Christian Fry has recently released an incredible freshwater field guide called the “Field Guide to the Freshwater Macroinvertebrates of Southern Africa.” We love the guide and it is really helping us as we try and become SASS accredited. We recently obtained two signed copies and a poster from Christian, which we are so grateful for so we decided to interview him to promote this incredible piece of work.
Where did you grow up and how did you get into this field?.
Christian grew up on a farm near the Elands River in Mpumalanga. He is extremely grateful for his upbringing, According to Christian, the Elands River was once relatively pristine, but it has degraded over time.
As a child, Christian spent a lot of time down at the river, playing, fishing, tubing, and exploring. This is how he first learned about the river and developed an interest in freshwater systems. He mentioned that he had a very basic understanding of what lives in the river, which basically meant flipping a rock and seeing all the bugs crawling around, which was interesting, but he didn't look closely at them. He didn't realize what they were or what they meant until he started studying them.
So, spending so much time in the river sort of imprinted that passion in him but it wasn't until later in life that this passion developed into a possible career. This happened when he met some researchers from the University of Johannesburg who were conducting research in the area and came to stay on his family farm. The students did different assessments on the river. Among them was a post graduate student that was doing his PHD. This student made Christian aware that it is possible to do this as a career, which Christian found very inspiring.
What is your favourite macroinvertebrate family?
Many of the macro invertebrate’s appeal to Christian. He admits that it is difficult for him to choose a specific family, but he enjoys the freshwater shrimp (Crustacea family). We shared with him our recent finding in the Tradouw River where we found a freshwater shrimp. He explained that the shrimps from Grootvadersbosch are not as dark as the ones found in Mpumalanga.
How did you come up with the cover of the book?
Christian started out the book on a PowerPoint document. He showed his friend (Colleen Murray) who is graphic designer, what he was doing, and asked if she could help him out a bit. She said that everything that he had done was wrong so he started the process over.
She explained how to do deep edge and edit photographs. She also chose the book's cover. He is grateful for her talent as a graphic designer. Colleen created the book's aesthetic and clean style, which Christian appreciates. He wishes he could take credit for the front cover, but it was Colleen's idea. He truly appreciates her help. Her creativity has resulted in a book that stands out from the rest.
What else did you do differently with this guide?
Instead of utilizing the dichotomous key for identification, Christian used the identifying features in the family tree. Instead of going through the step-by-step process of identifying down to the family level, Christian used the identifying futures. As a result, he concentrated on bringing the last step to the front so that the identifying trait could be seen first. He tried something new and only time will tell if it works. Christian is still waiting for comments, and while he knows that people enjoy the way the book appears, he also wants the book to be practical in the field.
What were some surprising things that you learnt in the process of writing the book?
The most surprising experience to Christian was how little he really knew about macroinvertebrates. He started the book to educate himself. He failed his second SASS accreditation because he got confused with a clam (Cyrenidae) and a pill clam (Pisidiidae). He was frustrated and he wanted more resources on how to distinguish between them. The existing guides were limited and not practical. As Christian researched further, he started to compile his own library with photos to identifying the macroinvertebrates.
He later became aware of the diversity of the macro invertebrates. For example, you look at an Elmidae and you see another one and another one but you don’t slow down to look at them carefully. When you look closely, you see the diversity. For Christian, the diversity is incredible and surprising.
What were some of the challenges of putting this guide together?
The guide took nearly six years to complete. One challenge was processing all the photos. There were thousands of photos. He processed a lot of the photos, but some were used, and others were not. He also did the work outside of his work hours -on was weekends, nights and holidays. He would sit at family gatherings with his laptop and edit photos The deep edging to process all the photos was endless.
What were the highlights of writing the guide?
The rewarding part was collecting the new taxa for the book, that was very exciting. Going out into the field and collecting taxa is fun, and it's nice to find specimens for photos in his area. Traveling to the Cape and sampling all those different taxa, was also rewarding. Sometimes they were holidays or family events, such as weddings and his in-laws had to drive him quickly to a river. But in the end, it was very rewarding to explore new areas.
He found it rewarding to find some of the taxa that haven’t been seen by other experts, such as Helen Dallas, who have been in the field for twenty years. (At this point, we had to proudly interject and tell him that when Helen came to train the conservancy for SASS, we found a caddisfly (Goeridae) that she had never seen before. Christian admitted that he had not seen it either, so he promised to visit soon.)
He loves hunting for taxa and then finding them after years. For example, the Limnichidae (Minute Marsh-loving Beetle) are vaguely described in other SASS guides. In some guides it says that you might find a certain taxon in an area but when one looks and looks and then you find one in a completely different area, it’s very exciting. He found it so rewarding to look at river systems a lot closer.
What advice would you give other freshwater scientists?.
Christian said that you must not lose your passion and forget why you started in the field. Often with careers, when you turn a passion into a career, you lose the passion. As a passionate, young scientist myself, I couldn’t understand this, so I asked him to explain. He explained that when you turn something that you love into a job, it can become tiresome. Sometimes in the consulting field, you do the same thing over and over and you get burnt out. For him, writing the book and taking on this project, reignited his passion for freshwater ecology.
He also advised that people look more closely at species, beyond their families which is what is required in SASS. He hopes that the book will help with this exploration. He wants people to start to try to identify to genus level and discover the diversity of species in our rivers.
What’s next for your career?
He said that he was going to take a break. I was surprised and laughed, but I understand that he has really worked hard on the book. He is now enjoying some time off and not sure what direction he’ll go next.
We just hope that he’ll come and visit us in the conservancy soon so that we can explore our amazing macroinvertebrate diversity together (and show him that special Goeridae for his next edition of the book!).
Thank you, Christian. Your book is beautiful and very practical indeed. If you would like to obtain a copy of the book, email email@example.com.
The book is also now available at Jacana and Takealot.
Mural in Barrydale
In March, we arranged for Donovan Julius (local Suurbraak artist) to paint a mural at the office of Net vir Pret (an after care centre in Barrydale). We had such a warm welcome from the entire team at Net vir Pret, and they did their best to provide any equipment Donovan needed. The mural project was sponsored by the Table Mountain Fund and the Western Cape Department of Arts and Culture, in collaboration with the Silver Mountain Foundation.
When we arrived, we met with Peter Takelo, the Director of Net vir Pret, who is a fascinating man. He always has a lot of stories to tell. We literally hung on to his every word as he displayed the medals that he has received for his community service. He suggested putting a song on the mural and asked Donovan to incorporate the story of where the people came from. He also mentioned the redfin fish and how unique it is in the area.
Peter appreciated the interaction and thanked us, and he kept us going throughout the day with stories about the Khoisan. Donovan and team went back the following day to finish the mural.
Mural in Suurbraak
A second mural project was also completed in Suurbraak. Donovan Julius completed the masterpiece in Suurbraak near the river at the campsite. He used the mural to emphasise the importance of our responsibility to care for our river systems and their inhabitants. He drew our Tradouw redfin, which we must protect, and the catfish, which is an alien invasive species that we do not want in our river systems.
Another mural was later painted that highlighted pollution and raised awareness about the harm it causes. What an incredible piece.
Mural in Buffeljagsrivier
Donovan and his assistant Duran went on to create a mural for Mullersrus Primary School. The drive to raise awareness about environmental protection continued, and he painted a beautiful mural at the school depicting environmental protection.
Mural in Heidelberg
The next exciting mural is at Kleine Pikkewyne-preschool in Heidelberg. Again, we can only say that Donovan and his assistant, Duran, have outdone themselves. We are confident that the preschool children will enjoy their new mural.
While doing these murals, it is truly amazing to interact with the children and the members of various local communities. It's a blessing to be able to be part of projects that combine art and nature. Thank you so much to our funders for making this project possible.
The mural project was sponsored by the Table Mountain Fund and the Western Cape Department of Arts and Culture, in collaboration with the Silver Mountain Foundation.
We are reflecting on a rehabilitation project that we assisted with in Barrydale during December 2021 and January 2022. It was a unique experience and our team learned so much.
The Barrydale Rehabilitation project was complete through the directorate: Pollution and Chemicals Management, Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning, Western Cape Government. BioAssets CC was the contracted supplier and Wynand asked Johann van Biljon (Intaba environmental services) for assistance as the subcontractor. Johann invited Grootvadersbosch Conservancy for assistance as it would be difficult to bring his staff from Tulbagh and we were very excited to be involved in another rehabilitation project.
How did it start?
We first met Johann van Biljon on a field trip to Tulbagh as part of the Annual Fynbos Forum. Johann works as the manager of Intaba environmental services, which provides environmental consultation, eco landscaping, and ecosystem rehabilitation services.
We attended a workshop at their Tulbagh operation, unaware that we would be working together very soon. In the workshop, we interacted with Johann’s staff, were invited into his home, and got a chance to see some of the rehabilitation projects that he has completed. It was fascinating and inspiring to see what they have accomplished.
Soon after this workshop, BioAsssets won a tender to work in the Barrydale area. Dr Wynand Vlok, owner of Bio Assets, specialises in freshwater ecological research, environmental impact assessments as well as wetland research. He needed some additional input and called on Johann for help. Johann needed a local partner, and we were happy to assist.
Johann is a wealth of knowledge, and it was a pleasure to collaborate with him. He would share his knowledge with the team and tell all sorts of interesting and, sometimes, funny stories. He is also very hands on and cares about people and their aspirations. For example, when he asked some of us to accompany him on a walk to collect some Gymnosporia buxifolia seeds, he asked us about our goals and what we wanted to become one day. One of the team members wanted to be a mechanic and Johann inspired him to explore his dreams.
Aims of the project
One of the main goals was to replant indigenous plants along the riverbanks that had been cleared of invasive vegetation. The advantages that would come from this project, included increased biodiversity in the landscape, which can help to mitigate the effects of extreme weather conditions, such as flooding. One of the project's objectives was to improve the Huis River's ecological functioning.
For the project, the conservancy used one of our teams that usually works on alien clearing. The contractor, Yolande Cupido, is based in Suurbraak, and she accepted the work for her team. A team of 12 workers was assembled for the Barrydale seed collection. The plan was that the seed collection would take place over a few days and the seeds would then go back to Tulbagh with Johann to clean and prepare. They would then be brought back for planting in Barrydale. We collected a mixture of seeds which included Helichrysum patulum and Athanasia trifurcatas, Protea repens, Searsia lucida and Erica caffra seeds.
Preparing the seed
Some of the seeds were taken by Johann to Tulbagh to prepare the seeds. Preparation can include sorting, cleaning, and washing. In some cases they are then also germinated.
The seeds that did not go with Johann to get prepared, got sown immediately on the side of the river. Carpobrotus edulis is an amazing riverbank stabilizer and was sown along the riverbanks. Some of the workers mentioned that you can cut a piece off and then plant it, which was interesting to hear. Johann kept on telling stories and keeping the spirits high. He inquired if we knew the Khoisan name of Carpobrotus edulis? It is called ghoenavy, or ghaukum, which some of us used to eat as children (so tasty!). We continued to sow the seeds that had been prepared in Tulbagh and the seeds that we had just collected.
We went on and planted palmiet (Prionium serratum) which Johann had germinated in Tulbagh. Wynand demonstrated how to plant the palmiet in the river's wet zone. We planted it where the river's speed is reduced, so that when the river is in motion, the palmiet plant will thrive and be shaded and protected.
Some of the seeds were not ready to plant yet so we were forced to leave them out of the planting, such as Metalasia densa seeds. However, we plan to work on the project for 2 more days at a later stage.
The team learned a lot from the two natural gurus about the indigenous plants, how to plant them, and where to plant them. We also discovered which plants grow in the area and which do not. Overall, the project was interesting and enjoyable. This project was fun for the teams to work on and we all learnt a lot.
Thank you to Intaba Environmental and BioAssets for involving us.
Mullersrus Primary School
We value our relationship with the local school in Buffeljags. Every time we go there to interact with the children, we get a warm and welcoming vibe. We recently visited the school and interacted with approximately 70 students in grades 5 and 6.
We were debating what to do with the kids, but we decided to incorporate rivers and freshwater systems, as well as art.
As usual, we called on Donovan Julius to help us with the art and coordinate the children's drawings. Ricardo, our project manager, and a talented musician, brought the marimbas with him to teach the students a few notes.
The night before, we had dropped some fish nets in the Buffeljags River. We went to the river in the morning to see what we could find and discovered some beautiful freshwater shrimp, as well as some small catfish (aliens), and tilapia (alien). We took the fish to the school grounds for a short time to show the children to see what was found in the river. They were ecstatic to see the fish.
The students were divided into two groups and rotated so that each group experienced art, music and science (SASS).
For the art project, the students created drawings that depicted nature and its protection. The drawings turned out beautifully, and the groups were very proud of their work. They displayed it for photographs to be taken. The marimbas were also well received and sounded beautiful.
To educate the children about ecology, Twakkie spoke to the groups of students about the fish found in the area, with a focus on the redfin fish. Twakkie showed them a picture of a redfin fish from his book and told them to keep an eye out for it and to protect it. We later played games with the children and spoke about macroinvertebrates as a follow-up to the miniSASS assessment that we had previously completed.
In our discussions, we told the students about four groups of macroinvertebrates, two of which are very tolerant of pollution (worms and leaches) and two of which are more sensitive (stoneflies and mayflies). The group had to pick one group and discuss the importance of keeping the river clean. Following the discussion, each group gave us a presentation on how to keep the river clean and to protect the macro invertebrates. The children enjoyed it and learnt a lot.
After all that was said and done, the visit went so well and the students got a special treat at the end. We also had help from a volunteer, Tayla, who had joined us for the day and was a great help. Thank you so much. Thank you also to our funder, the Table Mountain fund.
MiniSASS in Barrydale
As a follow up from the Mural Project, we planned a miniSASS assessment with the community kids from Net vir Pret After Care Centre. Peter Takelo granted us permission during the April school holidays and assisted us in organizing the miniSASS and logistics.
In Barrydale, we met with Peter Takelo at the BF Oosthuizen Primary School, where Net vir Pret puts together a school holiday program. We went down to the river with 26 kids and their supervisors for the miniSASS assessment. We demonstrated the sampling techniques to the students, and they had the opportunity to examine the various macroinvertebrates that we found. We divided the students into two groups and later moved around to see what was collected in each sample.
We managed to pick up a small critically endangered Tradouw redfin in the SASS net which was very special, and we carefully returned it safely to the river.
We had to calculate the river's score after all the excitement of identifying the samples. They were very interested in learning what the Huis river's score was. We counted along with them and came to a score of 5.2 in a sandy stream, indicating that the river was moderately modified. We went on to explain what they needed to do to safeguard the river system and we also all helped to pick up the litter that we could see in the river.
It was another successful environmental education outing, and we hope that the children learnt a lot
GVB Conservancy Staff