By Kusumanjalee Thilakarathna and Nethmi Emmanuel
“You don’t have to be able to snorkel or dive to study marine animals. There are a lot of things you can study on the beach too. All it takes is to be curious,” said the young scientist Rehan Somaweera. Ten year old Rehan from Perth recently became one of the youngest people in Australia to author a published scientific paper. It was during a snorkelling adventure at the Perth’s Mettams Pool that Rehan discovered that the brownspotted wrasse follows the West Australian common octopus around as it uses its tentacles to forage for food making it easier for the wrasse also to get food. He said that his father, Dr. Ruchira Somaweera who is a research scientist himself, guided him through the process of getting the research paper published.
Here is what this budding scientist shared during an interview with Little Stars.
You’re known as one of Australia’s youngest authors of a scientific paper. What is a normal day like for you? Is it similar to that of your friends?
Absolutely. I do everything my mates here do. I do a lot of things at school – sports, orchestra, choir and STEM club. After school I either do club sports or we go for rides or beach walks. On weekends we spend a lot of time exploring the ocean and bushlands around. We do a lot of camping and travelling on school holidays too.
Can you tell us more about yourself?
My school is Woodlands Primary School in Perth and I am in Year 5. I do a lot at school – I play basketball, karate, athletics and also play the violin for the orchestra and I am in the junior choir. On weekends I do lifeguard training with a club. My favourite subjects are sports, Japanese and math. During my spare time, I write a series of comics with my mates (it’s called Strickman), play Minecraft on Xbox with my brother and spend a lot of time exploring outdoors snorkeling, bushwalking or camping. Perth is an amazing place for all those.
How did the fascination with marine life start for you?
Since I was very little, my parents have been taking me to the beach so I grew up next to the ocean. I started piggybacking my dad and snorkeling when I was about three. The underwater world and its amazing creatures always made me want to see more and know more about them. Also, we know so little about the ocean.
Were you influenced by your father?
Both my mum and dad are scientists, so we talk a lot about science at home. Because both of them are biologists, we also explore nature a lot. The best part is I get to learn so much from my own dad and mum while doing the things we love most. Dad always pushes me to explore more – go deeper – check more closely. So, it is a great classroom and training. He has also taken me to scientific meetings so I can see how things are done. It’s AMAZING and a lot of fun to travel with him and learn from him.
You noticed that the common octopus was often hanging out with the brownspotted wrasse fish? What led to this observation?
I first started seeing the interactions between the octopuses and a type of fish called a wrasse about a year back. Octopuses always catch my eye because they are so different from any other sea creature. So when I see an octopus while snorkeling I always have a closer look. I realised that when the octopus moves, the smaller creatures at the bottom start to swim away and the wrasse follows it and feeds on those other smaller creatures. We saw this in four reef systems in Perth and on many occasions and wrote a scientific article about it.
What was your family’s response when you shared your discovery with them?
Dad didn’t believe me at first but then after I showed him the two animals a few times he was very excited. He taught me how to collect the information I need and gave me an underwater watch and a slate to write when snorkeling.
How does it feel to have an article published in an international journal?
It was amazing. Dad guided me through the whole thing, so I learnt how a science paper is done. When it was out, I felt overly excited that I actually did some real science. I got lots of comments saying “well done” from my school and friends, so I felt proud of myself. I want to do more now.
What does your future look like? Do you have it all planned?
I like to be a scientist but am not sure which type yet actually. I love a few types of science. Marine biology is one. I also love palaeontology because fossil hunting is fun. I got to spend a day at the paleontology museum here in Perth once with dad’s mates and they showed me very cool fossils they have discovered in Western Australia. I like astronomy too.
If one of our readers has an interest in researching marine life, what will be your advice to them?
You don’t have to be able to snorkel or dive to study marine animals. There are a lot of things you can study on the beach too. All it takes is to be curious. Ask your parents to take you out as much as they can (and safely). When you see something happening, ask why it is happening and investigate it more. You can start with a small observation like I did. Dad and Mum always say that small things can lead to big things one day.