Find Something New--Adventures in Fish Specimen Collection


by Yang Yuling

“Fishes, fishes swimming in the sea,” so goes the familiar tune that we’ve hummed countless times through our childhoods. Children eventually grow up, but this simple rhyme is sure to resonate in their minds whenever they walk down a riverbank or swim in the blue seas. But do they really know the multitudes of fish that live in our rivers and oceans? Can they identify fishes by name? What do they know about their behavior? Aiming to improve knowledge among the general public of fishes and their habitats, National Taiwan Ocean University has devoted much effort to building an internet database of fish specimens and natural habitats. They hope to aggregate all available information about fish from Taiwan and southeast Asia.
The NTOU Freshwater and Seawater Specimen and Natural Habitat Digital Archive, created and maintained by a team led by professors Chen Yixiong and Chen Hongming, now includes over 5000 fish specimens after two years of work. Users reading each entry can view images of the species and find information on its scientific and common names, morphological characteristics, natural habitat, and geographical spread. The database functions like an online encyclopedia that can be used for reference and comparison. “A lot of fish-lovers would claim to be experts and argue over what species they’ve seen. They would write to us to settle the argument, but they weren’t always right. Now with this digital archive, they can look up accurate information quickly and conveniently,” says Dr. Chen Yixiong. In the past, he says, researchers had a wealth of information but nowhere to publish it, nor was there a way to connect with other sources of research and information. The digital archive provides a platform that takes advantage of the ubiquity of the internet to provide up-to-date information for scholars and the general populace alike.
Professor Chen Yixiong adds that every entry in the digital archive has been carefully identified and classified to ensure that the database is accurate and trustworthy. The information that the archive contains is not just useful for academic research or general reference; it is also a good resource for media reporting or documentary filmmaking
Website for NTOU Freshwater and Seawater Specimen and Natural Habitat Digital Archive
Project head Professor Chen Hongming specializes in research on eels and commercial fish species in coral reefs. “I do the small ones, and he does the big ones,” jokes Professor Chen Yixiong. Since starting the project, the two Professor Chens have had many stories to tell about collecting specimens. Researchers in biology and ecology must often venture into the dangerous and unknown in order to add to existing specimens collections. Rain or shine, their forays often take them to sparsely populated places with no one to turn to in case of injury or emergency. “I was once conducting a survey at night near Sanxiantai in Taitung. I was bitten by a venomous snake on the shore, and my leg swelled up like a sausage. It was more than an hour’s ride to the nearest hospital in Taitung City, and I could only describe the snake from the few glimpses I got of it. The doctor wasn’t even sure what antivenin to use,” says Dr. Chen Yixiong. It is a tale of survival in the face of mortal peril. He also recalled an instance when, in pursuit of a rare fish, he dove 40 meters deep before realizing that he was nearly out of oxygen and had to struggle back up to surface. The adventures that the researchers had shocked us, but as they put it themselves, they were just “staying in front of the line to find something new.”
Collecting the specimens is challenging, but the work that must be done afterwards is also painstaking. The specimens must be carefully protected and wrapped to avoid damage during transport back to the laboratory. Then the characteristics of the specimen, as well as its habitat and the site of collection, must be documented, and the specimen must be given a unique ID number for later use. All that work makes the thousand-plus collection even more valuable. Dr. Chen Yixiong had already been involved in digital archiving efforts for fish specimens during his nine-year tenure at the National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium; now, thanks to the support of the NTOU project, he can standardize the archive platform and create complete entries for every fish species included. Currently, there are 900 sets of specimen entries, 49 photographs, 10 videos and habitat images, and 250 sets of images of gobies from the Raffles Museum in Singapore, in addition to closeup images of the sensory organs of 50 common fish species found in northeastern Taiwan and 30 species of Taiwanese gobies. Dr. Chen Yixiong hopes to eventually offer a search function for fish genomes, and to integrate with databases from all over East Asia to form a pan-East Asian fish database, providing even more useful and accurate information for scholars, students, and the general populace in Taiwan.
The work that must be done after collecting specimens is painstaking. The specimens must be carefully protected and wrapped to avoid damage during transport back to the laboratory. 
Fish habitats have been rapidly disappearing over the last few years due to human activity. The two researchers have acutely felt the changes in their trips to collect specimens. “My fisherman friends have told me that it’s getting more and more difficult to catch fish, because there are some who use multi-layered nets to catch all the fish there is, big and small. That’s a very bad thing,” says Dr. Chen Hongming. Most people know that overfishing and overdevelopment is bad, but it is still too difficult now to accommodate both economic and environmental benefits. It is hoped that the database can lead to greater knowledge of fish and their habitats as well as greater recognition of the importance of ecological sustainability, paving the way for change in the attitudes people hold about the environment.
Knowledge of fish must always accompany knowledge of their ecology. As we hum the old children’s tune about fish, our rivers are severely polluted and unique species are vanishing along with their habitats. Knowledge and information are the cornerstones of conservation work; Only by understanding the interdependence between species and their natural environments can we provide a multi-faceted view on the issue. Providing the facts, convincing people of the need for conservation, and conveying the beauty of natural species--all are important work for broadening the public’s thinking on fish conservation.