In His Own Words: Barry Chernoff

Professor of Environmental Studies at Wesleyan University

By Grant Delin and Cal Fussman
Jul 25, 2004 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 6:04 AM


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Over the last 20 years ichthyologist Barry Chernoff has collected more than a quarter-million fish in the lakes, ponds, and rivers of South America. He has also collected many tales of survival, including the time parasitic nematodes burrowed into his intestines, and the time his appendix ruptured on a lonely tributary of the Amazon and a Peruvian military jet flew to the rescue. As a curator of the department of zoology at the Field Museum in Chicago for 17 years, he concentrated on tracing South American specimens to a time when dinosaurs roamed Earth. Last fall Chernoff, 53, became the Robert Schumann Professor of Environmental Studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, where he also teaches in both the biology and the earth and environmental sciences departments.

One of my earliest memories is of walking on the dock of Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn with my mom and dad when a guy who was fishing pulled up a horseshoe crab. All the people around were shrieking and screaming at this monster. And my father, being the brave person he has always been, kicked it off the dock.

Photograph by Celio Magalhaes, courtesy of Barry Chernoff

In July 1999 Barry Chernoff traveled to the Pastaza River, in the mountains above Consuelo, Ecuador, to work with a conservation organization, AquaRAP, that he helped found. “What AquaRAP tries to do,” he says, “is give people the best information possible so they can work together to make a sustainable future.”

Many years later, I learned in invertebrate zoology that the horseshoe crab’s telson—the long spine that sticks out—isn’t a stinger. The horseshoe crab has no poisons. It has no true claws. You can just pick it up. In fact, if there’s a gentler creature than a horseshoe crab, please tell me.

Looking back now, I see that my whole career has essentially been about breaking down the myths that we inherit.

When I was 11 years old, I went to visit a favorite uncle. There was this book on his coffee table called Secrets of Marine and Underwater Life. I’ll never forget, it cost $7.98, which was pretty expensive for a book published back in 1962. There was a lot of artwork in it, and I couldn’t put it down. Think about it: You look out and see the ocean but you can’t see what’s in it. All of a sudden you turn some pages and realize that there’s this whole realm of things going on. It completely captured my imagination. My uncle had bought the book for himself, but he saw how intrigued I was by it. When we were leaving, he said, “I think you should have this.”

At the time, I didn’t know that anybody could have a career in marine biology, and it didn’t matter. Because a few years earlier, at the age of 7, I’d announced to the family that I was going to be a doctor.

Now, my dad was a factory worker, working in plastics and rubber. Nobody in my family had ever gone into medicine, and my aspiration brought forth a lot of kudos. Everybody was very proud. When you come from a Jewish background—“My son’s going to be a doctor!”—nobody has fish doctor in mind.

But in my junior year at Stony Brook University on Long Island, I took a course in invertebrate biology. It was the first time I took a course in biology that had nothing to do with cells or genes or medicine. It was fascinating, and I was hooked. But after all those kudos, how do you go home and tell your parents that you really don’t want to be a medical doctor? And, anyway, what can you do if you go into this field?

Well, a graduate student of the professor who taught that invertebrate zoology class needed a research assistant. Someone who could snorkel, dive, and collect horseshoe crabs. Great, go home and tell your dad you’re giving up a career in medicine to snorkel for horseshoe crabs!

But in talking with the graduate student I learned that you could make a career of this. You could do research.

Once we started diving in ponds on the north side of Long Island, I became really, really happy. The internal wrestling ended. I knew that I was going to deal with marine creatures, do biological research, work on ecology and evolution, and forget the medicine stuff.

Around that time, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had a Man in the Sea program. I was able to do research on this big boat—this 190-foot research vessel—that was working out of New York harbor. They were doing a big study of the sediments to learn about the effects of the sand movements along the New Jersey and New York coasts, which is important for the stability of the beaches. There was only one slight problem: I knew I’d get seasick. But everyone said that after three days on a big boat, I’d be just fine.

Chernoff has compiled a staggering collection so far, including, at top left, collection jars used to maintain specimens in alcohol; facing right and up, two red-eyed piranhas; far right, a fish head and the skin of an Arapaima gigas, South America’s largest freshwater fish; across the bottom, cichlid, tetra, and aruanã skeletons.

We worked eight hours on and six hours off—and I never shrank from my tour of duty because of seasickness. But a storm hit, and we lost our loran [long-range navigation] and the ability to receive the signals that tell you where you are. 

It was important to know exactly where we were. Because when you dredge, you need to know within a couple of feet where to go down in order to get the best results. So we had to sail back toward the New York harbor to certain places for a loran reading.

Well, I had to go up to the top deck—that’s four decks up—to this little scope with a crosshair in it. And when the crosshairs hit the square, I had to yell into a walkie-talkie, “Mark.” Then they would take the loran reading and correct their computers. We had to get that on the four corners of this buoy. So that meant I had only the time it would take the ship to get to the next stop around the buoy to run down three decks to heave over the side, run all the way back up, and look at this little crosshair jiggling and shaking as the boat is going back and forth.

The worst part wasn’t that I couldn’t hold anything down during the trip and I’d get home 20 pounds lighter. Once I got back on land I got “land sick” because my body had started to accommodate to the ship moving all the time. So I’d be pulling over on the Long Island Expressway, vomiting, because I thought I was still on the water.

So, for the most part, it’s been freshwater for me ever since.

One of the most interesting aspects of my work is to look at the so-called monsters of the deep and find out which are truly monsters and which are not.

The piranha is a fake monster. I used to lead tours for the Field Museum to South America, and everybody would ask, aren’t you afraid of the piranhas? I explained that while they do have these amazing teeth, piranhas were probably the original funding experiment. The explorers of South America had to return home to Europe with incredible creatures and stories and tales. That’s what got them the money to go back.

When I started to collect fish in South America in 1984, we were living at the edges of a number of indigenous communities. I had heard all the myths. So I wanted to know how many people were missing fingers and toes. What did I see? Boys playing butt naked in the water all day long.

The edge of an indigenous village is a great place to catch piranhas because people throw their trash in the water—which attracts other fish, which attracts the piranhas. And here are these kids dangling everything in the water. But I saw no additional circumcisions or anything that would make you worry.

Now, piranhas are very dangerous. Their teeth are extremely sharp, and when you catch them in nets or on a hook and line, they’re not happy to see you. They don’t want to be held by you. And most people do get harmed handling piranhas. But as for jumping in the water and swimming, you’re not going to get attacked and turned into a skeleton, like in a cartoon. We don’t need to sacrifice spouses, kids, or cattle to do our work.

The big electric eels might qualify as monsters. The largest I’ve collected are about 12 or 13 feet in length. I’ve been zapped by one. We had a station set up to collect fish on the River Suripá in Venezuela. My job was to work the back of the net, holding it high so that if any of the fish jumped out I could try to knock them back into the collection area. This was a swampy area, and as the nets came in we saw the big eel heads come up. One got through a hole, and its tail just happened to hit my thigh.

These eels will throw up to 600 volts at over seven or eight amps—that’s quite a dose of electricity. I only remember this feeling in my thigh like when you touch a socket or a live wire. But the people around me said it was like watching a kung fu movie. All of a sudden I just launched out of the water and landed on the bank eight feet away.

Most people who die after getting hit by an electric eel don’t die from the electricity. What happens to them is they pass out and fall facedown in the water, and then they drown.

I had no recollection of flying through the air. But on the bank afterward, I do remember thinking, “Dorothy, this ain’t Kansas anymore.”

The real fish monster is called the candíru catfish. This is not a myth. This is a tiny little catfish that lives off the blood of big fishes—mostly big catfishes. They’re true vampires. And they’re attracted to big fish by the ammonia coming out of the big fishes’ gill chambers.

Chernoff collected these four specimens of candíru catfish, Vandellia cirrhosa, from freshwater rivers in South America. The candíru are parasites that live entirely by attaching themselves to larger freshwater fish and sucking their blood through their gills.

When fish breathe in the water, they’re pulling in oxygen and giving off carbon dioxide. To mediate that reaction, because it’s occurring in water, which doesn’t have the same properties as air, they have a chloride cell in the gill that gives off ammonia. That ammonia, even minute quantities, becomes like a signal to these candíru catfish that there’s food out there, and they go straight for the gills. Humans can give off something very similar in water, which is called urine.

If you pee in the water and these little catfish are around, they can enter the human body, which is much worse for a human male than a human female. They probably get up to four or five inches long. They have very little nubbins for pectoral fin spines, the arm spines. And they’re completely covered in mucus. They’ll just worm their way right up there, and you won’t even feel it. They’ve been known to go in and actually chew their way into the testicles.

A couple of years ago, in the Manaus newspaper in Brazil, there was a headline about an erotic fish. The tail was sticking out the end of the man’s penis. These little catfish will die in there, and that causes necrosis and rotting. And the person has to be sliced open and sewn back up with the hope that everything works.

I would submit that the candíru catfish is a true fish monster. Hence, rule number one of fish collection: No urinating in the water.

All the fishes you see in my laboratory are storytellers. They contain the history of the planet—in genes, bones, muscles, and body shapes. My job is to pull that out and to make known what those things are trying to tell us.

Over the years, I have collected between a quarter- and a half-million specimens. Think about it: Their ancestors were on the planet swimming in the freshwaters of South America while dinosaurs were walking on the continent. If I do good statistical and morphological studies, then I can figure out what went on at that time.

For instance, South America has the largest freshwater fish fauna the world has ever known. Right now we can easily document that there are more than 4,000 named things that live in freshwater in South America. Given the number of new species that we’re finding every year, there are going to be well over 6,000.

There are only 4,500 to 5,000 mammals in the whole world. Why are there so many different fishes in the freshwaters of South America? What went on? What led to that massive pattern of evolution? To me, those are huge questions that beg answering.

The reason it’s important is because Earth is a dynamic place. Environmental conditions have always been changing. There were once ice sheets in North America. Geological settings changed, and the Andes came up in South America. By understanding how these fishes evolved, by understanding how we got from the past to the present, we can create a model for predicting what’s going to happen as global climates change, as deforestation continues, and all of these aquatic habitats change. Now, nobody is going to answer that one question in my lifetime. So part of my work is to set up some steps on the ladder so that one day it will be answered.

Let me show you this wonderful, weird, beautiful fish. It’s a little blood-finned tetra. Lime green at the head end, then there’s this little dividing line, and it turns orange-crimson red.

This fish lived below the waterfalls in Salto Para, Venezuela. I’d collected below those waterfalls before and never even seen one, until one day when we collected tons of them. The frightening thing about finding so many new species of fish so rapidly is that it shows us we really don’t know what’s out there. Here’s a whole continent that’s our neighbor, and it’s still so unexplored. The bottom line is, we don’t even know what we don’t know. Are there resources out there to let us go in and get more information fast in the face of this environmental degradation? Are we going to protect these ecosystems well enough to learn what those stories are?

Back in 1985, I went to the Garden of Eden. There are two reasons I call it the Garden of Eden. One is because of the spectacular visual beauty. The second is because, according to the traditions of the Peároa people who live there, it is their Garden of Eden. It’s in southern Venezuela, on the Rio Autana, which originates on the Tepuy Autana—a limestone tabletop mountain that has been eaten away by water. We had to get special permission to go because it’s a holy site of the Peároa people.

It was almost impossible to get there. We were traveling by dugout canoe with guides for many days. And then to arrive, to sit on this beautiful outcrop of old rocks, earlier than Cretaceous rocks—some are Precambrian, which means they’re very old, very smooth, very black—and the water flows over these rocks in a special way so that it almost looks like the whole river is rising up and coming down. Around you are the beautiful greens of the forest and the blue of the sky and this tabletop mountain with all these macaws and this special black water that’s like a plant-leaf tea holding all these fishes of incredible colors.

I can remember writing in my notes afterward, “It gets no better than this place.” No planes, no wires. Just that pure feeling of looking out and understanding the pattern of biodiversity.

We collected amazing things to document this richness. Six years later, we made plans to return to look for things that we’d missed. I remember loading the boat in 1991, the anticipation. I was so excited, but then as we moved through the edges of Eden came the kick in the belly. There were denuded areas. A lot of forest had been taken down, and decimation was all around. It didn’t take long to figure out what had happened, because you could see all the villages that had sprung up.

Because of the human population, there had been overfishing, and we were able to catch very little. I have pictures of me from my first visit standing in the exact same place on the edge of Eden and then from the trip six years later. I’m not saying it had turned into Mordor in The Lord of the Rings, but there was a huge change, and that sick feeling in my belly was still there when I returned home to Chicago.


Photograph by Robert M. Peck 

DATE OF BIRTH: May 5, 1951

SPOUSE: Jennifer Ann Wheeler


 Bachelor of science, State University of

New York at Stony Brook, 1973

 Master of science, Adelphi University,

Garden City, New York, 1976

 Doctorate, University of Michigan,Ann Arbor, 1983

BOOKS: Coauthor, Morphometrics in Evolutionary Biology, 1985


HOBBIES: Music, cooking, photography, sports

PETS: Coco, an English pointer; Priya, a Chesapeake Bay retriever, and Frankie, “just a white cat”

AWARDS: Pack of playing cards at the air-rifle booth in the Durham County Fair in Connecticut, 2003

I wasn’t the only one with that feeling in my belly. A lot of scientists working in the Amazon and the Orinoco at that time were forced to go farther and farther into the forest to find habitats that were less impacted.

We decided that if we—the aquatic scientists—didn’t try to save the ecosystems, then nobody was going to do it. So we partnered with several conservation organizations and founded a program called AquaRAP.

The approach we’ve taken is to look for integrated solutions. We’re not going to tell anybody: “Get out! You can’t live here! We’re making a park here.” Humans are part of these ecosystems. Our approach has been to understand how organisms are structured and distributed in these ecosystems. Then we focus on the natural economics of the fishes—both as food items and in the ornamental trade. We use the economic worth of these fishes to everybody’s benefit. By doing so, we can protect at least 95 percent of the aquatic biodiversity because of the commonalities of their life histories with the economically valuable species.

For example, look at some of these big catfishes. In Manaus, they probably bring in 75 thousand metric tons of those a year—that’s just in Manaus. At two dollars a pound, multiply that out. That’s a huge amount—and it’s a renewable resource.

See this little pencil fish. It weighs maybe four or five grams. Now, think about it: If you had enough pencil fish to equal the weight of one cow, the value of those pencil fish would be 11,000 times the value of that cow. Go to a store in Chicago and you will pay $5 dollars for this little pencil fish. The amount of money in the ornamental pet trade alone is huge. These are renewable resources. By simply asking what we have to do to maintain these economic resources, we can protect the other things that are living there.

More than 120,000 jars in the fish collection of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago hold 3 million freshwater and saltwater specimens collected from around the world, starting in the late 1890s.

Here’s another example. In Bolivia we showed fishermen what happens when logging companies cut in areas along the river edges, areas that naturally flood at certain times of the year. The fishermen were unconcerned—until we pointed out that the area along the river turns out to be the nursery area for all the commercial fish they were fishing for.

They didn’t know that because they’re not looking for minute species, for the larval things. We showed them that when there is flooding, these big fishes are spawning. The juveniles use these as nursery areas. You cut down these forests, you take away these nursery areas. You take away these nursery areas, you take away the future of the fish.

Once they learned this, the fishermen began to protest the logging. And that’s better because those are their resources they’re fighting for. I mean, I can barely affect what goes on in this country. Going down and acting like a big gringo who wants to make changes is not the way to go. So AquaRAP places good scientific information in the hands of local people and empowers them to understand what that information means and gets them involved in the process.

Advances in technology are really helping us. One of the next steps down the road is to work with hydrographic engineers to make models based on water flow and sediment type. Can we make predictions about how biodiversity in these river systems may change? We’re not there yet. But we’re trying to make predictions about what’s going to happen under global environmental change and use that as a basis for protection and developing a sustainable future. That’s where I want to go next.

A good scientist is one who not only understands what he’s looking at and asks important questions but also one who wants to keep evolving his questions. Our job is not to get locked in.

I recently left my plum position at the Field Museum after 17 years to start an environmental studies program at Wesleyan. As one of my legacies, I want to leave a set of students who are informed about environmental issues. I want them to understand the broad implications—that wherever on Earth you are, you’re connected to the rest of the world’s environmental problems.

Given what I see as the antienvironmental movement, I think it’s time for people to learn what the issues are. Regardless of their opinions, at least they’ll know the role of scientific and economic information and how to put them together in reasonable ways.

I’m not going to brainwash students but ask them to deal with environmental issues in a thoughtful way, to be able to put information together and then say: How are we going to solve this problem? What are we going to protect? What are we going to sacrifice because we can’t protect everything? That’s what I want to have a hand in.

I originally set my class up for 70 students. But last September, on the first day, 90 showed up. I didn’t come to Wesleyan to turn students away. So we found this big auditorium that was wonderfully refurbished—you can talk normally and your voice projects without having to use a microphone. And students just kept coming.

Turns out I eventually had 139. That’s more than 5 percent of the undergraduate class. After each lecture, I’d head over to my office. By the time I’d arrive at my computer, there’d be as many as 50 e-mails from students commenting on the lecture I’d just given, asking me if I’d read a certain article or visited a particular Web site. It’s been a dream come true. And we’ve just started.

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