MDWFP’s Mississippi Museum of Natural Science
STAFF SPOTLIGHT: MATT WAGNER
Conservation Resource Biologist
State Ichthyologist/Curator of Fishes
Matt joined the museum team in 2015.
But, his love of fishes goes back to childhood.
He has a pretty “fishy” hobby, too.
Get to know Matt and how the wise advice of a loving father years ago has contributed to conservation in Mississippi today.
WHAT’S YOUR WORKDAY LIKE?
My workday greatly varies depending on the time of year and the weather.
In the winter months, most of my days are spent writing reports or sorting/databasing fish collections.
These collections are either my own from the current year or older collections from our backlog that go all the way back to the 1960’s.
This involves meticulously going through all the fish in a jar and identifying them, which usually requires many an hour under a microscope while using dichotomous keys.
The rest of my time is spent in the field surveying for threatened and endangered fishes.
This can vary from pulling a trawl in small rivers, to backpack electrofishing a stream no deeper than my shins, to pulling a seine in chest deep water, or to snorkeling in swift cold water in November.
This does mean I travel a lot all over the state and commonly work 12 hour days or longer.
ANY FUNNY WORK STORIES?
We were surveying the murky backwaters of the Escatawpa River in southeast Mississippi using a 15-foot seine in chest deep water.
The seine has a large bag in the center of it that all of the fish end up in when you pull in the seine.
But you can’t see what is in the bag until you pull it up close to you, as the bag is roughly 4-feet deep.
Just minutes before we had seen a roughly 7-foot gator in the river down and had it in the back of our heads.
When we pulled in the seine, I felt a “monster” pull back and screamed in a very high pitched voice “Gator!”
Before I could turn around, my co-worker was already out of the water and in the boat. He quickly helped me into the boat and then we cautiously decided to try to see what was in the seine.
While we were slowly bringing it in, we saw a flash of its scales and were immediately relieved as we figured out it was simply a huge (60 inch) Alligator Gar. The fish was measured, photographed, and soon after released back into the river.
WOULD YOU SHARE A LITTLE ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND?
I was born in 1987 in Reading, Pennsylvania and I lived there throughout my entire youth.
We moved to a house right on the Schuylkill River in my early teens.
Living riverfront was quite conducive to producing a fish enthusiast and avid angler.
I went fishing all the time. My mom would drop me off upstream on her way to work and I’d float home in my canoe.
I was extremely passionate about learning my fishes, but was completely oblivious to the diversity hidden beneath the water.
Additionally, I was an avid cross country runner who ran on trails whenever possible just to take in more nature.
After high school, I attended Juniata College in central Pennsylvania where I started off as a Pre-Med major.
In a life changing talk with my father, he encouraged me to do what I thought would make me happy for the rest of my life. After explaining my enthusiasm for working with fishes, he encouraged me to follow my passion and change my major.
However, it was a single vertebrate zoology lab during my junior year where we backpack electrofished a small stream that sold me on non-game fishes.
In this class, I quickly learned that streams (which I thought had only a handful of species) can harbor an extremely high diversity of fishes in a very small area.
This blew my mind, as I learned how the different species all occupy different niches that allow them to coexist.
Now extremely passionate about learning all my non-game fishes, I hunted for a Masters program that would throw me into the heart of North American freshwater fish biodiversity. I ended up at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee studying the Tennessee endemic Redband Darter.
After my Masters, I decided I still needed more schooling and went to South Dakota State University as a graduate research assistant for 3 years where I wrote the dichotomous key to the Fishes of the Dakotas and built a distribution database for all of their fishes.
I left South Dakota in 2015 to take this job with MDWFP as the non-game fish biologist!
I have a hobby that is still fishy, but one that others can hopefully enjoy. I really like taking scientific photographs of live fishes.
If you ever see a biologist on the side of the road with a small aquarium, some black drop cloths, and a camera, it’s probably me in Mississippi.
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THIS CAREER?
I am obsessed with fish and enjoy the challenge of identifying them.
With over 230 species in Mississippi, it is one of the best states to have this job. For reference, we are probably the 5th most diverse state for fishes.
From an ecological understanding perspective, I always wanted to work with fish because the idea of living in water has always piqued my interest as it’s a different medium than we live in as terrestrial animals.
Every time I go to a stream and collect in a particular habitat, I try to figure out what I should be expecting to see before I even start.
The idea of understanding an organism’s habitat requirements along with knowing the gear your using is like a never-ending puzzle.
HOW DOES YOUR JOB CONTRIBUTE TO CONSERVATION?
My main job is to complete status surveys for threatened and endangered fishes.
The data is used in their decisions on whether or not to list a species as federally threatened or endangered.
My recent work partnering with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service at Private John Allen National Fish Hatchery in Tupelo, Mississippi has helped jumpstart propagation programs for 3 fishes that will hopefully lead to reintroductions down the road.
ANY ADVICE FOR A STUDENT INTERESTED IN AN ART, BIOLOGY, OR MUSEUM CAREER?
My main advice is go do a summer internship as soon as possible. Graduate students will potentially hire you right out of high school for a summer of field work. Try checking the TAMU job board (https://wfscjobs.tamu.edu/job-board/) and go work somewhere you have never been before with a species you may be interested in.
My second piece of advice is if you are really interested in research go to a professor at your university working on something you are interested in as soon as a possible and ask to volunteer to do research in their lab. You may end up getting paid or get to do your own research and even publish before you graduate.
Basically, get involved as much as possible as soon as possible!