Fishy science for a great cause

By Davide Gaglio

So, I am on Robben Island, it’s dark, I am alone, and in front of me… a dead African Penguin!

Penguin roadkill on Robben Island
My gruesome finding of penguin roadkill along one of Robben Island’s quiet roads

Let’s remain calm, I say to myself, thinking to get the best from this tragic experience. Well, you’d be surprised to see what happens to the penguin next! 🙂

Playing poker with my newly stuffed penguin...

I believe a sense of humour is important even for serious matters and is extremely crucial for scientists! Anyway, the day after I stumbled across the penguin carcass I was still traumatised but feeling ready to start my research. Things like that must not happen again, I kept saying to myself… From that day I promised I would get on top of my research and do all my best to share knowledge and education to those people who do not know/care about the importance of the ocean and its inhabitants. Being on Robben Island, I thought about a quote that Nelson Mandela shared about education in South Africa, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”… and I knew that there was no better place for me to fulfil my promise.

That day I started at 6 am… yes my dream had come true. I was taking photos for my research and at the same time, I knew that those images would help me to communicate love for the ocean and its need to be protected. I would never imagine that very soon two of my photos would be selected as one of the top 50 of the International Photographic competition run by South Africa Birdlife “Ocean of life” 2013 and another one in 2014!

http://oceansoflife.co.za/gallery

http://oceansoflife.co.za/gallery/2014

I have been amazed to discover how helpful my photographic skills have become in my scientific research! Did you know that in the last few years, between 6,000 and 10,000 Swift Tern pairs have bred on Robben Island every year? And understanding what’s going on is not always easy! I have been making full use of modern technology to help me out, especially DLSR cameras, camera-traps and

Try to remain sane in this chaotic crowd!
Try to remain sane in this chaotic crowd!

video cameras. Trust me, they are very useful tools in such noisy, smelly, crowded and chaotic colony such as this one.

So, let’s see if you could contribute to some fishy science… Let’s have a poll on this blog to see if you know your sharks from your sardines.

Early in the morning as the sun is coming up, my terns are already busy bringing food to their chicks. And I am busy there taking photos of them…the first photo is the most common species….do you know what species is this?

Fishy prey #1
Fishy prey #1

Right 🙂 , this is an anchovy….easy! What about this one?

Fishy prey #2
Fishy prey #2 (Click on pic to enlarge)

…Ok I am not telling you 😉 Let’s see if you have the right answer in the comments and polls.

And some more for you…..

Fishy prey #3 (click pic to enlarge)
Fishy prey #3 (click pic to enlarge)

 

 

 

 

Fishy prey #4
Fishy prey #4

 

 

 

 

Fishy prey #5
Fishy prey #5

 

 

 

 

Fishy prey #6
Fishy prey #6

 

 

 

 

I promise to reveal the correct answers by next week Wednesday, in the comments section. At the moment, I am collecting many more photos and soon it will be time to identify new prey species, which I will publish on this blog. So, are you ready to join the challenge in trying to identify their prey and give me your comments? Whether you are a keen photographer, or knowledgeable on fish identification or you just like to know more about it, you are welcome to comment and vote, and let me know your thoughts.

I have found many prey species so far, and it’s exciting everyday, although sometimes it can be exhausting and challenging… but chicks must eat in the wind, rain, fog, well … anytime!

The ultimate goal of my research is to understand how Swift Terns cope with variable food availability and understand differences to other seabirds. I am investigating to what degree their behaviour flexibility underlies their success, in order to assess the impact of commercial fisheries on marine ecosystem dynamics. So there is a lot of stuff to learn, and I have many more adventures to tell you! Keep connected and don’t forget to complete the polls about the prey photos…. the more votes… the more photos 🙂 See you next time!

It’s my tu(e)rn!

By Davide Gaglio

30 April 2015
“Don’t worry, there are plenty more fish in the sea!” That’s a classic idiom you usually say to make somebody feel better. But are there really plenty more fish at sea? Well, according to research, this may not be the case (Worm, B. et al 2006) “unless the current situation improves, stocks of all species currently fished for food are predicted to collapse by 2048”. This is a concern especially in Southern Africa, where the productivity of the Benguela upwelling system has been exploited over the last 60 years! Despite important progress made over the last ten years in restoring and improving the state of southern African’s marine resources, significant challenges remain. You might not be aware but one of the main environmental issues today is that people are taking far more fish out of the ocean, than can be replaced. Overfishing is a destructive activity, resulting in declined fish populations to the point where their survival is being threatened with overall devastating consequences to the ocean ecosystems. Our oceans, which provide us with food, recreation and so much more, need our help! So, what to do? Well, scientific research can help us to assess the impact of human activities and environmental change on marine ecosystem dynamics.

In particular, seabirds are telling us that our oceans are not happy. In South Africa our beloved African Penguin, photogenic Cape Gannet and neglected Cape Cormorant are all listed as threatened and their populations have been sharply decreasing over the last decades. But Swift Terns are bucking this trend! They are the only locally-breeding seabird that specialise on small pelagic fish whose numbers are increasing! Why you ask? Well… this is where I come in! In the last 3 years, I have been studying this species with the goal of answering this question. I started this project in 2013 as MSc at the PercyfitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town  and recently upgraded to a PhD. When I saw the position for this project… I thought “this is perfect for me!” Despite the fact I was living in Australia, I decided to join this adventure in South Africa! I like challenges, it was my tu(e)rn!

A gifted friend of mine (Francesco Ciulla) pictured the situation of seabird in the Benguela Ecosystem with this funny cartoon:

Gaglio 1

Swift Terns is showing a contrasting trend compared to other species which live on the same marine environment and rely on the same fish resources (small pelagic fishes), and believe or not this species has barely been studied in the last 30 years. I would be the first studying in details this specie…what a privilege! Do you want to know another privilege? One of the main goals of my research is to study Swift Terns diet by taking photos of adults holding fish on their bills….well I love taking photos of birds and sometime I get good ones like this:

Gaglio 2

So, where was I?… ok right… I was leaving Australia to join this adventure in South Africa…(did I mentioned that just before to get the position I injured my knee breaking my ACL and was barely able to move?) Well… despite the unfortunate event, I arrived in Cape Town on the 23 of January 2013 and 3 weeks later I was already in the field… (limping)… in Robben Island! Robben Island… what a particular place! The first penguin I saw there, was squashed on the road… what a welcome! What happened next? Well I will tell you the next time.