Background Information | Data Activity
Written by Susan Haynes, Consortium for Oceanographic Research and Education

Kerstin Fritsches, Neuroethologist

Kerstin Fritsches, Neuroethologist
The crew aboard the
R/V Oscar E. Sette affectionately refer to her as the "crazy Australian eyeball scientist." Originally from Germany, now at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, Dr. Kerstin Fritsches is far from crazy, but she does work on eyeballs — fish eyeballs to be exact. Working out of the Vision, Touch and Hearing Research Center at the University, Dr. Fritsches' research is a marriage of neuroscience, marine biology and ecology. Her work focuses on the vision of open ocean (pelagic) fish species such as swordfish and tuna.

Dr. Fritsches is a neuroethologist. Neuroethology is the study of how nervous systems generate behavior in animals. Specifically, Kerstin is interested in how the vision of a fish species is adapted to the requirements of its environment and lifestyle. Each species she studies lives in the open ocean, but each fills a slightly different niche. Some live near the surface of the water, and others live in deeper, cooler water. The purpose of her research is to gain an understanding of how the eyes of these fishes have adapted to their specific environment. The questions she seeks to answer include: How is the fish's eye built? How good is the lens? How well can the fish see fast moving objects such as prey? Can this species see color?

Kerstin taking eye samplesBut how does a scientist go about studying the eyes of fishes found in Pacific waters of 600 meters deep? Kerstin has been involved in several scientific cruises aboard large research vessels including the retired R/V Townsend Cromwell and more recently the R/V Oscar E. Sette, both owned and operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). She frequently joins Dr. Richard Brill from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and scientists from the University of Hawaii's NMFS lab on longlining cruises where they catch, satellite tag, and release billfish, such as swordfish, and various species of sharks. During these cruises, a few fish are collected and Kerstin is able to get the eye samples she needs.

Ideallly, scientists would like to study organisms in their natural environment, however, that's not always possible. With a laboratory set up on the ship, Kerstin and her colleagues collect living samples of retina tissue and conduct several different vision capability experiments. One experiment uses light flashes to determine the response of the living eye to various stimuli. Another experiment uses colored lasers to determine if the eye can see colors.

A big part of Dr. Fritsches' motivation is the idea that her research can be applied to current issues in fisheries science. The vision information she collects combined with behavior information from the satellite tags can assist fisheries managers in designing better fishing gear that will help reduce the amount of non-target (bycatch) species caught such as sea turtles.

For a classroom data activity based on Dr. Fritsches' fish vision research, go the the March 2005 Data Tip. Teachers interested in participating in an oceanographic research cruise, such as the one on which Dr. Fritsches's research was conducted, can apply for NOAA's Teacher At Sea program. For other fish biology related resources, visit the Bridge's Bony Fishes page. If you have questions or comments about the Spotlight, contact Lisa Ayers Lawrence, Bridge Webkeeper.

Previous Spotlight on a Scientist: Mike Arendt, Fisheries Scientist
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