News » Larval fish expert dies while diving

Allan ConnellDr Allan Connell was a valued and much respected member of the South African marine science community and an Honorary Research Associate of SAIAB. Although much of his career was spent monitoring the impact of marine pollution outfalls on our coastal environment for the CSIR, according to Professor Alan Whitfield who has known Dr Connell as a colleague for many years, "his real skills and passion as a naturalist were evident with his knowledge and contributions to marine larval fish research. His backyard hobby of raising a wide variety of fish larvae from the egg to the early juvenile stage was accompanied by detailed developmental photographs of each specimen and associated meticulous documentation, a record that he made freely available via the web to ichthyologists in South Africa and abroad."

In recent years he contributed genetic material from an amazing variety of southern African marine fish species to the Barcode of Life Database (BoLD), a service he provided for free and one in which he was actively engaged right up until the tragic diving accident off the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast.

We are extremely fortunate to have a record of an interview conducted with Dr Connell when he last visited SAIAB,  as part of a communications intern's project (Aquazone blogspot - November 2012). Of the origins of his relationship with SAIAB, he had this to say, “I was heading a team of chemists, bacteriologists and biologists and we would often find fish. We didn’t know what species they were and would send them to SAIAB for identification. Our work often involved aspects of Ichthyology, which helped to build a relationship with Phil and Elaine Heemstra together with Alan Whitfield.”

Even though he did his PhD in Entomology, he had always been interested in fishing from a very young age. “After my retirement I started a culture of collecting and studying fish eggs. I collect, catalogue and identify these fish eggs. While doing this work, I came across eggs which I couldn’t identify and that’s around the time I went into DNA testing," he said. At the time there wasn’t much being done in this field in South Africa.

“I searched the internet and came across an article in New Scientist about a researcher at the University of Guelph in Canada, who was barcoding cryptic butterflies, to unravel the mystery of very distinguishable larvae on specific host plants giving rise to cryptic adults that few experts could tell apart by traditional taxonomy." He made contact with the scientist and asked whether it was possible to barcode some of his unknown species. He replied that they were in the process of sourcing funding for the launch of an international effort to barcode the fishes of the world. “They asked if I was willing to collect fish from South Africa and in exchange they would barcode my hatched larvae," he said.
Dr Connell then contacted SAIAB requesting permission to propose SAIAB as the Southern African representative on the barcoding team and his collaboration with SAIAB has taken various forms ever since.

SAIAB salutes the passing of a great South African marine scientist whose absence will be sorely felt by all who have an interest in the biology and ecology of our estuaries and coastal waters.

Allan Connell

 Dr Connell was truly an expert in marine larval fishes. The photographs above (a small sample of his collection) are testimony to the detailed care and observation he applied.

For more information  about his work please visit: 

Dr Connell's passing has been reported in the media - for more please see and the pdf below.

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