Meet the carcinologists: Rick Webber

Carcinologists are the people who study the world of crustacea. Three of those experts have helped to shape Clever Crustaceans in partnership with NIWA.

Here, Te Papa Research Associate Rick Webber talks to MScSoc graduate Poppy McGuigan Hay about his work in the world of crustaceans.

Rick Webber. Photo by Norm Heke. Te Papa (92304)

An ex-sheep farmer, Rick became more interested in animal health and anatomy than farming, and so took up academic studies. He soon became fascinated by Crustacea, studying their morphology, reproductive biology, and taxonomy. Rick has dedicated much of his career to the identification of decapods: our crabs, lobsters, and shrimps, with a particular passion for descriptive writing and illustration of these crustaceans.

What is your favourite crustacean – and why?

RW: My favourites are the larvae of crabs, lobsters and shrimps because they are not well known but are so important in the life cycles of these animals. But other groups such as Tanaidacea, Amphipoda, and Isopoda are also special to me.

How did you get into this work?

RW: After completing an undergraduate degree majoring in biology, I had an opportunity to do a thesis on the larval development of Aotearoa New Zealand spider crabs. Their development proved so fascinating and complicated that I was hooked. Thereafter, I was employed by The National Museum in the Crustacea Department and have worked with the Crustacea collections ever since.

How would you answer, “what is a carcinologist?” at a party?

RW: Someone who studies crabs…. and lobsters and shrimps and all the other crustaceans of the world, in the sea, in fresh water, in rock pools, on sandy beaches and even on land.

What makes crustaceans so special?

RW: They’re everywhere except in the air; from the Himalayas to the deepest trenches, harbours, beaches, rivers and streams; forests and grasslands, pot plants and trees, burrows and rock pools; even in town. They have the greatest of size ranges – from giant Japanese spider crabs with 4 metres leg span down to minute tantilocarids, parasites of crustacean hosts that are themselves less than 1 mm long. The things you can do with an exoskeleton!

What research do you feel most proud of?

RW: I’m pretty pleased with recent research on the identity of land hoppers of Aotearoa New Zealand. Here was a good reason to use DNA analysis to more accurately identify these abundant and boringly similar but important animals properly. Subtle morphological (physical) differences backed up by DNA analysis quickly showed the presence of different species among hoppers that otherwise look the same.

What are you currently working on that you’re passionate about?

RW: Being retired I’m gradually mopping up unfinished studies but enjoying it and in danger of hatching more!

What inspires you to go to work each day?

RW: I am happily helping with a small exhibition on Aotearoa New Zealand crustaceans that I will be particularly pleased to see going to other, small provincial museums to share what our crustaceans are about.

What advice would you give to an aspiring carcinologist?

RW: The variety of crustaceans in the world is truly awe-inspiring. Embrace their variety of forms and habitats. They are a one-stop entry to biology wherever you are in the world.

Is there anything you wish more people knew about crustaceans in Aotearoa New Zealand?

RW: I’m as keen on eating our edible crustaceans as anyone, but I do wish more New Zealanders knew about the variety and importance of them in our environment.

Aotearoa New Zealand has a modest number of crabs and other decapods compared to Australia but other groups are highly significant, including land hoppers which abound here. This makes them extra important in the diets of some of our native birds and of great importance in the leaf litter composting of our forests and subalpine grasses above the bush line.

Ground water crustaceans are also important indicator species of water quality in areas such as Canterbury where artesian water is so important to agriculture and other human uses. Our rock lobsters and scampi are both extremely valuable and well-managed marine resources as well.

Setting up pitfall traps to collect landhoppers, Duck Cove, Resolution Island. Field trip to Dusky Sound Tamatea, November 2016. Photo by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa (156210)    

Rick Webber collects interstitial Crustaceans, The Basin, Resolution Island. Science and Mātauranga Māori field trip to Dusky Sound Tamatea, November 2016. Photo by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa

Rick editing an ink illustration of the first zoea larval stage of the New Zealand Scampi (Metanephrops challengeri), 2019. Photo by John-Claude Stahl Te Papa

Rick Webber sorting a specimen collection. Science and Mātauranga Māori field trip to Dusky Sound Tamatea, November 2016. Photo by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa