Consider Empathy For The Yeti Crab (And Other Sea Creatures, Too)

11:48 minutes

A pale white crab with hairy claws and legs
Consider empathy for the yeti crab, pictured above. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It’s easy to empathize with certain animals: soft fur, big eyes, and family units make it simple to relate to creatures like panda bears, cats, and dogs. Even some undersea critters like dolphins and whales have large fan bases among land-dwelling humans. 

But the ocean is filled with many more creatures than just mammals, and many of them fall in the category of “weird.” Defector staff writer Sabrina Imbler thinks a lot about these critters that evade our categorization of “cute.” Things like deep sea worms, jelly-like invertebrates called salps, and the ghostly, hairy yeti crab are Imbler’s bread and butter. 

Imbler’s new book, How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures, is filled with essays comparing aspects of their life to bizarre creatures of the deep sea. From exploring their queer identity through the underwater dance parties of the yeti crab, to grappling with living as a mixed-race person through hybridized fish, each essay is poetic and intimate. SciFri producer Kathleen Davis chats with Imbler from their home in Brooklyn, New York, about the importance of finding empathy with the strangest creatures on our planet.

Read an excerpt from How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures here.

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Segment Guests

Sabrina Imbler

Sabrina Imbler is the author of How Far the Light Reaches, and a science journalist at Defector in Brooklyn, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Sci-fi producer Kathleen Davis has joined me. Hi, Kathleen. What’s up?

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Hey, Ira. I want you to play along with me for just a moment, and think of the ocean. Picture some of the critters that live there.

IRA FLATOW: Ocean. I love the ocean. OK. First things to come to mind are your dolphins, your whales, and of course, octopuses.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Those can all be very charismatic creatures. They’re pretty easy for us humans to relate to them. I mean, we can connect to the playfulness of dolphins, the family ties of whales, the intelligence of octopuses, so on and so forth.

IRA FLATOW: Absolutely.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: But I’m wondering, Ira, have you ever had a connection with a creature that is a little less flashy, maybe a little more unpopular? Something like a cuttlefish, or bubble-like invertebrates called salps.

IRA FLATOW: Salps. I don’t think I’m familiar with salps.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Well you will be, once you get your hands on a new book by friend of the show, Sabrina Imbler. It’s called How Far the Light Reaches, a Life in Ten Sea Creatures. Sabrina is a staff writer at Defector, and in this book they explore parts of their identity through a collection of essays, each one floating between details of Sabrina’s life and those of a sea creature. Sabrina, thank you so much for joining us.

SABRINA IMBLER: Thank you so much for having me, Kathleen.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So a lot of the creatures that you write about in your book are not, I would say, very popular, or maybe generally appreciated. What is it about these more obscure, sometimes strange creatures, that really intrigues you?

SABRINA IMBLER: I love strange creatures, I think, because it is a bit more of a challenge to find connection with them. Like, in trying to learn more about creatures that have very, very different ways of living, or ways of socializing, or ways of eating in the world than we do. I think it has set up a challenge to me, really, to look into that creature and to find resonances that might be unexpected, or might be not the obvious kind of relation that we have when we think about a grieving whale, or an elephant that has a society and, you know, mourns her dead.

For example, when I was thinking about the deep sea yeti crab– which is a really, really strange creature that lives at the bottom of the ocean on hydrothermal vents– and I just kept looking at it and I was like, this– there’s no better way to say this. This crab kind of looks queer. It looks a little bit flamboyant. And I think, yeah. Being able to really sit with creatures and find these unexpected connections, I think I find more exciting.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: I’m going to go back to the yeti crab in a minute here, because I love that essay. But I want to kind of hammer home this point that it is harder, I would say, for people to relate to creatures that aren’t maybe traditionally cute or cool. I mean, we’re so much more likely to project human emotions and personalities onto a creature that’s fluffy and has big eyes, and is really adorable looking, like a cat or a dog or anything like that.

It’s harder to do that with a creature that is maybe scaly, or a little slimy or blob-ish. In some ways, this book feels like a mission to get people to know these creatures and appreciate them. I mean, is there something you think that there is to gain about connecting with these creatures that are a little bit more off the beaten path?

SABRINA IMBLER: Absolutely. I mean, it’s a really good point. We are so quick to find connection with something fluffy. Like, that’s why pandas, like, are doing so well and have so many conservation dollars funneled toward them. But we can’t only care about the pandas and the dolphins, and a lot of the stranger and less savory creatures have crucial roles in their ecosystems, and also need help surviving in this world that we have irrevocably altered in some ways.

I think it’s a really good practice of empathy to really find intimacy with strange or bizarre or unsavory creatures. It is my mission in the way that I write about these creatures to really understand them on their own terms. Like, to understand what they need to live and what they need to eat and how they reproduce and how long they live. And do they sleep, do they hibernate?

And I think maybe just trying to describe the everyday life of this different creature, maybe that makes this animal feel more like a neighbor, more like a friend, than something that we fixate on. Like why is its snout so long? Or, like, its legs look really creepy to me. But really trying to understand the creature on its own terms, I feel like, is something that I try to do, and maybe helps us build that connection with our friends on the Earth.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: I want to go back to the yeti crabs, which you had very pleasantly described to us earlier. One thing that you talk about in your essay about the yeti crabs is that they will gather at the bottom of the sea floor and have what kind of looks like a dance party. How did you find yourself relating to these crabs?

SABRINA IMBLER: It’s a funny story. I first learned about the yeti crab, I think, on Tumblr. There is this image of the yeti crab, I think taken from a nature documentary. It was just sort of perched on this rock amid, like, the dark waters of the deep sea. And there was this quote at the bottom that said, this creature is adapted to the crushing pressure and oppressive darkness.

And when I first saw this image I was living in a new city for the first time and Trump had just been elected, and I was like, I can relate. Like, me too. And so that was my first moment, just this meme of connecting with the yeti crab. But the more I learned about it, the more I really felt like this crab– its everyday way of living– reminded me a lot of the ways that I found community in queer nightlife.

And I would watch footage of these crabs just crawling all over each other in these dense crowds at the bottom of the sea, around these heat sources. And I was thinking about the times when I would dance with my queer friends in a club and we would all be packed so closely next to each other. Then I actually learned about this one species of yeti crab, kiwa puravida, that actually dances to farm its own food.

So it waves its claws in the heat of these hydrothermal vents, and they have bacterial mats on their claws. And waving the claw sort of helps the bacteria grow, and then they can eat the bacteria on their own claws, which I was like, this crab is literally dancing to live, just like me.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So aside from exploring your queer identity in the book by maybe evoking certain sea creatures, you also talk about your experience as a mixed race person. And the way that you illustrate this with sea creatures is really poetic. Can you walk me through what creatures you chose to express this part of your identity with?

SABRINA IMBLER: Yeah. So the essay in the book where I talked about being mixed– you know, I’m Chinese and white– is an essay about hybrid sea creatures, specifically hybrid butterfly fish. And I have always been interested, I think, in taxonomy in the ocean, just because it’s interesting. I feel like things that would appear very closely related are not always very closely related.

And the idea of a hybrid fish, it’s an easy parallel to being mixed race, right? This fish is the product of two different species reproducing. It doesn’t have a species name of its own. But I think I didn’t realize until I started writing this essay that I was thinking about all the moments in my life where I have tried to find, like, taxonomy for my own existence and my own experience of race.

Like, growing up as someone who was half Asian, I often was trying to find– me and my half Asian friends, we would try to find the right word to describe us, because half Chinese, half white is so long. A lot of these similar instincts to categorize and to give things specific names, they also exist in taxonomy in the ways that we try to categorize creatures and name different species.

So I found it was really generative to look at this hybrid butterfly fish that really is, like– it’s a product of serendipity, right? Like butterfly fish release their eggs and their sperm in clouds in the ocean, and sometimes an egg of one species and a sperm of another species are– they’ll collide and they’ll produce this rare and serendipitous hybrid butterfly fish. And I felt like it was an organism that wasn’t expected, and no one really knew what to do with it. And I found myself relating a lot to that.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: This is a really deeply personal book. I’m curious if you learned anything about yourself while you were writing it.

SABRINA IMBLER: This book is– it’s a memoir, and I talk about a lot of experiences that I had growing up. And I think when I started writing this book, a lot of my feelings about those periods of my life were shame or regret or guilt. You know, I came out later in life and I think a lot of my life has been like, why didn’t I know I was gay? Like, what does that mean?

But I think being able to delve back into these stories of my youth and also, like, tell them alongside the narratives of these creatures, I felt like I was– I felt very united by our shared struggle and our shared interest in staying alive and thriving. And I think I was able to find a lot of tenderness for my past self in understanding, I– I’m just another organism, on the sidewalk.

I’m also trying to find nutrients and find a mate and find community and the things that I need to survive. And I acted imperfectly in some instances, but you know, I was really trying my best. So I think, yeah. The biggest thing that I discovered about myself was, I think, tenderness and care for my younger self that I didn’t have going into the book.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So we’re just about out of time here. What do you hope that people take away from your book?

SABRINA IMBLER: I hope that this book helps people appreciate the ocean in general, and that the creatures that live in it, we don’t often get a chance to see sea creatures in the same way that we see birds or bugs or things that sort of exist more easily on terrestrial ground. And I hope that people learn about new creatures and appreciate things that maybe were strange to them before.

But I also hope that this book gives people permission to see themselves in the natural world in ways that maybe– yeah, didn’t seem obvious before. Like I really think that it’s a powerful tool to look at different organisms on Earth and to see, what connection can I build with this creature? How can I– how are we similar? Like what is our point of sameness?

And I think that it’s been so powerful for me to learn about myself through these sea creatures, and I imagine that– yeah, it could be powerful for lots of other people. So look into the ocean and see what sparks joy or wonder or– yeah, similarity.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Thank you so much, Sabrina, for joining us.

SABRINA IMBLER: Thank you so much for having me, Kathleen.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Sabrina Imbler is a staff writer at Defector, based in Brooklyn, New York. Their new book How Far the Light Reaches, a Life in Ten Sea Creatures goes on sale December 6. You can read an excerpt from the book at sciencefriday.com/seacreatures. I’m Kathleen Davis.

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About Rasha Aridi

Rasha Aridi is a producer for Science Friday. She loves stories about weird critters, science adventures, and the intersection of science and history.

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Kathleen Davis is a producer at Science Friday, which means she spends the week brainstorming, researching, and writing, typically in that order. She’s a big fan of stories related to strange animal facts and dystopian technology.

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