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Studying Electric Fish in Uganda

By Shelby Clarke

This past summer I was fortunate enough to travel to the Uganda to conduct fieldwork for my M.Sc. thesis. This was my first time to Africa, and my breath was taken away from the moment I got off the plane. I was in awe of the natural beauty of the country. Everywhere you look there’s outstanding landscapes – from lush forests to dense swamps to massive water bodies. The diverse biota across these habitats is truly an ecologist’s dream!

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Here I was trying to catch Petrocephalus at a lagoon in the swamp with my two field assistants: Saguya (left) and Kiberu (right).

While in Uganda, I stayed at Dr. Lauren Chapman’s research station on the shore of Lake Nabugabo (a satellite lake of Lake Victoria). The goal of my project was to investigate the community dynamics and ecophysiology of weakly electric fishes in the Lake Victoria Basin, so of course I had to do field work! At the station I conducted experiments to test the hypoxia (low oxygen) tolerance of these fish. Since my fish are electric, I was also able to monitor their signaling to see how stress from the low oxygen can affect aspects of the fish’ perception. Pretty cool, eh?

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The kitchen (left) and lab (right) at Dr. Lauren Chapmans research station located along the shore of Lake Nabugabo, Uganda.

My field season taught me a lot. First of all, I had to learn how to catch the fish – no small feat. I also had to figure out how to keep them alive in captivity, something no one had successfully done prior.  In addition to becoming an electric fish specialist, I became handy in the plumbing and electrical department from building (and rebuilding) an experimental system that functioned off of very little (unreliable) power. Although fieldwork never goes as planned, a lesson I learnt many times this summer, it teaches you things you simply can’t learn in a classroom: primarily persistence and patience in my experience.

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The fish species I was working with all summer (Petrocephalus degeni). This particular individual is female and the green mark is a tattoo used for identification purposes.

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Here was I hiking through the papyrus swamp with Andrew Hendry (middle) and David Hunt (back).

The Excellence Award from the QCBS allowed me to have this amazing experience and I very thankful to them for supporting my research. The 3 months I spent studying in Uganda have made me a better scientist and provided me with opportunities that are irreplaceable and unforgettable.


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Shelby Clarke is a M.Sc. Student at McGill University, Canada, under the co-supervision of Dr. Lauren Chapman and Dr. Rudiger Krahe. She is primarily interested in aquatic conservation and management.

Post date: March 01, 2018

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