Rays in Irish waters with Maya Harries of The Ray Project

Skates, more commonly known as rays, are a demersal fish that lay eggs on the seabed in shallow waters. Each species of skate is believed to have different nursery habitats; their behaviour and specific environment are still lacking in understanding. Over 70% of Irish native skates are classed as Near Threatened, Endangered or Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List, local extinction is believed to be imminent for many species unless we can protect their breeding grounds.Skates, more commonly known as rays, are a demersal fish that lay eggs on the seabed in shallow waters. Each species of skate is believed to have different nursery habitats; their behaviour and specific environment are still lacking in understanding. Over 70% of Irish native skates are classed as Near Threatened, Endangered or Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List, local extinction is believed to be imminent for many species unless we can protect their breeding grounds.

Seasearch Ireland are collaborating with The Ray Project on their skate habitat project. We have been supplying the Ray team with photos and detailed habitat descriptions of all our skate and ray sightings to help aid their research of nursery habitats and biodiversity of the native Irish skates that are in desperate need of protection.

Maya Harries is the founder and managing director of The Ray Project which is a non profit organisation dedicated to the conservation and research of rays and skates worldwide. They are currently working on mapping and protecting nursery sites of skates in Irish waters.

Event is free, online workshop open to all.

You can register here.


Serpula reefs – Galway’s Hidden gem

Biogenic reefs are hard material created by living things that build up to form structures. While typically we think of things like the Great Barrier reef, tropical waters and corals Ireland is home to its own miniature version in the form of Serpula vermicularis reefs. Serpula are small worms that grow calcareous tubes on hard substrares, they are the white tubes you find growing on rocks, harbour walls or boat hulls. However at a number of sites the larvae settle on existing tubes so that the tubes eventually grow to form large reefs which can be up to 2m in height.

3 sites in Galway host these unique reefs and since 2021 Seasearch Ireland has undertaken a project deploying GoPros in at one site to record the creatures that visit, feed on and live in the Serpula reefs. While this talk will cover some of the more technical and scientific details related to Serpula vermicularis it is intended to be aimed at a general audience and will generally cover the Serpula project and the videos that have been collected during it.

This free online talk is open to all and you can register here.

Deploying cameras – How we collect the videos

Preparation and planning is all well and good but the proof is in the pudding so armed with our bulging folder of health and safety documents we headed to Kilkieran last week armed with 4 housings, a bag of cameras and a pile of weights. We’d done all the prep work on the cameras the night before so all that was needed on the pier was to set up our dive gear and lift bag and hit the water.

Luckily for us the site is extremely shallow so visibility isn’t an issue with deploying so we quickly laid out our transect and began deploying cameras (well Tony did the support diver mostly just hung there and took photos).

Cameras are deployed at 10m intervals along a 50m transect approximately 1m from the nearest Serpula colony. Cameras are deployed for 2 hours (the approximate battery life of a Go Pro 7 and then retrieved). This provides more than a sufficient surface interval (to be honest in the midst of a global pandemic with not much open it’s pretty hard to fill 2 hours with conversation so it’s mostly just watchin seagulls). Cameras are then retrieved and returned for video analysis.

This project is funded by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage through the NPWS Small Recording Grant Scheme 2021

Serpula project gets green light

We’re delighted to announce that thanks to funding from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage through the National Parks and Wildlife Service Small Recording grant Seasearch Ireland will be beginning the Serpula project in 2021. You can find full details of the project by clicking on the link but the aim is to study the mobile fauna of Serpula vermicularis habitats using remote cameras in the form of Go Pros deployed by divers.
We’ll be keeping everyone updated on our progress through our social media channels, our website and this blog, while also posting videos captured to our YouTube channel. We hope on completion of this project to be able to use the learnings of this project to run similar projects at other sites with other species of interest.
We’re extremely grateful to the Department for funding this project, as while it’s been a dream for a number of years the costs of equipment were totally beyond the reach of a volunteer organisation. We’d also like to thank anyone who contributed to our Go Fund me page.
Project funded by Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage

40 species in 40 days

It’s hard sometimes with the doom and gloom of lockdown to find something to look forward to but yesterday at lunchtime I got the pleasant surprise of the first Brimstone of the year float past my window. So with that in mind I decided, it’s Lent, there’s 40 days, 40 days for 40 species is definitely achievable. (I should have started on pancake Tuesday but I was too full). So this morning armed with a notebook, a pair of binoculars and my trusty assistant we headed out to make a start.

My trusty assistant

First we primed our garden with a mix of bird seed and peanuts and waited to see what would show up. Unfortunately two issues quickly arose, a) my assistant has very little patience and b) cats (Felis catus) eat peanuts so off we went. On the bird feeder around the corner we found two blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus) munching away  and adding to our Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni) from the day before we were already up to two species. Our neighbour has starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) nesting in her attic so we knew we’d be able to tick those off next before we’d even left the garden.

I wasn’t aware cats ate peanuts before today

My assistant hopped on his bike and we were off to see what we could find further afield. Down the road we saw Blackbird (Turdus merula) with nesting material, a robin  (Erithacus rubecula) hoping in the road and a pair of magpies (Pica pica) on a silage bale and we started getting excited, maybe we’d tick off all 40 today. We headed down to the lake hoping to tick off mute swan (Cygnus olor) and maybe a a duck or two (Anas platyrhynchos) but no luck on this occasion. Circling our 5k radius it was more blackbirds and robins but not much else to see until we came to a local farmers field where in addition to the sheep (Ovis aries) we came across a flock of rooks (Corvus frugilegus).

A curious robin

Thinking 9 was a good start we headed for home where on our return to the garden the cat presumably having eaten it’s fill we startled a mixed feeding aggregation of chaffinchs (Fringilla coelebs) and collared doves (Streptopelia decaocto) and then while we enjoyed a celebratory yoghurt we were lucky enough to see our neighbourhood jay (Garrulus glandarius).

Our resident jay visiting the garden

While my assistant took a well deserved break I got on to Biodiversity Ireland to log our records. We lost two species at this point (you can’t record domestic species so cat and sheep had to go) but we were happy enough with our mornings work. And the best part of it all once I’d logged the records I could log in there was a full list for me to review. 10 down only another 30 to go.

Biodiversity Ireland allows you to log in and view the records you’ve submitted so you can keep track of all the species you’ve recorded in a given time frame. A very handy feature

Seaweed Identification workshop – Online

We’re delighted that Dr Kathryn Schoenrock-Rossiter of the KelpRes project is once again offering her vast expertise on all things algae related. This workshop will cover how to identify, press and appreciate the importance of the common seaweeds in Irish waters. It’s intended to be aimed at complete novices and those who know their way around a rocky shore.

Level: Beginner/Intermediate

To book a place email SeasearchIreland@gmail.com

How do we take an inventory of the vast depths and expanse of the Ocean?

When most people think of the ocean it seems too big to comprehend. We once believed that our smallness by comparison meant that our actions could never harm it in any way. The fact that the Marine environment is not easily accessible, means that it is a world that seems alien, surreal and distant to the wider public. Marine citizen scientists can bridge that distance with knowledge and enthusiasm. My personal experience working in the diving industry was that scuba diving enthusiasts come from all walks of life, excitement from learning, identification and record contributions are infectious to their friends and family. All have in common a superpower, breathing underwater (periodically at least) and a deep love for the ocean and its inhabitants.


Citizen science diver surveying an eel grass bed

Public scientific contributions give communities a chance to actively participate in protection and monitoring of their local environments. There have been numerous successful citizen science initiatives in Ireland, for example: Irish butterfly and bumblebee monitoring schemes and several schemes run by Bird Watch Ireland (Donnelly et al,2013). These initiatives benefit from plenty of volunteers due to easier access, smartphone apps and other automatic data management assists. In the marine environment a smartphone won’t last, you need a smart diver which is where Seasearch Ireland and its members come in.

Citizen Science data has been shown by studies to have the potential to benefit both ecological and biodiversity studies and contribute to monitoring programs as well as help in invasive species management (via early detection) (Delaney et al,2007), and identification of new Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). Donnelly et al,2013 found the potential within schemes such as Seasearches Adopt a dive site program, to address major constraints in the continuous monitoring in subtidal areas of interest. The main ones being time, finance and availability of experts. Many studies such as that of Delaney et al,2007 compared accuracy of trained volunteers versus specialists and found it to be comparable.

Continual surveys create experts who will hone and improve their skills each time, training provided and identification guides which are continually improved upon, all add power to the data. Availability of data, data validation techniques, and survey design methods are all details which are important to any scientist using the data (Burgess et al,2016), if the survey is to be carried out again, for example, to prove a change has occurred in the environment it must be carried out the same way for comparison. Measures of variability must be assessed, and final statistics are always delivered with a probability of error and an expected range for results of a repeat survey/experiment.

None of this of course is any fun at all, well not for me anyway, statistics was my worst module, a necessary evil. Preliminary assessment of the responses I have had with the quiz suggest extremely responsible recording and a high level of knowledge. This week I will be writing the final report and holding off on the statistics in the hope for a few more responses. Please look out for the final report, hope to see you all underwater sometime soon,

Lisa Nihill.


Burgess, H. K., DeBey, L. B., Froehlich, H. E., Schmidt, N., Theobald, E. J., Ettinger, A. K., … Parrish, J. K. (2017).” The science of citizen science: Exploring barriers to use as a primary research tool”. Biological Conservation, 208, 113–120. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2016.05.014. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0006320716301951 (accessed 16/04/2020)

Delaney, D. G., Sperling, C. D., Adams, C. S., & Leung, B. (2007). “Marine invasive species: validation of citizen science and implications for national monitoring networks”. Biological Invasions, 10(1), 117–128. doi:10.1007/s10530-007-9114-0. Available at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10530-007-9114-0 (accessed 17/04/2020)

Donnelly, A., Crowe, O., Regan, E., Begley, S., & Caffarra, A. (2013). “The role of citizen science in monitoring biodiversity in Ireland”. International Journal of Biometeorology, 58(6), 1237–1249. doi:10.1007/s00484-013-0717-0. Available at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00484-013-0717-0 (accessed 19/04/2020)

Who cares about the dragonets?

Diving is so calming, everything slows down and you are acutely aware of your breathing rhythms, it’s like a meditation. In the short time (too short) spent on a dive you could spot anything from 10-100 different species depending on the site, your knowledge and the patience of your dive buddy. I appreciated the beauty and elegance of it all without thinking of the functional roles each organism plays in the ecosystem.

When it comes to conservation, often scientists will try to assign a monetary value to things in order to ensure funding for studies and protection. For example, the identification of cold-water coral habitats as essential breeding ground for the Norwegian Redfish, which is of commercial importance. There is little profit to made from Dragonets which is reflected in the lack of target specific surveys. Dr Pauline King noted an absence in C. reticulatus during her sampling in Galway bay (King et al,1978). A paper written by Chang,1951 did find specimens of C. reticulatus while sampling off Plymouth for C. lyra and added it as a North Sea fish. At that time an examination of zoological museum specimens at Bergan revealed two Reticulated dragonets which had been misidentified as the Spotted dragonet (C. maculatus, Rafinsque,1810). A review of the world’s genera by Fricke, 1981, Nekado, 1982 has led to dead specimens at least being clearly distinguishable by number of fin rays and pre-opercular spines, 1st dorsal fin and pattern differences on 2nd dorsal fin (Froiland,1976).

Close-up of 2nd dorsal fin C. lyra. WoRMS,2019.

Reticulated 2nd dorsal pattern. Hans Hillewaerte,2007.







So, the Spotted confused with the Reticulated, and the Reticulated confused with the Common. Last week we were talking about habitat preference, many of the photographs of the Reticulated do appear to be on coarse substrate noted by Seasearch members also. Fricke, 2017 sampled the Mediterranean in search of C. reticulatus and noted a preference to coarse sand bottom with large shell fragments, it was believed that the grain size was similar in size to the spots on the back and sides. During this sampling a clear depth boundary was noted between the spotted and the Reticulated with the Spotted found in deeper water. Given that the Common and the Reticulated share the same food preferences (small crustaceans, gastropods, polychaete worms & small starfish) (McDermott et al,1995) it would make sense for them to have distinguished foraging grounds also to avoid competition.

Chang,1951 found C. reticulatus rare in offshore waters where as Boer,1971 found their numbers increased further away from the Dutch coast, these varied depth findings could simply be down to substrate type at different sampling locations. Then they could easily be found both at the same site but on different substrate patches. Their behaviour could also be different in different locations, breeding time is different in the North Sea versus the Mediterranean for example, and dominant prey items vary with location. A paper was published by Burgeot et al, 1993 identifying Callionymus lyra as a target species to assess pollution in the Marine environment using biomarkers, however despite its abundance its biology was not well studied, and this is an important condition. Hopefully future comprehensive studies can be performed here to characterize our Dragonets.


  • Boer, P.,1971. “The occurrence of Callionymus reticulatus in the Southern North Sea” ICES journal of Marine Science (33(3) pp506-509). Available at: https://doi.org/10.1093/icesjms/33.3.506 (accessed 08 April 2020)
  • Chang, H-W., 1951. “Age and growth of Callionymus lyra”. Journal of Marine Biology Association. Pp281-295. Available at: DOI: 10.3750/AIEP/02098 (accessed 22 March 2020)
  • Fricke, R. & Ordines, F. “First record of the Reticulated Dragonet Callionymus reticulatus from the Balereac Islands, Western Mediterranean”. Acta Ichthyol. Piscat (47(2) pp163-171). Available at: https:/DOI: 10.3750/AIEP/02098 (accessed 22 March 2020)
  • Froiland, O & Greve, L., 1976. “Callionymus reticulatus (Pisces, Callionymidae) from Western Norway”. Sarsia (62(1) pp1-4) Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/00364827.1976.10411308 (accessed 02 April 2020)
  • King, P.A., Fives, J. M. & McGrath, D. “Reproduction growth and feeding of the dragonet, Callionymus lyra (Teleostei: Callionomidae), in Galway Bay, Ireland” (1994). Journal of the Marine Biological association of the United Kingdom, (volume 74, 3, pp 513-526). Available at: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0025315400047639 (accessed 17 February, 2020).
  • McDermott, S. & Fives, JM. “The diet of an assemblage of small demersal fish in the western Irish Sea”. Biology and Environment: Proceeding of the Royal Irish Academy, 1995. (95B (3) pp195-201). Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/20504515 (accessed 10 April 2020)
  • Wheeler, A.,1961. “Callionymus reticulatus as a North Sea fish” Annals and magazine of Natural History (4(48) pp753-754) Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/00222936108651203 (accessed 20 March 2020)
  • Wheeler, A. (1969). The Fishes of the British Isles and North-West Europe. Michigan state University Press, East Lansing, 1969.

Does the reticulated dragonet prefer the rocks or the sand?

A tale of two fishes

Lisa Nihill

Learning is often like going down the rabbit hole, each piece of acquired knowledge leads to more questions and sends you off down a different tunnel. I’m now itching to get back in the ocean and pay a bit more attention to these guys who become more interesting all the time.

This week I have been sending out a photographic identification quiz containing 20 photographs of both the Common and the Reticulated dragonets. The idea behind the quiz is to get an idea of an overall % error and to compare the data for identification of males versus females/juvenile males. As a biologist I fully acknowledge that photographic identification is not ideal, and certainly some of the photographs will reflect real conditions under which live recordings would be made (although you do get more time).

The development of the quiz has not been without difficulties. The initial plan was to have a bank of 100 photographs in a bank and randomly choose from this bank ensuring a balance. I had intended to obtain photographs from both the aquarium and the field, but these plans were curtailed by our collective current circumstances. This left me searching the internet for pictures where I found many which I believed to be labelled incorrectly. In fact, finding photographs which were of reputable sources was possible, but limited my bank down to a less desirable 30. Here again highlights, and possibly contributes to identification issues. With the females and the juveniles, I honestly can’t tell myself and had to double check, one was subsequently removed from the bank. Here is an example of one which I think may be mislabelled, what do you think? Common or reticulated? Can you find more?

Dragonet? Frijsinger, A & Vestjens, 2004

All Seasearch members have been doing exceptionally well in the quiz so far and many have diligently pointed out to me that many times they would like a genus option, where I have provided only species choices. This is very encouraging and of course would be the correct thing to do if unsure, and unsurety is sure to happen with some of these, I ask for people to give it a go in the interest of statistically highlighting the difficulties in identification of females and juveniles.

There has been some interesting feedback on habitat preferences too with some saying that the reticulated dragonet prefers hanging out on rocky mixed ground, where trawlers do not go and therefore divers gravitate towards. There are some who say they are found in sandy, muddy areas and some who say they are mostly on mixed gravel and coarse sand. This poses another interesting question and I plan to pull the reticulated records to determine if there is a clear pattern to substrate preference.

Until next time, I appreciate any and all participation, and wait in anticipation for your insights.

If you’d like to take part in the quiz you can download the pdf here and simply answer and email to Lisanihill@gmail.com.

Where is the Reticulated dragonet hiding? Is it in plain sight?

A tale of two fishes – Lisa Nihill, GMIT

Where is the Reticulated dragonet hiding? Is it in plain sight?

I learned to dive in the subtropics while travelling and got my Divemaster in the Andaman Islands. Having come from Dublin suburbia I was ignorant of the majestic beauty of our own oceans until I returned. I feel that the term “Divemaster” was not entirely deserved by me until I had completed my first season here. Wild swells, tidal currents of 6knots, wind, cold. All these tough conditions contribute to the high productivity supporting a diverse array of life here. When the dust settles and the visibility is good there is a world of colour which rivals coral reefs, and like our sunsets are never the same from day to day.

When identification comes down to small details in the field a combination of these conditions can really make life difficult. We are in their world, and we are certainly not as prepared for it as they are no matter how much gear is dangling off us. They are often very well camouflaged in their environment, you need to “get your eye in”. Still there are organisms I don’t see until they move (been inked before you’ve seen the cuttlefish?). Particularly when the viz is like this,

 Diver in poor visibility, turbid water. (Nguyen et al,2019)

another day you get this,

Me at Gurrig Island, Maharees. (Sarah Tallon, 2013)

Bottom dwelling (benthic) organisms like the dragonets are designed to go unseen. They cruise around on the bottom feeding on small crustaceans and worms, even starfish have been found in their stomachs. They in turn have been found in the stomachs of bigger fish including cod. The ICES fish stomach contents survey returns an incidence ratio of Callionymus lyra 10:1 Callionymus reticulatus. This ratio is closer to Seasearch data (7:1) and MarLiN Marine Survey data (professional) (7:1), interesting that these are so different to records from commercial surveys. Searching through papers for comprehensive surveys of dragonets I came across a paper written by Dr Paulin King, a study on C. lyra in Galway Bay, and as luck would have it one of my favourite lecturers. During the following interview we talked about C. reticulatus and I asked had she come across many of them during sampling, she said she had not (King et al, 1994).

This got me thinking again about their differences, back to the drawing board so to speak. Size could be an important factor here, the Common is the larger of the two max length male 30cm, Female 20cm. Pauline collected her samples from bycatch piles on Nephrops trawlers mostly in Galway Bay, the cod end would have a mesh size of about 80mm diamond mesh, although this size is being reviewed. In her paper she mentions the diversity amongst the destructive piles. I wonder now if the smaller size of the Reticulated makes it less susceptible to the trawl. Pauline found among her samples a significant deviation from 1:1, M: F, there were more males in the samples, and it was suggested this could be because of the difference in size between sexes. The Reticulated Male max. length is 11cm, Female 6.5cm. Could this be the reason? Let me know what you think? lisaihill@gmail.com g00363522@gmit.ie