‘I study how crabs sniff’ – Author Interview

Yesterday we published the work of Lindsay Waldrop and her colleagues in which they modeled how the performance of the hermit crab’s antennae might change as they both grow and transition from water to air. We invited Lindsay to comment on her research and her experience publishing with us.

PJ: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?


LW: I am a postdoctoral research associate with Prof. Laura Miller at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the Departments of Biology and Mathematics.  I did my graduate work at the University of California, Berkeley with Prof. Mimi Koehl in the Department of Integrative Biology.


PJ: Can you explain the research you published in PeerJ?

LW: This work is an extension of my dissertation research on how crabs capture odors from their fluid environments. I studied both marine crabs and terrestrial hermit crabs and found that they use different ways of capturing odors. Marine crabs use a very dense tuft of chemosensory hairs on their first antennae to capture and hold a discrete sample of water close to these hairs; it’s important for them to hold this sample because it gives time for odor molecules to diffuse to the surfaces of the hairs so that they can interact with sensory dendrites.  But for terrestrial hermit crabs in air, the diffusion of odor molecules is so much faster in air that they don’t need to hold on to a sample the way marine crabs do, which has likely caused a shift in the morphology of the hairs themselves.
The way fluid interacts with a structure depends a lot on how big the structure is, how fast it moves, and the properties of the fluid it’s in. So the scaling of a structure like a chemosensory hair during growth that operates in water is a big deal. Size changes that crabs experience between when they settle as juveniles (~4 mm in body length) to their adult size (~30-40 mm in body length) could drastically change the way their antennae interact with the odor-containing fluid. We know that marine crabs scale their antennae allometrically – that is the antennae of small juveniles are relatively much bigger than the antennae of adults. This helps them continue to capture odor samples when they are small. But since terrestrial hermit crabs have antennae that capture odors in air and a different odor-capture mechanism, it was unclear how being small would impact a juvenile hermit crab’s ability to capture odor molecules. Our study looks at how the antennae of juvenile hermit crabs scale and uses a simple odor-capture model to determine how the scaling impacts odor capture.

PJ: Do you have any anecdotes about this research?

LW: [spoiler alert: gross but funny] I collected the animals used in the study from a very tiny island off the coast of Moorea, French Polynesia. I went out at night (because that is when the large hermit crabs are the most active) with a few other scientists who were collecting other animals, one of whom was collecting moths with a very bright headlamp. His light accidentally flashed me in the eyes, which triggered the very first migraine headache I ever had, not a very fun experience. I threw up as a result, and tried to sit in the dark without moving so that my head would hurt less. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I looked down and saw tiny things start to cluster around my vomit. They were the hermit crabs that I was there to collect, and they were quite happily munching away on my former dinner. So I can add human vomit to the list of food sources for terrestrial hermit crabs, along with detritus, rotting plant matter, dead animals, and human excrement!


Terrestrial hermit crabs. Photo: Lindsay Waldrop

PJ: What kinds of lessons do you hope the public takes away from the research?

LW: When someone asks me what I study, I say “I study how crabs sniff!” which almost always makes someone smile and think. They have often never heard of such a crazy thing – sniffing crabs! – much less that someone has studied it for years. It’s often the first time they have really considered what it must be like to be a crab, what sort of challenges a crab has to face in daily life and how they could go about it all. I hope that public takes away that if you stop and look closely at nature, to consider how plants and animals do all the amazing things they do just to survive, and that they will always find something brilliant that will make them smile!

PJ: Where do you hope to go from here?

LW: Our mathematical model of odor capture in the paper is extremely simple but it gave us some interested trends to investigate with a better model. I’m currently working with a mathematician to take a more realistic antennae geometry, based on the antennae morphology reported in the paper, and solve advection-diffusion equations to get a more accurate idea of how odor capture varies during growth. With a more accurate model, we hope to validate some of the trends that the simple model produced.

PJ: Why did you choose to reproduce the complete peer-review history of your article?

LW: I chose to release my peer-review history because first and foremost, I think the history shows how the paper has progressed to something that we’re really proud of. Our reviewers were very thorough and took us to task over the weaknesses of the odor-capture model and the interpretation of our results, but did it in ways that were deeply constructive and helpful. In the end, the finished paper is far higher quality than the preprint, and for that, I have my reviewers and the academic editor to thank.

Second, I think it’s a great example for people to see how the process of peer review really works. It’s a term that’s thrown around a lot, but I think the public has very little understanding of what it’s like to go through the process as a researcher. This is a very concrete example that I can point to when I teach students about constructive peer-review or when an interested layperson wants to know what the phrase really means. I really think this is a great example of how peer review ought to work.

PJ: How did you first hear about PeerJ, and what persuaded you to submit to us?

LW: I heard about PeerJ from colleagues on Twitter, where you seem to be very active! I am a strong proponent of open access research and wanted to be part of the movement to publish in journals where that was an option. However, I did my graduate work without a big grant, I funded it entirely with small grants pieced together, so I didn’t have the budget to pay the thousands of dollars in fees for open access. PeerJ allows me, as a former graduate student who independently funded their research, to publish open access. 
In addition to that, your wonderful policy on waiving fees for undergraduate researchers really helped out. My two coauthors, Roxanne Bantay and Quang Nguyen, where both undergrads at UC Berkeley that help through the Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program to conduct the research. They did a brilliant job, and I was delighted that I could include them as authors on the paper for free to recognize their contribution to the work. I will continue to have an active undergraduate research program, so I anticipate sending more papers with undergrad authors your way in the future.

PJ: How would you describe your experience of our submission/review process?

LW: I enjoyed my experience published with PeerJ. The staff are very friendly and work quickly. The academic editor and reviewers were extremely constructive and professional. I was genuinely shocked by how fast I received a first decision on my manuscript. As an early career scientist, it is critical for me to get papers out in a timely manner, so the fact that the turn-around was so fast is a huge plus!

PJ: Would you submit again, and would you recommend that your colleagues submit?

LW: I will absolutely submit to PeerJ again, and I have already recommended to colleagues, particularly those with active undergraduate research programs, to submit as well.

PJ: In conclusion, how would you describe PeerJ in three words?

LW: Fast, Open, and Affordable!

PJ: Many thanks for your time!

Join Lindsay Waldrop and thousands of other satisfied authors, and submit your next article to PeerJ.

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