their environment (you can also call it curiosity). The extend to which an animal is curious is a fundamental part of its behavioural type and can influence all decisions the animal makes during its lifetime, for example, where to live, what to feed on, with whom to mate and to which extend to explore the environment. In this first blog, I don’t want to drown you in the concept of my project. The simple message for now is: Studying the behaviour of an animal is important because it is a core part of the organisms. Here, I investigate curiosity as one crucial behavioural axis that is expressed in almost all animal species across the tree of life.

Simon, my field assistant who got bitten by hundreds of nasty insects.

Going to Africa and collecting behavioural data of some interesting fish is super fun! It’s the best part of my work and I love it more than anything else. However, being in the field for weeks or months always comes with challenges. For instance, my field assistant and me both suffered from Malaria and also became experts in handling gastro-intestinal issues. On the picture above, you see poor Simon laying on the bed covered and surrounded by plasters, creams and all kinds of medicine that help against infected wounds and inflammation. This all happened the day before when we caught fish in the afternoon and a swarm of nasty insects ate Simon’s legs.

The purpose of this blog

We scientists love to talk about our interesting findings. We do so on conferences, in scientific journals, even on TV. However, even the greatest results of my research seem almost boring compared to the mission of collecting my data. With this blog I would like to share the stories usually hidden behind the scenes.

Published by caribiologist

Postdoc at the University of Basel, Switzerland

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