Photography changes our knowledge of new species

Jeff T. Williams

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Jeff T. Williams [ BIO ]

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Jeff T. Williams

Jeff Williams, collections manager in the Division of Fishes at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, is a scientist whose research over the past 30 years has primarily focused on the systematics, taxonomy, and zoogeography of marine fishes. His work often involves traveling to remote parts of the world to collect fish specimens for the national collections using SCUBA, submersible, and other fishing methods. The fish collected on these expeditions help to document and inform marine fish biodiversity in the world's seas.

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Jeff Williams, collections manager in the Smithsonian Division of Fishes, explains how digital photography facilitates the identification of new species of fish and increases understanding of biodiversity.

At the National Museum of Natural History, in the Division of Fishes, one aspect of our work is to find, describe, and research new species of fishes in remote parts of the world. Among the projects we do are biodiversity surveys, which are complex endeavors. We have to get permissions from foreign countries to collect fishes and then work with people in host countries—fishermen, biologists, people working in the national parks—to set up the logistical support we’ll need to collect and document fishes when we get there: boats, gasoline to run the air compressors for our scuba tanks, and space to set up our photographic and preservation labs.

Our goal is to capture and photograph as many different species as we can find in an area, in as many of their different life stages as we can. Many fish, for example, go through a larval phase with a specific color pattern, then a juvenile phase, which often has a different and distinct color pattern. A juvenile fish may grow up to be a female with yet another specific color pattern, and in some cases, a female fish may even change into a male fish and take on yet another different color pattern.

When we fish and collect specimens, purchase a fish in a market, or are given a fish by a fisherman, the color is what we call “fresh.” I take that specimen back to my field laboratory to photograph its life colors in a special photographic tank filled either with fresh or salt water, depending on what fishes I’m working on at the time. It’s important to photograph these life colors and patterns as soon as possible, because once the fishes are preserved in alcohol, and by the time they enter the museum’s collection, many of their colors—the bright reds, blues, yellows, and purples—can fade away. All we’re left with are the basic characteristics of pattern and coloration.

Documenting the life colors of fishes was once the work of artists. With the advent of photography, we were able to document more specimens, more accurately than when artists took quick notes or even spent hours trying to capture the precise coloration of a single specimen in detail. And yet, even with film, documentation was not entirely accurate, either. You could never be absolutely certain, for example, that all the camera settings you had used were correct. Sometimes, after spending months in a remote location, you’d get film back from the processing lab and the results could be disastrous.

Digital photography changed that. Now, I take a photograph and can immediately see if it’s in focus. I can download that image directly to a laptop where it can be saved along with data associated with it—a fish’s scientific name, the length of the specimen, the place where it was captured. Working with film was problematic because different film stock registers colors differently. Some films capture more reds, others emphasize the blues. It was always necessary to apply a level of interpretation to each image after it was made. With digital photography, while you’re working in the field, you can immediately compare the image on your computer screen with the specimen you’ve just collected. The downside is that digital images often look a bit flat and need to be sharpened, using Photoshop. Scientists must work carefully to maintain as much truth in color capture as is possible.

The photographs we make and later archive have a multitude of uses. They can be critical in determining whether the specimens we collect represent previously undescribed species or whether it is another representative of an already known species with some variation in its color pattern. Every trip we take yields new discoveries, anywhere from six to thirty previously undescribed species, fish that sometimes have never even been seen by local people. We estimate that there are between 30-35,000 different species of fish in the world. So far, we’ve documented 20-26,000 in the diverse habitats that exist in oceans, around bays, in reefs, up rivers, streams, and lakes. The photographic images we make—along with the actual specimens and DNA samples we collect—help us better understand what the true biodiversity of any given area is. And then the images we make can be shared and used for ecological monitoring programs; the management of fisheries; for database, research, and educational use; and as content for websites, national park guides, exhibitions and publications geared to the general public, as well as to experts.

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Scarus Hypselopterus (Yellow-tail parrotfish) by Jeffrey T. Williams
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Scarus Hypselopterus (Yellow-tail parrotfish) by Jeffrey T. Williams

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