Friday, March 1, 2013

A Fish Artist in Each of Us

Constantine Rafinesque, a French naturalist, in a treatise on fishes of Ohio, wrote that “the art of seeing well, or noticing and distinguishing with accuracy the objects we perceive, is a high faculty of the mind, unfolded in a few individuals, and despised by those who can neither acquire it, nor appreciate its results.”  (Rafinesque 1820 Ichthyologia Ohiensis).   I have been taught how to identify the fishes by a diverse group of mentors and have taught students to identify the fishes and I believe that this “high faculty of the mind” can be acquired by all serious students.    It is a new skill that takes disciplined practice in order to develop a more trained eye and recognition of phenotypic traits that are useful in resolving differences between closely related species.    One of the skills that must be taught and practiced by novice students is observing unknown specimens, and recording what they observe via sketches and/or photographs.     I maintain that the process of making sketches with annotations activates the right mix of senses and thought processes to begin storing perceptions into long-term memory while creating a visual record that can be used for drill and practice and review.   Creating an accurate and permanent record is a key requirement.  For example, we see in the journals of Rafinesque (Bennicof 2012) that the combination of notes and sketches tell us much more about what he has observing in his travels and what he was seeing in the fish specimens.    

Rafinesque’s drawings of fish observed during trip from Philadelphia to Kentucky, 1818. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7250, Box 1, Folder 3, Image SIA2012-6107.

Last week my students learned to sketch fishes in Ichthyology.  I taught and coached the morning lab and Val Kells, coauthor of A Field Guide to Coastal Fishes, taught a lesson on Illustrating Fishes and coached students in the afternoon lab.   By the end of the each lab period, students had sketched several unknown specimens, correctly identified these to families, and then quizzed other students by displaying their sketches on a document camera.  In the process, they improved their recognition of characteristics that were of diagnostic value in identifying families.    The process of sketching, annotating, and communicating with their peers requires use of correct terminology and responding to questions,   re-examining the specimen, and improving the sketch.  A student may ask questions to force a more thorough examination of the specimen, such as  “What kind of teeth does it have?” or  “How many dorsal spines” or “Are there pores on the chin?” or “Is there a gular plate, or ventral bony plate located between the two lower jaws?

This is an example of a student’s first sketch of the day.

Here is a preliminary drawing of a crested sculpin, by Val Kells.  She estimates that after 8-10 hours this will become a detailed watercolor illustration of the species

The identification and classification of fishes is critically important for biodiversity conservation and fisheries management programs worldwide. One database, FishBase, provides information on over 32,000 species of fishes and includes identification tools and is used by specialists and hobbyists throughout the world.  Recently, Murthy et al. (2013) described a new computer-based tool for archiving and searching interconnected data collections.     Tests of this system demonstrated the variety of approaches used by students to identify an unknown.   However, in most cases, the students were able to quickly identify a specimen to family and then needed the assistance of keys, browsers, or other search algorithms to narrow it down to a species.   From the previous learning experiences of students, I have increased my emphasis on training and practice in observing, sketching, and annotating specimens and encouraging collaborative student activities in creating annotations or even close-up images or sketches to record key diagnostic characters.    I encourage all students to develop their collection of study aids as they can continue to develop their skills and use these aids in future class and work.
Here are digital photos that I took of a specimen of a whitetail shiner Cyprinella galactura, the top photo is the live specimen, the bottom photo after formalin and then ethanol storage for over one year.   In field trips, the student would observe the live specimen, but consistent identification of the species from preserved samples would rely on characteristics observable in all specimens. 
Cyprinella galactura Whitetail shiner  Photo: D J Orth

Often the standard side, 2-dimensional view of a specimen is inadequate for identification purposes.  Some sketch or depiction of cross-sectional shape or dorsal or ventral view may be required.   This photo shows the hard cartilaginous ridge of the lower jaw of Campostoma stonerollers.    Even here the student must use physical touch to diagnose this characteristic consistently.   

Campostoma anomalum Central Stoneroller  Photo: D J Orth

Students who collect their own specimens learn best, because each specimen is unknown and the “high faculty of mind” is developed through practice.   Students may post sketches, photographs, and annotations on the Ichthyology Class at VT Flickr site.   Here, we are creating an example of crowdsourcing, as applied to the study of fishes.  

Students can search for images tagged with a family or genus name.   They can add annotations and identify unknown specimens and comment on questionable identifications.  In the process I believe that all students have the capability of developing this “high faculty of mind.”   Each of these educational techniques helps to create more informed and more capable observers of fish and encourages in each student the development of their abilities to sketch what they observe.  

Bennicof, T.  2012.  Fishing without a Net: the Journals of Constantine Samuel Rafinesque.  Field Book Project.    Accessed on 1 March 2013.  

Murthy, U. and ten coauthors.  2013.  SuperIDR: a tool for fish identification and information retrieval.  Fisheries 38(2):65-75.

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