Swimming Through History:
VASG fellow identifies fish in esteemed Haeckel collection

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By Science Writing Intern Paige Bellamy 

The City of Jena, cradled in a beautifully forested valley in Eastern Germany, boasts a rich history in education and research. The Friedrich Schiller University, sometimes referred to as the University of Jena, has many famous alumni and past professors including among others Karl Marx, Carl Zeiss, and Ernst Haeckel. Today, former Virginia Sea Grant (VASG) research fellow and Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) graduate, Cindy Marin Martinez, can be added to this esteemed list.

It was at the University of Jena, in sight of the Saale River, that Ernst Haeckel studied comparative anatomy and created some of the mesmerizing illustrations found in his famous book, Kunstformen der Natur, or Art Forms of Nature. And among Haeckel’s various accomplishments was the founding of the Phyletic Museum within the University of Jena system. It focuses on the development of life and the study of organisms’ relatedness within a group. With the foundation stone laid in 1907, it now holds over 500,000 specimens.

Martinez’s work includes the identification of fish deposited in the museum by Haeckel throughout his career. These hundred-year-old fish are held in just-as-old glass jars. The pale yellow liquid slowly swirls glassy eyed specimens around as Martinez gingerly picks them up. “I’m identifying them to the lowest taxonomic level possible,” she says. “Sometimes it’s a little tricky because the specimens are old, and a little fragile. I need to treat them with a lot of love and care.”

A view of the Phyletic Museum at dusk.

Along with identifying the multitudes of fish in the collection, Martinez is responsible for updating the museum’s database, and digitally archiving the specimens with photographs. So far, she estimates that she has identified 180 different species from 60 jars. “It’s interesting because we have samples from different parts of the world and different ecosystems, such as marine fish from Sri Lanka, freshwater fish from the Nile in Africa, and many from the Mediterranean,” she notes.

Martinez’s job is far from a stroll along a scenic riverbank, however. As she picks up another jar, she adds, “I couldn’t identify this species because there is little literature available to describe it.” She has found as many as four different species in a jar the size of a coffee cup, holding fish sometimes smaller than a finger or two. In the rare case that she is unable to identify the species’ full name, she labels their genus or family.

Learning new species of fish might be considered a regular pastime for Martinez. After receiving her undergraduate degree in biology from Universidad de El Salvador, she came to VIMS to earn her Master’s in Marine Science. Between those two experiences and her work at the Phyletic Museum, she said she knows over 100 species by heart, but she jokes, “it’s hard to tell because you’d have to give me a test.”

While a student at VIMS, Martinez was also a Virginia Sea Grant Graduate Research Fellow. She said “the financial support was crucial so I could finish my Master’s and actually add components that I was not going to be able to add without Virginia Sea Grant.” She also notes that the VASG communications center equipped her with the ability to communicate with audiences that extend beyond the scientific community. “One of my main goals is to contribute to the knowledge of larval fishes. I’ve always thought that having a network of scientists ... would be nice so we can come together and produce a book on larval fish from the region,” Martinez says, but she has realized the importance of taking the knowledge to the next step.

Listen to our conversation with Cindy Marin Martinez.

Above: Samples from the Haeckel Collection. Top: This 106-year-old boxfish specimen was identified by Martinez while working with the Haeckel collection in Germany at the Phyletic Museum. Box fish, Lactoria cornuta. 1901. Indonesia Padang, Sumatra. Collected by Haeckel, E. Determined by Marin, C. Photos courtesy of Cindy Marin Martinez.

“One of my main goals is to contribute to the knowledge of larval fishes. I’ve always thought that having a network of scientists... would be nice so we can come together and produce a book.”

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