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.
GVB Conservancy Staff