The little white ball

I don’t even remember how, but one day many years ago, Dr. Lauren Gollahon told me she carried golf clubs in the trunk of her car, so now and then she could go to the driving range and hit balls. Just that. To hit some balls. I was puzzled, as at that time I didn’t understand what this golf thing was about. Now, after eleven years of exposure to golf I know more about it than I did back in 2004, and more importantly, I believe everybody should give it a try.

When I moved to the United States I discovered that Sunday is the day for sports. If you turn on a television set you might have some choices, such as: soccer, football, basketball, and golf. I was familiar with soccer and basketball. I didn’t understand football, not that I understand it now, but at least the people narrating the events always seem to be really into it, and now and then there is a lot happening in the field. Golf, on the other hand, seem to be the slowest, most boring, and nonsense activity that, for some reason I could not explain at the time, was called a sport. That was until I met a golfer. A serious one.

I like to learn about anything new that comes across my path. That way I can decide, with some basis, what to think about such novelties. And although I had a slight preconception about golf, I paid attention, because I wanted to understand what was so appealing about the game. First, I found out that golf is a little bit like pool. But instead of having one stick to hit all the balls, you have 12 clubs of your choice. Golf is definitely not the same as pool, but there is a lot of physics in both games. When you play pool you control the angle at which you set the cue, then you control the force that you apply to a shot. When you play golf you basically have only one thing: your swing, which must be as constant as possible. The swing consists of holding your arms in front of your body as both of your hands grip a golf club, where your shoulders are the short side of a triangle, and your arms are the other two sides, with the apex where your hands meet in front of you. You use your whole body as a spring, and hit all balls with this same action. So what makes up for the distance at which you can send your ball flying? Your choice of club, as each of those 12 clubs have different slopes that will send your ball up high but not too far, or not too high but really far.

I tried pool once. Many years ago. And I liked it. If it would not have been for the excitement that my friend, Pamela Cáceres, and I showed after hitting ball after ball, we might have continued playing for one whole afternoon. If only we would have stop shouting, and screaming every time we hit the white ball, we might have not been  kicked out of the place. We even might have even become better at it. Eventually. Of course, nobody likes to be distracted when playing pool. That works for golf as well. You have to learn to play your own game. However, this simple rule might be the hardest one to stick to.

I tried to hit a golf ball once. A practice ball. In my porch. It didn’t go well. It is not easy. And it is increasingly frustrating when somebody close to you keeps telling you how to get better at it. Which is nice. But still frustrating to feel that you are apparently incapable of performing as expected. I decided there and then that golf was not for me. I had better things to do with my time. For example, work on my book chapter.

Working on the book chapter was frustrating as well. After I got mixed reviews and encouraging words from the editors, I decided to take on the task of addressing all the problems in the one month I had to do it. Of course I can do it, I thought. I started by preparing new figures, taking breaks to work on the text. Then going back to the figures. I am a bit short for the microscope I use, and as my budget for equipment is short as well, I was sitting on a dictionary to reach the oculars, which was a bit uncomfortable. I was determined to complete the book chapter, but I needed a diversion.

And there they were. My golf clubs. Bought while I had a tenure track job. Before child. Before adjunct position. Before book chapter. I decided to give golf a second chance. Why not. There were practice balls all over the porch and nobody around to tell me how to hold the club, or how to swing it. I held a 7 iron in my hands and positioned myself as I had been told before. I had a relaxed grip and decided to not think too much about it, but to feel it. I hit one practice ball. And another one. I liked that my mind was focused onto something else other than my research.

There have been many things I always found appealing about golf: the honor code, the etiquette, and the fairness serious golfers pride themselves of. I find it fascinating to observe the way people behave in the golf course. How they react to a bad shot. How they recover and keep on going. How people of different ages and levels of skill can compete. How respect is valued and cherished. How supportive golfers are. So I decided to confront the little white ball. I braved to walk into the municipal golf course and to put myself on the green mat with both hands on the grip of a golf club. The first time I tried to hit a real golf ball I failed more times than I even got the face of the club to touch it. But when the club touched the ball for first time, it was the most glorious moment of my life since I learned to ride my bicycle without training wheels. I screamed. I brought myself together, looked around, and apologized for distracting others on the driving range, but all I saw where smiling faces cheering me. A bunch of strangers where happy for me. A new golfer in the make. Keep going! they said. That time I only hit three balls, out of about 30.

City of Charleston. Municipal Golf Course. March 15th 2015. The first day.

Today I hit 90% of the balls out of a large bucket. I could see some balls flying in the air, straight towards the 75 yard marker. Many balls didn’t make it straight. Many of them didn’t make it even 10 feet away from my mat. I spent a bit more than one hour taking it all in. Controlling the noises around me, so they didn’t interfere with my thoughts and my actions. Playing my own game. Because this is not a competition. This is about giving the best you can. It is about becoming better, one little white ball at a time. This is why me, like Dr. Gollahon, will be going again to the driving range. And hopefully, one day, I will be playing a round of golf with my husband as well.

The little Mad about fishes ball
If you happen to find my ball, please keep it. Enjoy it, and learn more about the most amazing vertebrates in this planet.

To one Ichthyologist. Thank you!

It feels like it was yesterday when I was in Peru, looking into a tray of fishes from the Perene River. Opening one jar. Pouring fishes onto a steel tray covered with white porcelain. Looking at features of fishes, their heads, their tails, their fins, as I separated them into piles according to groups. Then again. Each group contained more than one type of fish, according to their teeth, the number of branched anal fin rays, and the shape of their caudal fins. Then again. Is the humeral spot present in all the specimens? Is this variation? Is this a repeated pattern? I used Gery’s Characoids of the World, to identify characids; Burguess’ An Atlas of Freshwater and Marine Catfishes, when looking at catfishes; and Kullander’s Cichlid fishes of the Amazon River drainage of Peru to learn about cichlids. I was working on ecology of fast flowing rivers, and among those piles of fishes there were some armored catfishes that seem to be so constant, but at the same time different. Abundant, yes. There was no key for identifying them, so I had to look at original descriptions. I was handed Schultz (1944) and Eigenmann and Allen (1942) by Fonchii Chang, my mentor.

Fonchii wouldn’t talk to me much. I was slow and clumsy with the forceps. I was learning to use insect pins to count the teeth of characids. She was always busy. She had her desk against one wall, in the corner of the laboratory. Her desk was simple. A small wooden desk that looked more like a bookshelf, with a large wooden panel projecting forward as a desktop, with two shelves above it, and one below it. Those shelves were full of jars, boxes with cleared and stained specimens, books, and photocopies. There were always buckets, with jars in them, around her chair, and on her desktop. In those jars there were fishes. Fonchii was very organized. She would go on an expedition, come back, and immediately start working on sorting, identifying, and cataloging fishes. That kept her busy.

I was trying to identify all the species collected in one river as part of my thesis to get my Biology Title (we have to do that in order to get a work license in Peru) and I needed help. Desperately. Fonchii used to work in the lab all the time. Sitting on a metal-framed chair. The chair had two pads covered with green vinyl, one for sitting on it and one for the back. It was high enough for her to look through the microscope. A light illuminating the stage, and Fonchii, holding fishes with bare hands, steady, was a common picture.  I could hear a ‘click’ sound now and then. The sound of her glasses hitting the oculars. When she was not identifying fishes, she was preparing manuscripts. Species descriptions. Sometimes making drawings. We didn’t have a camera lucida available, so she used to make her drawings with an ocular that had a square mesh on it, and graph paper with vellum paper on top of it. When she was not at her desk she was topping jars with alcohol in the collection. She was a volunteer, and she was always busy.

I kept working on my identifications by her side. We didn’t talk much. I kept trying. I would ask her about my identifications, and most of the time they were wrong. But I kept reading, and making notes, looking at fishes, and drawing features. Day after day, for months. One day she needed someone to go with her to the field and there was nobody else than me that could do it. So she took me, as her assistant, to the Candamo River. We flew into Puerto Maldonado and from there to a little town called Mazuco. Coco Mazuco greeted us and hired a guide to go with us. The three of us flew by helicopter to a place called “La Nube” and left us there with our equipment, tents, food, and a radio. That was, for me, the time of my academic life. In two months I learned everything I know about field work, about taming the rivers and loving the fishes. We played hard, we fought hard, we laughed hard, and we became good friends.

I kept working on those armored catfishes, and today, I miss her so much.
Thank you, Fonchii (1963-1999)!

Today is Taxonomist Appreciation Day. A day to recognize the silent work of those who identify and describe species. Those who produce classifications and artificial keys for all other biologists to use. Those who painstakingly keep doing it, one species at a time, observing, illustrating, and painting with words, that wonderful wold around us.


Catfish story

There are many stories about one terrible catfish. A toothless, scaleless, merciless catfish capable of the abominable. It is said that this catfish can climb trough the human urethra to feed its insatiable thirst for blood. A fish so terrible that George Myers named a relative of it Urinophilus diabolicus (Myers 1927), in reference to its association to the devil and its scary abilities. Of course, I am not talking about the wels catfish. That is another story.

Two fishermen were reported to reel one enormous catfish in Italy last week (CNN report). Dino and Dario Ferrari. Both Italian. Both boosting youth and energy, and the finest fishing equipment (wink). So what do we know about this catfish? The fish in question is a beautiful specimen of Silurus glanis Linnaeus 1758. This catfish was described by the father of nomenclature himself, more than one hundred years before Johann Strauss II composed the famous melody associated to weddings in many countries around the world. The wels catfish is native to the Danube River and was introduced in reservoirs of Italy and Spain in the 1980s where it has established healthy populations, based on the reports of large size specimens caught in the region. The catfish in question might not be the largest caught, but it is “possibly” the largest reeled. The International Game Fish Association established regulations for fish catches to count as records. For the fish to be a record the fishing has to be done by one person, with no help, and preferably there should be at least one witness that can state that the activity was conducted under such regulations. Just like golf. If I hit a ball into a hazard, take a Mulligan, and then get the ball in the hole with one shot in a par three, I can only say that it could have been a hole in one. But it wasn’t.

The wels catfish is one of 15 species in the genus Silurus, with species inhabiting rivers in Europe and Asia. There is even one species of Silurus in Japan! Like most of its relatives, it doesn’t have scales. Like most of its relatives it doesn’t have teeth like alligators or mammals do. But they do have teeth. Tiny little needle-like teeth, arranged in patches over the premaxillary and dentary bones. Picture this: your upper jaw is made out of two bones that hold teeth. They are attached together in the middle by a suture. These bones are the maxillary (upper jaw) and the dentary (lower jaw). Catfishes have maxilla and premaxilla, whereas the premaxilla is exactly where you expect it to be: anterior to the maxilla. An extra pair of bones, closer to the midline than the maxillary bones, that we don’t have. So now that you can picture the location of the premaxilla on a catfish, think about this bone as a very wide rectangular brush. Like one of those you would use to comb your cat’s fur. The ones with bent needles. That is what catfish teeth look like. This is, actually, a type of teeth not uncommon in fishes. These teeth feel like sand paper to the touch. The coarsest sand paper you’ve ever seen. These teeth are also found in the lower jaw of the catfish, on the dentary, named like the bone that makes up your own lower jaw. The wels catfish is a beautiful gentle giant with a tiny dorsal fin and an extremely long anal fin. Its little beady eyes are probably not the most powerful tools to capture prey, but together with the latero-sensory canals and taste buds that cover its body the job gets done.

The catfish Silurus glanis has been reported to eat pigeons in France. After observing the results of 45 attempts at capturing pigeons, 28% of them were accounted as successful events. Good for the catfish. So, wouldn’t it be a great idea to test the myth and conduct experiment? What about 100 healthy adults shuffling their feet in the waters of the Po River. Or even better! How about 100 adults rolling naked on the bottom of a sandy river in the Amazon basin (that is the requisite, the candiru cannot get through spandex) in the name of science. Volunteers?

If you are interested in this type of stories, there is a fascinating book about the candiru by Steven Spotte (Candiru: Life and  Legend of the Bloodsucking catfishes). I will not spoil it for you.

One ocean sunfish plus one Southern ocean sunfish might equal three

There is a wonderful article by Melissa Hogenboom going around in social media right now. An article about the ocean sunfish, its vertical migrations, and its diet (Weird giant sunfish reveals its secrets). The article describes the results reported in a manuscript by a team led by Itsumi Nakamura of the University of Tokyo, Japan. This manuscript has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Animal Ecology, which is different from a research article that has been published, as the manuscript in question could experience slight changes before its publication.

Melissa’s article is straight forward and accompanied by beautiful photographs, and although it is not a taxonomic paper, it surprised me the name of the study subject was not to be found in the text. I am referring to the binomial name, considering that there are two species of sunfishes that inhabit the coasts of Japan. The ocean sunfish is the common name for Mola mola (Linnaeus, 1758), and Mola ramsayi (Giglioli, 1883) is known as the Southern ocean sunfish (more on the Southern ocean sunfish by the Australian Museum). According to the Catalog of Fishes these are the two valid species names in the genus Mola. The Catalog of Fishes is a public source, updated in a regular basis, that accounts for nomenclature acts (naming) that involve fishes. You can go to the previous link and type “Mola” while selecting species. You will retrieve 54 records. At the end of each species description look for current status. You will quickly notice that not all these names correspond to species in the Family Molidae. Of the 35 species among the members of the family Molidae, many are synonyms of Masturus lanceolatus (Liénard 1840), Mola mola (Linnaeus 1758), Mola ramsayi (Giglioli 1883), Ranzania laevis (Pennant 1776). These species names where proposed between 1776 and the late 1800s and the existence of so many synonyms reflects one thing: there was a lot of confusion about the identity of sunfish species.

Fast forward to the year 2015. Do we know everything that lives on earth? The answer is no. To date we know of at least 32,000 species of fishes. Do we know how many species of the genus Mola can be identified worldwide? A review paper from 2010 (Pope et al. 2010) suggests that there might be at least three different species (more in this great post “Luna, alias “ocean sunfish”. El Pez que más mola”) and points at the work of Yoshita et al. from 2009 on sunfishes from the coasts of Japan, where the morphological differences between Mola ramsayi and Mola mola were stated: Mola ramsayi posses large head bumps (something that we might refer to as a “nose”) vs. a smooth slope on M. mola, deeper bodies compared to M. mola, 14-17 ossicles in the clavus vs. 10-13 ossicles in M. mola (which we would not be able to see unless we have x-ray vision or dissect the fish), and a posterior border of the clavus without a wavy edge vs. a clavus with a wavy edge on M. mola.

Unfortunately, the whereabouts of the material used to describe most of the sunfish species is unknown. The holotype is the specimen (the one), the material object, to which an author assigns a name for (nomenclature act). Fortunately, the holotype of Orthragoriscus ramsayi (synonym of Mola ramsayi) is available for study at the Natural History Museum, London (BMNH 1888.11.29.22), so there is a reference for its name. There is also a holotype for Ozodura orsini (synonym of Mola mola) at the Museo di Zoologia, Università di Bologna, Bologna, Italy (MZUB mount on wall). I am interested in knowing what other secrets about these giants will be revealed in the years to come, about their species diversity, evolution, ecology, physiology, and their parasites. Those parasites that birds eat as the magnificent sunfish lies close to the ocean surface (The Blue Planet, BBC). In the meantime I will continue to be awed by the new knowledge gained on the ecology of Mola mola.

References cited:

Giglioli EH (1883) Zoology at the Fisheries Exhibition. II.–Notes on the Vertebrata. Nature (London) v. 28 (no. 718): 313-316.

Liénard E (1840) Description d’une nouvelle espèce du genre mole (Orthagoriscus, Schn.) découverte à l’île Maurice. Revue Zoologique par la Société Cuvierienne (Paris) v. 3: 291-292.

Linnaeus C (1758) Systema Naturae, Ed. X. (Systema naturae per regna tria naturae, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis. Tomus I. Editio decima, reformata.) Holmiae. v. 1: i-ii + 1-824.

Pennant T (1776) British zoology. 4th Edition. London. Vol. 3: Class III. Reptiles. Class IV. Fish. Benjamin White, London. v. 3: 1-425, Pls/. 1-73. [Fishes, p. 41-46, 75-409, pls 8-73.]

Pope E. C., Hays GC, Thys TM, Doyle TK, Sims DW, Queiroz N, Hobson VJ, Kubicek L, Houghton JD (2010) The biology and ecology of the ocean sunfish Mola mola: a review of current knowledge and future research perspectives. Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries, 19 January 2010, ISSN 0960-3166 (Print) 1573-5184 (Online), DOI 10.1007/s11160-009-9155-9. 

Yoshita Y, Yamanoue Y, Sagara K, Nishibori M, Kuniyoshi H, Umino T, Sakai Y, Hashimoto H, Gushima K (2009) Phylogenetic relationship of two Mola sunfishes (Tetraodontiformes: Molidae) occurring around the coast of Japan, with notes on their geographical distribution and morphological characteristics. Ichthyological Research 56:232–244. doi:10.1007/s10228-008-0089-3

Mola mola (Linnaeus, 1758) or Mola ramsayi (Giglioli, 1883)? Photo credit:

The book chapter

Yesterday I washed my car. Do not judge me. I wish public transportation was more available around where I live. And I wish I could arrange my husband’s, my child’s, the bus’ and my own schedule as they are right now. I am sure one day I will, but for now, all I have to go around town is my little blue car. But why washing a car, a routine task for some, is such a big deal for me? It is because I had not washed it since a friend came visit, somewhere around July. Yesterday I welcomed my car back to life.

Yesterday my husband welcomed me back to life as well. Since Halloween I had been sitting on a chair. Night and day. Taking short breaks to accomplish trivial tasks (like eating and sleeping) and long breaks for teaching (and grading). I had to finish a book chapter.

In August 2013 I attended the 93rd Annual Meeting of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists in Albuquerque, New Mexico. There, I presented an updated work on the group of fishes I study. I committed to write a book chapter on it in one year, and to have it ready by the end of the summer of 2014. Now, the things I’ve learned since then:

1. Do not eat pop-corn when your teeth with root canals don’t have crowns. Before I went to the meeting I was eating pop corn, while writing my abstract, and one tooth cracked. There is a long story behind this, but the bottom line is: invest on your teeth or let others do it for you (parents, insurance). There is no money in the world that can buy the peace of mind of not having to deal with this type of issues.

2. Do not take a teaching overload. Nobody will get angry at you for saying no, but you will not be able to bear your own life if you say yes (remember? spouse, child, book chapter). The reality is: preparing to teach a new course takes time, preparing to teach two new courses takes a lot of time. Everybody knows this, but not many people acknowledge it. I did teach 18 contact hours in one semester, as an adjunct, to pay my dentist bill.

3. Do not try to fit a monograph into an article. Make sure you know what are the guidelines for your book chapter and plan accordingly. Notice this is my first time writing a book chapter. I still keep going past the maximum number of pages.

4. Publish, publish, publish. While you can. I am sure you have heard this one before. My Ph.D. advisor would tell us to have our manuscripts (dissertation chapters) ready for submission before graduation. Because after graduation time is a luxury, life happens, and it is not free.

5. Enjoy the ride. I know, it is easier said than done. But it is true. Children grow fast and you don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Live today.

6. Keep your colleagues updated on your progress. Most probably, they have been there too.

You might be wondering about my book chapter. After a week of sitting on the same wooden chair I got my first draft ready. I am waiting for comments on it from my best friend, colleague, and reviewer. And although I don’t know if it will be accepted by the editors of the book, I have no regrets. I learned so much from the experience that I can only be thankful for it.

Taxonomist Appreciation Day 2015

Yesterday I read an article by Vicki Funk about the state of Natural History Collections and my heart sunk. I have read Vicki’s work when I was learning to make phylogenetic trees by hand, many years ago. I work on systematic biology and I study fishes in museum collections. I have been working in museum collections since I took an undergraduate class on fishes (1995) and I have been associated to museums since then. I will not accept this.

I have been thinking a bout this article and I cannot bring myself to give it a thumbs up on Facebook, although I like the last phrase very much. I think it wraps it all: “This is a critical point in time to work toward a world-wide effort to stop and reverse this attrition.” Then, what to do?

Last year I learned about the Taxonomist Appreciation Day. I thought it was cute. I do taxonomy. Thank you very much. And because I do taxonomy, museums mean everything to me. Wait a second. What did I just say? I looked up for posts on Taxonomist Appreciation Day and read through them. I found out that the first Taxonomist Appreciation day ever was in 2012 (why taxonomist are special), which was also observed by the NSF’s Division of Environmental Biology last year (Happy Taxonomist Appreciation Day!). Now me and many of my taxonomist friends know about it. But we need to do more than sit behind our microscopes and pat our backs at each other.

It is 140 days until next Taxonomist Appreciation Day. Or 20 weeks. The world needs taxonomist to produce much needed knowledge for other professionals to base their work on. Taxonomists depend on Natural History Collections. Neither of them can wait for people to give it a Like on Facebook, or to hear about them through Twitter.

Let’s take our love for organisms to the streets on March 19th, 2015!

More to come.

Lucky Tuesday

On Tuesday I went by the lab. By lab I mean the Grice Marine Laboratory.

In one of the buildings of this laboratory there is a room full of shelves. A room that remains dark and cool most of the time. There are eight switches that control the lights above the eight aisles between rows of shelves. On these shelves there are jars. Jars filled with 75% ethanol. Alcohol. Like the one you keep in the medicine cabinet. In this jars there are fishes and invertebrates. At least those that can fit in a glass jar. In this room there are also fishes that cannot fit in glass jars. These fishes are in stainless steel tanks and each tank has a piece of paper with scientific names and catalog numbers on it.

On Tuesday I was reading in the back of a classroom full of students. The lecture was about sharks and rays. Students learn about traits that are useful for identifying sharks and rays to species. They learn to identify fishes by observing at preserved specimens using dichotomic keys. A sort of road map with only two ways to go when moving forward. I saw a large tub on a cart in the classroom and I asked if I could help. I went to the collection room.

I was standing in front of one of the big shiny silver tanks. One tank was going to be open. It was decided that it would be the one in the far end of the row, close to the accessory aisle, perpendicular to the one were the tanks were located.

The moment came. I began helping to flip butterfly-like knobs. By doing so the pressure that holds the lid against the edge of the tub is released. This pressure assures that the rubber gasket under the lid makes a seal preventing alcohol evaporation. I knew what was coming. The suspense was killing me. Until all the knobs were release and the lid came up. I took a deep breath as many sharks were becoming exposed. The fragrance of my existence. A few specimens were selected for students to look at: a rare Heptranchias perlo (sharpnose seven gill shark), a slightly distorted Carcharhinus plumbeus (sandbar shark), and a beautiful small Isurus oxhyrhynchus (mako shark). They were carefully place on the tub and strolled down a hallway to the classroom.


Lucky students. Lucky me.

Many thanks to Tony Harold for letting me sit in his class.