MARQUETTE - The Natural History Museum at the Smithsonian in our nation's capitol is much like an iceberg: what is visible to the eye via public exhibit comprises only a small fraction of what is actually housed there.
For example, there are some eight miles of shelving devoted to the museum's crustacean collection. Neil Cumberlidge, head of the biology department at Northern Michigan University, makes two trips there each year for the purpose of identifying freshwater crabs from Africa and Madagascar. Recognizing his expertise, the
Smithsonian recently appointed him research associate in the Department of Systematic Biology-Invertebrates.
"My role encompasses naming and classifying species - known as taxonomy and exploring the systematics and evolution of each group," Cumberlidge said. "It is not a paid position. I receive security passes, staff discounts, an official affiliation with the Smithsonian, and 24-hour access to the collections."
Taxonomists catalog biodiversity on the planet, but they are becoming a dying breed. There are only two full-time curators in the crustacean section of the Smithsonian. Cumberlidge doubts they will be replaced when they retire, which creates an even greater dependence on outside specialists.
He said there are no African freshwater crab taxonomists in Europe and he is the only one working in the United States. As a result, he receives e-mail requests for help from all over the world. Cumberlidge has also identified specimens pro bono for
museums in Chicago, New York, London, Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, Munich, Vienna and other major cities.
Freshwater crabs do not exist naturally in the U.S. They are primarily a tropical group and are well represented in Africa, where Cumberlidge was hired to teach and do research on river crabs shortly after earning a doctorate in marine biology. They are also found in tropical Asia and in Central and South America.
"Nearly 1,000 species have been identified to date, compared with only 600 species a decade ago," he added. "We need to do a lot more basic research on crab biology in general because these crabs are an important source of food to many people, and because these crabs are linked to human lungworyn disease and river blindness."
Cumberlidge is the author of the monograph The Freshwater Crabs of West Aftica. He even named a genus "Louisea" in honor of his wife, NMU communications professor Louise Bourgault. One of his graduate students, Sadie Reed, is doing research on freshwater crab evolution as part of a project supported by a National Science Foundation grant.
Cumberlidge received a tenure-track appointment at NMU in 1990 and became department head in 1999.