Oct 31: Connections in a small field

There really aren’t that many of us out there – us being systematists and taxonomists interested in the relationships and classification of fishes. Think for instance, how many people around the world there are in any other industry – the banking industry or real estate. In fish systematics, or even systematics generally (inclusive of plants, animals, whatever), there are only a few here and there, and there are lots of connections between all of these people. This has been driven home for me this trip in particular.

When we arrived at the museum in Moscow on Monday, our contact and host, Dr. Ekaterina Vasil’eva, herself a specialist on the morphology of fishes (and who has worked extensively on sturgeons), said to me, “My mother would like to talk to you.”  I thought this was an odd statement, and perhaps this slight hesitation was detected on my face, because it was quickly followed up with, “You know that my mother is Emilia Vorobyeva.” I had met Dr. Vorobyeva once at a meeting on Mesozoic fishes, I think in Serpiano, Italy, just on its border with Switzerland, many years ago. At least I think I did – If I remember correctly we had just been introduced and we did not speak for very long. However, I know of her very well through her papers on the anatomy and relationships of fishes near the transition between the fishy side of the family tree, and the tetrapod side of the tree. It was flattering to have her wish to speak with me. Unfortunately, she did not feel well enough this week to meet, but she asked that I talk with her on the phone. We had a very pleasant conversation, discussing everything from my current work on sturgeons with Casey, Katie May, and others, to remembering various colleagues, to the state of our science. She had thanked me for the copies of my papers that I had sent to her recently, and promised to send some of her more recent ones (even in, or at least near, her 80s, she is head of her department at the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution, Russian Academy of Sciences, here in Moscow). We ended the conversation with her asking that I give her warm greetings to mutual colleagues in the US and elsewhere to whom I might speak.

[Incidently, the Severtsov Institute was founded by a famous comparative anatomist, A. N. Severtsov (also sometimes transliterated as Sewertzoff) who also worked, and from Katerina, lived – in the curator residence wing – at the Zoological Museum. Severtsov was an expert on the developmental and comparative anatomy of sturgeons. His mark on the field of anatomy is lasting, and is commemorated by a stone plaque on the side of the Museum; on Saturday morning I went for a walk to find his grave in the Novodevichy Cemetery here in Moscow).

Left, commemoration of A.N. Severstov (1866-1936), a comparative morphologist who worked extensively on sturgeons at the Zoological Museum of Moscow State University. Right, Severstov's grave in Moscow.

It has always been interesting to me how close to a family affair the study of the systematics of fishes can be. As in all families, there are familial squabbles, individuals that don’t necessarily get along, and those that don’t play well with others. However, by and large, we are all bound by our interest in the evolution and biology of fishes, and an appreciation of the natural world generally, much in the same way that families are bound together by genetics. This has been reinforced to me during this trip. Not just the very literal connection between Vasil’eva and Vorobyeva, but more generally. The support and generosity offered by all of those we have been in contact with on our trip has been tremendous. In St. Petersburg, in addition to Arcady Balushkin, the department head, who oversaw hosted our visit, it was Boris Sheiko, an expert on North Pacific fishes, Viktoria Spodareva, also a worker in the collection, who took care of us during our visit. But everyone we met there, including all the other researchers and colleagues, were wonderful and it was good to trade stories and remembrances of mutual colleagues. We found (or, really knew ahead of time, but only through citations in published papers) that we have mutual interests in other groups of fishes, and – who knows – this trip may lead, somewhere down the road, to more fruitful collaborations on non-sturgeon projects.

In St. Petersburg, we were the “sturgeon experts” for the week, with no researchers there currently working on this group of fishes. In Moscow, Ekaterina Vasil’eva shares our research interest in sturgeon morphology, genetics, classification, and biology, and we had corresponded in the past, though we had only actually met face to face once before at a meeting in Wuhan, China. Therefore, we had a particularly good time talking with her during our stay. We wrapped up at the museum on Thursday, again by sharing a bottle of wine and over lunch with Ekaterina, and her colleague at the museum, Dr. Valentina Orlova, a herpetologist who specializes on lizards.

Lunch at the Zoological Museum of Moscow State University. Left to right: Dr. Valentina Orlova, Dr. Ekaterina Vasil'eva, and Dr. Eric Hilton (top), Dr. Casey Dillman (bottom).

On Friday, we worked our way through the Moscow subway system (with only one misstep, and that was due to a misprint on the pullout map of the subway system from the Lonely Planet Moscow guide – we are getting better!), and we met with a colleague, again who I had met in China very briefly, by the name of Nikolai Mugue, a geneticist who is based at the Russian Federal Fisheries and Oceaonographic Institute in Moscow. Casey had set up the meeting, following the recommendation of another colleague who has worked on the genetics of sturgeons, Phaedra Doukakis, who is based in California. We spent four hours talking with Nikolai and members of his lab about their work on the genetics of Caspian Sea sturgeon – in particular Acipenser gueldenstaedti, the Russian sturgeon, and Acipenser persicus, the Persian sturgeon. During the course of the conversation, it became clear we had complementary approaches to the study of sturgeon, and it was left with the possibility of the three of us collaborating in the future, perhaps writing joint proposals to the US National Science Foundation and the Russian Federation counterpart, to increase the cooperation between our two groups.

These are just a couple of small example of how small a world it can be. A brief conversation among colleagues at a meeting can lead to an introduction by email, which can lead to possible collaborative works. To work on sturgeons, by default, means to cooperate and to collaborate internationally, and this is again, one of the many exciting aspects of our research on sturgeons. With that, we flew to Romania yesterday, to spend the week at the Danube Delta National Institute, working with our colleague Radu Suciu. This is also a connection established through another colleague, Boyd Kynard, based in Massachusetts – it truly is amazing how close-knit of a network we live and work within!

About ehilton

Eric J. Hilton received his Bachelor’s degree in Wildlife Ecology and Management from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 1996, and his Ph.D. in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, also from UMass Amherst, in 2002. Before coming to VIMS in 2007, he conducted post-doctoral research in the Geology Department at the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, and the Division of Fishes of the U.S. National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian Institution) in Washington, D.C. He is a broadly trained vertebrate zoologist, with a primary research interest in the anatomy, evolution, and diversification of the ray-finned fishes, a group of animals that includes over half of all living vertebrates. He uses a multidisciplinary approach to study evolution, drawing on the data and techniques of paleontology, comparative anatomy, developmental biology, biogeography, and histology. Other ongoing research projects include the ecology of larval fishes in the Chesapeake Bay, the biology and management of Atlantic sturgeon, and monitoring the population of American shad in Virginian waters. He oversees the growth and use of the VIMS Ichthyological Collection, teaches the course in the diversity of fishes, and trains graduate students and post-doctoral researchers.
This entry was posted in Sturgeon Taxonomy. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.