There are many places on this Earth that create significant challenges for scientific study—the deep ocean and the polar regions come to mind right away. Even with the massive physical hurdles that come with work in those areas, scientists, including those from the Canadian Museum of Nature, still find ways to explore them on a regular basis.

Brian Coad in front of a table with a microscope and a fish.
Brian Coad examining a fish in the museum’s lab. Image: Claude Renaud © Canadian Museum of Nature.

But there are some places that push even the bravest person to the limit of what can be done. Conflict areas present the brutal threats of war and violence, and cause vast landscapes to be inaccessible. Think about the border zone between North Korea and South Korea, regions of the Middle East and Asia, and areas of Mexico, Central America, South America and Africa where political turmoil or crime may have a strong presence. There are conflicts in many regions around the globe that are highly risky and limit field research to thoroughly understand the natural history there.

Even in the face of mortal danger, experience suggests that if there is a compelling reason to study natural history, scientists will find a way. This is where Dr. Brian Coad comes into our story. He is an ichthyologist (fish expert) who is about to publish a book on the fishes of Afghanistan. Brian is a world authority on the cyprinids, a family of freshwater fishes referred to as the minnows, and the most diverse fish group on the planet (about 2,400 species). There are plenty of those fish to study in North America (which he does), but he also applies himself to the large number of species in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

Profile view of a specimen of Alburnoides holciki
Many of the new and unknown species are small, like this eight cm long specimen of Alburnoides holciki. Image: Brian Coad © Canadian Museum of Nature.

During the early part of his career Brian spent a few years collecting and studying the fishes of Iran. To do that thoroughly, he had to study the fishes of neighbouring countries, especially Iraq and Afghanistan. He has published his fish discoveries from each of those countries and has established himself as the go-to expert. When the recent Afghan war began, nongovernmental organizations and others wanted to understand the risks to the natural environment. As the go-to fish guy for this area, Brian began receiving questions, as well as specimens for identification that were collected by brave souls, both biologists and sometimes keen soldiers.

A soldier holds up a large example of Luciobarbus esocinus that he caught with hook and line at Camp Slayer, Baghdad, Iraq (32-34 kg, 1.32 m, released alive). Known as a Tigris salmon, it is actually a member of the Carp family.
A soldier holds up a large example of Luciobarbus esocinus that he caught with hook and line at Camp Slayer, Baghdad, Iraq (32-34 kg, 1.32 m, released alive). Known as a Tigris salmon, it is actually a member of the Carp family.

Conflict areas are tricky places to conduct field studies, so the work of his colleagues is often sporadic and opportunistic. The Museum maintains a reference collection of fish specimens sent from Afghanistan (173), an important contribution to the modest number of specimens in the other known collection at the Natural History Museum in London (71). Brian made extensive use of our Iranian fishes (2,746) to help identify the Afghan collection and to understand what else might swim across the border between the two countries. His unique position in the science community has allowed an impressive, important, safe, accessible collection to form at the Canadian Museum of Nature.

During his studies, Brian has identified and described many new species (at least ten are still waiting to be described), trained students, and provided advice to aquatic ecologists who might be able to conserve some of these important fishes. After such an impressive track record of research he is now in a position to summarize his findings for Afghanistan. This new book will describe all the 85 fish species of that country (49 are in the minnow family), and provide keys that will allow others to identify the fish for themselves. That book arrives in libraries in mid-2014 from our publisher, Pensoft.

Illustration of two sturgeons.
Examples of highly endangered sturgeons, Pseudoscaphirhynchus kaufmanni. Image: N.N. Kondakov © Russian Federal Research Institute of Fishery and Oceanography.

One of the important marks of a museum is the amount of critical attention it provides to its collection in order to conserve and improve its value. At a natural history museum, some of that attention comes from science experts. Like Brian, our science experts spend a lot of their time thinking about the plants, animals, fossils and minerals that are found in Canada. But in most cases their expertise is also applied worldwide, and adds to a community that collaborates regularly, and shares its discoveries freely with everyone. Wishing tight-lines to fish collectors everywhere.