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Science as Leisure

Liz Marchio

I am a trained ichthyologist interested in what gets people interested in natural history, biological sciences, and science careers. My passion is to find out what fuels curiosity for the natural world.

Biology-related serious leisure activities can impact people's interest in ecology, biology, and natural history. Do these activities promote biological understanding? If so, how does that progress and to what level does it progress to? 

If you're interested in a starting a dialogue, please feel free to contact me. If you're curious about how I got here, my story can be found on the About Me page.


Filtering by Category: NOTW

New Fish Named after a Fish Hobbyist

Science can be a profession or a leisure activity. 

Anyone can be a scientist, anyone can observe and discover new things.

One aquarium hobbyist, Gary Lange,  has been at the forefront of finding new, exciting species of rainbowfish from Australia and New Guinea. It started out as a leisure activity: keeping fish and catching them while abroad. Then, it became a passion. As Gary progressed through the aquarium hobby, he became more interested in science and scientific discovery- I remember meeting Gary and trading rainbowfish eggs for scientific literature on describing species.  He really wanted to learn taxonomy and reach the pinnacle of both his natural history and his fish keeping interests.

While I don't think Gary has described a species himself, he was honored in a recent publication in the Fishes of Sahul, a publication of the Australia New Guinea Fishes Association. The honor consisted of describing a new species of rainbowfish after Gary, Melonotaenia garylangi.

Photo of  Melonotaenia garylangei  from  .

Photo of Melonotaenia garylangei from .

While I am not a fan of naming fish, or any species, after people... I'm proud to be hypocritical here. It's a much deserved honor and one that I hope many hobbyists will strive for. 

Congrats to Gary! 

NOTW: Mark Valen, a man of many naturalist hats

 This NaturalIst of the Week has been written by guest blogger: Katie Wedemeyer

Sometimes when you meet some people for the first time, you can tell right away that they’re special. Mark is one of those people.

Mark and I got hired around the same time at the Living Coast Discovery Center (formerly the Chula Vista Nature Center) at San Diego Bay in Chula Vista, California. I was hired for education and Mark as the lead horticulturist (“hortus” = garden; “cultúra” = cultivation). I knew right away Mark had a lot to teach me, as a colleague and a human being in general.

Mark, a man of many naturalist hats showcasing a Yucca flower pruning. (photo credit: Mark Valen) 

Mark is the epitome of a naturalist: 

Every aspect of his life shows appreciation and awe at the natural world  - and a profound respect for it that is contagious. His enthusiasm spreads to those who are lucky enough to learn from him, young or old.  

Mark in his natural habitat (photo credit: Mark Valen)

His list of naturalist-related accomplishments is impressive, and steadily growing. He currently is in a Masters of Liberal Arts in Sustainability and Environmental Management through Harvard, while also working as the Horticulturist and Facilities Lead at the Living Coast Discovery Center. Did I mention he also is adjunct faculty in the San Diego Community College District and the Southwestern Community College Districts, teaching about sustainable landscaping and urban agriculture? 

Through his work at the Discovery Center, which reaches many underprivileged schools, and through working at the Community Colleges, Mark is directly impacting and inspiring students who may not have the same “top tier” opportunities as those from more “privileged” (i.e. funded) neighborhoods.

In his free time he serves as commissioner on the City of Chula Vista's Resource Conservation Commission that advises the City Council on environmental decisions. As an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz he not only helped develop his own sustainability major he also created and taught classes for it. There’s a reason he is the NOTW of many hats!

Despite so many accomplishments, Mark is the most Down to Earth (pun-intended), sincere nature lover out there. Each time we interacted at work I was always paying close attention, excited to learn something new, to gain a new appreciation for plants.

As a scientist, I always appreciated plants for giving me oxygen but lost interest after that – until Mark presented them as fascinating organisms with incredible adaptations.

His lessons may have been geared towards the 7 year olds attending summer camp but I was hooked! 

Mark inspiring (and blowing minds of) some of the Living Coast Discovery Center campers (photo: Living Coast Discovery Center facebook page

Did you know that pickleweed (Salcornia virginica) lives near the brackish (salt + fresh water mixed) water of the salt marsh It lives so close to the water’s edge that it can actually “drink” salt water! What? How cool is that!  Have you ever accidently ingested salt water? Did it quench your thirst or make you thirstier? It makes me thirstier! Several marine animals (like sea turtles, sea birds, and marine fish) have adaptations for drinking salt water, but it turns out that plants do too! Pickleweed, which gets its name from its pickle-like shape and salty taste, is generally green in appearance except for its red tips where it concentrates the salt it has sucked up and when the tip becomes saturated with salt, it turns red and falls off. By getting rid of the excess salt it can hold onto sufficient freshwater to help it grow and survive! What a cool adaptation!

Pickleweed! (Photo credit:

Mark was a key component of many of the education programs I created at the Living Coast Discovery Center, always eager to contribute to educating the youth and getting them out to play in the dirt.

We had several campers compost and the looks of amazement on the kids’ faces were priceless as they held worms for the first time, their eyes fascinated, moving quickly along with the squiggly movements of these often underappreciated creatures. 

For the first time they realized that worms have an important job: mixing different layers of the compost and aerating it simply by burrowing through it. They couldn’t wait to dive in to the compost pile to find more! 

Mark teaching a composting class at the Living Coast Discovery Center (photo credit Living Coast Discovery Center facebook page)

He has, without a doubt inspired thousands of individuals, from children through senior citizens, to get out in nature and not be afraid to dig in the dirt and to appreciate all of nature’s contributions to the beauty and function of our everyday lives.

For these reasons, Mark is our NOTW and our naturalist of many hats!

To contact Mark, send him an e-mail or just go visit the Living Coast Discovery Center (or at least visit their Facebook page)! Bring the kids, bring the wife! Get Dirty! 

For more information on our guest blogger, Katie Wedemeyer, please follow her on twitter @krwedemeyer and visit her website!

NotW: Rachel O'Leary - The Mohawk Aquarist

Sometimes you just know you've come to the right place.

That's how I felt when I met Rachel O'Leary.

We were both invited speakers and since I hardly see women at these events, I knew Rachel was going to make an impression. And boy, did she! 

                                               Rachel in her natural habitat- her fantastic fish room! 

                                               Rachel in her natural habitat- her fantastic fish room! 

Rachel O'Leary - The Mohawk Aquarist & Naturalist

Rachel epitomizes a lot of qualities that I respect (and wish I had the balls enough to do). She travels the country doing fish club talks, she is her own scientist and natural historian, published author, and an aquarium-related icon. Maybe it's the mohawk? Nope, this woman knows her fish, loves her hobby, and one of the most down to Earth people I've ever met. 

I remember sitting in her aquarium-club talk on dwarf shrimp and being impressed with the amount of information she knows and is completely up to date on. For example, the dwarf shrimp genera (Caridina, Neocaridina, etc.) are currently in flux taxonomically, and she has her finger right on the pulse. Frankly, the only thing that could hold her back from being more knowledgeable is the lack of Open-Source scientific publications (hint hint). 

Not only is Rachel knowledgeable, she is willing to take a lot of time to educate others. She is also willing to stand up and tell people "No" when they want to buy organisms that are inappropriate for their aquarium set-up:

Rachel imports fish and invertebrates to sell to fellow aquarists; sometimes it's a demanding job. But the following she has supporting her decision not to sell (65+ likes, 80+ comments) shows she is indeed making a difference and a leader in the hobby.

Rachel imports fish and invertebrates to sell to fellow aquarists; sometimes it's a demanding job. But the following she has supporting her decision not to sell (65+ likes, 80+ comments) shows she is indeed making a difference and a leader in the hobby.

Aquarium keeping has gotten and will continue getting a lot of flack for irresponsible pet ownership issues, but people like Rachel are making a difference, once teeny tiny seemingly insignificant step at a time. 

Kudos to you, Rachel, our Mohawk Aquarist and Naturalist of the Week! 

Check out Rachel's website, her book, and her aquarium talks


NotW: Dr. Luiz Rocha - The Deep Sea Naturalist

Welcome to another installment of Naturalist of the Week (NotW)!

This week's featured naturalist is the "Deep Sea" Naturalist, Dr. Luiz Rocha.

Dr. Luiz Rocha giving young ichthyologists a tour of the collection at CalAcademy! 

Dr. Luiz Rocha giving young ichthyologists a tour of the collection at CalAcademy! 

Luiz is an ichthyologist ("ich" = fish; "-ologist" = study) from California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, CA.  He studies the generation and maintenance of the extremely high biodiversity in tropical coral reefs. Sounds awesome, right?! So, how did Luiz get into this field?

Well, I asked him myself and he said he was interested in the natural world since at least third grade! In third grade, I too was passionate about animals and life on Earth. It must be a formative time period! 

At this age, Luiz kept a homemade ant farm, mayonnaise jars with jumping spiders, a box of caterpillars waiting to metamorphose into butterflies, and.... fish tanks! He started out the aquarium hobby with a large tank of guppies and a few small tanks with bettas.

He says he just never grew out of being a naturalist. 

New species of Grammatonotus (collected by Brian Greene; 470 feet) in  May 2014 . 

New species of Grammatonotus (collected by Brian Greene; 470 feet) in May 2014

Today, Luiz's most exciting work includes scubadiving deep into mesophotic reefs which extend from 100 to 330 feet (up to 500 ft in tropical regions), have low light, and lots of sponges, algae, and low-light photosynthetic corals. And awesome, cool, and rare fish!

He and his team finds new species of fish in every dive and see species that were previously only seen and/or collected by submarines!

Check out/like the CalAcademy Ichthyology Facebook page if you're as geeked as I am about new species of marine fish! 

And, as you can see from his photo on the top of the page, Luiz does some very important outreach to formative young students- our future naturalists and ichthyologists! Other outreach opportunities he participates in includes: public events at CalAcademy, blog contributions (this one is on fish sex), Twitter (@CoralReefFish), and giving talks to marine aquarium clubs in North America (such as the 2014 MACNA).

Luiz and Brian Greene (slowly) bringing up some deep water fish, including a NEW species of  Liopropoma  (candy basslet)! Photo by Bart Shepherd.

Luiz and Brian Greene (slowly) bringing up some deep water fish, including a NEW species of Liopropoma (candy basslet)! Photo by Bart Shepherd.

In light of the recent hubub regarding the proposed listing of Amphiprion percula (Percula clownfish, AKA Nemo) on the Endangered Species List as well as other media implicating the marine aquarium hobby in major ecological and environmental issues (i.e. release of lionfish and other non-natives), the marine aquarium hobby seems to be a tipping point.

I asked Luiz what he thought of the aquarium hobby.

He stated, "I think the educational benefits brought by the aquarium hobby far outweigh its impacts. Aquarium fish collection is not the same as food fish collection. You need a much larger infrastructure for aquarium fish because you need to keep them alive, so prices must remain high to support the industry. And for the prices to remain high, the supply has to be kept at a certain level. If supply is too high, prices drop and the industry stops making money, so I think it is somewhat self-regulating. Food fish on the other hand, have a much higher demand, so food fish industry tries to collect every single fish they can."

What do you think? 

Whatever your stance on the aquarium hobby, Luiz is utilizing it as a vehicle to educate the public about fish, ecology, and nature as a whole. He has taken it upon himself to be a leader in professional ichthyology to reach out to non-professionals. 

Kudos to you, Dr. Luiz Rocha, our Deep Sea Naturalist, for all the time you invest in the people who are starting out in ichthyology- those who can and will make major impacts on the world with their attitudes and behaviors. 

If you're interested in deep water fishes, ichthyology, and other science related news, please consider following Dr. Luiz Rocha on Twitter (@CoralReefFish) and his work at the California Academy. Thanks for reading and if you haven't already, follow me on Twitter (@LizMarchio).

NotW: Aaron Roland- A Natural Born Naturalist

This week I showcase a "non-professional" ichthyologist, Aaron Roland.

Don't let "non-professional" fool you... I'm betting Aaron could school any marine biologist on fish and coral husbandry, propagation, and even native habitats and geography.

No Doctorate? No Problem! 

Aaron (almost) in his natural environment.

Aaron (almost) in his natural environment.

I used to work for aquarium and pet stores in Columbus, Ohio from 2000-2010. During that time I met and worked with a multitude of people, most of them amazing in their own way. As I progressed from working at a pet store to working at a fish-only aquarium store, the people I worked with became more specialized and actually, increasingly passionate about conservation and wild stocks of fish.

Perhaps your're wondering how conservation and aquariums goes together... Well, I'll touch more on that in another post, but think about it- as I said above, as I specialized in my work (and leisure) the people involved in the hobby did too. This specialization in a serious leisure activity allows people, like Aaron, to progress to a level that rivals "professional" ichthyologists. 

The art of nature as seen through the lens of Aaron's camera. 

The art of nature as seen through the lens of Aaron's camera. 

Not only is Aaron a very smart non-professional-degreed ichthyologist, he uses his free time to study and keep fish.

Aaron lives and "breathes" fish! 

This intense passion for aquatic life has spurred him to new heights in knowledge and awareness. As many aquarists know, keeping fish is a double edged sword- conservation and consumptive hobbies can deplete resources such as ornamental fish. However, with people like Aaron at the helm, someone infatuated with the natural world and absolutely well-known in Columbus for his willingness to help any aquarist who needs it, the aquarium hobby and evolve and progress into a conservation-minded force!

For these reasons Aaron Roland is the Naturalist of the Week! 

Click the Rivers to Reefs logo to visit Aaron's facebook page.

Click the Rivers to Reefs logo to visit Aaron's facebook page.

Thank you, Aaron!

You've educated and guided so many people to be stewards of the natural world rather than just consumers. 


Aaron is currently working on opening his own aquarium-only store in Columbus, Ohio. If you live in the area and want to keep a conservation-friendly aquarium (and get some really good advice and help on all things aquatic), please consider offering him your future business. As I said in my last post, there are stores that only consider fish as products- Aaron considers them ambassadors to the wild world of fish. 

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