Aquatic Zoologist

Aquatic zoologist

James Maclaine

How did our young scientists get interested in the natural world?

James Maclaine - Aquatic zoology

An aquatic zoologist studies animals that live in water. There are millions of different types, but James specialises in studying fishes. He helps to look after the fish collections at the Museum, so he is a fish curator.

What made you want to be a fish curator?
James Maclaine

James Maclaine holding a greater spotted dogfish, Scyliorhinus stellaris

I didn't really start out with that in mind, I just blundered into it!

At first I was a fisheries biologist in Scotland, working with salmon, but that only lasted 2 years. Then I did some volunteer work for the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and that led me to the Natural History Museum, way back in 1998.

What advice would you give anyone wanting to be a fish curator?

The basic requirements are some experience and an appropriate degree - mine is Aquatic Bioscience. I'm afraid the best way to get experience these days is to volunteer and be prepared to work for nothing for a bit!

Obviously, a keen interest in zoology or biology helps a lot, but don't expect to be able to work with the thing that interests you most. I was very lucky to be a huge fish enthusiast and end up in the Fish Section.

What subjects at school were you best at?

Definitely biology and science in general. I enjoyed English and art as well, and I once got 95% in a woodwork exam, so perhaps in another universe I'm a carpenter.

What's the best thing about being a fish curator?

I like the variety of the work. When you open your email account in the morning, you never know what's going to be in there. There could be pictures of strange fish to identify, queries about hundred-year-old specimens, requests for X-rays of fish and people wanting to visit from all over the world.

I never get bored of working in the collection. We have over half a million fish, mostly pickled, but there are also some stuffed ones and some skeletons. I am still frequently surprised by what I find in the cupboards. Sometimes a fish that doesn't look very interesting will have an amazing history and I love going though old literature trying to find all the information.

You also get to meet some great people, I am writing this the day after a trip to the pub with a visiting fish researcher from Japan. He was telling us that in Tokyo, part of his job is to clean the front of his building every morning, I'm glad we don't have to do that here.

What's the worst thing about being a fish curator?

It can get pretty smelly from time to time. My colleagues and I once tried to get the skeleton out of a conger eel which involved boiling it for several days until it turned into a kind of soup. That didn't smell nice at all.

I also have to collect dead dolphins and porpoises for a joint project we have with London Zoo and they can be quite rank.

What's the most exciting thing you've found, discovered or researched?

I was lucky enough to go to Myanmar (Burma) on fieldwork a few years ago and during that trip we found quite a few new fish species. But my favourite find is a bit more obscure.

I discovered some specimens collected by a Scottish explorer called Mungo Park. I used to live in the Scottish Borders, as did Mungo, and he's quite a big local hero. The specimens were collected way back in 1793 and still have his handwritten labels attached.

I always find it amazing to think of all the people that have examined a specimen over the years, and those who will hopefully be examining it well into the future. Maybe somebody will be reading my handwritten labels 200 years from now and wondering who I was (and why I couldn't have written more neatly!).

What's your favourite fish?

That's very difficult, but at the end of the day I have to give quite an obvious answer - the great white shark. For such a huge fish there's still so much we don't know about it.

I'd like to think that one day one will be found in the seas around Britain, although it's not very likely as they are very rare in the northeast Atlantic and Mediterranean.

What's your favourite thing on display in the Museum?

I've always really liked the scaly anteaters in the mammal corridor. Sadly we don't usually have many fishes on display in the Museum although there were some great ones in our recent temporary exhibition, The Deep.

What's your favourite website about fish?

The one I use most often is actually a website of fish names, which are always changing so I need to keep up to date. It's always nice to see live fish rather than specimens and there are some great films on YouTube.

What's your favourite book about fish?

I read a great book recently about the early days of fossil collecting called the Dinosaur Hunters, by Deborah Cadbury. It was all about the Victorian scientists who tried to work out what dinosaurs looked like from a few fossils. Some of them got it quite badly wrong at first. It also has a lot about Sir Richard Owen, who founded The Natural History Museum in South Kensington. He wasn't very nice!

Are there any clubs or societies young people can join if they want to take their interest further?

I'm sure local councils can help advise but I'd also recommend contacting local museums to ask about activities.

What would you do if you weren't a fish curator?

I dread to think. Probably serving hamburgers. I've been very lucky.

Further info

Life in the sea

The oceans

Fishes of the deep sea

Fishes, amphibians and reptiles in the Museum's galleries