Twenty years ago, Zeb Hogan, assistant research professor in the Department of Biology and host of the NatGeo WILD show "Monster Fish," saw his first giant fish.
"I was on an exchange program in Thailand and on a visit to the Mekong River I saw a group of fishermen catch a Mekong giant catfish - they had pulled the fish into a small boat and the fish was almost as big as the boat," Hogan recalls. "I'd guess that particular catfish weighed about 400 pounds and measured 8 feet in length. It made an impression; I'd never seen such a large freshwater fish."
That experience set Hogan on a quest to find, study and protect freshwater megafish - fish longer than 6 feet and heavier than 200 pounds - and to bring awareness to their precarious fight to stave off extinction.
"I realized that they had not been well studied, and that most of them were very rare," he said. "I focused on these large fish (and a few of their smaller, migratory cousins) for my Ph.D. research."
Now, the world is learning about the two dozen rare fish species through National Geographic's Monster Fish exhibition. The traveling 6,000 square-foot museum exhibition successfully debuted in Washington D.C. for six months and is making its first stop in Reno on what will be a five-year tour around the country - and perhaps internationally.
"Monster Fish: In Search of the Last River Giants," will be open to visitors to the Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum, presented in partnership with the University of Nevada, Reno College of Science, through early-September 2016.
"This is a great opportunity for people in northern Nevada to see first-hand the size and impact of these huge fish," Hogan said. "These are incredibly rare animals that most people would never have a chance to see or appreciate - this exhibit is a window into an underwater world that few of us have ever experienced. These animals can grow to over 20 feet in length, some living more than 100 years, and many are on the edge of extinction."
Worldwide awareness for big freshwater fish
Hogan has done outreach around the world to spread the message about these mysterious fish, but the most gratifying for him is the outreach in Nevada, where he has worked with local and regional community groups and schools to promote awareness and protect local fish and their habitats.
"The exhibition's messages - that there are amazing creatures in our rivers and lakes waiting to be discovered, that freshwater is a valuable and scarce resource, that aquatic life needs our help and appreciation to survive, are important messages for everyone especially those of us living in arid regions like Nevada," he said.
Hogan said change is in the air and that people are starting to recognize Reno as a university town, a science hub and a cultural center.
"This exhibition is part of that change - through a partnership between National Geographic, the University of Nevada, Reno College of Science and The Discovery museum - we are bringing a one-of-a-kind exhibition to Reno, connecting the University with downtown and the community. Hogan said. "We want to use the power of science and exploration to help inspire a new generation of young people here in northern Nevada."
The Monster Fish exhibit truly showcases how interesting a career in science can be. Zeb's research takes him to very remote locations around the globe and exposes him to lands and cultures most people will not ever see.
"The reason Monster Fish has come to The Discovery is Zeb," Patrick Turner of The Discovery museum said. "He saw the opportunity to share this with northern Nevada and contacted us. It's a natural fit. The fact that Monster Fish is based on Zeb's research played a huge roll in The Discovery's interest in hosting the exhibition. It aligns with our goal of being a world-class, hands-on science center. Partnering with the students and faculty at the University of Nevada, Reno enables the museum to connect experts with the community and inspire lifelong learning in the fields of science, technology, engineering, art and math.
Part of that outreach to Nevada K-12 students includes a 30-page educational guide for teachers to use as part of class field trips to see the exhibition.
"The guide will serve as an additional learning tool for teachers and students," Hogan said. "Using the guide, which is freely available online, teachers can better prepare their students for what they will see at the exhibition."
The educational guide was developed in a collaboration of University faculty, including David Crowther in the College of Education, Sudeep Chandra in the College of Science, John Morrow in Extended Studies, Hogan and several others.
"We've provided background information that will help teachers tie the exhibit content into current teaching standards, and we've included activities for students so that they can get a feel for what it's like to be out in the field on the search for these amazing fish," Hogan said.
"The Last River Giants" features stunning life-size sculptures, hands-on interactive exhibits, and evocative video installations that put the exhibit-goer face-to-face with the behemoth freshwater fish. Not quite as face-to-face as Hogan gets, but perhaps the next best thing short of traveling the globe.
Swimming with the fishes
Hogan, an aquatic ecologist, has traveled to remote villages and jungles around the world, boating up the headwaters of the Amazon or diving in the frigid waters of Mongolian rivers and lakes. His website and television programs show him standing in chest-deep water beside a 14-foot stingray, swimming with a 400-pound "man-eating" Goonch in the Himalayas or with a 700-volt eel in the Amazon River. The exhibit brings those experiences to Reno.
"Visitors are probably not aware of just how large the freshwater fish Dr. Hogan studies can be," Turner said. "When you imagine fish that size swimming in a river rather than an ocean, the size is very impressive. The life-size models will be a very popular feature of this exhibition."
As a presenting partner in the exhibition, the College of Science seeks to enhance its mission of bringing science to the community.
"The University's College of Science values scientific curiosity, discovery and ambition, and we encourage our students to see themselves as global citizens and our faculty to contribute solutions with global impact," Jeff Thompson, dean of the College of Science said. "Our educational partnership with the National Geographic Society and The Discovery museum for this exhibit is an ideal fit with these values. This endeavor will inspire young people to pursue interests, degrees and careers in the environmental sciences and contribute to a better understanding of the fragile health of fresh-water ecosystems around the world."
The National Geographic Society has supported Hogan's work since 2002, including the Monster Fish project and the exhibition, for the past 10 years. He is a National Geographic Explorer and was named a National Geographic Fellow in 2011. He was a visiting Fulbright scholar at the Environmental Risk Assessment Program at Thailand's Chiang Mai University, has served as a World Wildlife Fund senior freshwater fellow and is a United Nations Convention on Migratory Species Councilor for Fish.
"His work with National Geographic enabled the University to partner with them for the exhibition in Washington, D.C. and to promote Zeb's work around the country as the exhibition travels to other museums over the next five years, beginning right here in Reno," Thompson said. "He truly is the leading scientist in this field."