Internet video of small crustacean draws a big following
It never dawned on Pacific University professor David Scholnick that his research on aquatic invertebrates would generate much interest outside the scientific community. Which just goes to show, you should never underestimate the appeal of a crustacean on a treadmill - particularly in the era of Youtube.
As with many Internet wonders, Scholnick's brief video clip of his studies of the Lito Penaeus Pacific White shrimp, was never intended for a mass audience.
But thanks to the infectious appeal of online video, footage of his biological studies has attracted scores of fans.
'It's exciting that people are interested in seeing it, but as a biologist, I hope the science isn't completely lost,' he said. 'It's part of a bigger project.'
Unbeknownst to Scholnick, Pacific's director of online communications, Richard Sipe, spotted the film of the shrimp, frantically running on an underwater treadmill, on the professor's faculty Web page. He uploaded it to Youtube.com, a popular video-sharing Web site, early last month and before long the clip was enjoying incredible popularity.
'I was using it as a way to promote Pacific's Website,' Sipe said. 'Treadmills and shrimp - you usually don't put those things together.'
At last count, Scholnick's nimble crustacean had been viewed more than one million times and generated several spin-offs in which people added music to the video or re-cut the footage to make it look as if the 5-inch-long shrimp is dancing.
Though he had a feeling Youtubers would get a kick out of the bizarre work-out scene, Sipe never thought it would draw such immense attention.
Sipe said he's posted Pacific-related clips on Youtube before, and they've drawn interest, 'but nothing like this.'
Scholnick was even more surprised. He hadn't even heard of Youtube.com and had no idea his lab experiment was being watched by folks around the globe until they started contacting him.
'People started calling me and I didn't know why,' Scholnick said.
Colleagues called to tell him his work had been broadcast on the Internet. Strangers called in with pointers about the shrimp's behavior that they thought could be scientifically relevant.
Television and radio show commentators called to express their fascination with the exercising shrimp. Even the Good Morning America news program inquired about the clip. Publicity was the last thing Scholnick anticipated when he decided to upload the film to his Website after starting his job at Pacific, where he teaches biology.
'I just put that video on there to introduce myself and what I do, mainly for the students,' he said.
Contrary to tongue-in-cheek online speculation, the purpose of putting a shrimp on a treadmill wasn't to turn it into a reduced-fat appetizer or to get it in shape to fight other shrimp in an aquatic ultimate fighting tournament.
In fact, Scholnick and another professor, Lou Burnett of the College of Charleston, were evaluating the critter's treadmill performance as part of a study on the shrimp immune system, conducted in 2004 at the Hollings Marine Laboratory in South Carolina.
'We weren't bored scientists with nothing to do,' said Scholnick, who, at the time the experiment was captured on video, was a professor at Eckerd College in Florida. 'Little is known about how they deal with disease.'
Scholnick recognizes that part of the mass appeal of the video is seeing a tiny crustacean participate in an activity usually associated with Spandex-clad humans. It turns out that in the scientific niche of animal physiology, putting animals on treadmills isn't as unusual as it may seem to non-researchers. Alligators, cockroaches, lizards, crabs and even flies have been studied in this fashion, which is why he was surprised the shrimp video captured so many people's imaginations.
'I had no idea people would be interested in an out-of-context video of a shrimp on a treadmill,' Scholnick said, adding that the shrimp's 10 tiny, scurrying legs add to the entertainment value of the clip.
For his part, Scholnick admits he was also originally delighted with the shrimp's performance - for purely scientific reasons, of course.
'When we first put a shrimp on a treadmill, we he had no idea what would happen,' he said, noting that instead of adjusting its speed to the treadmill, the animal could have simply swam above it. 'We were amazed at how they performed.'
The intent of the experiment was to compare the behavior and physical response of healthy shrimp and unhealthy shrimp when subjected to exercise.
Scholnick and the other researchers found that shrimp which suffer from bacterial infections have a difficulty taking in oxygen, which consequently leads to circulatory problems.
This is important because as global warming causes sea temperatures to rise, the water's oxygen content will decrease - simultaneously improving conditions for bacteria and degrading shrimp immune systems. In other words, the environment has become less conducive for shrimp and similar creatures to overcome diseases.
'It looks like their immune system is fairly robust, but to get rid of all the bacteria, they have to molt - shed their exoskeleton - which takes time and energy,' Scholnick said. So, while the end result of the video may be funny, the purpose behind Scholnick's research is certainly nothing to laugh at.
'Humans are impacting coastal environments in a lot of different ways,' he said.
VIEW THE VIDEO
To see the clip of David Scholnick's shrimp, go to his faculty Web site, www.pacificu.edu/as/biology or type in 'shrimp' and 'treadmill' on www.youtube.com for variations of the video. The original was taken down because it was not properly attributed.