Ocean Week Day 4: Scientist Q&A

By Carol Hinz
Editorial Director, Millbrook Press

Dr. Joel “Jody” Martin is Curator of Crustacea and Chief of the Division of Invertebrate Studies at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. He studies crustaceans such as crabs, lobsters, and shrimp. During the Census of Marine Life, Dr. Martin conducted research on coral reefs near the Hawaiian Islands. One of his discoveries is a new species of crab named Sakaila wanawana, which you can find on page 11 of Journey into the Deep.

JWMartin-ON DECK_FFS_0749Above: Dr. Martin on deck with a crustacean friend

CH: How did you first become interested in crustaceans?

JM: I’ve been interested in crustaceans since I was a child. My family used to vacation along the coast of North Carolina in the summers, especially the Nags Head and Cape Hatteras areas, and some of my fondest memories are of running after crabs on the beaches of Nags Head. I think, in part, my interest with crabs is also related to my older brother’s (and my) fascination with building model army tanks when we were kids. Crabs are so well put together, so compact, and so well designed for what they do that they have always reminded me of army tanks.

CH: Do you have a favorite crustacean?

JM: I like crabs of all kinds. There is a group of crabs in the family Calappidae called “box crabs” (also sometimes called “shame-faced crabs” because of the way they hold their claws over their “face”) that I have always liked. They have one claw specially adapted for opening the shells of snails, holding the shell with one claw while they cut it open with the other claw like a can-opener. And I am also very fond of a family of small “pebble” or “mud” crabs in a large and diverse family called the Xanthidae.

CH: When you discover a new species, do you get to pick the scientific name? If yes, how do you choose a name?

JM: Yes, you do. There are certain rules and traditions that you should follow, but basically you are free to name it anything you choose. The most useful or helpful names are those that describe the species in some way. For example, a crab with the specific name Portunus spinicarpus was so named because the wrist (carpus) of its claw has a large spine on it, whereas other crabs in the “Portunus” group did not. But you can also name a species in honor of a person (such as the person who first discovered it or someone who has spent their career studying that group of animals) or anything else you choose.

CH: Do you have any advice for young people interested in becoming ocean scientists?

JM: First, you want to do well in school, so that you will have a better choice of colleges and (later) graduate schools that want to have you join them. You should also follow your heart, choosing the specific field of study that truly excites you and holds your interest. What you choose for your career is very likely what you will be doing for the rest of your life, so make sure it is something that you truly love to do.