Is it a bird? A nerd? A plane? It’s DOCTOR CRAIG McCLAIN!
This week’s nerd is Dr. Craig McClain, the Assistant Director of Science at the National Evolutionary Syntheis Center in Durham, NC. Dr. McClain is also the author and editor of Deep Sea News, voted the NUMBER ONE ocean blog on the web!
CB: Describe your research interests in a nutshell.
CM: Seventeen orders of magnitude in body size separate the smallest metazoans from the largest. Over 1.3 million metazoan species are currently described and potentially millions more await description. Much of this amazing biodiversity and body size range lies in the world’s oceans. My research focuses on untangling the complexity of ecological and evolutionary processes that drive this fantastic range of marine invertebrate body size and species.
CM: My research program centers on questions that fascinate me. I am driven by nothing more than to answer these. I often don’t think about whether this is more evolution, ecology, oceanography, genetics, biophysics, or modeling. I use the right tool to address the question.
CB: What is your dream fieldwork project, assuming you have unlimited funding and several super-smart postdocs?
CM: In 2006 Rea et al. (http://geology.geoscienceworld.org/cgi/content/abstract/34/10/873) published a paper in Geology reporting findings of an area in the central South Pacific Ocean, the size of the Mediterranean Sea, that for 80 million years that has very low biological productivity. With no input of organic carbon from surface waters, no dust input, and no deposition from hydrothermal vents, little food is available in the deep sea here. This has fascinated me since the first report. Imagine an area of roughly 2 million square kilometers where the lack food may reduce or even preclude life. If life exists there what is it? What anatomical, physiological, and behavioral novelties have evolved to equip an organism to survive in this wasteland?
CB: You’ve travelled extensively to some really remote places. What is the most interesting place you’ve worked in and why?
CM: Obviously the sheer wonderment of working in the Weddell Sea off Antarctica ranks surrounded by pack ice and exploring the biota 4km under the ocean’s surface ranks at the top. But the Juan de Fuca ridge at 2-3 km deep a hundred kilometers off the Washington coast remains my favorite. Here, Axial Seamount at 1500m was once was an eight by three kilometer underwater molten lake filled by multiple flows. As these individual flows hit barriers, lava began to pool and rise. When the flow managed to rupture or overcome a barrier, the pooled lava would subside. This left behind an elevated surface layer, now cooled and hardened, marking the once elevated lava pool. Over time, this surface layer has fallen and cracked revealing empty voids below it. In some areas, lava pillars, which are formed by lava rapidly cooled from water venting out, hold up this old surface layer like a ceiling. Lava bridges, arches, caverns, ceilings, pits, fissures, and voids are the building blocks of this landscape, reminiscent more of fire-bombed cathedrals than the deep-sea floor.
CB: What is your most recent publication?
CB: Any advice to budding biologists?
CM: Be passionate about what you do. It is not likely you will be rich or have groupies.
CB: Actually I am your groupie, so that makes at least 1…
CM: Since my youth, I have been interested in art. During my postdoctoral years, I took a few classes in photography and strived to develop these skills through the years. Often I can better convey how I see the world and oceans through images rather than words.
CB: If you could have three guests for dinner, alive or dead, who would they be?
CM: William Beebe was the first human to descend into the deep oceans, part writer, explorer, and naturalist. Besides developing the bathysphere that allowed him and Otis to descent to over 3000ft, Beebe was also one of the first to propose dinosaur origins for birds. I am sure we would have much to discuss.
Stevie Ray Vaughn, but of course he would have to play Texas Flood, Couldn’t Stand the Weather, Change It, and Life Without You and probably in that order. Although much of music tastes have transitioned through time, my love of Stevie belting on his guitar “Lenny” as remained since I first heard him at 15.
Georgia O’Keefe was the first artist that truly impressed me. Her earlier works during her years in New York City, are dominated by architectural forms, often art deco-esque, and remind me of my own time in Boston. My move afterwards to New Mexico, mirrors O’Keefe’s. Expectedly her work during the New Mexico years reflected the rawness and openness, the balance of strength and fluidity, of the landscape. Seeing her paintings takes me back to those phases of my life.
CM: We would probably eat healthy. Country fried steak and gravy, mash potatoes, fried okra, fresh picked corn, buttermilk biscuits with a touch of honey, all followed up with a batch of mint juleps.
CB: Sounds good to me! Thanks so much for stopping by today Dr. McClain!