South Africa's Fish Man
The AquaRAP team is fortunate to have Paul Skelton, one of Southern Africa's foremost authorities on freshwater fish, among its members. Paul is the author of A Complete Guide to the Freshwater Fishes of Southern Africa (a book that has frequently been used on this expedition) and director of the JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology in Grahamstown, South Africa.
How does such a prominent scientist get his start? I asked him in an early-morning interview.
Q: How did you decide to become a scientist?
A: When I was growing up, I never guessed that I would become a scientist. If you had told me I'd be a scientist, I'd say my best subjects were English and history – I never had the opportunity to study biology. I left secondary school not knowing what I wanted to do, so I took a job in a coal mine. After a couple of months of pitch-black days, I was forced to think about what I wanted to do.
Nature had always drawn me, and I had romantic dreams about becoming a marine biologist – something about being born inland (in Johannesburg), far from the sea. So I enrolled in Rhodes University and started taking zoology and all the basic subjects. In my fourth year, I did a project on physiology of fishes, looking at water balances. My professor encouraged me to go on and do a Master's degree. But even after that, I didn't want to stop learning, so I became the first postgraduate at JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology.
Q: What are your thoughts on becoming a scientist?
A: One aspect is that science isn't a pay game. It's about curiosity; following what your mind wants to understand. Also, these days, there's wonderful equipment – but it's important to realize that technology isn't science. To do science, you must use your mind, get answers to questions.
Q: What do you think about the Delta?
A: It's a very special place that I've visited for many years, when I helped identify the fish species found here. The Delta is fascinating because it's dynamic – flooding and drying. I wanted to know how fishes respond to that. Also, the Delta has many more genera and families of fish than areas south of here.
Q: Why did you decide to get involved in the AquaRAP expedition?
A: My love is the animal – the diversity of life. Since 1977 I've edited editions of the IUCN's (World Conservation Union's) Red Book on Threatened Species and am committed to conservation. So when CI asked me to participate on this expedition and told me that the science was to be used to support conservation efforts, I immediately agreed. Science should not be self-serving. It's what you do with the knowledge that's important, not the knowledge itself.
Other AquaRAP Authors
When our team members need a field guide, they often refer to one of their own books! Plant team leader Fred Ellery authored Plants of the Okavango Delta: A Field Guide, and Invertebrates team leader Chris Appleton wrote Freshwater Mollusks of Southern Africa – both of which are in heavy use on this expedition.
– Reported by Clare Nielsen
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