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Small Dead Things

Beetle display, Queen Victoria Museum & Gallery. Photo: Meredith Foley.

Karen L.Haberman On the Significance of Small Dead Things, Journal of Natural History Education & Experience, Vol 9, 2015

My naturalist tendencies, born in a desert of Joshua trees, asserted themselves more fully when I was twenty years old and studying biology in the tide pools and kelp forests of California’s central coast. Defying my poor eyesight, I developed a passion for watching tiny and bizarre invertebrates as they waved their segmented antennae from the crevices of rocky lairs or clung to algae with hooked tarsi, the invertebrate equivalent of hanging on by their toenails. I could put my mask up close to the rock wall and something new would always materialize. On one dive, I watched a decorator crab deftly prod a pink-tipped anemone with its claws until it was positioned just so between its eyes, camouflaging the conspicuous spike that jutted forward from its head. I treasured these creatures, trying not to intrude into their fluid lives.

After navigating my way through a maze of school and life experiences, I am a naturalist still, now with a decidedly ecological bent. I study benthic macroinvertebrates that live within the rocks and rubble of streams or buried in the oozy mud of estuaries. I want to know which creatures are there, and how many, so I can assess the effects of human impact on their communities. Herein lies my dilemma. Most of these animals, including many insect larvae and crustaceans, cannot be identified beyond a basic level, let alone accurately counted, while still alive. What else can I do but collect them with my nets and corers, immerse them in toxic fixatives, and bring them back to the lab for further examination? I also teach entomology, for which collecting insects is a time-honored method of exploring diversity. Yet, with the death of each animal, I cannot help but wonder, must I continue to take the lives of these exquisite creatures in order to study them?

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