Neil Cumberlidge Cumberlidge Named Peter White Scholar

Neil Cumberlidge (Biology) will culminate his 20-year research program on African freshwater crabs with help from the award he received recently as the 2009 Peter White Scholar at NMU. Cumberlidge plans to focus on the neglected and largely undocumented freshwater crab fauna of six East African countries: Sudan, Somalia, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda.

“This will be the first time this region’s freshwater crab fauna has been cataloged,” he said. “It is important in that part of Africa from a public health standpoint because of the implications for river blindness.”

The parasitic disease is transmitted through repeated bites from small black flies that breed only in cold, rapid-flowing streams and rivers. Freshwater crabs play a unique role in the life cycle of these flies. The insects lay their eggs in the water and the freshly hatched larvae must find a crab to cling to or they will die before they have a chance to develop into pupae from which black flies emerge.

“So far, researchers haven’t been able to find the species of crab associated with the disease. The crabs that have been collected have not been identified properly. Now I have developed the skills at NMU to identify them with confidence. Many are kept in museums—mainly in London. There’s also an important collection in Sweden from a 1920's expedition to East Africa,” said Cumberlidge, who is in the midst of a four-week research trip to both locations to assess the validity of name-bearing specimens housed there. 

He will use specialized software to integrate his new research and species descriptions with existing publications to produce a definitive volume titled The Freshwater Crabs of Eastern Africa. Cumberlidge also plans to post “much-needed” resources on Web sites devoted to biodiversity informatics—the burgeoning practice of applying IT tools and technology to global taxonomy data, bringing it into the electronic age.

"These resources will include first-time national species lists, identification keys and digital images.

I will be adding information from the East African region to my Web site. And because other scientists in Africa and other developing countries are my target audience, I only publish in open-access journals where they can gain free access.”

The $17,500 Peter White Scholar award enabled him to attend a biodiversity informatics conference on the front end of his London trip. It also will support his continuing work in museums in the United States and abroad, upgrades in laboratory equipment, and student involvement in the research.

Cumberlidge plans to seek additional funding from the National Science Foundation for a scaled-up project encompassing all of Africa and the island of Madagascar. It would target places where gaps exist in the knowledge of freshwater crabs, with his work in East Africa serving as the preliminary phase.

Considered the world's pre-eminent African freshwater crab expert, Cumberlidge has described seven new genera and identified more than 30 new species. He has nearly 100 publications to his credit, including scientific journals, several book chapters and a book-length monograph.


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Updated: June 22, 2009

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