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Exploring the social lives of fish that may save coral reefs

June 12 2017
sea

My partner and I travel from the US to the vastly under-studied coral reefs in the Gulf of Thailand. Why? To uncover the secret social lives of coral reef fish -- but not just any fish: these fish happen to consume algae that, if left unchecked, can kill corals and degrade entire coral reef ecosystems. So, the stakes are high to understand how these fish behave and how we can use these new insights to improve conservation of coral reefs globally.

June 12 2017

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Mission Underway

This is it, folks. Our last chance on this expedition to the Gulf of Thailand to collect the imagery needed to reconstruct a MASSIVE 3D model of our study site and to use it for....SCIENCE! Specifically, by creating a 3D map of this massive coral reef, we can extract data that describe the shape of the habitat, and we can see how well this habitat could be used to predict the behavior (including social feeding behavior) of ecologically critical coral reef fish. Check out more of our videos to learn more about our research, and about marine biology (in action ) in general.

At one time or another, every marine biologist faces the sometimes harsh reality that the ocean does not always want to play ball. Working in coral reefs in remote corners of the world (in this case, the Gulf of Thailand) is an honor and a privilege. BUT, unpredictable field conditions require that field marine biologists (and biologists in general) plan their research accordingly, OR succumb to extreme frustration! ;)

Generating the largest published 3D model of a coral reef takes a team effort (and some serious synchronized swimming!).

Sometimes it's easy to get caught up dwelling on the bad (this field season, that would be everything from missing critical hardware to malfunctioning GPS units, and -- most often -- bad field conditions). BUT, you can't forget the good. In fact, reveling in that is therapy -- especially if you're fortunate enough to do field research in incredible, remote corners of the world. So, enjoy this epic sunset from our field site in Thailand. :)

If you're a young scientist and you're struggling with the 'juggling act', you're not alone! But as you juggle, don't forget to stay true to you. The best scientists I know (marine biologists or otherwise) do this very well.

We (finally) got the chance to deploy our latest and greatest contraption: the Mobile Fear Frame 2.0 - a 12-GoPro video camera frame that allows us to watch (and later reconstruct in 2D or 3D) the movements and behaviors of (ecologically vital) reef fish, swimming in mixed species schools. This is officially marine biology at the cutting edge.

A bit more about our research, studying the behavior of ecologically critical fish in coral reefs in Thailand....

Some shots of Heather and I constructing 'Mobile Fear Frame 2.0'. Our hope is that this beast will help achieve unprecedented insights about how coral reef fish behave and function (ecologically speaking) in schools of different size and species composition.

Here's a brief explanation for WHY we're out here, on the far side of the world, having adventures in the name of science. Hint: there's a lot more to why my marine biologist is awesome (and essential) than having fun in the ocean :).

Ever thought: since we need to know so much about coral reefs to protect them (and the economies they support), why not create massive 3D reconstructions of entire coral reefs, and use this for science and long-term monitoring? ME TOO! This technology exists (lucky for all of us!), and we're using it. Now.

Sooo, weather continues to thwart our field work in the coral reefs of Koh Phangan, Thailand. This is a lesson hard learned, but it is essential to hope for the best but prepare for the worst when you're a marine biologist working in the tropics. When it comes to weather, anything can and does happen (often very quickly -- case in point). Send positive vibes for better conditions our way!

When you're a marine biologist, and you spend hours upon hours working underwater, it creates an insatiable appetite. Thank goodness for the extensive menus at our local restaurants (and it's pretty hard to beat Thai prices!!!).

It's happened again -- a string of storms is cramping our science style. Send positive vibes for more 'good data days' in the Gulf of Thailand!!

Here we test our newest invention, designed by Heather's engineer cousin, to see if it is slightly positively buoyant and floats evenly in the ocean. IT DOES! Next step: bring this baby out with 12 GoPros strapped to it... It's an exciting time to be a marine biologist! ;)

After much uncertainty, we've emerged victorious with two EPIC iDive housings, fully functioning, allowing us to reveal never-before-known secrets about how coral reef fish behave.

The saga continues: we're still on the hunt for CO2 cartridges to power (supply air to ) our new iDive iPad housings, since ours were confiscated by authorities in Hong Kong airport.

Here it is: 'Mobile Fear Frame 2.0'! This monster will achieve a moving (!) window of observation of greater than 20 square meters (more than 200 sq. ft!), and will not only show us, in incredible detail, how coral reef fish move and behave, in and out of schools, BUT it will also help us 3D map the reef. That's right. It's an exciting time to be a marine biologist! :)

I have dreamed of a way to collect instantaneous data on fish behavior, to record exactly what they do, when they do it, in the field. My dream has come true, thanks to this awesome invention.
You can buy one of your own here: http://www.idivehousing.com (tell them Mike Gil said to hook you up! :).

Our new beachfront home is the ultimate home base for our research on the coral reefs around this remote Thai island. Let the science begin!!!

Preparation Stage

Heather and I were detained by authorities at the airport in Hong Kong and held for about 30 minutes (in the back of a black van, parked next to our plane) as they searched our stuff, because we had some prohibited items (for science!). We single-handedly delayed our flight (thank goodness they didn't leave without us). Now the hunt is on to replace what they confiscated...

Airport security strikes again! For the modern-day explorer, it's often the riskiest part of the journey.

We return to the mysterious coral reefs of the Gulf of Thailand to conduct cutting-edge research on the behavior of coral reef fish. With these studies, we aim to reveal the role of social interactions in the feeding behavior of fish that eat algae. These algae, if left unchecked, can kill corals through such means as chemical weapons, threatening the ecosystem as a whole.

image-1

So cool Mike! Excited to see this!

Expedition Background

We return to the mysterious coral reefs of the Gulf of Thailand to conduct cutting-edge research on the behavior of coral reef fish. With these studies, we aim to reveal the role of social interactions in the feeding behavior of fish that eat algae. These algae, if left unchecked, can kill corals through such means as chemical weapons, threatening the ecosystem as a whole.

image-1

So cool Mike! Excited to see this!