This month we travel down under to speak with Yi-Kai Tea about his work in the field of systematic ichthyology. I know nothing about this field, so let's learn together!
Yi-Kai Tea is a systematic ichthyology PhD candidate, and a postgraduate research fellow at the Australian Museum, Sydney. Kai graduated from the University of Sydney in 2018, where he received a B.Sc. with first class honours in biology and molecular evolution. He is currently pursuing his doctoral degree at the same university.
Kai has always been fascinated with fishes, particularly in the context of coral reefs. He started dabbling in the marine aquarium hobby at the age of 16, and over a period of 10 years, have authored close to 500 articles for several media outlets and magazines under the pseudonym LemonTYK. Kai is also an avid traveler, macro photographer, and science communicator, having been to six continents and over seventy cities photographing insects, wildlife, fishes, and meeting with like-minded people who share the same love for the natural world. Several of his photographs have been used in books, academic publications, as well as journal covers. His research spans a broad variety of topics from taxonomy, phylogenetics, and biogeography, but is best known for his work on fairy wrasses.
So I know that ichthyology is the study of fish, but can you break down what a researcher of systematic ichthyology does?
Absolutely. Systematics is a broad area of study that taps into other more recognizable disciplines such as taxonomy, phylogenetics, biogeography, and population genetics. One of its goals is to understand evolutionary processes and how species are related to each other through time, and we can make use of these disciplines to help us understand the relationships between different organisms. My area of research focuses on labrid fish systematics. In other words, unravelling the evolutionary history of wrasses!
What attracted you towards working with #TeamFish? Have they always had a special place in your heart or was there a specific problem that you really wanted to investigate?
I have always been #TeamFish for as long as I can remember. I started tinkering with aquariums when I was in high school, and have always been fascinated with the sheer diversity and forms of coral reef fishes. I remember spending a great deal of time flipping through books, posting in every fish forum, and reading every webpage that I came across. Yet there were still so many questions unanswered, and I eventually channeled my curiosity through blogs and magazine articles. I remember stumbling upon a beautiful photo of a wrasse, which was undescribed and without a scientific name at the time. I was perplexed at how something so beautiful can remain unnamed for so long, and from there I started developing an interest in taxonomy. Fast forward to 2016, I finally got to describe and name my first new species of fish, and it was that same species I saw so many years ago in the pages of a magazine. I named it Cirrhilabrus isosceles. The holotype was collected in 1998, and has been sitting on a museum shelf untouched and unstudied all these years. I was six years old when the specimen was collected. Having seen a photograph of it in a magazine and then getting to name it was full circle for me, and it left a huge impression on me moving forward.
I first found you on Instagram because you post the most gorgeously colored fish. What are these species and how do they come to have these rainbow colors?
They are coral reef fishes! Coral reef fishes span the gamut in colouration - from cryptic species in shades of greys and browns, to bombastic ones with every colour of the rainbow. Some even have scintillating glitter and reflective scales. Why and how? Imagine being in a hectic, busy coral reef bustling with sights and sounds. You either want to be seen, or be unseen - the former to communicate with others of your species, and the latter, to avoid predator detection. It is in part a combination of these complex signals that is the driving force behind how these critters appear. Fortunately for us, that also means that they’re easy on the eyes.
During the course of your research you have come across numerous fish species. What is the most interesting finding that you can share with us?
I think every bit of novel research is exciting, and it’s hard for me to say which is the most interesting or best find. Having the eye and intuition for picking out cryptic species or new species is something I’m quite fond of. To do this you need to have a really good understanding of biogeographic patterns, a good knowledge on the existing literature, and the distribution of characters across populations. I think the best finds occurs when your research supports a long standing hypothesis. That’s where critical thinking really becomes useful. Our recent description of Cirrhilabrus wakanda from Africa with Luiz Rocha and others at the California Academy of Science is a great example.
Not only are you on Instagram, but you’re also active on Twitter. Which platform do you prefer when sharing your work and why?
Instagram for a more visual representation of my work, and twitter for semi-regular banter and open discussions with other researchers! I think both platforms are great for science communication, but for different aspects of my work. I’m active on both!
You fill both of your feeds with spectacular macro photography shot by you! How did you get into this type of photography and how do you get it to be so clear while being underwater?
I actually started this hobby photographing insects before moving on to fishes! The photos I post on my Instagram are from a variety of different avenues. Many of these photos were taken during my science communication days writing for blogs and magazines, where I’ll visit other hobbyists, fish wholesalers, public aquariums, and ask to photograph their fishes. I still take my camera with me wherever I go, and regularly take new photos of fishes. Many of these photos end up being useful for my research, and I’ve used several of them for my own work. I don’t do much underwater photography, as I don’t have the correct equipment. Many of the fishes I post are taken in aquaria against a black background, which is a more traditional approach when it comes to taxonomy and species descriptions, as it shows their features more clearly. Aquarium fishes are easy to photograph, readily accessible, and relatable, and I hope that by sharing photos of these amazing creatures, people become more aware of the life and biodiversity we have in our reefs and our need to protect and conserve them.