22 September 2017

When two lines of research collide

It’s so nice to have two new papers drop in short succession! I had one come out in Journal of Coastal Research last week, and another paper drops today in PeerJ!

A couple of years ago, I posted this picture to try to explain who I ended with papers strewn across multiple research fields.

Little did I know then that a couple of those lines of research were to destined to collide:

This paper started, as several of my papers had, with an unplanned chance observation. I was working with a summer undergraduate student on a project related to my ongoing project to understand the basic biology of the sand crab crab Lepidopa benedicti (reviewed in yesterday’s post).

I looked under the microscope at a sand crab brain we were staining, and thought, “Hey, I recognize that!” It was a larval tapeworm. I’d coauthored two papers about how they infect the nervous system of local white shrimp (Carreon et al. 2011, Carreon and Faulkes 2014).

I had already co-authored published a paper on parasitic nematodes in sand crab (Joseph and Faulkes 2014). But when we did the initial screen for whether there were any parasites in this species, we missed the tapeworm larvae entirely! Even though we has spent a lot of time looking at them in shrimp, we did not notice them.

Once I recognized that there was this familiar parasite in sand crabs, it was off to the races. I knew how to visualize the parasite from the “tapeworm in shrimp” papers. I knew behaviour tests we could do from the “nematodes in sand crabs” paper. This project was, to me, very low hanging fruit that I was confident could yield a paper quite quickly.

But it became so much cooler than I ever expected as the data started rolling in. I had both sand crabs and mole crabs available, so I checked both for tapeworms. It became obvious quickly that the infection patterns in sand crabs and mole crabs were very different. I tweeted out a few graphs while I was collecting the data:

You don’t get differences that obvious that early that often. And it held up! And it was consistent with something else in my archive...

I had some unpublished data from the nematode project. My former student, Meera, had searched for those nematodes in mole crabs. We couldn’t find any. That result was okay for a conference poster at the 2014 parasitology meeting, but on its own was just an observation and probably not publishable.

But having two parasites show the same infection pattern in two species – one species heavily infected, the other one practically uninfected – now that was much more interesting.

The paper came together, as expected, pretty quickly. I submitted it to PeerJ. I’ve published with them before, and I was recently reminded how much I like their editorial process. They truly did build the better mousetrap. They are prompt but thorough. I still think PeerJ’s submission process for figures is still far more fiddly than it needs to be, even though I realize why it is that way.

I also wanted to milk my PeerJ lifetime membership more. I got it when it was $99 per author for life. With two papers, buying that membership when I did had probably save me thousands of dollars in article processing fees.

One thing that makes me happy about this pair of papers that has just come out (this and the phenology one) is that I genuinely feel that I have made progress in understanding the basic biology of these sand crabs. Yes, albuneid sand crabs are obscure little critters that few other people care about.

But a lot of papers feel like you’re mostly filling in details, or are variations on an established theme. It’s very satisfying to have a project where you genuinely feel you are shedding new light on topic. That’s why I kept doing the sand crab papers.

And I did have a student email me with a question about sand crabs not too long ago, so maybe these papers aren’t just to make me happy. Maybe some other people will find them cool and useful, too.

Related posts

Connections in my scientific career
Staying active in the lab and/or field when you’re the boss
823 days: A tale of parasite publication
Where’s the site for the parasite?
Tracking tiny worms


Carreon N, Faulkes Z. 2014. Position of larval tapeworms, Polypocephalus sp., in the ganglia of shrimp, Litopenaeus setiferus. Integrative and Comparative Biology 54(2): 143-148. https://doi.org/10.1093/icb/icu043

Carreon N, Faulkes Z, Fredensborg BL. 2011. Polypocephalus sp. infects the nervous system and increases activity of commercially harvested white shrimp (Litopenaeus setiferus). Journal of Parasitology 97(5): 755-759. https://doi.org/10.1645/GE-2749.1

Faulkes Z. 2017. Filtering out parasites: sand crabs (Lepidopa benedicti) are infected by more parasites than sympatric mole crabs (Emerita benedicti). PeerJ 5: e5832. https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.3852

Joseph M, Faulkes Z. 2014. Nematodes infect, but do not manipulate digging by, sand crabs, Lepidopa benedicti. Integrative and Comparative Biology 54(2): 101-107. https://doi.org/10.1093/icb/icu064 

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