Professor Mike Bruton. Photo courtesy Dispatch LIVE

Professor Mike Bruton is not simply one thing. An ichthyologist, author, researcher, academic, consultant, and consummate man of the sea, during his career Prof Bruton has founded and developed museums (like the Knysna Angling Museum) and science centres (like the MTN Sciencentres in Cape Town and Umhlanga), and established research stations (including the Lake Sibaya Research Station in KwaZulu-Natal). Prof Bruton was also the second director of the world-famours JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology - now the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity – in Grahamstown. (And that's just the tip of the ice berg! Check out his full CV here.) And Prof Bruton was closely involved with the Two Oceans Aquarium during our early days in the mid-1990s.

Prof Bruton at the Two Oceans Aquarium

Prof Bruton is also a prolific author, and he has written several wonderful books on marine and freshwater biology, as well as one on South African inventions.

On top of all this, Prof Bruton is an internationally recognised expert on the coelacanth, probably one of the most mysterious sea creatures to capture our imaginations in the previous century. His latest book is The Amazing Coelacanth (Penguin Random House). This colourful book is aimed at ages 9 to 14 and, while it was written for younger readers, it was also written for readers who are "young at heart" and who might desire a concise, illustrated version of the coelacanth story. It recounts the discovery of the first coelacanth in modern times – a fish that had been thought to be extinct for many millions of years, and was known only from its fossil record.

This is a must-have journey through the mysteries of the coelacanth, a wonderful book that uncovers the story of the coelacanth and its strange appearance and lifestyle. It takes a deep dive into what makes the coelacanth so special, how it evolved, and what that has to do with human evolution. We also learn how and what the coelacanth eats, and who eats it. Any enquiring mind – young or old – will love this adventure with “old four legs”, as told by one of our country’s finest imagineers.

Q&A with Prof Bruton

We had a chance to ask Prof Bruton a few burning questions.

Two Oceans Aquarium: Why did you decide to develop a book about coelacanths particularly for the 9-14 age range? What appeal does the coelacanth hold for pre-teens and teenagers in particular?

Prof Mike Bruton: The discovery of the first living coelacanth off South Africa is one of the most exciting stories in the history of marine biology, and informal science education is all about storytelling. The subsequent discovery of a colony of coelacanths living off our Zululand coast, the project, led from South Africa, to sequence the coelacanth genome, and the ongoing African Coelacanth Ecosystem Programme (ACEP), all mean that the coelacanth saga is still very much a South African story. It is important for the new generation of young South Africans to know the story, and be inspired by it, which The Amazing Coelacanth book will help to do. I think that this book will also satisfy the needs of adults who want to read a short, well-illustrated version of the coelacanth story.

TOA: Coelacanths are called “living fossils”. What is meant by that?

MB: The term “living fossil” refers to an animal (or plant) that is similar to extinct species that are only known from fossils, but is still living today. The coelacanth, platypus and lungfish are examples of living fossils among animals whereas the cycad and maidenhair fern are examples among plants.

TOA: The coelacanth is on the IUCN Red list (Critically Endangered). What is its estimated population size worldwide, and what are the key threats to the survival of this species?

MB: We do not know the worldwide population size of coelacanths, but we do know that about 500 adults live off Grand Comoro Island in the Comoros, which appears to be one of their main habitats. Scientists are currently searching the Pacific Ocean for coelacanths as we think that they might occur there as well. We also think that they might occur in canyons off the northern Mozambique coast, so they may be more widespread than we currently know.

The coelacanth is mainly threatened by the irrational actions of humans, such as the global spread of insecticides and plastics (even in the oceans), and the use of explosives, poisons and gillnets to catch fish. They are not threatened by traditional fishermen whose catch rates of coelacanths are very low.

TOA: You’ve spent a large part of your career developing and promoting environmental education through aquariums, science centres and museums across South Africa and the world. What roles, in your mind, do facilities such as these play in fostering love and inspiring action for the wellbeing of the ocean or for nature in general? Put another way, what is the educational power of an aquarium/museum/science centre?

MB: I believe that the role of informal science education facilities, such as aquariums, science centres and museums, is more important now than ever before, for three reasons. Firstly, science is advancing at such a pace that it is impossible for laypeople to keep up. The role of informal science education facilities is to sift through the vast amount of information and to inform people about what is important and relevant to their lives. Furthermore, it is not enough to just give them information, we must contextualise this information so that it is useful to them and helps them to make wise decisions, change their mind-sets and behaviour, and become agents of change. Aquariums, together with science centres and museums, therefore act as a vital link between the scientific establishment and the general public.

Secondly, science is under threat, and the value of science is being questioned at all levels of society. A society that undervalues science is a society that is doomed to failure. Science not only offers us the opportunity to learn more about how nature works but also to address, and solve, the many problems that we, as humans, have created on the planet. Without science we cannot solve these problems. We must be strong ambassadors for science.

Thirdly, aquariums, science centres and museums offer non-scientists the opportunity to become directly involved in addressing societal problems, including the many environmental challenges that face us.

TOA: We are supposed to be in the Fourth Industrial Revolution – characterised by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between physical, digital and biological spheres. What does this mean for an aquarium?

MB: I do not think that we are in the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”. We are in the first “Digital Revolution”, which is, in many ways, anti-industrial and will help us to undo much of the damage that has been caused to the environment, and to the human condition, by the first three Industrial Revolutions. Aquariums, natural history museums and science centres should be at the forefront of the campaign to use all the tools and opportunities provided by the Digital Revolution, such as global networking, big data, artificial intelligence, robotics, rapid digital uptake, accelerated technological disruption and innovation, renewable energy, alternative fuels, techpreneurship, and the digital savvy of Millennials, to address global and local environmental problems.

Competition terms and conditions

  1. All content sent to the Two Oceans Aquarium as entry into the competition may be used on the Aquarium’s website and associated digital platforms.
  2. Entries close at 24h00 on Tuesday 19 June 2018.
  3. Winners will be notified on Thursday 21 June 2018.
  4. To be entered into the lucky draw, the question must be answered correctly.
  5. Two individual winners will be chosen by lucky draw.
  6. Each winner will receive one complimentary copy of The Amazing Coelacanth.
  7. Representatives of the Two Oceans Aquarium will pick the winner from eligible entries.
  8. Prizes are non-transferable.
  9. Prizes must be redeemed within three months of the date of issue.
  10. The judges’ decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into.
  11. The winners may be required to participate in a photo-taking session during the issuing of the prize.
  12. Pictures may be posted online.
  13. Entry into the competition and acceptance of any prize shall constitute consent on the winner's part to allow the use of the winner's name, image, voice and/or likeness by the Two Oceans Aquarium for editorial, advertising, promotional, marketing and/or other purposes without further compensation except where prohibited by law.
  14. This competition is not open to Two Oceans Aquarium or volunteers and their families.
  15. Anyone who has won a competition or promotion through the Two Oceans Aquarium in the last six months is not eligible to win.
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