The secret life of Dale Tshudy

Monday, May 8th, 2017 at 4:40 PM
The secret life of Dale Tshudy by Shayma Musa

Under nearly eight tons of atmospheric pressure lives a lobster.

It lounges comfortably in temperatures ranging from near freezing to 750 degrees Fahrenheit. And the fact that no light guides it around hydrothermal vents that release spewing clouds of toxic compounds does not hinder its slow crawl across the rough terrain of the sea floor.

This lobster is “Dinochleus Steeplensis”; one so unique for its huge spiked claw that it is classified in its own genus. Discovered in the deep waters of the Philippines sea, it’s thousands of miles away from the rolling farm hills of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where Dr. Dale Tshudy, paleontologist, and Edinboro professor of geosciences, first developed his love for all things marine. 

“I spent countless wonderful days alone in the streams that ran through dairy farms playing Jacques Cousteau,” said Tshudy.

Despite the fact that most oceans are 32,600 feet, or 6.5 miles deep at most, scientists have never been able to easily study the bottom of them very comprehensively. That’s because the weight of thousands of tons of water creates pressure so heavy that it can easily crush a human — not to mention the extreme temperatures that the water can reach.

The extremity of conditions under the sea — some say that the climate is even more treacherous than in outer space — means that in order to study creatures that inhabit the sea floor scientists have to rely on means other than actual in-the-field research. One such means is dredging.

Dredging is when dirt, sand, rock and other sediments are pulled up from the sea floor, sifted through to find specimens, and then returned to the sea floor.

“We [Tshudy and a colleague] dredged the deep sea floor in hopes of finding a new lobster related to Dinochleus steeplensis,” Tshudy said.

“I knew in second grade that I wanted to study marine biology someday,” Tshudy said. “I did whatever I could to make it happen. I studied picture books, filled our garage with aquaria full of specimens I had netted, and attended summer oceanography camps. Three days after graduation I was headed down to Miami, Florida for my first summer college session.”

Of geology, Tshudy said, “I did have a mineral and rock collection during high school, nonetheless, marine biology remained my main interest.”

However, Tshudy didn’t go into marine biology expecting to study lobsters. “I chose a graduate program at Kent State because they had an expert in tiny marine plankton there. My intention at the time was to earn a master’s degree and then work on the Gulf Coast in the oil industry. I got into lobsters by accident,” he said. “While I was at Kent State I began working closely with Dr. Rodney Feldmann and because of the amount of work available I decided to switch from fossil plankton to fossil lobsters.”

But his life as a marine paleontologist isn’t always made up of adventure and field work. “Much of my work involves making family trees of fossil and living crustaceans (shrimp, lobsters and, crabs),” Tshudy explained. “I would like to do more collecting at sea, but at the moment I’m backed up in material to study here in my office.”

It is in this office where Tshudy makes most of his discoveries.

Located on the second floor of Cooper Hall, at the crossroads separating geosciences and chemistry, the discrete office is where Tshudy discovered Dinochleus steeplensis three years ago, and more recently continues to research a new species within the genus “homarus.”

“It’s not unusual for paleontologists to report new fossil species,” said Tshudy. “Fun, but not unusual. The neatest thing about this species is that it filled a gap in the fossil record; it is intermediate — temporally, morphologically and ecologically, between dinosaur-aged relatives and modern blind deep sea relatives — a ‘missing link’ lobster.”

Despite helping make a key discovery in marine paleontology, Tshudy remained humble, saying: “I find my work in general endlessly fascinating. I’ll never be jaded by working in the Smithsonian, finding new species, collecting in the ocean, collaborating with scientists all around the world, and publishing papers. I show up to research everyday thinking ‘I’m so lucky to be doing this.’” 

Shayma Musa is a staff writer for The Spectator. 

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