Meet the researchers

Image: Claudia Reidy

Laetitia Plaisance says she is living her dream travelling the world researching amazing marine creatures. She told me that she loves Lizard Island so much she could see herself living in Australia; the only thing stopping her is having to put her cat through six months of quarantine. She's an animal lover, an experienced researcher and a passionate environmentalist. I decided to sit down with this French scientist to find out a little more about her.

Tell us about your background.
I am from France originally, but now I live in San Diego, working at the CReefs Institution of Oceanography at the University of California; soon I'm moving to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington DC. My background is mainly in parasites. I did my PhD on the evolutionary biology of parasites. I got involved in the Census of Marine Life through the American node led by Nancy Knowlton, my adviser. We want to do a survey on the biodiversity of the coral reefs of the world.
What's the most interesting thing you've researched so far?
I'm always amazed by the amount that we don't know. For example for my PhD I was working on parasites that are found in the gills of butterfly fish and of the 15 species I studied, 10 were new. Only one-third of what I was looking at was known to science.
Why did you choose marine biology?

It was a childhood dream. I think because I was born in the Mediterranean, and I'm fascinated by the Mediterranean, it's like my heart. I'm living my dream – moments like now, on an island like this.
Do you feel like you're working?
Yeah I think it's work, but I really like work!
Why are you on Lizard Island; what research are you doing here?
I'm setting up a method that we can reproduce anywhere in the world to look at the diversity of the reef…you have to have a standard, and ours is to study biodiversity in dead coral heads. I want to see how many species are in the coral. Fish and corals have been studied, so I'm looking at invertebrates.
What have you found so far?
I've found so much. Only today in one coral head (Pocillipora verrucosa) I've found 20-30 species of crab. The pocillipora is interesting because it's everywhere except for the Caribbean, where it is extinct.
What is so important about marine biology?
If we don't know what's around us, how can we protect it? I worry so much about global warming. We need to study so much more to see the difference. I'm looking forward to seeing the differences in diversity between Lizard Island, Heron Island, and with my other work from Line Island and Tahiti. I also want to highlight the importance of DNA technology. Before we were looking at species and recognising them from morphology and a lot of it looks the same but when you look at their DNA – they are completely different.
What's the worst part of your job?
Having to kill the animals to send them to the museum, I hate that part!
What's the most beautiful thing you've seen while diving?
It was on Heron Island, my first encounter with a manta ray. It swam right below me, like an angel flying. It was very close; it looked like it was flying. I tried to swim faster to catch up but she disappeared. She was just gliding – so beautiful.