Enduring Tales The Smithsonian comes calling for compelling storytellers

By James Savage for La Louisiane, The Magazine of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette

Dr. Darryl Felder walked into his Billeaud Hall lab and saw barren shelves. Actors in his life’s story were missing. Preserved crabs, shrimp, lobsters and other decapod crustaceans once filled the gray metal units. Many of the jars that contained them were gone, leaving gaps among the remaining vessels. Technicians will return to retrieve those too, but at that moment, Felder surveyed the emptying space with growing melancholy.

The professor emeritus of biology later described the sad scene to a graduate student, who reassured him with a pat on the back. Remember, he told Felder, the specimens were “going to a better place.”

That better place is the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.

Preserved crustaceans aren’t chatty, but they’re excellent storytellers. It’s in their genes.

When the Smithsonian acquired the UL Lafayette Zoological Crustacean Collection that Felder, his colleagues and students had built over four decades, it received 18,000 jars that contained 100,000 specimens of 2,000 species from the Caribbean Sea, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and throughout the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s big. That much you can see. But the collection’s value lies in what you can’t.

It’s likely the largest archive of gene sequence-quality marine decapod specimens from the Americas. Decapods, 10-footed crustaceans, include lobsters, crabs, crawfish, prawns and shrimp.

Their DNA provides an historical snapshot of animal life and diversity. Microscopic samples researchers extract from the specimens enable them to find kinship between seemingly disparate creatures from different parts of the sea and spot new species, as well.

Left, reticulated hermit crab; top right, tricolor hermit crab; bottom right, Atlantic seabob. Top, blue land crab; bottom, mud shrimp; top right, baron mud lobster; bottom right, wood-dwelling hermit crab.

Felder compared genetic sampling to drawing blood from a human patient.

“I am collecting a small sample periodically to deduce many things about the marine system in which these animals live.

“Just as one sample rarely tells you about the rest of a human’s life, you must keep going back and sampling periodically. It’s a way to measure the health of the marine systems we study.”

Dr. Darryl Felder sorts freshly harvested marine animals aboard the R/V Pelican.

Genetic samples taken from sea creatures can permit scientists to determine why a marine population declined or disappeared. Those clues also can lead to predictions about other marine animals’ futures.

Color also reflects genetic information, but time – combined with preservatives – dulls a specimen’s natural vibrancy. Felder photographed animals while they lived, and the 50,000 images that accompany the collection record aesthetic details specimens alone wouldn’t provide.

Comparisons between animals preserved decades ago and those harvested recently enable scientists to elicit geopolitical and economic stories, too. In 2011, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the agency that oversees food safety, designated the collection as a genetic tissue repository to examine crabs, shrimp and lobsters being marketed in the United States.

The specimens were used to detect illegal importing, false labeling and human rights abuses, Felder explained. “If someone mislabeled a tub of crabmeat as blue crab from the Gulf of Mexico, we can take it and start plucking samples out of it and run genetics. We can compare it to other blue crabs that we have and can tell you it’s actually from off the coast of Thailand, where it was harvested perhaps under poor labor conditions.”

Felder pointed to a jar with a preserved shrimp inside. Though dead, it still has life, he said.

Specimen jars surround Dr. Darryl Felder in his Billeaud Hall laboratory before crews from the Smithsonian began packing the collection (University of Louisiana at Lafayette/Doug Dugas).

“The collection is not static. It tells stories. The stories are about climate change. They are about invasive species moving into our part of the world. They are about the decline of species that may have been common 20 years ago that we rarely see anymore. They are about biodiversity in this part of the world.”

The collection also documents disaster and recovery.

Dr. Suzanne Fredericq is a professor of biology and a phycologist, an expert in algae such as seaweed. She was among a number of researchers whose collaborations with Felder helped build the archive.

In 1997, Fredericq and Felder secured a federal grant to assess crab and shrimp populations in the northwestern Gulf. The idea was to create a comparative baseline should an environmental disaster occur. They collected specimens near salt domes where offshore oil and gas production were prevalent.

Fast forward to 2011. The Deepwater Horizon explosion the previous year resulted in nearly 4.9 million barrels of crude oil spewing into the Gulf. Felder and Fredericq returned to the same sites to complete the work they had begun 14 years earlier.

Dredges that had once yielded a bounty of seaweed, crabs and lobsters emerged from the water almost empty. Crustaceans that did reach the surface had lesions, missing appendages and contaminated gills. They are now among the collection’s holdings.

Yet the aftermath of the spill also demonstrated the Gulf’s resiliency, Fredericq said. When she returned to campus, she placed a few nodules, round lumps of sea minerals, she had collected into a tank of seawater. Algae usually covered their surfaces, but these were bare. Soon, algae sprouted.

“Everything looked dead, but there was still life in there,” she said. Little fish and crabs emerged from the nodules’ protective crevasses, too. Subsequent trips to the Gulf showed similar signs of recovery.

“It was a treasure trove every time we’d go. We’d always find something new. New species. New relationships. The Gulf is absolutely extraordinary,” Fredericq said.

The Smithsonian wanted those stories – all of them.

Its museums and research facilities have about 11.3 million crustacean specimens from around the world. Acquiring the UL Lafayette archive doubles holdings from the Gulf of Mexico and supplements the stories current possessions tell, said Dr. Rafael Lemaitre. He is curator of crustacea in the National Museum of Natural History’s Department of Invertebrate Zoology.

“It’s very satisfying that everything is going to be in one place. This collection is remarkable because it contains virtually all known decapod crustacean species from the Gulf.”

Lemaitre has been an adjunct zoology professor at the University since 1994. He and Felder traveled together on research expeditions to collect some specimens that will now call the Smithsonian home.

Some nations, including Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba, have restricted access to areas where researchers worked years ago, so specimens they collected in those locations and others can’t be retrieved again.

“It is an invaluable, irreplaceable collection,” Lemaitre said.

The archive’s new home is a research facility outside Washington, D.C., in suburban Maryland. Moving it there is a task that takes time.

Technicians from the Smithsonian arrived at Billeaud Hall on UL Lafayette’s campus last fall to begin packing, the first of several anticipated trips to complete the job. The team removed jars from the shelves, swaddled each in Bubble Wrap, and placed the vessels into a series of 55-gallon drums.

Simon Pecnik was on the six-person crew. The lab was a space he knew well, and some of the specimens were old friends.

Pecnik earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology from UL Lafayette. As a student, he worked as a curatorial technician in Felder’s lab. He deciphered handwritten tags that accompanied the crustaceans, and retyped that information – which included coordinates where the samples were collected, the scientific family and species, and their common names – onto rectangular labels affixed to each jar.

The curatorial work Pecnik performed as a student eased his job once the first shipment from the University arrived at the Smithsonian, where he’s worked as a museum technician since 2018.

There, he integrated the collection into the museum’s overall holdings, a job that involved, among other tasks, replacing jars and refreshing preservatives inside. The specimens are conserved in 95 percent ethanol, which dehydrates specimens’ tissues but maintains DNA. Ethanol has to be changed periodically because evaporation erodes its potency.

Pecnik accompanied Felder on a dozen research expeditions as a student. As he catalogued the initial shipment, he recognized several specimens.

“Not two hours ago, I shelved a mud shrimp I caught with Darryl and his wife, Jenny, on an island off the coast of Belize shortly before we enjoyed a lobster dinner at sunset. I’ve had several of those ‘I remember catching you’ moments working with the collection. It makes me smile every time.”

The image of an idyllic seaside dinner in an exotic paradise muddies reality. While the collection tells many stories, it’s also a memoir of hard work under conditions that were often postcard imperfect.

Building the archive was demanding, smelly, dirty and occasionally painful, but the waterborne tales lured Felder and colleagues back to the sea nearly 50 times over four decades. That doesn’t count research at coastal sites where a ship wasn’t needed.

“I spent 40 years tossing at sea on these ‘luxury cruises,’” Felder said with a laugh. “People have no idea. There’s no slide tube. There’s no gambling table.”

Instead, waves battered the boat and its passengers. Dredges unloaded mud and clay onto the deck. Sponges and other sea life stung fingers and pinched hands. A stench filled the air. Water and muck covered everything and everyone. Exhaustion reigned.

Smithsonian technician Simon Pecnik inspects a crustacean specimen. He is a UL Lafayette graduate who helped pack the archive for shipment (University of Louisiana at Lafayette/Doug Dugas).

Expeditions operated 24 hours a day for the 10 days to two weeks the voyages continued; crews worked 12-hour shifts. Once a vessel reached the location researchers wanted to explore, the crew dropped a dredge into the water. The boat cruised about eight to 10 minutes at a time, towing the metal box behind it.

But a successful research expedition relied on more than equipment alone, said Dr. Emilio Garcia. He is a retired professor of modern languages at UL Lafayette and a malacologist, an expert in mollusks. Garcia went on 15 voyages with Felder over the years.

“It’s patience and luck. You are dredging, and you may miss a thousand things by an inch,” he said.

But sometimes, you snag a memory. For Garcia and Felder, it was an abalone. The marine snail usually is found along the California coast, though a sole species lives in the Gulf of Mexico. Garcia and other malacologists consider the creature the Gulf’s Holy Grail.

It was 3 a.m. on the R/V Pelican, the research flagship of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, or LUMCON. The crew was sorting the dredge’s most-recent bounty of sludge and sea life under the glare of spotlights. “I see this little shell moving across the deck,” Felder recounted. “I was like ‘Holy ….’” He placed his hand over the creature and summoned Garcia. Felder then lifted his hand.

Their hoots pierced the darkness. “I hugged and kissed him,” Garcia recalled. “It was such a high!” Garcia later added the abalone to his mollusk collection; its tissues since have been gene-sequenced, and its photograph has appeared in several books.

For Felder, finding the abalone “was an incredible moment” – for himself and for science. “I thought I would never see one in my entire life.”

He continued: “Someone else might look at that abalone and say, ‘OK,’ but what excites scientists is often in the eye of the beholder. Curiosity makes us do what we do. The questions just keep your mind constantly occupied.”

One question dogged Felder before and after his retirement in 2014. What would become of the collection and the stories it had yet to reveal?

When Felder joined the biology faculty in 1975, the University had a small assortment of decapod crustaceans. By the end of his teaching career, it had grown to a size he never imagined. In retirement, he continued to curate and add to the archive, but, “I knew I couldn’t do that forever,” he conceded.

Enter the Smithsonian, where Felder holds an appointment as a research scientist. It was among a host of federal, state and corporate entities whose grants – $8 million in all – funded expeditions over the years.

Transferring the collection into the Smithsonian’s care made sense and ensured permanence, he said. “It was exactly the right thing to do. There will be things left to work on in the collection long after I’m gone. That’s why it belongs there.”

Top, hammerclaw snapping shrimp; bottom, rosy lobsterette; right, scissor-foot shrimp.

This article first appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of La Louisiane, The Magazine of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Crustacean photos courtesy of Dr. Darryl Felder


Doug Dugas