Marilyn Schotte makes a living studying iso- pods -- specifically, at the moment, an isopod called Limnoria, famous for chewing on Venetian dock pilings. You know isopods; they're those 14-legged relatives of shrimp, of which about 4,000 have been identified so far. One of them, a South African, is Malacanthura schotteae. "My supervisor named it," Schotte says modestly, "because I did some drawings on it."
Schotte -- a researcher in the Department of Invertebrate Zoology, Crustacea Division, at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History -- spends much of her time viewing specimens through a special microscope that allows her to trace exactly what she sees. "It takes some hand-eye coordination," she admits. To duplicate all her specimens' complexities, she must dissect them, sometimes removing four sets of mouth parts from an animal that is less than an eighth of an inch long. This is the kind of thing that creeps into your subconscious after a time. Schotte once dreamed that her teeth were falling out, and (she laughs): "They were first and second maxillae -- crustaceans' mouth parts!"
When she's not drawing or dreaming, she's writing papers or books, or scuba diving in distant seas in search of specimens.
It was on one such mission, snorkling off East Africa, that Schotte found herself being ogled by nine small squid -- "cuttlefish actually," she clarifies, "a type of squid. They're harmless." The squid, which are outside Schotte's field of study since they are not crustaceans but mollusks, were lined up in a semi-circle with their tentacles pointed at her. They were changing colors.
"That's how they communicate," Schotte explains. "But I've no idea what they were saying." When she moved toward them, they backed up. When she backed away, they moved forward. Cuttlefish and scientist carried on this squid pro quo for about 20 minutes, examining one another, and then, in a jet of water, the animals propelled themselves backward and away. Schotte recalls this incident fondly. "It was the most endearing experience with an invertebrate that I have ever had!"