After studying crab species for 20 years, NMU Biology Professor Neil Cumberlidge received the Peter White Scholar Award this year to support a major work on the identification of East African freshwater crabs.
Cumberlidge has discovered 30 new species and seven new genera (groups of species sharing similar characteristics) of crabs over the course of his career. He started working with crabs during his undergraduate studies in England.
“Crustaceans were what was being offered in the lab I was working at. That’s how I came to be interested in crabs in the first place,” Cumberlidge said. “I worked on the crustaceans that make up much of the menu at Red Lobster, now.”
Cumberlidge will be using the $17,500 Peter White Scholar Award to develop a book-length work, or monograph. The work will focus on the taxonomy, which is the specific classification and hierarchy, of freshwater crabs in the East African region, using specialized software to combine previous and new research in a single volume.
The money from the grant will also be used to upgrade laboratory equipment and to attend a conference in London on biodiversity informatics, which is the use of information technology to help in biodiversity research.
Cumberlidge first worked with marine crabs in England and Scotland, but now focuses on freshwater crabs in Africa and many other parts of the world. He has published a monograph titled “The Freshwater Crabs of West Africa.” Though he has published a book, Cumberlidge said that scientists ordinarily do not make money from publishing their scholarly works.
“Scientists do it for the pleasure of just doing it; of discovering. That’s what drives us,” he said. “It’s just the way the science world is organized.”
Cumberlidge also works with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN,) an organization dedicated to the preservation of animals and wildlife.
“I’d been working with them for a few years when they asked me to identify all the endangered species of freshwater crabs. I began by doing that for Africa,” Cumberlidge said. “Then they said, ‘Well, why not do it for the whole world?’ So I got together a team of about 15 specialists from five continents from all around the world, and eight or nine different countries.”
The group recently published their findings in the August 2009 issue of the Journal of Biological Conservation and the achievement was announced in a press release called “Freshwater Crabs ‘Feel the Pinch.” The release has been picked up by news services all around the world.
Sophomore Kirstin Meyer worked as Cumberlidge’s Freshman Fellow last year, and currently works in his lab as a student researcher. Last year, the two worked together to describe a new species of crab, Foza ambohitra, from the Antsiranana Province of northern Madagascar. The description has just been published in ZooKeys, a scientific journal. Both of their names are attached to the publication.
“Getting the opportunity to create a publishable work as a freshman was mind-blowing for me,” said Meyer.
Meyer said that for the project, she had to use information from many different scientific journals.
“I read them thinking, someday I would write journal articles, but I thought that ‘someday’ would be years and years away,” Meyer said. “Dr. Cumberlidge has given me opportunities I never imagined I would get.”
Meyer will get the chance to see her name in print, for the second time, soon. Cumberlidge and Meyer discovered a second new species, Potamonautes gamogofae, from southwestern Ethiopia and submitted the description to another scientific journal called Crustaceana.
Meyer said it was a pleasure to study the taxonomy of freshwater crabs with Cumberlidge.
“A lot of people think that taxonomy is a dead science,” Meyer said. “But taxonomy is still alive; it’s still growing. We still don’t know everything that is out there. When I came up to NMU, I thought the only undiscovered species were insects in the Amazon, but that’s most definitely not true.”