Dr Nichola Raihani is a scientist at the Institute of Zoology, Zoological Society of London and she is last year's John and Laurine Proud Fellow. She has recently completed her third annual field season at Lizard Island. During her six-week visit, she and several others formed an impromptu band and live music accompanied many a sunset, with ukeleles, guitars, harmonicas and a marimba. Here Nikki shares her experience. (Note that Nikki is excessively modest about her achievements. She already has a paper in Science from last year's field work!)
1000m stretch of white sand beach
1 deserted island (location optional – I use Lizard Island)
assorted corals and fishes (season to taste)
40 hours in-flight time (preheat prior to departure)
This dish is best enjoyed at sunset. With beer.
Lizard Island. You have to google it for sound effects. These typically include appreciative oooh-ing and ahhh-ing from the uninitiated. Followed by something along the lines of 'you call that work?' or 'enjoy your holidays!' OK – I'll admit it. This is probably one of the coolest study sites in the world, located in topical north Queensland within finning distance of the wondrous Great Barrier Reef and all it has to offer. The island is home to a research station (a facility of the Australian Museum) and a super swanky resort where the rich and famous come to relax and escape from the vagaries of being so rich and famous. Lizard Island itself is tiny – the 1km airstrip all but bisects this little landmass and life at the research station involves a considerable reduction in one's (terrestrial) day
Originally home to the Aboriginal Dingaal people, Lizard Island was renamed by Captain Cook who came ashore to seek an escape route out of the ship-smashing corals. Upon scaling the high point of the island (predictably now called 'Cook's Look') he noted that the 'only land Animals we saw here were Lizards, and these seem'd to be pretty Plenty". Indeed they are – most impressively a sand goanna which reaches an impressive (and slightly intimidating) 1.5m length.
Masquerading as a marine biologist (with an unhealthy interest in birds and mammals) I conduct field research on bluestreak cleaner fish at this study site. Cleaner fish do exactly what they say on the tin – they clean other fish that live on the reef (by removing dead skin and ectoparasites). I'm interested in them because they are a good model for studying cooperation in nature. Although cleaners provide a service to their 'clients', they prefer to cheat by taking sneaky bites of the client's protective mucus layer. Understanding how clients extract a good cleaning service from these wayward cleaners helps us to understand how individuals form mutually beneficial relationships with others, even if they are unrelated and there is the temptation to cheat.
While images of scuba diving and driving boats across the crystal-clear waters spring to mind, the data collection is far less glamorous than it sounds. In fact I spend the vast majority of my waking hours in a small lab room, valiantly fending off attacks from voracious mosquitoes while at the same time subjecting my captive cleaner fish to different model 'client' plates to try and understand their behaviour in more detail. During this six week stint I have managed to learn a lot about what cleaner fish don't do and amass a whole load of non-significant p values in the process. On the flip side, my alternative career as lead ukuleleist in a band is now looking increasingly viable.....cd anyone?