The final installation of our Australian trip recount adjourns with the meeting of Dr. Anthony Gill at the Macleay Museum of Sydney. If you remembered, we took a little trip to Cairns recently where we had the privilege of seeing the wonderful and impeccable facility of Cairns Marine and their team. Before our flight back to Singapore, we stopped over at Sydney for a little galavanting if you must.
Dr. Anthony Gill is an ichthyologist, and the current authority in Pseudochromidae, or dottybacks. He’s also worked extensively on gobies and is an all rounded genius when it comes to fish ID. We paid him a visit at the Macleay Museum in the Sydney University located just a few minutes walk from Broadway. The university campus, as pictured above, is beautiful and breathtaking to say the least. The sandstone architecture and the main building in front of the trafalgar square really cements its place as one of the top 10 most beautiful universities.
Some of you may find his name familiar – I know I did when I first contacted him. Apart from authoring publications and numerous description papers on dottybacks, Dr. Gill is a frequent visitor to forums and facebook pages where he judiciously scans for interesting fishes and identifies them with impeccable accuracy. Seriously though this isn’t made up. He ID-ed a goby that had gone unidentified for years on our local forum.
Needless to say we had to pay him a visit when we stopped over in Sydney, and boy were we glad we did! Dr. Gill does most of his work at the Macleay Museum, where he has an office in the curator’s room. For a brief history and location of the museum, this link may prove useful.
When we approached him, he was working on a revision paper for the dottyback genera Lubbockichthys as well as Pseudoplesiops, for which he gave us a quick peek. Both genera are quite poorly understood and known in the aquarium trade, with numerous erroneous identifications made over the years. This revision when due will hopefully be curative of that. There are also some new species which we cannot disclose as of now.
Pleasantries aside, he was kind enough to take us on a tour around the museum grounds, in both public and off public areas. I think it goes without saying that the best room for us had to be the one housing the fish collection. Gluts of jars in a deluge of sizes sit haphazardly on metallic shelves, each radiating a faint glow as the ceiling lights penetrate the clear glasses.
We were told that much of the collection had been moved to another museum, and no holotypes were present here. However that did not stop us from scanning every jar looking for cool things. I personally love dead things, and I have a collection of insect exuvia and other unconventional room decor that festoon my room. This was about as candy store-esque a morgue can get for me.
Most of the specimens are really really old. How old? Well take a look at the preserved specimens of Heniochus acuminatus and Chelmon marginalis above. The junior synonyms Heniochus macrolepidotus as well as Chelmo tricinctus were used, which have been defunct for centuries. That should probably give you an idea how old these were.
It was a hoot going through each and every jar, listening to Dr. Gill elaborate a little bit on the history as well as the contents of each. The alcohol and longevity of the specimens made identifying the species really challenging. Some of the fish with darker striped pigments such as Acanthurus lineatus took really well to preservation, but others were mostly pale and nondescript. We took a couple of photos and uploaded them in the small gallery above. How many fish can you identify?
What’s also pretty neat was the rather extensive collection of native Australian fish, something that isn’t seen very often anywhere. Some of the more obscure species may be unfamiliar to you, but surely that Paraplesiops bleekeri, as washed out as it is, would still strike a chord to many.
Straying away briefly from the ichthyological side of life, Dr. Gill also showed us the entomology assemblage in the off public area, which is home to a good collection of insect holotypes. The familiar and potent scent of naphthalene caresses and then violates your nose as you step into this room, a necessary ingredient for preservation and prevention of insect damage to butterfly collections.
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Wonderful collection of butterflies and moths greet the enthusiastic entomologist here as each drawer is gingerly pulled open. One of my favourite collections in the room had to be this one above, featuring the Jezebel butterflies of the genus Delias. A good lot of these are montane and isolated in their range, and many are exceedingly rare.
Again, we’ve included a small gallery above for your viewing pleasure. Many of these specimens are so old that they’re inevitably falling apart.
Now back to fish! Dr. Gill’s “lab” where he does his practical work is something of a marvel. Incase we failed to mention earlier, Dr. Gill is quite the morphologist so to speak, and places great emphasis on structures, morphology and anatomy of his subjects. As such his workplace is full of materials, chemicals and samples that assists him in doing just that.
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A wide range of interesting things are going on in this lab, and it’s dizzying to grasp everything at one go. First of all, Dr. Gill has a rather neat collection of dead fish which he collects and stains for both recreational as well as scientific purposes. By using certain dyes to stain specific parts of a fish, he has managed to isolate the structures that he wants to study.
Skeleton and boney structures can be stained purple while cartilage, blue. The rest of the fish can be dissolved away using enzymes and other chemicals, leaving a clear looking shell of the former organism with colourful organs and bone structure.
Here is an example of a filefish that has undergone staining. See how the bones and rays are clearly coloured, while the flesh is clear and unobtrusive. The samples can be placed under a microscope where it can then be studied in closer detail, allowing the user to count the vertebrae and other microstructures with relative ease.
A device called the camera lucida is also attached to the microscope which projects the sample image onto a piece of paper, that can then be traced out for scientific drawings. This of course allows for really accurate and scale representations of the actual sample without having to do it free hand. As usual we’ve added a small gallery above showing a few more photos of such stains and other cool paraphernalia.
Here is an example of hand drawn scientific images using the microscope and image projecting technology. The drawings are scanned and printed as such, and provides realistic looking scale models of the actual subject. Here we see examples of gill-arches (sometimes called “pharyngeal jaws”) and accompanying systems of various gobies in a range of genera. Gill arches or brachial arches, are supporting structures that are made up of boney loops that support the gills in fish. Understanding the morphology to this level is just as, if not more important than DNA analysis in helping to understand the fish’s behaviour as well as its placement in a certain genera.
Apart from staining, X-ray films can also be done on fish. As above, this provides a good look at the vertebrae and other associated structures for meristics and studies. If you look at the gallery above again, you’ll see a couple more photos, including some preserved fish in jars. There is a Lubbockichthys tanakai amongst various other dottybacks, a fish that i’ve yet to see alive in person.
As a parting gift, Dr. Gill so kindly gave us a copy of his Pseudochrominae revision, with every known dotty back description in this subfamily up to 2004. We’re still going through this slowly! It has been a humbling experience and an absolute pleasure catching up with Dr. Gill. Hope to see you again soon some day, maybe with a new dotty back species in your bag.
We hope you’ve enjoyed recounting our trip in Australia. Keep reading for more eye opening travelogues as we take you around the world in our pockets! Until next time!