“Every Fish is Cool”: An Interview with Dr. Kory Evans

If anyone can get you excited about fish, it’s Dr. Kory Evans

If you ask Dr. Kory Evans how he comes up with his research questions, he will tell you he “follows the fish.” From observing fish tanks in his childhood bedroom to leading a research lab as an assistant professor at Rice University, Evans has dedicated his life to understanding and exploring the evolution and behavior of fish. In addition to publishing his findings in scientific journals, he shares his knowledge and passion about the world’s “coolest vertebrates” with the public through social media.

We sat down with Dr. Evans to learn more about his work, career path and hopes for the field of evolutionary biology and ecology. Answers have been edited for clarity and length.

Ocean Conservancy: Can you give us an overview of your current research?

Dr. Kory Evans: In the Evans Lab at Rice University, we study patterns of vertebrate trait evolution. Specifically, we focus on skull shape evolution, and we study how ecological and environmental factors influence skull evolution and how the skull has changed over its 430 million years. Most of the focus is on fishes because fishes comprise over half of all vertebrates (and they’re the coolest vertebrates!).

If you’re looking for interesting and crazy things vertebrates have done with their skulls, you need to look at fish. It’s a cool field to study because there are so many facets and rabbit holes that you can go down to get a holistic picture of how evolutionary forces produce skull shape.

Ocean Conservancy: Why study skulls?

Dr. Kory Evans
Dr. Kory Evans: Skulls are super-important structures that are highly multi-functional. For vertebrates, the evolution of the skull was a game changer. Even as we are sitting here talking, our skulls are doing eight or nine things all at once. I am moving my jaw to talk, smelling, hearing, looking forward to my computer screen—the skull is managing a ton of different responsibilities all at the same time. Each of these functions exerts selective pressures on skull evolution and in terms of constraints, vertebrate skulls are constantly walking this tightrope of all these functions and trying to optimize some of these functions without losing functionality in others.


Ocean Conservancy: How can studying fish skulls help us understand about our own evolution?

Dr. Kory Evans: Humans are fish—all vertebrates are technically fish. Many human traits actually evolved in fish first. A lot of what we think is cool about humans or mammals came from fish, including skeletons and skulls. Secondly, the fish skull is currently one of the most complex biological structures on the planet. The skull is linked together by 20 or so moveable elements that are nested in a chain of ligaments and muscles. The way fish skulls transmit motion is highly complex relative to terrestrial vertebrates, so it’s a very fascinating area of study.

Ocean Conservancy: What led you to study bony fishes? Did you always want to study fish?

Dr. Kory Evans: I’ve known I wanted to study bony fish since I was 15 years old. Before that, I loved all animals and used to keep snakes and lizards and frogs. In high school I failed algebra and Spanish, so my parents grounded me and I was stuck in my room. I used all the money from my summer job to buy fish tanks to keep my mind occupied. While I was keeping these fishes in my bedroom, I realized they were doing some fascinating things, and I started keeping notes. By the time I finished high school I had seven fish tanks in my room. Ever since then I’ve been fascinated by bony fishes—it’s this never-ending experience of being blown away. Every fish is cool. Every fish is a gift.

Ocean Conservancy: Are your research questions driven by species—or by function?

Dr. Kory Evans: The way my research is structured, I go wherever the fish are. Sometimes it’s both. At my core I really like fish—sometimes I will see a cool, super-diverse group of fishes, and I will ask a simple question of “How did this evolve?” Other times it’s a functional question about how a specific trait evolved, like “How did flatfish skulls evolve asymmetry millions of years ago?”

microrhinos_lat fish skull

Ocean Conservancy: How did you find your path in grad school?

Dr. Kory Evans: When I was 15, and I was keeping fish in the tanks, most were South American freshwater fish. They were prevalent in pet trade, and I thought they were super cool. I always wanted to work in the Amazon; I knew that was the place for me. When I started looking for graduate programs, I cast a wide net and found a program at University of Louisiana at Lafayette that regularly sent people to the Amazon, and that was all I needed to know.

Ocean Conservancy: What is your favorite part about working in the field of ecology and evolutionary biology?

Dr. Kory Evans: My favorite thing about working in this field is that I get paid to come in, think of a question, and go try to answer it. That is beyond cool. That’s cooler than you can put into words. When I first started working on marine organisms it was because I wanted to work out of the Pacific, so I sat down and thought of a project that would get me out there and just did it.

I grew up in inner city Philadelphia, and I’ve worked a ton of different jobs. I’ve worked in metal factories, daycare centers and retail, and I know what the regular 9-to-5 grind is like. This is just so different. If you don’t like what you’re working on, if it’s not getting you out of bed, you can change directions and find something else that gets you going.

Ocean Conservancy: How do you think the field can improve?

Dr. Kory Evans: I want the field to be more accessible to Black people. Growing up, the only reason I ended up in this field is that I had two really great parents who were really good at getting me outdoors. Increasing accessibility for Black people and inner-city people to ecology and evolutionary biology will substantially diversify the field and will be incredibly beneficial.

Ocean Conservancy: If you could pursue a completely different area of research, and funding was no object, what would you study?

Dr. Kory Evans: Amphibians or mollusks. If I couldn’t do any of those things, I’d probably be a high school basketball coach.

Want to see more of Dr. Evans’ work? Check out his lab website and follow him on Twitter

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