May 7, 2017

Solomon David Q&A: Ancient Fish and Freshwater Biodiversity

Solomon David 1
Solomon David and an alligator gar.

Solomon David once considered becoming a medical doctor. He spent time in college as a pre-med student, but his deep-rooted interests in biology ultimately won out after he took ichthyology (the branch of zoology dealing with fishes) in his senior year. That's when Solomon discovered his true path. As he puts it, "my future was with the fishes." He decided to pursue a PhD in aquatics resource ecology and management.

Today, Dr. David doesn't prescribe antibiotics, he is a well-respected expert in aquatic ecology, and his work is helping fishes, humans, and aquatic ecosystems alike. Currently a research associate in the Department of Integrative Biology at Michigan State University's College of Natural Science, Solomon focuses on freshwater fish biodiversity, conservation, and science communication.

One of his particular research interests is on ancient fishes—especially gars. For instance, he and his colleagues are looking at ways gars can help scientists better understand human diseases. Solomon is also involved in the conservation of migratory fishes in the Great Lakes. He is currently wrapping up research on lake whitefish, a commercially important food fish in the Great Lakes, which is still recovering from habitat loss due to sawmill pollution in the lake system a century ago.

We nailed Solomon down between research trips for a Q&A and asked him to share why he does what he does, why he thinks science communication is important, and, most importantly, what exactly IS a gar? Here's what he had to say!

ZFK: When did you know you'd found your calling as an aquatic ecologist? 

SD: I think I have always been drawn to water in one way or another, but it’s been windy road (river?) to get to where I am today! When I was three years old my dad and I would explore the banks of a nearby river in Washington state; we later moved to Ohio, and I was always trudging around local creeks and ponds looking for anything from crayfish to snapping turtles. I was always interested in zoology (aka “creatures” as my family liked to say), but that interest took a brief hiatus by the end of high school and most of my undergraduate years. I was pre-med in college, but always found a way to “sneak” in some field biology courses.

The tide really changed when I took ichthyology my senior year, and realized my future was with the fishes. By the end of undergrad, I changed my mind about med school and decided on graduate school at the University of Michigan studying aquatic ecology.

SRD Bowfin Fieldwork
Solomon and team measure and tag a bowfin during fieldwork.

ZFK: What exactly are gars, and why do you study them?

SD: Gars are so cool and weird and underappreciated, I’m always excited to introduce people to these fishes, especially if they’ve never heard of them before! Imagine an alligator or crocodile with fins instead of legs; you essentially have a gar. Gars are prehistoric-looking fishes; their ancestors swam alongside dinosaurs about 100 million years ago. They have elongate jaws with needle-sharp teeth, they’re armored in diamond-shaped scales, and can even breathe air.

Seven species of gars exist today, and they are found in North America, Central America, and Cuba; fossil gars were found all over the world in Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America. The largest species is the alligator gar, which can grow to nearly 10 feet long and weigh over 300 pounds! Gars have historically had a bad reputation; anglers thought they ate and competed with more desirable sport fish (e.g. bass, perch, sunfish), and habitat loss has even caused local extinctions of some gar species. Luckily, their reputation is slowly improving as people realize they are valuable parts of freshwater biodiversity, challenging sport fish, and even food fish.

I’ve studied gars in several capacities over the years; they can actually benefit people and ecosystems in several ways. Some gar species can be indicators of good habitat, like clear, vegetated waters; these are habitats that other sport fishes use as nursery areas. As predators, gars also keep prey fish populations in balance; a balanced ecosystem is considered more resistant and resilient in the face of disturbances like habitat loss and invasive species.

Alligator Gar 2
A close look at an alligator gar.

ZFK: How does your research on freshwater fish biodiversity impact species and ecosystem conservation? 

SD: Freshwater is our most valuable natural resource, and fishes are probably the most recognizable freshwater inhabitants, as well as good indicators of freshwater ecosystem health. Unfortunately, conservation of freshwater biodiversity lags behind conservation of terrestrial systems, so we have plenty of work to do.

Part of my research involves conservation of migratory fishes in the Great Lakes; these species are important because they can act as health checkpoints as they migrate through different habitats, such as lakes, rivers, streams, and wetlands. How many fish pass each habitat checkpoint can indicate the health of the overall system.

>> Further Reading: Conservation Q&A with Simon Pierce

ZFK: Is non-traditional science communication, such as social media, becoming a more important part of a modern scientist's job? Why or why not?

SD: I’m a strong believer in the value of science communication, and I believe social media can be a valuable tool for the “scicomm” effort. [...] Like plenty of other professions, science is challenging and time consuming on its own, and scientists are usually stretched pretty thin already—in the field, in the lab, writing grants, etc. It is important, however, that at least some scientists communicate to the public what’s going on; whether it’s research on a bizarre fish or a biomedical breakthrough. If scientists don’t communicate science to the public, it often leaves us just talking amongst ourselves; further, public support can have a strong influence on science resources.

Many of us are on social media these days, so I find that to be a great venue for science communication. There’s already a built-in audience looking for interesting content, so it’s a logical direction for scicomm. Sharing my own work, whether fish photos from the field or the latest research results, has led to friendships and research collaborations—and I even receive photos of other people with gars!

I’m a strong believer in the value of science communication, and I believe social media can be a valuable tool for the 'scicomm' effort.

>> Further Reading: Through the Lens of Shannon Wild

ZFK: What's one of your favorite research or conservation projects you've been involved in (past or present), and why did it make such an impression on you?

SD: I’m grateful to have worked on so many interesting research projects with great people in my career so far; it’s hard to choose! I’d say our current research is a really cool combination of several disciplines: ecology, conservation, genetics, and, of course, gars. I’ve been able to get in the field to collect fish (gars and their closest relative, the bowfin); that data will be used in both ecological and genetics research.

Further, the biomedical application of this research echoes that pre-med path I swam off of so many years ago. Research at the intersection of multiple areas of science can have broad impacts, and it allows me to work with a diverse group of people. Regardless, it’s working with these amazing freshwater fishes that gets me out of bed (and often into waders) in the morning!

SRD Spotted Gar Lab 1
Solomon hard at work in the lab.

Be sure to follow Solomon, his research, and his gar puns on Twitter @SolomonRDavid!

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