Water world

Portraits of the creatures in Michael LaBarbera’s biology lab. Plus: a fund to support undergraduate science research.


Professor Michael LaBarbera is almost never without his camera, even—or perhaps especially—when he’s among the creatures in his lab. Students are accustomed to the sight of him at his tripod, squinting through a long zoom lens at the miniature marine worlds inside his aquariums, trying to capture a bryozoan with its crown of feeding tentacles extended, waiting for the light to hit a comb jelly just right, watching the water drift through a sea anemone. Some of the animals LaBarbera photographs are truly tiny: the Cladonema radiatum jellyfish is only a millimeter or two in diameter. Heterochaerus sargassi flatworms can be even smaller. In LaBarbera’s pictures, you can see every minute, glistening detail of their anatomy.

The photos shown below are a few of the many hundreds of photos LaBarbera took of creatures he and his students examined in lab during fall quarter’s Invertebrate Biology class.

This December LaBarbera is retiring from the University. He plans to keep his hand in, teaching a class here and there, but he’ll have time, he says, to devote himself more fully to his photography. He got serious about it ten years ago, when he got his first digital camera and started taking close-ups of bugs. “I was back to being a 12-year-old again,” he says. “Just the marvelously alien shapes of these animals that first captivated me.”

LaBarbera also is organizing a fund to support science research by students in the College—money to help pay for supplies and some equipment and to help defray the costs of traveling to field sites. In general, LaBarbera says, College students don’t have research grants. “If an undergrad does research”—and more than half do, he says—“they are dependent on their mentor’s lab for everything.” He hopes the fund will allow undergraduates more independence, help them learn how to apply for money, and ease the strain on faculty lab resources. To find out more about the project, contact LaBarbera at mlabarbe@uchicago.edu.


Astyris lunata, the lunar dovesnail, suspended on a mucus thread like a spider on a strand of silk.

Beroe ovata, a type of comb jelly capable of living in polar, temperate, and tropical habitats.

Bugula neritina, a colonial bryozoan that grows in long branches.

Caprella penantis, a species of skeleton shrimp, so named for its thin, threadlike body.

Costoanachis sparsa, a marine snail, sitting atop a branch of Pennaria tiarella, a colonial hydroid.

Cyanea capillata, the lion’s mane jellyfish, the largest in the ocean.

Eudendrium carneum, the red stickhydroid.

Farfantepenaeus duorarum, the northern pink shrimp, common along the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico.

Hypselodoris edenticulata, a type of nudibranch.

Metasepia pfefferi, known as Pfeffer’s flamboyant cuttlefish, not long after hatching in the lab.

Mnemiopsis leidyi, called the warty comb jelly or sea walnut, does not sting.

Oliva sayana, the lettered olive, a species of predatory sea snail.

Ophiothrix angulata, the angular brittlestar, which uses tiny tube feet to grab food from the water.

Pagurus pollicaris, the flat-clawed hermit crab (sometime called the thumb-clawed hermit crab), wearing a shell covered in Hydractinia hydroids, commonly known as snail fur.

Pennaria tiarella, a colonial hydroid that grows in branches.

Phoronis architecta, a horseshoe worm, with its crown of feeding tentacles extended from the upright tube it builds to protect its soft body.

Phyllangia americana, the hidden cup coral.

Plumatella, a freshwater bryozoan, which grows in colonies that look like sheets of moss on plants in the water.

Scutigera coleoptrata, a centipede, the cheetah of the arthropod world, which chases down its prey and stings it with fangs attached to poison glands.

Themiste alutacea, a species of peanut worm, with its “introvert”—used for feeding and burrowing—extended to the right.

Uca pugilator, a male sand fiddler crab with his extra-large claw.

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