Lucky Tuesday

On Tuesday I went by the lab. By lab I mean the Grice Marine Laboratory.

In one of the buildings of this laboratory there is a room full of shelves. A room that remains dark and cool most of the time. There are eight switches that control the lights above the eight aisles between rows of shelves. On these shelves there are jars. Jars filled with 75% ethanol. Alcohol. Like the one you keep in the medicine cabinet. In this jars there are fishes and invertebrates. At least those that can fit in a glass jar. In this room there are also fishes that cannot fit in glass jars. These fishes are in stainless steel tanks and each tank has a piece of paper with scientific names and catalog numbers on it.

On Tuesday I was reading in the back of a classroom full of students. The lecture was about sharks and rays. Students learn about traits that are useful for identifying sharks and rays to species. They learn to identify fishes by observing at preserved specimens using dichotomic keys. A sort of road map with only two ways to go when moving forward. I saw a large tub on a cart in the classroom and I asked if I could help. I went to the collection room.

I was standing in front of one of the big shiny silver tanks. One tank was going to be open. It was decided that it would be the one in the far end of the row, close to the accessory aisle, perpendicular to the one were the tanks were located.

The moment came. I began helping to flip butterfly-like knobs. By doing so the pressure that holds the lid against the edge of the tub is released. This pressure assures that the rubber gasket under the lid makes a seal preventing alcohol evaporation. I knew what was coming. The suspense was killing me. Until all the knobs were release and the lid came up. I took a deep breath as many sharks were becoming exposed. The fragrance of my existence. A few specimens were selected for students to look at: a rare Heptranchias perlo (sharpnose seven gill shark), a slightly distorted Carcharhinus plumbeus (sandbar shark), and a beautiful small Isurus oxhyrhynchus (mako shark). They were carefully place on the tub and strolled down a hallway to the classroom.


Lucky students. Lucky me.

Many thanks to Tony Harold for letting me sit in his class.




The zone

I was there two weeks ago. I was at the American Museum of Natural History. I had four jars in front of me. Inside these jars were five fish and one. Another species. I was expecting to do a routine revision of characters and to confirm an identification of additional specimens of a new species. I was up for a surprise. Among the ones that looked familiar there was one that was different. What to do?

I showed the fish to two colleagues and both agreed. It was different from the others in the jars. I went to get coffee with my friend who studies bats. And he told me about one bat. One that had teeth different from all others. One that was similar to another species and ultimately it was the same species. What to do?

I talked about fishes.

I looked at them.

I observed them carefully and thought about their traits.

I was elated, energized, happy as a child. I was conversing fishes, talking about the people that studied them. I was swimming deep into the mysteries of variation and differentiation, going through maps, and creeks, and rivers.

I was dreaming about speciation.

I want to be there again.

I want to be in the place of preserved fishes. Where specimens pose in front of me to be studied and to be understood, awaiting for their truths to be revealed. The place were history makes sense in the light of discovery, and adds to our present knowledge.

I will be there.

Because there is nothing else I can do.