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My encounters with lovable creatures from murky (and other) waters…

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Dr. Krishnaja A.P.

13 May 2010.
My encounters with lovable creatures from murky (and other) waters…

My foray into research was quite accidental. Still more accidental were my close encounters with
lovable creatures from murky (and other) waters….They slithered into my life, without any
warning. And left me, with a new fondness and a faint yearning. But that’s what life is all about.
We meet only to say goodbye sooner or later. And what we’re left with, are the memories. That’s
how life is….

I find fish and crab quite yummy when served on a plate, but I never imagined I would handle
them, day in day out, for over three years. And the highlight? A fish that walks. Surprised?
Stretch your imagination a little bit. Imagine a fish that can use its pectoral fins to walk and hop
on land. This is exactly what a mudskipper does — a lovable creature I first encountered around
1978, during my doctoral research days.

But I didn’t always consider these walking, hopping creatures quite so lovable. It was our fish
supplier Narayan Koli who first introduced me to two members of the mudskipper family:
Boleophthalmus dussumieri and Boleophthalmus boddarti. My first handshake with them was
quite an awkward affair for both of us I suppose. I was nervous about the prospect of closer
encounters with these creatures that the future had in store. A lifelong aversion to all creatures
that slithered — the consequence of a snake bite in my childhood — only made matters worse.

In any case, I put up a brave front. All of us in the lab were quite amused at the way the
mudskippers moved about when left to themselves. Over the next two years, many a time I had
to chase these lovable creatures and bring them back to the fish tanks, after they skipped away on
one of their escapades.

As these escapades became rather frequent, they led to several hilarious episodes in the lab,
especially during the toxicological bioassays to find the LC50 values. The irrepressible
mudskippers often decided to come out for a breath of fresh air at the wrong times, through the
space between the lids of the fish tanks. It was rather funny searching for them under the tables
and chairs. And just when a visitor to the lab would think it was completely deserted, voila! I
would emerge from under a table or chair with this slippery creature clutched in one hand and
most nonchalantly ask about the purpose of the visit.

Our hide and seek games continued in the second floor lab overlooking the Prince of Wales
Museum at the Institute of Science, Bombay, now renamed Mumbai. Looking back, I feel sad
that so many of these creatures were sacrificed at the altar of research. My thesis “Fish as an in
vivo cytogenetic model in the detection of potential mutagens” was born out of my hide and seek
games with these lovable creatures from murky waters.

Mudskippers belong to the family Gobiidae (Gobies). They are amphibious, meaning they are
quite active even out of water. They are uniquely adapted to inter-tidal habitats. They have two
ways to get around on land: one is to walk about on their pectoral fins, and the other is to skip or
jump, suggestive of their name. Instead of swimming like most fish, mudskippers use their
pectoral fins to walk on land and under the water. In water, mudskippers swim with side-to-side
movements like other gobies. The highly modified large pectoral (front) fins, shaped and used
like small legs, enable them to do these tricks. The two well-developed dorsal fins are ideal for
wriggling on land and for moving in river sludge. As the name indicates, the fish use their fins to
move around in a series of skips. Mini circus artistes, they can also flip their muscular body and
catapult themselves up in the air.

The Mudskippers are perhaps, the most conspicuous fish in our mangroves — simply because
they spend most of their time out of water. Uniquely adapted for terrestrial activity, they breathe
by holding water in their mouth and gill chamber, replacing it with fresh water when it becomes
deoxygenated. By staying damp, the fish can also breathe through its skin. The physiology of
mudskippers is remarkable — they can withstand levels of oxygen lower than most animals
could survive, they are able to breathe anaerobically for long periods, and endure concentrations
of hydrogen sulphide that would be toxic to many organisms.

But how do they stay out of water for such long time periods? Being fish, the mudskippers have
gills. Once out of water, the gills begin to dry out and stick together, so mudskippers have a
special cavity behind their ears where seawater is stored. As they rotate their eyes, pressure is
applied to that cavity and this re-oxygenates the stored water, lubricates the gill flaps and restores
the gills to their normal function.

The mudskipper hides in mud burrows when approached and a plume of dark muddy water can
be seen emerging from the burrow, or it may bounce over the surface of the water. They are
difficult to catch because of this behaviour, scurrying rapidly from the land and shallows into
deeper water.

‘Boleophthalmus’ (is from the Greek metaphorical expression ‘bolê ophthalmôn’ - quick
glances), refers to the rapid or blinking eye movements. The remarkable eyes mounted on top of
their heads, allow for a fantastic panoramic view. The eyes are protected by a clear layer of skin.
As they have no tear ducts to keep the eyes moist, they alternately roll their eyes backwards into
their sockets! The species is named after the French voyager and merchant Jean Jacques
`Dussumier` who collected the material.

Boleophthalmus dussumieri was originally found in Mumbai, India. It is edible, with a peculiar
taste quite distinct from the other marine fish found in the adjoining sea. I must admit that I have
never had the guts or the will to try it, although I am quite fond of seafood.

Another lovable creature the murky waters throw up are Scylla serrata — the intertidal,
mangrove or estuarine crabs. Dark brown or mottled green in colour, these crabs are
characterised by a smooth broad carapace and flattened hind legs for swimming.

This was the job that gave me sustenance and allowed me to carry on my work with fish for my
doctoral thesis. My work with crabs began on a funny note. One fine morning I left the bag
containing five crabs with claws tied, on the laboratory table, which was placed near huge
windows that fronted a busy street. When I returned ten minutes later, to my utter surprise, the
crabs had vanished. There was simply no trace of them. That’s when I realised that they had
committed suicide royally, by jumping off the second floor window. Thus began my studies on
In the name of toxicity bioassays to determine the LC50 values for heavy metals, mercury,
cadmium, lead, selenium and arsenic, I sacrificed quite a large number of these innocent
creatures with claws. I watched silently their discomfort in the added heat of summer months, as
they were subjected to these poisonous substances, to which they slowly succumbed — all under
the guise of collecting valuable scientific data. I made buckets of artificial seawater in the lab
and the poor creatures were kept in it. Yes. I was a silent spectator to this well executed torture. I
feel bad now. I was paid to do this… again in the name of research…

During 1974-75, the early years of my research (M.Sc days), there were occasions when I had to
travel in crowded local trains carrying live fish (Labeo rohita and Labeo calbasu — Labeo is a
genus of “carps” in the family Cyprinidae, found mainly in the tropics), weighing more than one
kg in an air bag containing water. If, by chance, one of the fish were to escape and wriggle on the
bogie floor, it would have caused havoc in the compartment, where people are packed in like
sardines. Fortunately, such an eventuality never occurred.

In 1975, I used to visit the Aarey fish farms, inject the fish there, wait for two hours and then
bring back the samples to the lab for further analysis. My friend Savita and I used to call it our
weekly picnic at Aarey. The verdant surroundings of Aarey were a welcome retreat from the
crowded areas of Mumbai. We thoroughly enjoyed these weekly visits and the two hours spent
there, reading our favourite books under the shade of the trees. The icing on the cake were the
wheat adais made by my uncle on my return home in the evenings, pretentiously, since I am
tired at the end of the day by the long journey and work. Even now, when I visualise the two of
us sitting near the lake throwing pebbles, watching the ripples created, at times, I feel an
overwhelming sense of calm enveloping me.

Another place we regularly visited was Thane lake, again for collecting our specimens. There
also, the same routine was adhered to, with the added itinerary of boating. We forgot all our
immediate worries, experiment planning, data collection, thesis writing etc. and thoroughly
enjoyed the boat rides. For our Thane lake visits however, I did not have to carry the specimens
back to the lab. Instead, I had an arrangement with a local lab, where I processed the samples
half way, then carried the half processed samples back to lab for further analysis. Adventure thy
name is research…
In 1980, after my Ph.D thesis submission and viva-voce were over, I was invited to a sumptuous
lunch at Narayan Koli`s place. I still remember the fried pomfrets, succulent tiger prawns and
fleshy deep-sea crabs. Of course, Boleophthalmus, Scylla and Labeo were taboo. In my mind, I
heave a sigh of relief — that pomfrets, prawns and deep-sea crabs were never part of my study