When we think about conservation, we often think of species which are as photogenic as they are fragile, from pandas to coral reefs. The first thing to spring to mind is generally not a giant clam.

Neo Mei Lin is a marine biologist who has set out to change that. Giant clams are an essential part of the marine ecosystem, vital to the survival of coral reefs and many fish species. Through her work, Neo Mei Lin wants to show the world that giant clams are big, beautiful and embedded in the intricate workings of ocean life. She talked to us as part of our XxXX series of interviews with 10 women in science.

What do you do?

I am a marine biologist. My main research interest is the conservation of giant clams. When I was getting started, I knew I wanted to work on something related to the environment. Through a number of projects during my university days, I began to love marine biology, and got involved in local marine conservation work. With that, I embarked on a research career focussing on marine conservation, paying special attention to my favourite marine animal, the giant clams. Right now, I’m working on two projects. The first is a giant clam restocking programme that attempts to breed and raise young giant clams with the goal of putting them back onto coral reefs. The second is to combine existing conservation tools with molecular analyses and threat matrices to better understand conservation priorities for endangered species.

Why giant clams?

Giant clams have to be one of the most fascinating groups of marine creatures. They are the world’s largest shellfish, where the biggest ones can grow to measure a meter long and weigh over 300 kilos - heavier than a baby elephant! They’re so big that people used to believe they were man-eaters. Some studies thought that giant clams could live to be 100 years old. These colourful clams are also ecologically essential to coral reefs.

A wild, fluted giant clan on a reef near Singapore
Image: Neo Mei Lin

In what ways are they essential?

Giant clams have multiple roles to play in coral reefs. They are a source of food to a variety of organisms in the reef ecosystem. Larger clams also provide shelter to other animals such as fish, thus functioning like fish condominiums! On a reef-scale, they are very important for building and maintaining reef diversity. For instance, giant clams can increase reef topographic complexity and provide additional shelters. This creates a diverse reef scape, which helps to increase the diversity of marine life. Fundamentally, a rich and diverse coral reef maintains a well-balanced ecosystem in terms of oxygen productivity, nutrient levels, and species resilience. Such a coral reef further supports the provisioning of ecological services such as nurseries for fish, crabs and sea cucumbers. In this case, giant clams play a major contributing role as a resident of its own reef home.

What dangers do the giant clams face?

The environmental dangers faced by giant clams are similar to those for all coral reefs globally: major factors include pollution and coastal development. They are also being over-harvested, as they are highly valued by Asian gastronomes. As a result, their numbers are dwindling in the wild.

How are we reversing the problem?

For a start, giant clams have been cultured for about 20 years now. There has been progress in breeding them and improving their numbers in the wild. There has also been legislation on both the local and international levels to promote their conservation. However, only a handful of nations have adopted these international legal measures to protect giant clams.

What needs to happen next?

To properly safeguard the giant clam populations, I think there needs to be a conscientious effort to work together in the region. Much conservation effort is about reaching out and involving a large network of key stakeholders. One aspect that I’m exploring now is to bring the relevant science and knowledge to more people, who might have a desire to work on giant clam conservation, but don’t know where to start. This will include combining various conservation tools, molecular analysis, and mariculture techniques to network and collaborate with other researchers regionally. In fact, there’s a lot of research about giant clams, but not a lot of it is being published in peer-review journals.

Why so few are publishing their research?

In a way, because these research are not conducted in the traditional manner of scientific inquiry. Two major contributions to research on giant clams come from the commercial farms (for food) and the aquarium hobbyists (as pets). Those with commercial interests are looking at the science from the perspective of increasing production levels while keeping costs low to cultivate giant clams. Meanwhile, aquarium keepers have created their own spaces online to share information and findings about their pet species. A lot of this information is locked up in echo chambers such as blogs. This information may not come from the most scientific sources, but we learn a lot from them, and some of their talking points have become our research questions.

Why do you think it’s so easy to focus on other conservation efforts? Why do people love pandas and not giant clams?

My simple answer is that those animals are just more charismatic. For one, these large iconic species are easier to encounter, such as in zoos.

On the other hand, with our outreach efforts, more people have realised how incredible and fascinating giant clams are. When people visit our marine facilities, they are given the opportunity to interact with various marine species, and in that instant, they become much more interested. What’s amazing is that when people start to realise what they are looking at, they end up being the most curious, with numerous questions for us. The take-home message for me is the importance of reaching out by bringing the species to people.

Most successful species conservation programmes have a group of passionate people behind them. Some people will pick the charismatic pandas, but I picked the amazing giant clams.

What’s next for your research?

I want to continue in conservation science research, which involves a lot of hard work. Unlike other major life sciences research, conservation work yields almost no profitable returns, and you need to wait a long time to see your work come to fruition. This means we encounter a lot of challenges, such as the lack of research funding and support. But I want to keep at it as long as I can. Not just for the giant clams, but also for the oceans and its myriad of biodiversity. You can’t have one without the other.

Is there a significant gender gap in marine biology?

Actually, many of my colleagues in marine biology are women. The gender ratio is roughly equal, although there are times when it can be awkward and I do encounter some challenges. It is not so much that I face obstacles in carrying out my research, but more that sometime you meet people who are quick to dismiss you. Several times, people haven’t believed my findings, have given me the brush off or not given me a chance to explain my research. At times, I feel that this happens to me because I’m studying a niche research area, and of course, that doesn’t help.

On a lighter note, being “the giant clam girl” does have an upside. It is positive that, through media coverage, people are beginning to appreciate my research work and the broader marine conservation issues behind it. The main point is, if you know about the giant clams, you will also know about the fragility of the coral reef ecosystem, which is much more important to me. Knowing that there are others out there who appreciate me sharing my work encourages me to keep going at it, because it makes me feel that I am making a difference.

Interview by Donald Armbrecht

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