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The value of underwater observations

Abstract

As natural history disappears from our education, Gonzalo Mucientes and colleagues argue that technology can only take us so far in our comprehension of aquatic life. The Marine Biologist magazine
Features
18 e Marine Biologist | October 2020
As natural history disappears
from our education, Gonzalo
Mucientes and colleagues
argue that technology can
only take us so far in our
comprehension of aquatic life.
A
child's close observation of
the natural world has,
throughout the ages, been
the strongest source of inspiration
for many scientists, and particularly
for biologists. However, the links
between scientists and the natural
world have weakened in recent years.
More than 20 years ago, Professor
Reed F. Noss (1996) stated that ‘e
naturalists are dying o … and have
few heirs’, resulting in biologists
with little experience of eldwork
or observational methods, and less
able to separate biological truth
from computer fabrication. is
disconnect is worrying, since biology
is rooted in natural history, which
in turn is the science that allows
us to describe and ask questions
about the natural world [1].
e separation from the natural
world of society in general, and
scientists in particular, shows no sign
of easing. In academia, eldwork is
the rst casualty of time and funding
constraints, and observation-
driven scientic disciplines such
as taxonomy, systematics, and
Figure 1. Underwater observations can
provide information out of the reach of
technology. For instance, it can reveal
mating behaviour (a) or correlations
between environmental drivers and
spawning (b). It can also reveal species
interactions (c), parasitism relationships
(d), or reaction of aquatic animals to
human presence (e). Finally, it can reveal
important aspects of reproductive biology
such as nest-building (f), patterns of
ghost fishing (g), or mimicry (h).
The value of
underwater
observations
Features
October 2020 | e Marine Biologist 19
ethology are increasingly adopting technologies (e.g.
genomics, telemetry, and articial intelligence), that
relegate the role of human interactions with nature.
is loss of contact with the natural world is particularly
evident in aquatic environmental research, which
remains uniquely opaque and inhospitable to humans.
Nevertheless, sophisticated methods are increasingly used
which have clearly boosted the quantity of information
obtained from marine and freshwater systems [2].
However, qualitative aspects of the data can only be
obtained by looking directly into the underwater world.
Direct observations can also provide added value as a
complement to technological methods (Table 1; Fig 1).
Take, for instance, the growing eld of animal social
and collective behaviour. Marine ecologists now have
access to an unprecedented suite of tools to infer social
associations between individuals, ranging from high-
resolution acoustic telemetry to proximity loggers. However,
unveiling the nature of such associations—antagonistic,
cleaning behaviour, courtship—
with certainty requires direct
observation (or video recording)
of the individuals. While this
is routine in terrestrial systems,
the diculty of conducting direct observations of aquatic
populations has resulted in social behavioural science
being less developed in aquatic systems. Tracking processes
such as biological invasions that normally take place
faster in aquatic environments [3], may rely in the rst
instance on observations by researchers or citizens [4].
A critical challenge for marine scientists is to incorporate
greater realism into the interpretation of raw data obtained
from nature. We believe that by complementing their
education with natural history methods and approaches,
marine scientists have much to gain in terms of understanding
the functioning of aquatic environments and enhancing their
ability to generate new hypotheses. ere are several ways in
which this can be achieved. Time at sea (above or below the
surface) should be part of graduate and postgraduate research
programmes in order that students can ‘feel’ and ‘see’ the data
and the processes where, and when, they happen. Supervisors,
too, need to foster student interactions with the underwater
world, even at the cost of immediate scientic productivity.
And why should researchers themselves not spend more time in
the eld? Importantly, nding an equilibrium between natural
eldwork and desk-based quantitative study may make marine
science more attractive and motivating to young scientists [5].
e importance of underwater natural history observations
for science and society remains under-appreciated, yet it
is the beginning of many questions in marine science [6].
Table 1. Non-exhaustive list of examples of research topics where
underwater observations are critical (++) or may complement (+)
other techniques.
‘The naturalists are
dying off … and
have few heirs’
Research area Contribution Example
Behaviour
Utilization/
building refuges ++ Johansen et
al., 2007
Locomotion patterns ++ Webb, 2015
Aggressiveness and
defensive behaviour ++ Bryan et al., 2002
Cleaning behaviour ++ Grutter, 1999
Social roles + Renn et al., 2008
Home range
spatial utilization +Villegas-Ríos
et al., 2013
Individual behaviour/
personality + Magurran, 1986
Habitat description
and utilization + Wilson et al. 2008
Hunting habits + Pitman &
Durban, 2012
Circadian rhythm/
resting/activity + Villegas et al., 2013
Interaction
Unusual species
interactions ++ Deakos et al., 2010
Symbiotic species
interactions ++ Losey, 1978
Parasite interactions ++ Khan, 2012
Human interactions ++ Tuyttens et al., 2014
Long-term ecosystem
changes + Verges et al., 2016
Interaction intensity + Valdimarsson &
Metcalfe, 2001
Ghost shing impact + Kaiser et al., 1996
Morphology
Morphology changes
(colour, ...) ++
Aposematism ++
Mimicry ++
Non-invasive
individual
identication
++
Illness/deformations/
malnutrition ++
Reproduction
Mating behaviour ++
Parental care/
nest building ++
Spawning phenology +
Sharing marine science
20 e Marine Biologist | October 2020
We call on researchers, funding agencies, governments,
and scientic publishers to embrace the importance of the
natural history approach in aquatic science. A clear appeal for
observation-driven research from the scientic community
may increase society's interest in nature and natural processes,
and contribute to the conservation of aquatic ecosystems.
Gonzalo Mucientes1,2*(gmucientes@iim.csic.es), Albert
Fernández-Chacón3, David Villegas-Ríos1,2,4
1. Instituto de Investigaciones Marinas (IIM-CSIC), Eduardo
Cabello 6, 36208 Vigo, Spain
2. Asociación Ecoloxía Azul / Blue Ecology (BEC). Vigo,
Spain
3. Centre for Coastal Research, University of Agder, P.O.
Box 422, 4604 Kristiansand, Norway
4. Instituto Mediterráneo de Estudios Avanzados (CSIC-
UiB), Miquel Marqués 21, 07190 Esporles, Spain
Acknowledgements
This project has received funding from the European
Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme
under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No
793627 (BEMAR).
References
1. Travis, J. (2020) Where is natural history in ecological,
evolutionary, and behavioral science? The American
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Cowley, P.D., Fisk, A.T., Harcourt, R.G., Holland, K.N.,
Iverson, S.J., Kocik, J.F., Mills Flemming, J.E., Whoriskey,
F.G. (2015). Aquatic animal telemetry: A panoramic window
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R.W. (2002). Linking climate change and biological inva-
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6. Tewksbury, J.J, Anderson, J.G.T., Bakker, J.D., Billo,
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