• Jessica Evans

The body library with a key to our past

Updated: Aug 7, 2019

“I just basically saw a graveyard. The place is creepy.”

“I understand about the bottles, but the tanks!”

“It looked like more of a mortuary, but now there’s nothing strange about it. I think of it now as the most valuable thing that has ever happened.”

I think everyone in the room shares that sentiment.

That’s the conversation inside the cataloguing offices at the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB). It’s a strange conversation in its own right, but what’s even stranger is that these people are talking about their own work place. They’re talking about the fish collection, rows and rows and columns and columns of jars in various sizes carrying dead things, and white plastic tanks that could hide human bodies. Dead things. Everywhere. Rooms full. Stiffened fish, squids, frogs, floating in ethanol for all of eternity. It’s morbid. And weird. But important.

Imagine rooms full of jars like these. The labels are kept inside and they contain information like the species name, number of specimens, and the time, date, and location of capture. Photo by Jessica Evans.

What’s the point? Well, it’s more than the grim fascination of a few scientists in white coats. The collection at SAIAB is a database. “It’s like the library,” says my guide, soon-to-be MSc graduate, Nkosinathi Mazungula. He’s assistant manager in the cataloguing department. There, they prepare specimens to be sent out across the world. The same way you’d check out a book from a library, you’d check out a specimen to refer to in your research. They’re even stashed alphabetically according to their scientific name. The ‘library’ itself is complemented by an enormous online data base, with information on every species kept in the collection. It’s accessible from anywhere in the world and SAIAB’s data is used in research all over the globe.

SAIAB boasts a juvenile albino shark. It's a rare specimen because the albinism affects their natural camouflage, making them obvious prey at a young age. Photo by Jessica Evans.

SAIAB is the resting place for over 2 million lots of aquatic animals. A lot is a container that may house any number of specimens that were collected at the same time from the same place. They’re filed, organised alphabetically, then by jar size. Wheeled shelving systems and fibre-glass tanks line almost two floors of the building. Nkosinathi shows me around. We pass tentacles that jiggle at the movement of the shelf, curled up eels, stiff frogs, stretched out as if mid-jump, and fish lined up in ghostly shoals. The sight is chilling in it’s own right but it’s also 18 degrees Celsius. Any higher and the specimen-preserving ethanol would evaporate too quickly. Even at 18 degrees the jars and tanks are topped up once or twice a day.

"SAIAB is the resting place for over two million lots of aquatic animals."

Supplementary to the rooms full of jars and tanks is a collection of tissue samples for genetic analysis. Doorway-sized freezers are kept at -80 degrees Celsius to preserve the tissues of collected specimens for further research. The genes inside these tissues are studied and compared to other known species. This way they help refine scientists’ knowledge of the ways different fish are related – their taxonomy.

Nkosinathi shows me the tissue samples in the freezer. Photo by Jessica Evans.

I notice something that seems out of place – boards with… teeth? Yes. Jaws and teeth of mussel crackers. They’re part of the dry collection along with whole and partial skeletons of other fish. The bones are cleaned by loads of microscopic beetles, then kept in airtight containers that keep them perfectly preserved. This tomb, as creepy as it is, is a treasure trove for science. The oldest specimen dates back to 1880! Decades of collecting means that the collection at SAIAB can provide valuable information on species long after they might be gone. “In the near future some of these might be extinct, but we have them here,” says Amanda Gura, SAIAB’s Biomaterials Officer.

"This tomb, as creepy as it is, is a treasure trove for science."

Whenever a specimen or lot is brought to the collection it is labelled, barcoded and its date and location of capture are recorded. As waters get warmer with climate change, many fish habitats are changing. Warm water fish are dominating while cold water species are being herded into the ever-smaller cold corners of the earth. The information kept in the SAIAB collection is proving vital to research in all aspects of ecology.

“In a year we get maybe about 50 publications or so that have used our collection,” Nkosinathi tells me. He tells me about the buzz throughout the building whenever a new paper is published. Brags like ‘I catalogued that one’ and ‘I collected the specimens,’ are the talk of the staff.

The cataloging team at SAIAB. From left, Nonkoliso Mgibantaka, Siphamandla Mceleli, Prudence Moshabane, Nkosinathi Mazungula, Amanda Gura and Zinzi Somana. Photo by Jessica Evans.

SAIAB has it’s own researchers working on taxonomy, too. Dr Albert Chakona is one of the senior researchers. He and Nkosinathi have recently discovered that the Natal mountain catfish is actually a complex of five different species. “Conservation authorities will not recognise a species until you give it a scientific name,” he says, emphasising the importance of identifying and describing new species. Added to that is the fact that the more you know about a species, the more you know about how to conserve it, and that all starts with a name.

"The more you know about a species, the more you know about how to conserve it."

You’d never look at this inconspicuous building on Somerset St in Makhanda (Grahamstown) and feel the gravity of what happens inside. This bizarre graveyard holds a key to our natural history and our future. We are living in a time when the fate of the innumerable species with which we share this planet is uncertain, and by extension, so is our own. The history and the knowledge coming out of SAIAB and it’s collection is more important now than it ever has been.

©2018 by Bite-sized Sci | Jessica Evans