Ecologist Spotlight: Natasha Phillips

Welcome to the Ecologist Spotlight column!

We seek out ecologists with diverse backgrounds and perspectives to highlight their work and share their stories and experiences. Thank you to Natasha Phillips for participating in our column this week! If you would like to be featured, or would like to nominate someone, please contact us today.

Please state your current affiliation:

Natasha: I am a PhD researcher based at Queen’s University Belfast

Natasha tagging a sunfish. Credit: Natasha Phillips.

Tell us about yourself and your current area of research.

Natasha: I’m a marine biologist and my research is focused on unravelling the bizarre ecology of the ocean sunfishes. The ocean sunfish looks like a giant drifting satellite dish, and for many years it was thought that these animals were of little ecological importance, merely passive drifters, renowned for basking at the sea surface and eating jellyfish. However, new research is now revealing that ocean sunfishes actually have a fascinating, dynamic life history including deep dives, long-distance movements and functioning as active predators in local ecosystems!

Such new insights are really important as we know very little about these fishes, for example we don’t know how many there are, where they breed or their ecosystem role. This lack of basic biological data is really hampering conservation efforts, as the sunfishes are now listed as vulnerable globally by the IUCN due to unregulated target fisheries across Asia and the huge issue of bycatch, which is estimated to remove hundreds of thousands of sunfishes from the world’s oceans each year.

My research is examining the sunfishes’ distribution, diet and energy-use, and we hope that by providing such baseline information, we can help management teams understand where sunfishes can be found and why, to reduce bycatch and predict the potential ecosystem consequences if the mass removal of these fishes continues.

What are sunfish and how many species have been identified?

Natasha: The ocean sunfishes (family Molidae) are the world’s largest bony fishes measuring up to 2.7 meters across and weighing up to 2.3 tonnes! They are renowned for being the most fecund vertebrate, with one female found to contain over 300 million eggs and having perhaps the greatest increase in size of any animal; with the growth of tiny fish larvae to fully-grown adult being equivalent to a human baby growing to 6 times the size of the Titanic!

Over the last year a new species of sunfish (Mola tecta) has been identified, and since it has been hiding in plain sight all these years its’ common name is to be the hoodwinker sunfish, joining the ocean sunfish (Mola mola), the recently renamed southern ocean sunfish (Mola alexandrini), the sharptail sunfish (Masturus lanceolatus) and the slender sunfish (Ranzania laevis). However, genetic analysis and new morphological work suggests there might be more subspecies or perhaps further new species to come… we will have to watch this space!

What is cryptic benthivory, and why is it important to understanding sunfish ecology?

Natasha: A cryptic behaviour is one that is not immediately apparent and it is only in the last decade that researchers have noted the extent to which ocean sunfishes are acting as benthivores (feeding at the sea bed). Mostly, the sunfishes have been thought of as obligate gelativores (that they could only eat gelatinous prey like jellyfish), and so this finding has been revelation in terms of understanding their diet. Of course understanding an animal’s diet is really important to be able to assess many aspects of their ecology, such as habitat use, seasonal movements, energy intake etc.

Intriguingly it seems that smaller sunfishes (up to 1m across) are gaining up to 40% of their diet through cryptic benthivory (including crustaceans, molluscs, even some fish species), with the remaining proportion made up of gelatinous zooplankton. But as they grow, more and more of their diet is made up of gelatinous prey. This shift from high energy density prey to a very low calorie diet is really unusual and is something I am trying to understand through my research. Lots of fun!

Sunfish swimming within fishing nets. Credit: Natasha Phillips.

Why did you become interested in studying sunfish?

Natasha: My research interests revolve around the ecology of megafaunal fish species following my first field research position as part of team satellite tagging basking sharks. The sunfishes particularly captured my interest as typically from looking at an animal’s morphology, you can gain an idea of its’ ecology; a shark is streamlined for fast movements, with forward facing predators’ eyes, whereas a flat fish is perfectly camouflaged, lying against the seabed it tries to avoid being seen. But when you see a sunfish… where do you start? That weird dinner plate shape, the apparent lack of a tail, the tiny mouth; what does it eat, where does it live and how does its life history work out? There were so many questions I just had to learn more!

What first interested you in ecology?

Natasha: The oceans and the creatures that live there have a strange draw, it’s a completely alien environment to us humans, driven by complex powerful forces and so inconceivably large that giants can swim unnoticed in the deep. My interest in ecology is combined with a passion for the oceans and a curiosity to understand how animals live in this dynamic environment. I think all this really stems from rock pooling as a kid, watching tiny fishes darting across open spaces, anemones waving in the water… It all seems so calm and serene from the surface, but it can be a life or death struggle for the animals involved and these layers of complexity build in the ecological sciences to create an amazing picture of how life works, which has developed into a career I just love.

What has inspired you in your career?

Natasha: I’ve been very fortunate to work with many inspirational people who want to use their passion for the natural world to understand and protect it. I also have to admit that the Blue Planet TV series was a huge inspiration for me growing up! I was 11 when it first aired and was given the accompanying book for my birthday (it’s something I still return to)! That tantalizing glimpse of the amazing array of life beneath the waves and the fact that despite the vastness of the oceans and the seemingly innumerable fishes, they are all under threat, from climate change, pollution, fisheries etc. I think that this simple message, that this is a resource we all share and have responsibilities to maintain, was inspirational. It certainly seems that all the ecologists I know can trace their passion for their careers back to similar feelings, it’s a background we all share in.

Tell us about one of your favorite research moments.

Natasha: My favourite research moment emerged from a bit of a nightmare… during my first field season I was working with the Marine Protected Area authorities in Camogli at the local tuna fishery, where they typically catch thousands of sunfish as bycatch each summer. Unfortunately I arrived in 2015 which had the lowest number of sunfish in living memory! It was great news for the fishermen who didn’t have to spend more time hauling and releasing the fishes, but it meant I had no data which was disheartening to say the least. I spent two months working and waiting, and eventually we caught one! I’d never even seen a wild, living sunfish before, and the moment they pulled that fish aboard, it gleamed in the sun and the sense of pure delight in seeing this beautiful creature and finally getting some data to try and protect them made it one of my best research moments.

Who is someone that you have never met but whose research you have always admired?

Natasha: Dr Sylvia Earle. She is such an inspiration, having been at the forefront of ocean exploration for over 40 years including being the first female chief scientist at NOAA, the National Geographic Explorer in Residence since 1998 and Founder of Mission Blue conservation foundation. Her passion for the marine environment and incredible diversity of ground-breaking research is unsurpassed, and I greatly admire how she has devoted her life to understanding and protecting the marine environment.

Sunfish as bycatch in fishing nets in an Italian fishery. These fish were released unharmed. Credit: Natasha Phillips.

What is a challenge that you faced as a student, young professional, or early faculty member and how did you work through it?

Natasha: A lot of my fieldwork has been spent working with local fishermen in Italy where being a young woman working on my own was not always an advantage… One key challenge I faced at the beginning was when I was told women on boats would bring bad luck and was not allowed… until I mentioned I was happy to buy breakfast and bring beer for the crew every day (as well as help pull the nets/sort the fish etc.) then I was invited on board every day! Sometimes even bad luck can be bartered away!

When you become discouraged by a challenging research problem or unexpected issue, how do you stay motivated?

Natasha: By looking at the bigger picture. Working with large fishes at sea presents lots of challenges and if/when you do collect your data, the analysis will always throw up lots more! But if at the end of a day when nothing seems to have gone quite to plan, and you still can’t think of another job that you would rather do… it must be going alright! If something’s really not going well and you’re becoming discouraged, it’s probably time to take a break, go meet with friends or even take a day off! Then start again with a clear head and get some advice so you can move forward again.

What do you do in your “off” time?

Natasha: I love traveling and exploring new places so in my spare time my boyfriend and I are usually roving around the Irish coast with Herbie (our dog). Even if I’m heading off on a research visit or to a conference in a new place I always aim to add on a few days of ‘off time’ to explore!

If you met a 10 year old who was interested in ecology, what would you say to encourage them?

Natasha: Go for it! It is the best job in the world! Of course it will be demanding (long hours, hard work etc.) but as they say: if you find a job you love, you never work again…

Scene: *You walk into a local coffee shop* What do you order?

Natasha: A huge café latte… with extra chocolate… and a cinnamon bun (sugar powers the brain right?!)

Bonus: Are there any other interesting stories you would like to share?

Natasha: A highlight of my fieldwork was towards the end of the fishing season; wedged into a tiny wooden fishing boat amongst crates and gear as dawn broke, sharing fresh cherries, salted bread and cans of cheap beer with the fishermen in between their chain smoking of shared cigarettes, trying to explain in pigeon Italian what I was doing and mainly why… I have never heard so much laughter! It was the most beautiful scene but a surreal impromptu outreach event. I think I just came across as the crazy English girl who loves fish too much.