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Meet the team: Nicolas Bailly

May 7, 2013

We continue our ‘meet the team’ series this week with an interview with Nicolas Bailly from BioFresh partner organisation, WorldFish Center. Nicolas is an ichthyologist (that’s someone who studies fish for those of you not versed in the world of fish). He is the project manager of FishBase and scientific advisor to SeaLifeBase.


1 What is the focus of your work for BioFresh, and why?

My work in BioFresh is to help to bring more data on freshwater biodiversity available for free on the web. It is at the same time:

– a scientific work to think about data, information and knowledge representations in computers based on the most recent advances on the subject;

– a technical work of data processing;

– and also a networking effort to convince colleagues and institutions outside BioFresh to publish their data in the BioFresh Portal.

2  How is your work relevant to policy makers, conservationists and/or the general public?

Political decision should be based on sound facts and data. The role of the scientist is to present alternatives based on these data to decisionmakers and the rest of the society. In a way, with respect to policy making, scientists are scenarists: they propose various scenarios deduced from various hypotheses on environmental conditions and human society behaviour. It remains the responsibility of the society through its decision- and policy-makers to choose one of these scenarios. I work at the very beginning of this chain, providing sound data for other colleagues to build the scenarios.

3 Why is the BioFresh project important?

Arapaima sp. from Guyana. Image: D.J. Stewart.

Arapaima sp. from Guyana. Image: D.J. Stewart.

Other domains have organized themselves, like within marine environment research community, to advocate for the sustainability of the related biodiversity. There is no such recognition that freshwaters host an important part of the overall biodiversity. It may not be as colourful as coral reefs, not as iconic as pandas or whales, but it is as much as fascinating. And we have our are iconic species too: sturgeons, arapaima, beaver, otter, freshwater dolphins, crocodiles; and they can be colourful! Killifishcichlidsdiscus… BioFresh must make aquarium lovers realize that freshwater biodiversity goes beyond a glass tank. Just like zoos have shifted their main concerns from demonstration to conservation.

Killifish. Photo: Hristo Hristov.

Killifish. Photo: Hristo Hristov.

4 Tell us about a memorable experience in your career.

During a field trip along the Bia river, which from spring to mouth flows from Ghana downwards to Ivory Coast, we had a collecting station along a river in a village in Ghana and were about to set up traps and nets to catch fishes. But we were stopped by local officers because it was a taboo period for the Goddess of the river. We met with the village chief the day after to request him to waive the taboo period for one day and to give us permission to go fishing there. It is customary for two chiefs to speak indirectly through their assistants/interpreters before an agreement is finally sealed by a glass of strong alcohol. Our expedition chief was head of the Ghanaian Hydrological Institute and had conducted field research in that village some years ago. He found the taboo explanation odd and suspected that it was more about the village being worried that we were illegal gold miners (which is often the case in that area).

Surprisingly, the chief of the village said to our expedition chief, through their interpreters: “I remember you. You came here three years ago. You took fishes, crabs, snakes. You plunged strange machines in the river. You had strange nets for collecting jelly stuff. But you never came back to show us and explain what you found. Why should we allow you to do it again?”. The story ended well and we got the permission; and left without being too drunk! And the moral of this story is that scientists must make efforts to report their findings in an understandable way to the whole society.

5  What inspired you to become a scientist?

Since I was 10 years old I wanted to know more about and study fishes. This was thanks to my father and my grandfathers who brought me fishing with them since I was 5 years old, waking up at 5 o’clock in the morning in the dark and cold sometimes. Hours spent along river banks waiting for a catch leaves you with a lot of time to think and wonder how many species there are, why they are there, what they are doing, what do they feed on, etc., the later point being related to “Why do they not take my bait?” Knowing and discovering all about species leads you to science because it is the only activity that does it in a structured way, which corresponded to what I wanted to have: a structured archive of knowledge.

I discovered later that science is much more than that. I cannot remember when I first encountered the words taxonomy or systematics, but I do know where I read for the first time the barbaric word ichthyologist: in a book entitled “Journey of the Oceanauts” by Louis Wolfe (1970), of which I read an abridged version translated in French (in the collection for teenagers, “La Bibotheque verte”, Hachette publ.). It is the story of three scientists crossing the Atlantic Ocean by foot with the help of a breathing/feeding apparatus implemented near the throat. One of them is an ichthyologist, knowing everything about every fish they encountered: it is what I wanted to do! And every beginning of the school year I had to explain what ichthyology meant to my teachers who would always ask ‘what do you want to do when you grow up?’

6 What are your plans and ambitions for your future scientific work?

I have developed the concept of ISBearG framework, where scientific data and information databases are progressively translated into information and knowledge websites that can be understood by the public at large and have impact on awareness about biodiversity vulnerability. ISBearG stands for Information Systems in Biodiversity: encodinG, analyzinG, reportinG. The iceberg image refers to the fact that only a very tiny portion of data, information and knowledge is usable by the whole society. But in order to make it visible and useful it must be sustained by all the invisible, tedious and scientific ant-work underwater. I want to see that iceberg implemented globally for all biodiversity, from viruses to whales. The BioFresh portal is an illustration, even if incomplete, of this concept.

From a more personal point of view, I dream to make the great unification between cladistics and phenetics in taxonomy, but this is another story far from BioFresh concerns so I will not explain here!

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