Philip W. Willink



Office: 312-665-7735


Field Museum of Natural History

Fish Division

1400 South Lake Shore Drive

Chicago, IL



Surveying Panguana Creek in the rainforest lowlands of Amazonian Peru, August 2006. Image by M. Hidalgo.


My interests focus on the biodiversity of fishes: its origination, maintenance, and conservation. Addressing these issues requires an integrative approach and exciting fieldwork throughout the world. Data are analyzed within biogeographic, phylogenetic, and/or species assemblage contexts. Comparisons between some of the most pristine locales remaining on the planet and highly modified urban areas yields enlightening insights into how our world works.

       My interest in the outdoors started as I was growing up along the Maine coast, where I spent countless hours roaming the woods and beaches of Cousins Island. Many summers were spent working in Casco Bay on my father's lobster boat.


Phil and his brother Jon (left) fishing for pickerel in a Maine lake. Image by W. Willink.


My father’s lobster boat, the Mary O. Image by W. Willink.

After graduating from Calvin College (Grand Rapids, MI), I received a Ph.D. from University of Michigan – Museum of Zoology.
See bottom of page for attachment:   Willink 2002 PhD Dissertation.pdf
From there I moved to the Field Museum of Natural History (Chicago, IL) where I worked as a post-doc on the Aquatic Rapid Assessment Program (AquaRAP). This joint project between The Field Museum and Conservation International involved surveying little known rivers in South and Central America, and then reporting on what we discovered. The post-doc turned into a permanent staff position at The Field Museum. It was here, while cleaning out a hazardous waste storeroom, that I met my wife Jolynn.

Localities where I have worked on fishes.  

I have visited a dozen countries to learn more about fish biodiversity. Many of these involved month-long expeditions to regions where little to nothing was previously known about the fauna. We discovered many new species, analyzed species assemblages in relation to habitat, and made conservation recommendations. We also slept in tents, drank water straight from jungle rivers, and were bitten / stung by myriads of insects.


Kaietur Falls, Guyana.


Cichla ocellaris, Peacock Bass.


A more recent expedition (June 2008) was to Southwestern Madagascar, where we visited an arid region with a landscape of sharp limestone rocks and plants covered with spines. Beneath this forbidding terrain are underground rivers and lakes. We climbed and crawled through caves and over mountains of bat guano to find pale, eyeless fishes living in perpetual darkness.

Exploring a cave in Madagascar. Image by P. Chakrabarty.

Rock formations in a Madagascar cave.

My work in the Midwest United States tends to be more applied, such as looking for endangered species, battling invasive species, or writing field guides for the Chicago Region.
If you are interested in learning more about invasive Asian Carp in Chicago? Please go to:

Cottus bairdii, Mottled Sculpin.


Esox americanus vermiculatus, Grass Pickerel.


Etheostoma spectabile, Orangethroat Darter.

Two Noturus exilis, Slender Madtom, peeking out from underneath rocks.
If you are interested in learning more about Chicago Region fishes (as well as downloading a free field guide to Chicago Lakeshore Fishes), then please go to:

Some of these experiences attracted widespread media attention. A good example is the discovery of a Northern Snakehead (Channa argus) in Burnham Harbor, Chicago, October 2004. This led to national exposure on NBC Nightly News, NBC Today Show, New York Times, and Smithsonian Magazine, as well as all Chicago media outlets.

       A more recent example was my participation on an expedition to survey an unexplored portion of the Essequibo River in Guyana, South America, September-October 2007. This was filmed and can be seen in the 3-part BBC production Lost Land of the Jaguar (also known as Expedition Guyana). Episode 2 has the more interesting fish scenes, but there are also some in Episode 1. Discovery Channel released its own version of the program titled Lost World: Land of the Giants.
       This expedition was followed by another similar expedition to Mount Bosavi, an extinct volcano in Papua New Guinea, January-February 2009. This was filmed and can be seen in the 3-part BBC production Lost Land of the Volcano. Episode 1 has the more interesting fish scenes, but there are also some in Episode 2.

Besides fish biodiversity, I do have other personal interests. One is reading fantasy / science fiction literature, which segued into a curiosity about medieval swordplay. To indulge this fantasy, I joined the Chicago Swordplay Guild, a society devoted to the recreation of Western European fighting styles from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Fighting styles are based on actual historical manuals…. not what is presented on stage or in movies. I hold the rank of Scholar within the Guild and my specialty is the rapier, although I have taken classes in longsword and pole arms.


Combining my interests in fishes and fantasy, I wrote Fishes of Middle-Earth: A Field Guide to What Species Would Be There as well as Those Seen in the Books and Movies. This text makes the assumption that Middle-Earth is a forerunner of modern day Europe and Western Asia. Based on the present day distribution of fishes, I predict what species would be present and where one would find them in Middle-Earth during the Third Age. I also comment about the fishes seen in the recent Lord of the Rings movies. (In short, the fishes in the movies appear to have been inspired by New Zealand fishes. However, none are actually native to New Zealand, rather they were introduced from the United States. Regardless, none would have been present in Middle-Earth based on present day fish distributions and current biogeographic theories. Then again, it is fantasy.)

See below for Attachment:   Fishes of Middle Earth 2008 Willink.pdf

Two species of cavefishes living in the underground lakes and rivers below the Misty Mountains of Middle-Earth.

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Philip Willink,
Nov 11, 2008, 11:53 AM
Philip Willink,
Nov 24, 2008, 2:00 PM