Bluestreak cleaner wrasse were thought to live 900 km from the Kermadec Islands. Photo: Elias Levy, CC BY 2.0

A collaboration between a television show and marine scientists led to the discovery of three species of fish in the waters of the Kermadec Islands which were not thought to live in the area.

The species were spotted after scientists spent hours reviewing the raw footage a television crew filmed at the remote islands, 750 km northeast of New Zealand. The unusual collaboration between a film company and the now under threat Auckland science department at Massey University is the subject of a recently published scientific paper

The species of fish captured on film had been thought to live 700 to 1300km away from the islands. They include the atoll butterfly fish, the bluestreak cleaner wrasse and the halfmoon grouper. 

The footage was from the 2015 documentary Our Big Blue Backyard made by Natural History New Zealand. Executive producer Judith Curran said the film crew pooled funds with scientists to hire the large boat needed for the expedition. The remote uninhabited islands have no airstrip, or safe harbour, and are in an exposed and volcanically active part of the Pacific. Reaching them is costly, and sharing the expense of a boat made sense. 

During the three weeks at the islands, the scientists conducted scientific surveys while the film crew focused on getting footage of a few key species for the show.

Curran said after the programme aired the scientists asked if they could have the raw footage from the show.

“We went, ‘Why not?’. We put it all on a hard drive for them – hundreds and hundreds of hours.”

Without realising it, the documentary’s camera crew had captured three species of fish not known to live in the area.

“They weren’t great hero shots because we weren’t focusing on those fish. My camera crew are pretty good at identifying species but they wouldn’t have had a clue at the significance of these little fish.”

Massey University senior lecturer Dr Libby Liggins, who is the lead author on the new report, was part of the expedition.

“Long nights on the boat sitting around with the videographers, it was very clear that they had an eye for unusual and special things … They would be describing something and they knew it wasn’t your typical species and we wouldn’t quite be able to put our finger on what they had seen. Was it a new species or not?”

A student at the university spent eight weeks watching samples of the footage. There was too much footage for each frame to be looked at, so from the 106 videos and 3439 shots of supplied raw footage, she randomly sampled 22 videos and 1074 shots, painstakingly identifying fish species in each of the shots.

She found not only three fish species unknown to the area but also fish behaviour between species that may not see each other in other places in the world.

“The video footage our masters student Jenny Ann Sweatman found shows the cleaner wrasse approaching a Galapagos shark and cleaning the parasites off it. It’s pretty cool.”

The ability of film to capture animal behaviours is one reason why Liggins thinks there could be a goldmine of discoveries in nature television out-takes, but she also sees potential in old footage being used by scientists to establish if an ecosystem has changed over time. 

With two of the new fish species found in the raw footage being tropical species, there’s a question whether climate change is altering the mix of species found in the area. Liggins said it’s tricky to draw the conclusion that “tropicalisation” is occurring at present.

“Tropical species have been recorded more frequently in recent times. We can’t say whether that’s to do with the sampling efforts, or that is because they have recently arrived.”

She hopes the discovery and report inspires other similar projects, and other film-makers are as enthusiastic to share their raw footage with scientists as Curran has been.

While this particular project was time-consuming, she thinks there’s a chance computers using artificial intelligence could be put to work in the future.

Machine learning could be used to recognise species, and flag unusual ones. 

She said another student had done a project looking at footage from an expedition to the sub-antarctic Auckland Islands.

Hanging over future projects at Massey University is the threat to end science degrees being offered at its Auckland campus. The decision would affect around 700 students, and about 50 staff are likely to lose jobs. The proposal was circulated in a discussion document, with submissions closing March 23.

Liggins describes it as a strange situation to be in. 

“You go from a place where you had been planning 10-year-long research programmes to a place where potentially I’ll be needing to wrap everything up by the end of the year.”

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