Tuesday, March 29, 2016

A tribute

Today's post is on a very sad occasion. March 18th, a very dear colleague and long-time collaborator, Allan Connell, died during a diving accident. 

Even though he did his PhD in Entomology, he had always been interested in fishing from a very young age and after his retirement he started a culture of collecting and studying fish eggs. He collected, catalogued, reared, and identified fish eggs at the KwaZulu- Natal coast off Park Rynie. Of course he often came across eggs and larvae he couldn't identify. Allan describes what happened next:

I searched the internet and came across an article in New Scientist about a researcher at the University of Guelph in Canada, who was barcoding cryptic butterflies, to unravel the mystery of very distinguishable larvae on specific host plants giving rise to cryptic adults that few experts could tell apart by traditional taxonomy. I made contact with the scientist (Paul Hebert) and asked whether it was possible to barcode some of my unknown species. He replied that they were in the process of sourcing funding for the launch of an international effort to barcode the fishes of the world. They asked if I was willing to collect fish from South Africa and in exchange they would barcode my hatched larvae.

I met Allan more than 10 years ago at the inaugural FishBOL meeting and we started a collaboration that went on until his untimely death. Countless emails went back and forth and it was great to see how it progressed. I am glad I kept most of those emails as some are wonderful examples of his enthusiasm. He often likened the arrival of new lab results to the opening of Christmas presents because some mysterious larva finally revealed its identity. Allan was a very friendly and patient person, always willing to help out colleagues by putting in an extra effort to obtain information or samples for them. He will be missed by many but my thoughts go out to his family.

A few weeks ago we got a paper accepted that summarized the first 10 years of this work. Little did we know that this would become Allan's legacy. This study delivered DNA barcodes for over 5000 individuals representing more than 1000 species of South African fishes. The fact that these specimens represent about 3% of all known fish species and 10% of the fish species barcoded to date is startling as they derive from the efforts of a single researcher, Allan. This effort took essentially 10 years, but it clearly shows his dedication and ardour. 

Farewell Allan. A number of people that knew you much better say that there is no other way you would rather have gone from this world than doing what you love most. I am thankful for the fact that I was able to join you for a small part of your journey over the last years. 

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