In the name of research, a dubious idea is born

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Dispatches, March 1998

Is This the Audition for Stupid Pet Tricks?
In the name of research, a dubious idea is born

"People ask me if David Letterman knows about this," muses neurobiologist Robert Barlow, "but I can't imagine Mr. Letterman would be interested in my work." Apparently, in his efforts to further the field of neural research, Barlow has somehow overlooked the gold mine of sophomoric comedy that underlies his most recent experiment, which entails embedding thumbnail-size spy cameras into horseshoe crabs' shells.

Often described as "living fossils" for their prehistoric physiology, horseshoe crabs are thought to rely on sight for only the most fundamental tasks — making them ideal for studying how visual stimuli affect behavior. Hence Barlow recorded what a dozen "Crabcam"-adorned specimens saw on a Massachusetts beach last spring and then replayed the footage to an audience of aquarium-bound crabs in his lab. Remarkably, these spectators produced a major scientific breakthrough last December. Sort of. "What we learned," recalls Barlow, a bit breathlessly, "is that the image most stimulating to a male crab's brain is a female crab."

Perhaps not startling news, but Barlow insists it's a crucial first step in learning how the brain interprets such tantalizing imagery. Plus there's the satisfaction to be taken from knowing why millions of randy arthropods invade East Coast shorelines each spring. Says Barlow, with his usual panache: "You've got males cruising the beach for females. Some things never change." — P.K.

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