BHL and Our Users: EOL Rubenstein Fellow, Dr. John Sullivan

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Today, we continue with our mini-series featuring EOL Rubenstein Fellows and their research activities. For this installment, meet Dr. John Sullivan, a passionate ichthyologist dedicated to discovering and describing fish species all over the world, but particularly in Africa.

What are your research interests, where you do the bulk of your work (country), and what is your institutional affiliation?

I am an evolutionary biologist who studies the phylogenetic interrelationships and evolution of freshwater fishes. I focus on two groups in particular: weakly electric fishes (Mormyridae and Gymnotiformes) which are found in Africa and South America, respectively, and catfishes (Siluriformes), which are distributed pretty much all over the world. In addition to using molecular techniques to work out phylogenies for these fishes, I describe species and work on the taxonomy of all three groups. My most recent collecting field trips have been to Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Gabon. I am affiliated with two institutions, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, where I am a Research Associate, and the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates in Ithaca, New York, where I am a Curatorial Affiliate. I live with my wife in Ithaca.

In the program, Fellowships are expected to serve as a complementary funding source to existing funding you have that supports your primary research activities. Please describe what you primary research activities are.

I used the Rubenstein Fellowship to supplement a nine-month Fulbright Research Fellowship in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. My Fulbright work was to make an inventory of fish species found in the vicinity of Kisangani, a city on the Congo River at the base of the Upper Congo rapids and to help build capacity at the University of Kisangani in ichthyology. As a Rubenstein Fellow, I made creation of EOL species pages for Congo River freshwater fishes a key activity of my time there. And since my return from Congo, I’ve been continuing to add many of the hundreds of photographs of fish specimens I took as we identify the specimens. We’ve already found several undescribed species from our collections, and I and my colleagues are beginning work on their descriptions.

Please describe how you use EOL to disseminate or support your primary research activities, or what your primary duties related to EOL are.

Eventually, I’d like to see great photos, descriptions and keys available online through EOL for all African freshwater fishes. We still have a lot of work to do to get there, but one can now see that this is the future. It still takes a lot of time to do careful taxonomic work, but now as soon as it’s published, we can get the name into a classification and a picture and description up online. For instance, we got the new mormyrid species Petrocephalus similis into EOL the week it was published in July. Taxonomy is a dynamic discipline: names and classifications frequently change to reflect our improving knowledge of the organisms (a sometime annoyance to end-users of taxonomies, but unavoidable). So static books are in some ways poor repositories of this information. Taxonomy and the Web are really made for each other and in hindsight something like EOL was inevitable.

How has the EOL Fellows program made a difference in your career/research?

The Rubenstein EOL Fellows program gave me an easy way to help make knowledge about African fishes available to everyone, including Africans who often have internet access but nothing in the way of libraries. The more informed my African colleagues are about their own fish fauna, the more effective our collaborations can be. While it doesn’t take the place of getting published in the primary literature, contributing to EOL tells your colleagues that you’re committed to the “broader impacts” of what we taxonomists do and that you’re at the forefront of where the field of taxonomy is headed. I am looking forward to the day when publishing a new species description and publishing content on EOL are one and the same thing. In fact, that future is already here with the journal ZooKeys that automatically exports to EOL. We plan to use that journal for our next mormyrid description.

Who is your Mentor, what is their area of interest (research activities), and how have they supported you throughout your Fellowship?

My mentor is Dr. Melanie Stiassny, curator of fishes at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Melanie has really reinvigorated the study of fish diversity of the Congo River over the past few years and has made a number of stunning discoveries in the rapids area of the Lower Congo. She was great at providing me the logistical and moral support I needed for my project in Kisangani.

How does BHL support your Fellows activities, as well as those research activities that fall outside of your duties as an EOL Fellow?

I tend to think of BHL as my personal ichthyology library (although I know there’s a bit more archived in it than that). I have retrieved dozens and dozens of species descriptions from it that are now on my personal computer for instant reference and also appended to species pages in one of my two EOL Lifedesks: and

I’ll give you a concrete example of how BHL supports my work. In systematics, the old literature is often just as important as the new. For instance, the systematics of a genus of mormyrid fish we work on was really blocked by our inability to establish the identity of Mormyrus sphekodes (now Paramormyrops sphekodes), described in 1879 by French ichthyologist H.E. Sauvage. The type specimen still exists, but is in bad condition in the Paris Museum collection. If we were to describe new species without knowing what P. sphekodes really was, we risked redescribing it under a different name and creating a synonym.

So this past May I arranged to go back to the type locality mentioned by Sauvage, the “Chutes de Doumé” on the Ogooué River in Gabon to make a new collection of it. I’m happy to report I succeeded! Before going there, I had downloaded Sauvage’s description of this fish from BHL, published in the Bulletin de la Société Philomatique de Paris. It had taken me just a few minutes to locate this paper and customize the pdf. I had it on my Kindle as I stood at the site, a place I don’t think ichthyologists had revisited since the 1870s.

When did you first discover BHL?

Some time before I started my Fellowship, probably in 2008.

What are your favorite features/services on BHL?

I love how it takes me no time at all to find a species description in some old serial like the Annals and Magazine of Natural History and, using the web interface, generate a pdf of just those pages that I want. Even if I lived in a library that had these volumes on the shelf, it would take me longer to locate what I was looking for. I can then take those pdfs BHL generates for me and attach them to the species pages I create on my Lifedesks. Now anybody in the world has instant access to the original species description in a couple of clicks!

If you could change one thing about BHL, or suggest one thing to be the next developmental priority for BHL, what would it be?

It seems like you are doing the right thing: continue to expand and add content. It is great to see a number of biodiversity journals allowing BHL to digitize their back catalog, including material still under copyright, and very encouraging to see BHL go international with BHL-Europe and other initiatives. Now that much of the really old stuff is available, it’s the material from the 1930’s – 1970’s that is notably hard to obtain if you don’t have a world-class library, so I hope more of it finds its way onto BHL in the near future.

Please describe why you think services like EOL and BHL are important for today’s scientific community.

Science is all about disseminating knowledge and building upon what has come before, yet so much of our knowledge of plants and animals has remained inaccessible to those who could make use of it. This has been a big part of the “taxonomic impediment.” BHL is radically changing the status quo and democratizing access to knowledge about biodiversity. Now that access to the works of so many great 18th and 19th Century biologists is an easy affair, I expect we’ll see them cited a lot more in the modern literature. In this way, BHL is contributing to the continuity of biodiversity science.

Do you have a favorite book in BHL, or a book that has most supported your research activities or EOL responsibilities?

My favorite book in BHL would have to be the four volumes of George Albert Boulenger’s Catalogue of the Fresh-Water Fishes of Africa, published from 1909 to 1916. This work remains the single-most important publication on African ichthyology. While many more species have been described in the subsequent century and generic names have undergone changes, it is still a remarkably useful resource for identifying African fishes. Until BHL made pdfs of all four volumes freely available, you had to pay dearly even for a reprinted version. Now all my African colleagues who never had these advantages have the pdfs on their laptops.

Thank you, Dr. Sullivan, for taking the time to give us a glimpse into your world and research, and for articulating how important BHL has been to your endeavors. As we continue to grow our collection, we hope to be able to establish more and more relationships with publishers and provide access to a plethora of in-copyright materials, freeing, as you so eloquently describe, this information from the static written page to the future of dynamic electronic access for the world.

Information on the photo from Dr. Sullivan: “The photo is of me on the Ogooué River in Gabon, Africa in May of this year. The site is a famous one for African ichthyology: it is the “Chutes de Doumé” from which H.-E. Sauvage described the catfish Doumea typica and the mormyrid electric fish Mormyrus sphekodesnow Paramormyrops sphekodes(among others) in an 1879 publication published in the Bulletin de la Société philomathique de Paris, a pdf of which I downloaded from BHL!”

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Grace Costantino served as the Outreach and Communication Manager for the Biodiversity Heritage Library from 2014 to 2021. In this capacity, she developed and managed BHL's communication strategy, oversaw social media initiatives, and engaged with the public to excite audiences about the wealth of biodiversity heritage available in BHL. Prior to her role as Outreach and Communication Manager, Grace served as the Digital Collections Librarian for Smithsonian Libraries and as the Program Manager for BHL.