It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. For Dr Simon Brandl and Dr Christopher Goatley, success and frustration came hand in hand. Joint recipients of the 2020 John and Laurine Proud Fellowship, neither could visit the Lizard Island Research Station to resume their work. COVID has taken its toll on the station’s vibrant international community, and now more than 12 months on, it still runs at less than half its usual capacity. When I spoke to the researcher duo, both were eager for a fresh taste of Lizard Island life: we talked about science, the different trajectories each had taken and how they’d come together over a group of tiny, drab-looking fish.
Simon’s interest in marine biology was kindled by his childhood in Italy. “I remember standing at the edge of the old fishing piers, nagging my parents to stay there longer so I could keep on watching the fish. I loved that.” Out of high school, however, it was journalism and not research that drew Simon’s eye. “I considered a career in journalism for a long time, but I always thought that I needed some expertise. So I decided to study biology. For most of my undergraduate degree I was in the midst of the Alps, far from the sea. It was my honors thesis that clinched it.” A chance meeting with an Austrian professor drew Simon into the weird and wonderful world of clingfishes- small, suckered, sedentary creatures. “Unexpectedly, I found these species delighted me. I grew quite fascinated by their extreme life history. To me, they seemed bizarre, like invertebrate vertebrates.” The stage was set.
Not far away, on Portugal’s coastline, young Christopher was undergoing a similar transformation. Placed there by frequent family trips to see close friends, Chris found an exhilarating distraction in the form of rockpooling. “I spent a lot of time hunting for little creatures in the shallows. The camouflaged gobies and blennies were particular favourites.” One thing led to another, and soon Chris found himself in the UK studying marine biology. “It was a fantastic degree, but marine biology in Britain is predominantly mud and worms. That’s what I did my honors on, in fact.” An encounter with some Aussie expats sealed the matter for Chris, who packed his bags and flew to Townsville for an 18-month Masters course.
There, Simon and Christopher met over a shared moment that set them on the same course for life. “I got to James Cook University, and everything was following my career plan. I intended to return to the UK for my PhD- but I didn’t,” Chris recounts. Sitting in their first lecture by Professor David Bellwood, both Chris and Simon shared the same thought: “I want to work with this guy no matter what.” They were hooked.
Nowadays, Simon teaches on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico whilst Chris has spent the past 14 years in Australia. Both continue to study the so-called cryptobenthic fishes that sparked their passion all those many years ago. In Chris’ words: “Half of science is about using confusing words to make yourself sound smart. So if you break it up, ‘crypto-’ means something that is camouflaged and ‘-benthic’ means that it lives on the seabed.” Finding the tiny fish to study is the hard part, for which they use the same method taught to them by the inimitable Professor Bellwood. “You go down underwater and you put a mosquito net over a patch of reef, then a tent over that. It looks ridiculous, but you spray clove oil into this tent and leave it there. When you pull the tent away, you find the little anaesthetized fishes caught in the mosquito net.”
Thus, armed with this knowledge and the support of the fellowship in hand, researcher duo Simon & Chris are clear on what they hope to achieve. “Our plan is to make a thorough inventory of these cryptobenthic fish on reefs, not just Lizard Island but across the shelf of the Great Barrier Reef. The research station sits on one of the best-studied reefs in the world, and it’s linked to the Australian Museum which has got a stellar fish collection. So we hope to make it one of the first places on the planet where we have a really thorough understanding of the biodiversity across a whole ecosystem.” Big fish eat little fish as the proverb goes, making the reef’s smallest vertebrates the backbone of the food chain. And thanks to the patience and hard work of Simon Brandl and Christopher Goatley, we may be one step closer to understanding their place in the richest habitat on Earth.
Written by Elliot Connor