Character Interview:  Andy Hinrichs (senior aquarist, Omaha’s zoo & aquarium)

Character Interview: Andy Hinrichs (senior aquarist, Omaha’s zoo & aquarium)

Posted by Esther Jacobs Overbeeke on July 6, 2016

Interview with Andy Hinrichs, Senior Aquarist at the Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium

Namibia, April 2016: Andy Hinrichs’ specialty is jellyfish and he manages the invertebrates displays at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium in Nebraska, USA, while advancing knowledge and husbandry of the species.  Andy and a team of specialists, including Oceans Research director of research Dr Enrico Gennari, traveled to Namibia recently to search for a species of jellyfish very little is known about.

What are the immediate goals of your research trip?

When I originally thought of the idea to travel to Namibia to conduct jellyfish research, I was particularly interested in one species, Chrysaora Fulgida. Very little is known about its lifecycle. For me, before we can do anything in terms of marine management and understanding a species that has a large impact on the Namibian community, it’s to understand its lifecycle. This is something that I specialize in at the aquarium in Nebraska. So that was the main goal, to establish a polyp culture through the spawning of mature jellyfish and transport that back to the US where I can start conducting closed system lifecycle studies on the species.

Are there any longer term goals?

Our original goal was to focus on one species. However, with field research, things can change. On this trip we encountered other species about which even less is known, so I think there’s the potential for a return trip to Namibia. A smart way to understand these other species in the region will be to utilize the same resources and collaborators we used on this trip.

Why did you choose Namibia?

As a scientist, you are constantly looking at peer reviewed literature and reading books to try and understand all the organisms out there that you are interested in. To me it seemed like all the jellyfish had been studied in the US through various projects. At the same time, I had a lot of resources at my disposal that were being underutilized. As I started looking through the literature, I discovered there are many species of jellyfish we know nothing about that have a huge impact on Namibian culture and the Southern African ocean ecosystems. To me it was a no brainer to come here and conduct a project to unlock some unknowns about the species and other species in this area.

Are you going to call the newly discovered species Chrysaora Andy?

It’s not about me, it’s about jellyfish and discovering new species while meeting new collaborators.

Why is Namibia so important for jellyfish… why are there so many more species here in comparison to the rest of the world?

That question is yet to be answered in full, but we have some hypotheses. It could be increased nutrients in the environment or it could just be that the Benguela upwelling ecosystem causes a natural high population of jellyfish in this region. There’s also links to overfishing in that more resources have been made available to jellyfish. A lot of those are good ideas that need to be investigated more and can help us understand this ecosystem.

Just to understand, the Benguela upwelling is how far from here?

Around a couple of hundred kilometers.

Have there been any surprises during this trip?

The entire trip has been a surprise but in positive ways. With field research, you’re going to encounter many challenges but this is why you have a group that can adapt to the challenges and come up with ideas or plans that enable you to be successful in the end. If you can adapt or accommodate the situation, it allows for a successful project.

What has been the biggest challenge?

Acquiring the appropriate paperwork to allow us to conduct this research e.g. permits, health certificates and all those nitty gritty formalities that enable you to work in the country you’re trying to conduct the research in was a big challenge. However, ultimately finding the jellyfish and knowing how to work with them proved to be the biggest challenge. None of us had worked with jellyfish in the field before, so we were going out there without really knowing what to expect, then coming up with a plan on how best to collect the species and study it.

How will you gauge the success of the expedition?

Already we’ve been successful. Proving that a Southern African nation and a country such as the US can all work together on a similar level is the crux of collaborative research. We all bring different skill sets and when you get multiple nations together you can bring specialties from everyone for a successful project. In the end, if we can contribute to scientific literature about understanding each species that is in the water here in Namibia, it would be the ultimate measurement of success. For this expedition in particular, bringing jellyfish polyps home that can then be displayed in our aquarium is our measurement of success. We can educate people not only in Omaha, but also from elsewhere that are traveling to the zoo.

How did you end up in your field?

I ended up working with jellyfish completely by accident. I have always been interested in science and the ocean ecosystem as a whole, but I am ultimately motivated by wanting our oceans to be healthy and around for many more million years to come. My interest started with corals and growing corals at the Omaha zoo. That eventually branched out into my work with jellyfish and here I am now in Southern Africa studying them and a new species.

Are jellyfish a favorite species of yours?

To me it is amazing how many varieties of jellyfish are in the ocean. Not just in their shape but in their color, behavior and where they’re found. It is amazing the diversity of jellyfish in the oceans. They have multiple identities in terms of color pattern. Like people, we all have different identities and to me jellyfish display that diversity and that’s very interesting to me. Chrysaora fulgida, the species that is out here in the Namibian waters that I am interested in, is an incredibly large species, it’s colorful, it has a huge impact on the ecosystem and for all those reasons it’s a favorite of mine.

A lot of researchers don’t manage to study their dream species, but you’re living your dream now…

In a way being here in Namibia is surreal. I find myself very fortunate as I’ve been trying to get this expedition into motion for five years now. It’s been a lot of hard work, but with the collaborations and support of Oceans Research and Omaha Zoo we’ve been able to put together a good project and something that could be very valuable in understanding the Namibian ocean ecosystem.

So you say you’ve been working to make this project happen for five years. A lot of people don’t realize that the longest part of a research project is the preparation…

It’s taken five years but it’s been a fantastic journey and there are so many things I’ve learned along the way. Ultimately, having people around me that are so knowledgeable has allowed me to be successful. It did start five years ago when I began to look outside of the US to find other species to study, but between different connections that I had established in Omaha, we found Oceans Research, which has enabled us to speed the project along in terms of logistics and getting everything we needed in order to conduct this project.

What has been the most interesting event in your career?

Being out in the field here and seeing a species I’d only ever seen photos of and read about in papers. To see them first hand has been an incredible experience and gets me more excited and more engaged with the species.

What do you think is the most important skill for a researcher and what would be your advice to people that want to follow a similar path to yours?

My recommendations are to always have an open mind in terms of opportunities that could become available to you. When I was in college, I would never have dreamt that I would be out in the field studying jellyfish. However, during my working life, I had realized there was an opportunity to discover something new. If you go headfirst with an open mind you can create a lot of opportunities for yourself.

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