News / Industry News & Events / Meet a scientist: a species-discovering savant (03/26/20)

Meet a scientist: a species-discovering savant


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Mark Erdmann is the vice president of Asia-Pacific marine programs at Conservation International, where he spends almost as much time underwater discovering new species as he does helping communities above ground conserve them.

Conservation News spoke to Erdmann about his run-ins with reef fish and manta rays and how his love for the ocean was inspired by a television show.

Q: When did your fascination with the deep sea start?
I grew up watching The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau a documentary television series that followed the famous explorer as he traversed the ocean. For a boy living in the rural foothills of South Carolina, in the American South, the incredible scenes of coral reefs bursting with color and life were an absolute siren call to me. Of course, Cousteau himself was an inspiring and adventurous explorer figure I was hooked!

Q: So youre a world-renowned marine biologist because of a TV show?
It sounds a little crazy, but after spending so much time watching Jacques Cousteaus aquatic adventures, I decided to study marine biology at school. While pursuing my doctorate on the subject, I lived in a small fishing island in eastern Indonesia called Barang Lompo and studied the surrounding coral reefs. Unfortunately, as I was studying these coral reefs, many of my neighbors were destroying them through unsustainable fishing practices, such as blast fishing when fishers use dynamite to increase their yield of fish. To prevent further destruction of these reefs, I engaged with these fishers to help transition to more sustainable techniques, such as fishing by a handline. The fishers were open to using these techniques because they knew that it would help to ensure their children and grandchildren still had healthy reefs to fish in the future. This was my first foray into ocean conservation, and the moment that I decided to dedicate the rest of my career to protecting ocean critters. Today, as the vice president of Asia-Pacific marine programs at Conservation International, I am largely focused on overseeing our ocean conservation projects in this region, as well as training our staff and partners to conduct ecological monitoring and conservation assessments of reef fish and larger fish species, such as sharks and manta rays.

Q: How much time do you spend underwater?
If I had unlimited air in my scuba tank while diving, I would spend 100 percent of my time underwater, but the reality is probably more like 30 percent of daylight hours whenever I am in the field. I am a self-described fish geek, and I have been on more than 12,000 scuba dives over my lifetime so far on all seven continents! One of my main jobs at Conservation International has been to lead marine biodiversity assessments expeditions to count the number of species in a given area and share this data with government partners to help prioritize investments in new protected areas. During my first survey to West Papua, Indonesia, in 2006, our team discovered more than 50 new species of fish and coral, including two new species of walking sharks. Since then, I have discovered more than 200 species of fish, coral and mantis shrimp across the Asia-Pacific region. Through these discoveries, we have worked to foster local pride and inspire conservation action to help communities protect the amazing reefs of this region and the marine species they support.
Q: Wow. How?
In the areas where I work in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, there are upwards of 3,500 different reef fish species, and many of them look incredibly similar. To know that one fish is a new species, you need to memorize the appearance of all of the fish species in the area, noting the minor differences in size, color and more. If we see a fish that we dont recognize, we snap detailed pictures and carefully compare them to identification guides and the published descriptions of the species that it most closely resembles. If it doesnt match anything in the guide, that is how we know it is new. Its typically easier with people that have a visual memory when it comes to colors and patterns and luckily, I am one of those people. Along with this natural aptitude, it really just takes a lot of time underwater and a willingness to explore new places. Another surefire way to find new species is by conducting surveys in areas that people have not explored before, from deep-water reefs to muddy mangroves but you always have to keep an eye out for crocodiles in these swamps!