Freshwater species maybe aren’t the most charismatic of fish. No bright colors. No starring roles in cartoon films. No ability to eat humans.
But to University of Notre Dame graduate student Katie O’Reilly, Great Lakes fish and their populations, health, migrations, reproduction and decline reflect the region’s history, culture, economy and environmental health.
“All of those fish that we catch are telling us something about the lake,” she said. “The fish communities of the Great Lakes have had a lot of challenges over the years.
O’Reilly is on schedule to graduate with her doctorate in May. Her research looks at fish populations in coastal wetlands around Lake Michigan and, while the normal career track with this type of PhD is academic teaching and research, O’Reilly plans to work in science communication, helping others learn about and understand the natural world.
She’s already spawned the start of that career through Twitter.
Watch “Dr. Katfish” talk about #25DaysofFishmas on Great Lakes Now’s Episode 1008:
Three years ago O’Reilly saw a poster from Wisconsin Sea Grant illustrating Great Lakes fish species that reminded her of an advent calendar.
“I thought to myself, `Hmmm. What if instead of getting a treat each day in December, you would get some facts about a Great Lakes fish species?’” she said.
But she wondered, “How do you talk about fish in a funny and engaging way?”
Taking to Twitter, where she goes by the moniker @DrKatfish, O’Reilly answered her own question. She developed and shared peppy graphics, memes, animations, photos and texts for tweets that are a combination of nerdy science facts, trivia and humor.
Each day of December up until Christmas, she introduces a different fish in the morning. Then throughout the day, she shares a series of tweets with facts about that species and sprinkles of fish puns and other humor.
For example, Dec. 21, 2017, featured the weather fish.
“For that I made a graphic of a weatherman, like at a TV station, but it had the weather fish face on it because they get their name because it’s said that their activity increases with changes in pressure so they could indicate the weather,” O’Reilly said.
On the Seinfeld-inspired Dec. 23 “holiday” of Festivus, O’Reilly always selects an invasive species. “It’s an airing of grievances against a species in the Great Lakes,” she said.
To date, she’s completed three years of #25DaysofFishmas with 75 species and no repeats. The 2019 version will expand into the tributaries, rivers and streams that flow into the Great Lakes and will feature some favorite species of Fishmas Past.
“I think what’s cool is it brings people together in kind of this sense of place,” O’Reilly said.
It’s also found imitators. @JonnyJuneSucker mimicked O’Reilly with a Utah version.
To conclude the #Utah #25DaysofFishmas, I give you a ghost of #Fishmas past...the now extinct Utah Lake sculpin. This sculpin was found only in #UtahLake, but hasn't been seen since 1928 and likely none survived the tremendous drought of the early 1930s. pic.twitter.com/Y2rVkbXicy— Jon the June Sucker (@JonnyJuneSucker) December 26, 2018
A marine conservation biologist in Canada, @WhySharksMatter, used the #25DaysofFishmas hashtag in tweets about sharks.
“People just seem to be hooked,” O’Reilly said.
#25DaysofFishmas has netted more professional attention as well. O’Reilly has presented about the campaign at academic conferences where her annual holiday effort is seen as a successful model for science communication on social media.
O’Reilly is a “superstar” of a science communicator, according to Katherine Glassner-Shwayder, one of the International Association for Great Lakes Research science communication track organizers in 2019, where O’Reilly presented about her campaign.
“She is a serious, well respected Great Lakes ecologist in the academic world, holding a strong reputation in knowing how to effectively use social media,” Glassner-Shwayder said in an email. “Also, Katie has amazing grace in delivering an informative message, with a voice that I just knew that people would be interested in listening to.”
For O’Reilly, it’s more about schooling people on the fish than about her own success or online persona.
“It’s kind of a look into a world that we don’t normally get to see,” she said. “I think #25DaysofFishmas has shown that there is interest in freshwater fish and there are ways that we can build upon that to keep raising awareness about both freshwater fish and the places they call home.”
As part of Great Lakes Now’s educational effort, O’Reilly helped Great Lakes Now with a recent virtual field trip, appearing online to answer questions from students in classrooms after they watched three videos about coastal wetlands.
(Download the GLN curriculum HERE.)