I have my cable company to thank for a fantastic fish story involving the Vietnam War, college basketball, a chance storm, and a country boy named “Red”.
And it wasn’t because of a T.V. show.
Allow me to set the scene…
* * *
I was tired. I had been traveling for a couple of weeks, and all I could do on this Monday night was sit in front of the television, and turn off my brain.
Of course, in the United States, most programs and channels will literally erase all logic and intelligence from your nervous system. The overabundance of arcane reality shows and poorly staged dialog. The endless blather of hyperbolic news pundits and home-shopping salespersons — although at the least, the sales hosts can be commended for their energy and patience to improv ways to say “buy this thing now!” And supposedly edgy comedies which ignore the rule that sarcasm and irony work best when applied sparingly and strategically.
So that is how I came to be staring at the screensaver channel of my cable T.V. service.
Flipping through channel after channel, I was stopped by these beautiful underwater scenes. The requisite shots of cute little clownfish snuggling in sea anemones, a sea turtle gliding over a reef, and schools of anthias and butterflyfishes.
As the montages drifted in and out, repeating on loop over the elevator music track, my eyes kept lingering on this assemblage of large-eyed, pink-bodied fishes.
What the heck are these things? I said to myself.
They floated languidly. Enormous eyes peering back at me through the LCD screen.
“Bigeyes” was the name that sprang to my mind, a group of fishes classified under Family Priacanthidae.
And they have very big eyes. That was the extent of my knowledge about these fish.
So, as I do in these cases of unfamiliar fish, I headed to Google Scholar to look up original research articles about that family. I also needed to guess at what species of bigeyes were swimming on my T.V.
In zoology, scientists write a variety of research papers. Some papers describe individual new species, previously unknown to the scientific community. Some describe the ecology, behavior, or genetics of a particular creature.
Every once in a while, an intrepid scientist — usually someone with a lot of patience and passion — writes a monograph. These are often solo efforts where the author picks a particular group of organisms — often a family or genus — and compiles every piece of information possible about that group. Monographs are meant to be an exhaustive review of everything we currently understand about this group of animals: how they reproduce, where they live, what they eat, how many species there are of them and whether they all actually belong to that unique group. Not to mention their role in our ecosystem, what their evolutionary history might be, and the potential threats to their future survival. They’re epic works in their own right.
There weren’t a lot of published studies on bigeyes. But my eyes picked out a prize from the search returns:
REVISION, PHYLOGENY AND BIOGEOGRAPHIC COMMENTS ON THE CIRCUMTROPICAL MARINE PERCOID FISH FAMILY PRIACANTHIDAE
Wayne C. Starnes, 1988
A monograph on bigeyes! Even better, the document itself was available as a digital document — all 87 pages worth — and was free to download.
It was exactly what I was looking for. Bigeye physiology was discussed, along with color photos and distribution maps for each species. There were electron microscope photographs showing the bizarre spikes that dotted the body scales of bigeyes — a unique characteristic. Plus an illustration of a larval bigeye, which looked comically disproportioned — even bigger eyes on a tiny body.
It suddenly occurred to me that I might be able to contact the author himself. Who better to share a few quotes about bigeyes than the person who wrote the definitive review?
I managed to find an online bio for Wayne C. Starnes, who turned out to be the Research Curator of Fishes for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences — a beautiful building in Raleigh which I have had the pleasure to visit. “He retired from this position in 2014,” the bio read, and listed his email address.
I decided to write Starnes with a few questions. Could he confirm my guess that these specimens were Priacanthus hamrur, the moontail bullseye? And what are those big eyes for, and why was he drawn to write an entire treatise on this taxonomic family? And as I usually do when interviewing fish biologists, I included this question: “What got you interested in fish in the first place?”
Two hours later, Starnes wrote back.
His email read:
Ben — I think you are probably correct on the identification of the photo individuals but I’ll study them further. Do you know where they are from?
I’ll need to get back to you on the rest of it in a couple days, as I’m behind on a couple projects, plus an ms review, and getting the house painted before it’s too cold to apply the paint.
If you don’t hear in a couple days, shoot me a ping as a reminder. All for now.
I replied and explained the underwhelming reality that all I had were screen captures from this random stock footage my cable company happened to show, and thus had no clue to the location of this clip. I added my gratitude, and looked forward to his reply.
A week later, Starnes wrote back.
He agreed that my suggestion of Priacanthus hamrur, the moontail bullseye, was probably a best guess for the fish in the footage, absent any other clues. There weren’t any other fish species in the scene, which could have helped narrowed the geographic possibiliies. And we both admitted not knowing our coral species well enough to use that to our advantage.
As for the eyes, Starnes says these fishes are primarily nocturnal and hang out in dark recesses much of the time. “Though some species are occasionally taken in trawl fisheries, indicating they do make some forays away from structure, maybe primarily at night,” he wrote. “It is assumed that the large eyes and reflective properties are connected with making the best use of the reduced available light and that they can forage on invertebrates, etc., that become active at that time.”
And then, Starnes began to tell his story. This was just the start of his 2,000-word email reply — and I read every word with amazement.
I was drawn to bigeyes via a series of influences, I guess. First off, having been primarily a freshwater-oriented ichthyologist, I wanted to expand my horizons into the marine realm a bit. This was when I was still in grad school, working on the taxonomy and ecology of freshwater fishes, such as minnows and darters, etc.
Anyway, I happened to acquire a single bigeye (P. arenatus) from a shrimper during a coastal collecting trip to South Carolina. It was a beautiful fish and piqued my interest and I decided to look into the group. In consultation with my later good friend and colleague, Jack Randall at the Univ. of Hawaii, an expert on reef fishes worldwide, I learned he was of the opinion there was probably undescribed diversity in the group, and [I] decided to take it on as a gradual side project, even after I left grad school at the Univ. of Tenn. and eventually worked at various gigs in the Division of Fishes at the Smithsonian for nearly 14 years.
Working as such, it took about ten years and exactly 1,000 (by sheer coincidence) examined specimens to fathom the group’s diversity, synonym, etc., and even then some questions remained due to insufficient materials, etc.
Those 87 pages took him ten years to compile and complete. Starnes added that he has continued to work on bigeyes, with Japanese coauthors as well as contributing to a few United Nations reports, and has described several new species of bigeyes.
Then, Starnes explained his path to a career in ichthyology — in a tale filled with twists and coincidences enough for three fingers of Tennessee whiskey and a warm fire to listen by.
As for the happenstance of my becoming an ichthyologist, I can’t imagine there are many folks that got there via a less parsimonious and serendipitous route! The following are a set of circumstances and events, any one of which had not occurred, or maybe even just changed by a couple minutes, I might have been in a whole different career.
He opened with his childhood in Tennessee:
First off, predictably enough, I was fascinated by things aquatic as a child and spent every minute I could catching stuff from streams, ponds, etc., plus fishing. I was fortunate to grow up near a creek in east Tennessee, where I probably spent a thousand hours or more roaming, etc.
In high school, I became more of jock and a nature boy and, plus there was a bit of stigma to the latter in those days (before Nat. Geo, Nature, NOVA, etc., were ever heard of to make it a bit cooler). I drifted away from the critters for a few years (except fishing) and worked my way thru University of Tennessee, earning a degree in Transportation in 1969. Viet Nam was in full swing and I received an ROTC commission into the Army to serve as a lieutenant. By this time, I’ve still never had a single college biology course.
Starnes then turned the clock back to those college days:
As it happens, I was a decent enough basketball player to play on a team of former UT players in municipal league, charity events, etc., [having been] recommended by a former high school rival who was an All-American at UT. Another fellow on the team (former UT team captain) was, too, an avid fisherman, and we began to cut a few classes (e.g., I despised Accounting) and fish together, etc. (The former rival fellow, who scoffed at fishing at the time, dubbed me “Fish”, a name that stuck for a lot of years.)
A turn to sports could not avert Starnes from his fate as an ichthyologist, having found a basketball teammate as a fishing buddy. Now, a southern storm would blow Starnes towards another nexus of events:
One spring day my fishing buddy, his girlfriend, and I decided to rent a boat from a dock on a reservoir near Knoxville.
The owner, named “Red”, was a crusty sort right out of Hee Haw, including the overalls, etc. As he puttered out to fetch the boat from a float it was tied to, a storm was threatening more by the minute. When he returned to the dock, we asked him, “Red, if we head out and a storm hits and we have to return, do we have to pay for the whole day?” His reply was: “If you leave the dock, it’s ten dollars!”
Well, $10 was a lot of dough to someone working thru college in 1968. We thought about it for a minute and decided to, OK, give it a shot.
As we went up to the car to get our gear, the storm became closer, rain and lightening were coming in, etc. So we just looked at each other and said, “naah”, threw our gear in the trunk and tore out of there, spinning and throwing gravel up the drive. Turning back, I saw Red standing, rope in hand, totally agape at the end of the dock. I began laughing uncontrollably to the point I was even incontinent for a second. I’ll never forget that image.
Well, within 15 minutes, the storm blew over and, at this time, we happened to be right next to Douglas Dam on our way back to Knoxville. We thus decided to just pull over an fish off the bank downstream from the dam for a few minutes. The flow was very low and Sauger were apparently running upriver and we proceeded to slay them, about filled the trunk.
After so much success, we looked at each other and said “what the hell are we going to do with all these fish”, neither of us having ready access to a kitchen. We then got the bright idea to go to another UT player’s (a year behind us and still playing) apartment, which was in a married students’ complex.
There we would have a helluva fish fry! As we opened the trunk and started unloading the catch, a small crowd gathered. Among them, who just happened to walk out at that minute, was a grad student in Aquatic Biology at UT who was much impressed with the fish, etc., started throwing around some scientific names, etc.
I was drawn by this, got to talking and, long story short, starting going on field trips with him all over TN and nearby states for the rest of my undergrad days, learning a great deal about the regional fauna, etc., by just picking it up in the field. If you don’t know, TN is one of the absolute candy stores of fish and other aquatic diversity.
With college near completion, the Vietnam War loomed on Starnes’ horizon.
Despite this experience and what seemed an obvious knack for fishes, etc., I never seriously considered changing majors at that late date and, besides, I had to meet my commissioning date or face consequences. There was just not time to make any changes, even if I had decided to. I kept the interest up and it ate at me more and more that I might like fishes as a career, though was unsure how very many folks could make a living at it (not an altogether unfounded concern…).
My second year in the military, I was in Nam, and, on a particularly bad day during Tet 71, I had the epiphany that, if I got out alive, you only live once, and I would go back and somewhat start over in a whole new pursuit.
So, I did that, with a combination of GI Bill, working at a textbook store quite a few hours a week, and some assistantships here and there along the way. It took a while to be accepted into Zoology, as they had a rather jaundiced eye toward my Business undergrad major, grades that had suffered from fishing forays, etc. but I finally prevailed.
So you see, “encounters and experiences”, not to mention nuances, were critical in how I got here. Just think, if I had not been into basketball, had not known that player, later met my fishing buddy, and Red [had not] been such an ass, and that storm had not come up just as it did and pass by, and the Sauger had not been biting, and that other basketball player had not lived in that apartment complex with that grad student neighbor, and that neighbor had not walked out at just that moment, I might have spent a career working for SeaLand or somewhere! A couple minutes either way could have steered my ship on another course.
I may have at least had an aquarium, though….
And that is how Wayne C. Starnes began his career in fish biology — and how the Vietnam War, basketball, a storm-interrupted fishing trip, and a good ol’ boy named Red eventually led to a monograph on the Family Priacanthidae.
Starnes would go on to receive his Ph.D. at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in 1977 — and it’s been fishes ever since. He says it’s been a great ride. Over the course of his career, he’s had opportunities to work all over the United States, in South and Central America, as well as in Thailand, Samoa, and Puerto Rico. He says he is proud of his work on a major project with endangered fishes in the Colorado River basin, and of his work as a coauthor on The Fishes of Tennessee, the reference on the fish fauna of the Volunteer State.
I’ll let Dr. Starnes have the last word:
Well, that turned out to be a rather fat nutshell, but hopefully you could track it. Sorry for the delays, but retirement hasn’t proven to be much slower than before (and I’m mostly glad of that!).
Priacanthus hamrur (Forsskål, 1775)
Click for names in other languages (FishBase)
Class Actinopterygii (Ray-finned Fishes)
Order Perciformes (Perch-like Fishes)
Family Priacanthidae (Bigeyes and Catalufas)
FishBase Page: http://fishbase.org/summary/5791
Starnes, WC. 1988. Revision, phylogeny and biogeographic comments on the circumtropical marine percoid fish family Priacanthidae. Bulletin of Marine Science 43(2): 117-203(87).
I am indebted to Dr. Wayne Starnes for taking time out of house painting, manuscript reviews, and the sweet life of retirement to answer an email out of the blue to sake the curiosity of a humble writer. Thank you so much for sharing with us this glimpse into your career — and your love for the fishes.
Starnes’ passages were edited for layout, spelling, and punctuation, with web links added for context.
Download the PDF version of The Fishes of Tennessee (1993) for free from the University of Tennessee Press.
And thanks to AT&T U-Verse for deciding that random undersea stock footage would be a great backdrop for your OnDemand ads….
— Ben Young Landis
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