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You are here: /main/research expeditions/CReefs 2006/interviews/martin

Interview with Dr. Joel W. Martin of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, aboard the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette during the 2006 Census of Marine Life, Census of Coral Reefs Expedition to French Frigate Shoals

Dr. Joel W. Martin1. How did you become interested in your particular field/profession?

Since I was about 8 years old I have known that I was going to study some aspect of the sea. My parents used to split our vacations between the mountains and the sea. I grew up in North Carolina and half our vacation time we would spend up in the mountains, the other half we would go to Naggs Head Beach, and I knew very early on that I had a fascination with the sea. I didn’t know what form that would take, but I did know that I would spend my life associated with the sea in some shape or form.

I did a fairly traditional route to get where I am in terms of schooling, my undergraduate is from the University of Kentucky, and today it’s pretty traditional to get a masters and a Ph.D. if you want to go into almost any field of science. I ended up in Florida State University, and have never been too far from an ocean since that time.

I had several teachers who were very influential in my choice of career. After being born in North Carolina, we moved up to Kentucky, and although we have a paucity of ocean access up there, I had a High School Guidance Counselor who steered me towards a summer session on Dauphin Island, Alabama, and just about all the teachers there were really instrumental in exciting kids and showing them that science is very accessible. One in particular, a guy named Richard Heard, who is still a very dear friend of mine, had a real knack for showing students that there is no real magic veil, and scientists are not these people in white lab coats, but people doing what he does, and we would pull a net through the marsh, or through the beach, down on Dauphin Island, and he would literally
Deepwater shrimp from French Frigate Shoals. Photo: Joel W. Martin
Deepwater shrimp from French Frigate Shoals. Photo: Joel W. Martin
take a specimen from out of the net and hand it to somebody and say “this fish is a such and such, it’s not supposed to be here, why don’t you write a note about it and publish it.” You could just see the little light bulbs going off and the kids got excited. The kids would ask “I can do that?” and he would say “Yeah, absolutely you can do that. Here’s a crab that is not supposed to be this color, they say that it is only this color because of where it lives, and obviously that is not true because we found it in the marsh here. You, take this crab and write a note about that, and report to another student.” So he was just wonderful about lighting these little fires under us, and this was when I was about 16-18. Also, when I went off to college at University of Kentucky, during the summers I’d go back down to Dauphin Island. They’ve got a wealth of teachers there, all of whom are really instrumental. Both of my advisors for my graduate work, were also really influential - Darryl Felber, at the University of SW Louisiana, and a guy named Larry Able of Florida State. Those guys were very well known, and well liked, and sort of brought me into the fold by introducing me to people and showing me how to publish and how to get information out. So I’ve been very, very fortunate to be surrounded by encouraging and enthusiastic people since I started.

2. Have you worked in the Hawaiian Archipelago before? Or the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands?

I have not worked in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands at all, and this is only my fifth time to Hawaii. I’ve been to Maui twice, once with my wife, and once with the family, and then we had a few planning meetings for this expedition at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, but that is my only experience with the Hawaiian Islands.

3. Have you worked on a ship at sea before, such as this one?

I have spent some time at sea, not nearly as much as some of these scientists who spend several months of the year at sea. I’ve spent time at sea in the Gulf of Mexico, and off the East Coast of the U.S. A couple of years ago I was on the Atlantis, out of Seattle, with the little Alvin submarine. I’ve spent some time on ships, not nearly as much as some of the people on board right now.

4. What are your areas of interest or your expertise?

Hawaiian Pom-pom crab. Photo: Joel W. Martin
Hawaiian Pom-pom crab. Photo: Joel W. Martin
I study crustaceans, and just about any group of crustaceans fascinates me. I find myself very fortunate to work with a group that is so diverse. If I were to compare it to being a vertebrate biologist, it would be like studying birds one day, and then salamanders another, and deep sea fishes the next. There is so much range within the crustaceans, and for someone with a relatively short attention span, it works out beautifully, because there is no shortage of interesting things. Most of my work is with the decapods, that is, the crabs, shrimps, lobsters, and their allies and relatives, but I also work with some freshwater groups – little fairy shrimps, tadpole shrimps, clam shrimps - and those guys live anywhere. We have collections from the deserts of Mongolia, to the mountains and tundra. Anywhere there is a puddle of freshwater you will find those things. Crustaceans live in just about any habitat you can imagine, so consequently I get to study a wide variety of habitats. I’m probably best known, and most comfortable with the crabs of the tropical east coast of the Pacific.

5. What excites you about working with these organisms?

It’s more a question of what doesn’t excite me about working with crabs. My older brother and I used to build Army tanks, little plastic models, and we would blow them up with firecrackers when we were done, and I have always wondered if there is something about my fascination with crabs that arose out of building tanks – crabs are so perfectly put together, like little army tanks, and all the pieces fit just so. They are just marvelous little creatures, and come in such a wide variety of shapes and sizes and colors that it is just endless. We think that there are about 5,000 known species of crabs right now, give or take a thousand or so. It is a pretty large group, just wonderfully, spectacularly colored and put together. They are like little robots, the way all the pieces fold, and studying one is like studying a Swiss Army knife, to see what all the pieces do and how they fit together, they are just amazing animals that way.

There is no question that we are going to find some new crabs during this trip. In fact, it would be really surprising if we did not. This is due to a couple of reasons. One is that the sampling methods we are using out here have not been used before. Another is that these islands have not really been studied extensively, and even if we were not using these sampling methods we would still find new crabs. To have a group of biologists, almost all of whom are focusing on the small invertebrate animals, and to be in a relatively unstudied area with many endemic species, there are going to be things collected that have never been collected before. And, in fact, I don’t think I have ever been part of an expedition where we have not found a new crustacean. They are just everywhere, so it’s a relatively easy thing to find, and discover, and describe a new one.

6. Any favorite stories about a particularly unique organism from your field of interest, such as a unique story of working with them, their ecology or unique adaptation the organism may have?

One of the fringe benefits of being a taxonomist, a scientist who names things, is that you eventually run out of Greek and Latin root names for the new organisms. Ideally you are supposed to name organisms something that would make sense, something that refers to its shape or so, but eventually you just run out of adjectives. I got to name a new species of deep-sea shrimp after my kids last year. I combined the letters of my daughter’s name and my son’s name into a new name. The shrimp was kind of an interesting find, it’s a genus of deep sea shrimp that is known only at hydrothermal vents, and the closest relative is in the Western Pacific, and these critters were from vents in the Eastern Pacific, about 11,000 miles away, and it is a very distinctive habitat. So, that was a lot of fun, to go home and say “Hey kids, guess what I did at work today? I named a shrimp after you!”

7. Why were you interested in coming on this expedition?

Deepwater crab from French Frigate Shoals. Photo: Joel W. Martin.
Deepwater crab from French Frigate Shoals. Photo: Joel W. Martin.
Probably the first big reason is the habitat. This area is so relatively untouched compared to most parts of the world where we have exploited it, or development has really encroached upon marine habitats. Just the chance to see an area like this is a rare and extraordinarily valuable experience, to sort of see what the world would have been like had humans not had the impact we have had. The other thing is just the chance to associate with the quality of the scientists that are on this expedition. This is kind-of a “who’s who” of people from all over the globe. This is really impressive. And to be able to spend this much time in close proximity with people that I respect this much is just an incredibly valuable experience. Many of these people I have corresponded with yet only a handful I have got to meet before. This is really exciting for me just to be able to be associated with some of the people that are on this trip.

8. What do you hope to find at French Frigate Shoals?

I just finished doing a paper, it has not been submitted yet, on a group of crabs, a collection of crabs, from Wake Island in the Central Pacific, and it seems like the relationships of Wake Island’s organisms are all with the Western Pacific, so I am really interested in looking at the crabs here and seeing what the source pools are. Whether the crabs here are more related to the crabs of the Indo-West Pacific, or are there some relatives in the East Pacific. The Hawaiian Islands are in the middle of it all, and it has always been of interest to me, this sort-of mixed fauna where it is not clear that there is one particular area of the world where everything came from. The currents are interesting, the distribution patterns are interesting, so comparing what we find here with other islands in the Pacific is going to be very insightful, and help us see how these things have been distributed through time.

9. What do you think is the benefit of this work to conservation in the NWHI, or to CoML, or marine science more broadly?

   crab from French Frigate Shoals. Photo: Joel W. Martin
Deepwater crab from French Frigate Shoals. Photo: Joel W. Martin
The benefit to the Census of Marine Life is pretty straightforward. They have a really, really ambitious goal, which is to describe and document as much as they can about the oceans past, present, and make some future plans, so the part of that which says “assess the life in the oceans, document the life in the oceans,” that is an enormous task, so on a straight-forward level, just telling them what is here, what is anywhere, is going to be very helpful to the census, to know which species occur, and where they occur. We are surprisingly far away from having a good handle on what is in the ocean anywhere, even in parts that are well known like the Caribbean or the main Hawaiian Islands. It is really difficult to say, “you folks have been living there for hundreds of years, you should know what is there.” For most parts of the world we still don’t, and when you extrapolate that to a place like the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where you don’t have people living, it is just that much more that we don’t know. So, the value to the Census is that we are populating the Census, we are telling them what is where.

The more general advantage is simply the sheer value of discovery, the excitement of knowing what we have. It is hard to argue for preservation or protection of an area if you do not know what is there. In the case of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which are already really well protected, the argument can be made “Why do we need to know more?” Well, there is always the chance that there could be some sort of environmental change, something could happen in the future, and if we do not know what is there now, or we don’t have a baseline, we will have no way to assess it in the future. Part of what we are doing is establishing baseline diversity of what a relatively pristine area, like French Frigate Shoals looks like in terms of the fauna and the flora that is there. This will give us some baseline knowledge by which to measure change over time, and to understand which organisms or communities have been affected if there is some impact or environmental change. So, it’s a two part answer, the first part is knowledge for it’s own sake, which is always a wonderful thing, to know what is there, but the more pragmatic answer is that we need to be able to determine if humans are having a long term affect on some of these islands, and to do that we need to know what is there so we can document any changes in the future.


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