JSPS Quarterly
No.57 2016 Autumn

Research and Life in Japan by a JSPS Fellow (39)

Dr. Cheng-Hsiu Tsai
Dr. Cheng-Hsiu Tsai

Rise and Fall of the Largest Animals: Baleen Whales

JSPS Postdoctoral Fellow, National Museum of Nature and Science, 2015–present
Ph.D. (Vertebrate Paleontology), University of Otago, New Zealand, 2015
Research Assistant, National Museum of Natural Science, Taiwan, 2011

Coming to Japan from Taiwan, Dr. Cheng-Hsiu Tsai is conducting research with his host, Dr.Naoki Kohno, at National Museum of Nature and Science under a JSPS Postdoctoral Fellowship. We asked him about his research activities and life in Japan.

Q: Please tell us about the research you’re currently doing under the JSPS fellowship?

My current research topic is “Rise and fall of the largest animals-baleen whales.” I specialize in the evolutionary history of this iconic animal. My research has two distinctive objectives: To describe and report newly discovered scientifically unknown fossil whales, and to integrate data on all known fossil and living baleen whales and draw a clear picture of their evolutionary pathway.

Q: Why are you so fascinated with whales and their evolution?

I vividly remember my first encounter with the subject. In 2004, the carcass of a huge sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus), measuring about 17 meters long, was found awash on the western coast of Taiwan. At the time, I was an undergraduate in the Department of Biology at National Cheng Kung University (NCKU). Luckily, I was given a chance to participate in a dissection team led by the university.

Dr. Tsai at dissection site of sperm whale, 2004
Dr. Tsai at dissection site of sperm whale, 2004
© Taiwan Cetacean Society

Dissecting a 17-meter long animal absolutely blew my mind! I was greatly and simply astonished by its sheer size and wondered how and why a whale could grow so large. This was basically where I started my research on whales.

Q: So, why did you come to Japan to pursue that research?

In Japan, the field of paleontology is relatively well developed. There are not many other countries in the world that host such a professional and sophisticated academic society dedicated to paleontology. The abundance of whale specimens here was definitely another vital factor in deciding to conduct my research in Japan. Japanese research institutions have collected and accumulated a considerable amount of whale fossil records with unique values over the history of whale studies.

Q: I see, so how did you find your host researcher?

I first met my host researcher, Dr. Naoki Kohno, in 2013, when I came to the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tsukuba to examine some whale specimens while collecting data for my PhD study in New Zealand. We kept in touch, discussing from time to time research related issues after I went back to New Zealand to finish my PhD study.

Q: From your experience, what’s your view of the culture of a Japanese laboratory?

I have experienced research in three countries: Taiwan, New Zealand, and currently in Japan. My impression is that lab culture varies more on who is leading the lab and less on its geographical location. And the interpersonal relationship between a researcher and his/her host is a very important determining factor in judging the quality of a lab environment. During my PhD study with my thesis supervisor, R. E. Fordyce, in New Zealand and currently under my JSPS fellowship with Naoki in Japan, I feel lucky to have a relationship of fellowship and friendship with them, instead of a hierarchical one.

When I started my JSPS fellowship last year at the Museum, one thing I felt a bit uneasy about was that there was no coffee and tea time for co-researchers to freely share ideas within an unofficial setting. Though it took a bit of time, we now have a coffee/tea time, which we enjoy every day. It’s playing an important role in advancing collegial communication.

National Museum of Nature and Science collections repository in Tsukuba
National Museum of Nature and Science
collections repository in Tsukuba

Q: What is your interest outside your research work?

I have trouble making a distinction between my research work and daily life. After coming home from the museum, I am still happy to spend a good amount of time reading books and articles in my research field or doing research-related activities.

I have to admit that I am quite obsessed with whales, especially baleen whales. I am a whalespecialty merchandise collector, who buys anything affordable, dreaming that a “whale economy” will emerge in the near future! Think about it, cats are quite popular and it is very easy to find all kinds of fantastic feline photography, illustrations, designer goods, leading to a new economic term in Japan: nekonomics (neko means cat in Japanese). Every time I purchase something featuring whales, I cannot help from hoping that “whalenomics” will become a popular theme in the near future!

Q: Do you plan to create a whalenomics boom after your fellowship ends? Just kidding, how will you pursue your research?

No doubt, I will want to find an academic position that allows me to continue my research on fossil whales and whale evolution. I am particularly hoping to teach in the biology department of a university. However, I am aware that most biologists in biology departments are inevitably working on some aspect of molecular biology.

Biological scientists tend to look at things on the molecular and DNA level, being inclined to assume that they have the answer to all questions. However, it’s perilous, I think, to conclude that we can unravel all of the mysteries of life from only a tiny micro-perspective. I believe that it is critical to have paleontologists on the faculty to teach evolution from a wider perspective in biology departments.

Q: How would you like to contribute to social development through your research on whales?

Apart from doing research and authoring scientific papers, I am also writing popular science articles for public consumption. The writing style of a popular article is indeed quite different from that of a scientific paper. It requires a special kind of communication skill to share ideas with people who have little or no science background. I also give lectures about my research on whales to the public, whenever possible. Opportunities like JSPS’s Science Dialogue program provide me with a very unique public outreach opportunity. Direct communication with people is necessary if they are to grasp what we, paleontologists, are working on and looking to accomplish.

In a nutshell, I want to bridge the gap between researchers and the public. Ultimately, I am hoping that we can achieve a kind of social development in which everyone possesses and freely shares a scientific mindset.

Cleaning a new fossil whale in 2012 (Photo by R. E. Fordyce)
Cleaning a new fossil whale in 2012 (Photo by R. E. Fordyce)

If there were background music to our interview, it would be the singing of whales, which could be heard to resonate in Dr. Tsai’s enthusiasm for not only his research but its beloved subjects. As a paleontologist, his research is intensely scientific, searching out and putting together bits and pieces of the whale’s evolutionary puzzle in a mammoth task of tracing its ancestry back millions of years. While in Japan, this quest has taken Dr. Tsai from Hokkaido to Okinawa, from one tip of the archipelago to the other. People around the world have come to relate to the whale as a mammalian relative and fellow traveler across the millennia. Dr. Tsai’s work in promulgating popular science on whales will surely add deeper dimensions to people’s connectivity and fascination with them-as exhibited these days in the popularity of whale watching. Who knows, it may even help to generate a new “whalenomics” boom!

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JSPS Quarterly No.57 2016