Q: You’ve focused your career on species close to the bottom of the food chain. Why?
I became fascinated with invertebrates, small marine creatures, at an early age. I was interested in the things that were rooting around at the bottom of the sea. The other part of it was opportunity. When I came into grad school, there was very little known about what some of these smaller animals were doing, even though it was thought they were important to the food chain. There were some big questions.
Q: Are there any experiences in your research that stand out?
I began studying small amphipod crustaceans – small, shrimp-like things – at the bottom of the food chain. There has been a huge evolutionary radiation of those animals in Lake Baikal, in Siberia, which is the oldest, largest lake on Earth. I got an opportunity to travel there in 1995, and that was just an otherworldly experience. It’s overrun by these amphipods that have taken off evolutionarily.
As far as scientific discoveries, the high point for me was the discovery of advanced social life in marine animals, specifically with a group of tropical coral reef shrimp that live in these big colonies with a king and a queen and soldiers – sort of like medieval humans or ants and bees. That was completely unanticipated.
Q: There’s a lot of doom and gloom in marine science. Do you see signs of hope?
You really have to search for the silver lining in a lot of these environmental issues. Concern about these problems is one of the major motivations for blogging for me. I guess the hope that I see is as much in the resilience of nature as it is in how much human behavior is likely to change. There are some signs of hope. We’re learning how to manage fisheries better, but we still have to actually do that. The fossil fuel problem that leads to global climate change is a much more difficult one. Frankly, that’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better.