Meet Biologist and Artist Cory Brant
Cory completed his B.Sc. at University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point in Fisheries and Water Resources, Biology, and Aquaculture. He completed a M.Sc. and Ph.D. at Michigan State University (molecular biology and behavioral function of sea lamprey mating pheromones). He is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Michigan Water Center
We discovered Cory on Twitter after seeing his amazing artwork. Thanks for sharing your shark and skate story with us!
1.What is your favorite species of elasmobranch and why?
I’d have to say the frilled shark, . Frilled sharks are deep-water dwellers, making it rare to actually see one. From what I understand, the ones that have been photographed have a long, almost eel-like, body and a fascinating set of teeth – like clusters of white hooks that are perfect for grabbing and holding onto prey in the dark ocean depths. They’re mysterious, and remind me of living fossils.
2. What is one species of elasmobranch you would like to see in the wild?
I would love to see a whale shark, . I can’t get over the size of these slow swimming, filter-feeding, gentle giants. I mean, they can reach 40,000 lbs. (the same weight as about 4 full-grown African elephants!).
3. Can you tell us a little about how you started drawing?
I’ve always been drawn to fish (pun intended). As a kid, I would catch a fish in a local river near my house, take a photo, and draw the fish later. I was pretending to catalogue ‘new species,’ so I had to make sure all the cool biological details were captured in the sketch. Things continued from there.
4. Can you tell us a little about your research?
For 10 years I’ve studied the physiology and behavior of one of the most devastating and strangest invasive fish species ever to become established in the Great Lakes: the sea lamprey, . Like sharks, skates, and rays, lampreys also have a skeleton made of flexible cartilage. That’s where the similarities end. Lampreys do not have a jaw or paired fins, but instead have a long body and a parasitic disc-like mouth loaded with sharp, horn-like, teeth. As the name implies, sea lampreys are actually a marine species, native to the Atlantic Ocean, where they are parasites of other larger-bodied fishes. Sea lampreys have even been spotted on basking sharks (https://www.arkive.org/sea-lamprey/petromyzon-marinus/image-A20965.html). Sea lampreys have an anadromous life history (they migrate into freshwater tributaries to spawn). During the Erie and Welland canal-building days of the mid-19th century, sea lampreys were able to invade the upper Great Lakes and adapt to a ‘fully-freshwater’ life. In their newer non-native range, a single sea lamprey is estimated to kill over 40 lbs. of Great Lakes’ fish per year. Sea lampreys transitioned from a parasite to a top-predator in this case. Most of my work has been focused on learning new ways of controlling invasive sea lampreys in the Great Lakes to maintain a healthy fish population.
5. Why did scientific drawing appeal to you?
It’s the biological-detail side of it that is the most appealing to me, I think. Drawing fish helped lead to my career in fisheries research. There are so many unique features that make fish diverse, and I love trying to capture that in biological illustrations. To me, a biological illustration is as useful as a photograph for an education tool. Actually, the features that make a species unique and identifiable can be emphasized more in an illustration, in my opinion.
6. Do you think art plays a role in conservation?
Yes indeed! I think art is, and always has been, an effective way to bring conservation issues to light across a wider audience. Science communication and outreach are important now more than ever. One way to make science more accessible, to my mind, is to illustrate it. For people like me, an illustration can instantly spark interest related to how unique, beautiful, destructive, adapted, etc. a certain species is, which in turn may transition into more focused attention on the science, and eventually even lead to participation in conservation action related to that species or group.
7. What has been your favorite elasmobranch to draw?
The clearnose skate – mainly because it comes with a story. I drew the skate based on a living specimen that I caught and released near Outer Banks, NC, while I was visiting friends. I was fishing off of a pier, and these skates were about the only thing anyone was catching. Other anglers on the pier seemed really frustrated when they caught a skate. They would hoist them up, grumble to themselves, remove the hook, grab them by the nose, and hurl them back over. The skate would make an echoing SLAP when it hit. I’m from the Great Lakes area, living in Michigan, and to me these skates were amazing and new. Although they aren’t popular to eat, skates are a key part of a healthy ecosystem. After seeing one in the flesh and doing a bit of research before getting the drawing pencils out, I found they act like little benthic cleanup crews that help with nutrient cycling in salt and brackish waters – which in turn keeps other, more ‘recreationally important’ fish healthy. To locate food, a skate can essentially ‘see’ electrical fields created by its prey (snails and crustaceans living under sediment) using its specialized electrosensory organs called ampullae of Lorenzini – it’s like a sixth sense!
I guess to summarize, my sketch of a clearnose skate, along with this story, help remind me to keep this perspective in mind. Back in the Great Lakes basin, the same thing happens when anglers catch burbot, gar, suckers, bowfin, and other less-sporty, native species (these are often listed as ‘rough fish’). In reality, these are worth more than we think.