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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

That Time We Met Joe Strummer (the Sea Snail) In Monterey

Posted By on Tue, Dec 30, 2014 at 10:12 AM

  • Anders Warén, Swedish Museum of Natural History
  • A. strummeri

Inside the winding corridors of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, amid newly unboxed DNA synthesizers and other expensive-looking equipment, sits Shannon Johnson. Johnson's decision to name a deep-sea snail after The Clash’s Joe Strummer made headlines around the web recently. But she originally wanted to name the snail after a different punk icon — the Sex Pistols' Sid Vicious.

“We settled on Strummer because he was less likely to be a murderous drug addict,” Johnson laughed, adding that Strummer's environmental efforts, like planting trees, made it a no-brainer.

Kind of like a 4th grade teacher a student might develop a crush on, Johnson is energetic and eager to get more people interested in the sciences — one of the main reasons scientists name animals after celebrities. Inside her brightly lit office, surrounded by glass mason jars filled with various marine specimens, Johnson let me hold the spikey shell of a Strummer snail.

The Joe Strummer snail name was more of her husband’s idea, Johnson admits. She grew up listening to a different punk subgenre: hardcore.

“I wasn’t the biggest Clash fan. More of a Black Flag or Minor Threat kind of girl,” Johnson said.

Happy to discuss her favorite local venues right alongside the genetic differences between two shrimp populations, Johnson showed me some of her prized specimens. Besides the Strummer snail, she was eager to show off a jar of shells belonging to a different snail that eats whale bones. These bone-eating snails have pebbles in their stomachs that help grind the bones up, which Johnson is clearly very excited about.
  • Robert Vrijenhoek, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Research Institution
  • Alviniconcha snails
Johnson's boss walks by.

“No microscopes,” he says.

There’s a short discussion about how to best use the remainder of this year’s funding, and if there is a possibility to roll the funding over for microscopes next year. That’s not going to happen, bossman says. Johnson probes her boss, Bob, to explain how and why he approved her idea of naming the snail after the legendary punk musician.

“I was drinking and thought, 'Joe Strummer? Seems like a good idea,' then had another beer,” Bob said.

But not everyone has been so supportive of Johnson’s work. And much like a musician, Johnson is sure to remember the exact words of her harshest critics.

A lot of species are described by their physical traits. For example, the whale bone eating snail can be differentiated from other snails based on the shape of its shell. But the Strummer snail, which lives between 350 and 3,500 meters under water on hydrothermal vents, look very similar to snails that live on the same vents. The difference is in their DNA.
click to enlarge img_3242.jpg
“There were a few taxonomers and reviewers who said they were ‘literally revolted’ by the idea of a molecular species description. I was like wow I made someone physically ill with my paper – that’s kinda awesome!”

The snails were collected from the Fiji Basin using a $10 million Remotely Operated Underwater Vehicle (ROV).

“We have some engineers who worked on the Mars rover and they say it’s easier to work on mars than it is to work on the bottom of the ocean,” Johnson said.

Personally, I wish they would have named the snail after Sid Vicious. But there are  plenty of other animals out there that can be named after punk icons. Here are a few ideas:

A GG Allin skunk
A H.R. hamster (obviously the black flipping kind)
A Henry Rollins prairie dog (they’re the most talkative animal).

...other suggestions?

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About The Author

Matt Saincome

Matt Saincome

Matt Saincome is SF Weekly's former music editor.


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