Diving for science

SCUBA and free diving as tools to study invasive species and animal behaviour.

I am writing this post on 24th February 2024, while sitting on a plane. The destination is Crete (Greece), where I will spend around two months with a team of four people. Our goal is to study the invasion and predation ecology of the most invasive fish in the marine realm, lionfish. This trip is part of a long series of expeditions that, together, make up half of my PhD at Wageningen University. Needless to say, a lot of the work that we do during my trips involves diving.

In each expedition, we work as a team to maintain a long-term underwater experiment aimed at measuring the impact of invasive lionfish on the Mediterranean biodiversity. We do this in remote locations on the southern coast of Crete, which we reach by travelling either on a small boat or by DPVs (Diver Propulsion Vehicles, a.k.a. underwater scooters).

In addition, we catch live lionfish that we take to facilities on land where we conduct controlled behavioural experiments. These experiments are focussed on lionfish-prey interactions and aim at elucidating the hunting strategy of these fascinating predators. We catch live lionfish using a combination of SCUBA and free diving, depending on the skills of our participants and needs. In all these activities, we are supported by our collaborators and friends at the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research, a leading institution for marine sciences in Greece.

But how did this all start? I like to think that it began the first time that I breathed underwater and I entered a dimension that I could have only dreamt of. While for a second that felt like an achievement, it was just the beginning and it opened the door to a completely new way of exploring underwater ecosystems.

I started learning of how heroes of mine were using SCUBA diving as a tool to explore underwater ecosystems and push the boundaries of human knowledge. While diving in different ecosystems, I realised that there couldn’t be a better future for myself than one that allows me to use diving to answer scientific questions. I tried to take my first step to follow the footprints of the great scientists that I admired when I chose my master thesis.

After considering every single project available that involved underwater work, I decided to do it on invasive lionfish in Cyprus. This was under the supervision of Alexander Kotrschal (Behavioural Ecology), who is still supervising me today during my PhD. I jumped onboard of a project that he was conducting to study the behaviour of these gorgeous fish in the recently invaded Mediterranean.

The more I learned about lionfish, the more I realised that many interesting questions were still unanswered. Among these are the impact that they are having on the Mediterranean biodiversity and whether the local prey are adapting to this new predator. Further, although they are arguably the most effective predators on earth, we do not fully understand how they manage to prevent their prey from reacting to their presence.

I have always found unresolved questions like these incredibly stimulating and I cannot think of a better way to study my favourite organisms than fully immersing myself in their own environment. I know that there are many people out there sharing my same enthusiasm for fishes, marine ecology and animal behaviour. If you think that you can contribute to our work on lionfish in any way or if you have any idea involving diving at the service of scientific development, get in touch (davide.bottacini@wur.nl) and we can chat about possibilities. 

See you soon, either above or underwater!

– Davide Bottacini

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