From cancer researcher to clownfish expert

Ecology, evolution, and developmental biology all come together in the research conducted by clownfish scientist - Professor Vincent Laudet.

clownfish header image

Since featuring in the popular Pixar film, 'Finding Nemo', clownfish have become one of the most recognized fish on the planet. They are abundant in coral reefs around the globe and Okinawa is no exception, where they can be found fiercely protecting their sea anemones. One researcher, who recently joined the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST), plans to study these little orange and white fish to shed light on the intersection of ecology, evolution, and development.

Professor Vincent Laudet leads OIST’s Marine Eco-Evo-Devo Unit. “My PhD was in human health, but I've always been interested in ecology and evolution. I try to look at how we can bring medical research, ecology, and pharmacology together. The cross-disciplinary approach is what I like about OIST. I’m very excited to be here.”

By combining lab experiments with fieldwork, the Marine Eco-Evo-Devo Unit uses the extraordinary diversity of coral reef fish to better understand the role of hormones in the evolution of life-history strategies, such as when a larva transforms into a juvenile fish. Clownfish are an ideal fish to use in this research. 

“Clownfish are cool and, here in Okinawa, they’re right on our doorstep,” explained Professor Laudet. “These fish will never leave their sea anemone as they’re not good swimmers. So, if you see one in a sea anemone, and then come back three months later, the same individual will be there. That’s unique and makes them a great species to study.”

Amphiprion ocellaris is the main model of clownfish used by this Unit.
Prof VIncent Laudet

Traversing 4000 years in the Mediterranean Sea

Alongside his research on clownfish, Professor Laudet is a keen science communicator, having previously created radio segments and videos about both his own research and the broader marine environment.

One of his previous science communication endeavors involved him delivering a short radio broadcast three times a week.

“This was back when I was in France,” said Professor Laudet. “Each radio broadcast was three minutes long. I could talk about anything I wanted – culture, biology, history, conservation – as long as it had to do with the Mediterranean Sea.”

“This didn’t relate to my research on clownfish but, before I came to OIST, I was the head of a marine station located by the Mediterranean Sea. Talking about this sea was an important part of my role as a manager.”

By doing this, Professor Laudet learnt to speak about complicated science to a lay audience. After a year or so, whenever he went to the supermarket, he was always recognized by people who listened to these segments and really enjoyed them but didn’t have scientific backgrounds.

One summer, in 2018, they decided to do something different on the radio. For two months, Professor Laudet spoke for three minutes a day about Odysseus, a legendary hero in Greek mythology who is believed to have lived some 3500 years ago. Odysseus played a key role in the Trojan War and then took ten years to return to his home, making several stops throughout the Mediterranean Sea. There are twelve key areas, so Professor Laudet talked about his journey to each area and then took the opportunity to discuss the area in more detail. It was very well received, so he decided to write a book on the topic.  

Published in May this year, the book is titled 'Ulysse en Méditerranée' and written in French. By using Odysseus’s journey as a hook, Professor Laudet covers different aspects of the Mediterranean Sea – such as the places, fish, conservation, and current events.

The book’s 13 images are illustrated by Professor Laudet’s daughter, Paloma Laudet, who is a photojournalist and artist in France.

Professor Laudet explained that there are three main takeaway messages in the book.

The first centers around history. For the last 4000 years, the Mediterranean Sea has been a melting pot of different cultures – Egyptians, Greeks, Europeans. “There have been exchanges for a very long time,” said Professor Laudet. “There shouldn’t be any barriers today because really, we’re all cousins.”

The second takeaway message is about the marine environment. The Mediterranean Sea is a hotpot of biodiversity. It takes up only 0.7% of the surface of the world’s ocean but contains 7% of the marine species described. And it’s threatened. Plastic pollution, fishing pressure, and climate change are all taking their toll. So, although the Mediterranean Sea is very precious and unique, it’s also at risk of being damaged irreversibly.

The final message centers around current events. “Today, there are large numbers of migrants fleeing from Africa and the East,” said Professor Laudet. “They’re crossing the sea and many of them are drowning. Recently I realized that, in Europe, we make a big fuss over the people who died on the Berlin Wall. Over 40 years, 1000 people died trying to climb over the wall. But since 2015, 35000 migrants have died in the Mediterranean Sea. We are letting these people drown, and that should never ever happen. This ties back to Odysseus as well, who was himself a migrant.”   

Professor Vincent Laudet wrote 'Ulysse en Méditerranée', which was published in May this year.

“There is one other very clear message in this book and something that readers can do straight away. But it may not be popular, especially here in Japan. Don’t eat tuna. Since we started fishing tuna, in the early 20th century, tuna has globally decreased by 90%. The fishery isn’t sustainable. Tuna, as top predators, are extremely important for the equilibrium of the world’s ocean.”

Professor Laudet emphasized that the book is written for everyone to enjoy and doesn’t use scientific jargon. “It’s the kind of book you can take to the beach. It’s not technical and it uses easy to read language but, at the same time, it does make you think.”

The cover photo is by Dr. Marleen Klann, a postdoctoral fellow within the Unit.

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