Over the last 20 years ichthyologist Barry Chernoff has collected more than a quarter-million fish in the lakes, ponds, and rivers of South America. He has also collected many tales of survival, including the time parasitic nematodes burrowed into his intestines, and the time his appendix ruptured on a lonely tributary of the Amazon and a Peruvian military jet flew to the rescue. As a curator of the department of zoology at the Field Museum in Chicago for 17 years, he concentrated on tracing South American specimens to a time when dinosaurs roamed Earth. Last fall Chernoff, 53, became the Robert Schumann Professor of Environmental Studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, where he also teaches in both the biology and the earth and environmental sciences departments.
One of my earliest memories is of walking on the dock of Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn with my mom and dad when a guy who was fishing pulled up a horseshoe crab. All the people around were shrieking and screaming at this monster. And my father, being the brave person he has always been, kicked it off the dock.
Photograph by Celio Magalhaes, courtesy of Barry Chernoff
Many years later, I learned in invertebrate zoology that the horseshoe crab’s telson—the long spine that sticks out—isn’t a stinger. The horseshoe crab has no poisons. It has no true claws. You can just pick it up. In fact, if there’s a gentler creature than a horseshoe crab, please tell me.
Looking back now, I see that my whole career has essentially been about breaking down the myths that we inherit.
When I was 11 years old, I went to visit a favorite uncle. There was this book on his coffee table called Secrets of Marine and Underwater Life. I’ll never forget, it cost $7.98, which was pretty expensive for a book published back in 1962. There was a lot of artwork in it, and I couldn’t put it down. Think about it: You look out and see the ocean but you can’t see what’s in it. All of a sudden you turn some pages and realize that there’s this whole realm of things going on. It completely captured my imagination. My uncle had bought the book for himself, but he saw how intrigued I was by it. When we were leaving, he said, “I think you should have this.”
At the time, I didn’t know that anybody could have a career in marine biology, and it didn’t matter. Because a few years earlier, at the age of 7, I’d announced to the family that I was going to be a doctor.
Now, my dad was a factory worker, working in plastics and rubber. Nobody in my family had ever gone into medicine, and my aspiration brought forth a lot of kudos. Everybody was very proud. When you come from a Jewish background—“My son’s going to be a doctor!”—nobody has fish doctor in mind.
But in my junior year at Stony Brook University on Long Island, I took a course in invertebrate biology. It was the first time I took a course in biology that had nothing to do with cells or genes or medicine. It was fascinating, and I was hooked. But after all those kudos, how do you go home and tell your parents that you really don’t want to be a medical doctor? And, anyway, what can you do if you go into this field?
Well, a graduate student of the professor who taught that invertebrate zoology class needed a research assistant. Someone who could snorkel, dive, and collect horseshoe crabs. Great, go home and tell your dad you’re giving up a career in medicine to snorkel for horseshoe crabs!
But in talking with the graduate student I learned that you could make a career of this. You could do research.
Once we started diving in ponds on the north side of Long Island, I became really, really happy. The internal wrestling ended. I knew that I was going to deal with marine creatures, do biological research, work on ecology and evolution, and forget the medicine stuff.
Around that time, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had a Man in the Sea program. I was able to do research on this big boat—this 190-foot research vessel—that was working out of New York harbor. They were doing a big study of the sediments to learn about the effects of the sand movements along the New Jersey and New York coasts, which is important for the stability of the beaches. There was only one slight problem: I knew I’d get seasick. But everyone said that after three days on a big boat, I’d be just fine.