MERTI: The Mediterranean Rim Terrestrial Isopods Art/Science Project

MERTI: The Mediterranean Rim Terrestrial Isopods Art/Science Project creates an aesthetic metaphor for human habitation in the twenty-one modern states that have a coastline on the Mediterranean Sea. The Mediterranean Region is a complex of cultural, ecological, environmental processes that shape its human, ecological and physical history and evolution. Many of these processes remain part of an invisible dynamics below our awareness.

Inspired by the YASMIN on-line discussion group of artists and scientists around the Med Rim, I am renewing a biogeography project that I began during 1957-58 when I wrote my senior honors thesis on the comparative ecology of the terrestial isopods Armadillidium vulgare and Oniscus asellus at Queens College, CUNY, under the supervision of the renowned biologist Max Hecht, editor of Evolutionary Biology.

Amazing Little Creatures Breathing with Gills on Land

My lingering affection for these amazing little creatures surfaced periodically during the past half-century from the 1962 publication of my taxonomic key to the sowbugs of Long Island, my article on pillbugs in Natural History Magazine, my paintings of their interactions, my photographs documenting terrestrial isopods at the four corners of America (Miami, San Diego, Seattle, and Portland, Maine) in 1996, to my wife creating a huge ceramic isopod for me on my sixtieth birthday in Miami.

Terrestrial isopods, commonly known as sowbugs, pillbugs, or woodlice, are land-adapted crustaceans that live under woodpiles, in leaf litter, under stones, and in other damp microhabitats. Most isopods live under the sea except for the small gray creatures in the suborder Oniscidea that have evolved to hundreds of species that live on land but breathe with gills. The two isopod species that I studied under decaying wood on a Long Island lot may have found their way from a port city on the northern rim of the Mediterranean Sea to the port of New York under wooden shipping crates.

Biogeography of Native and Introduced Isopod Species in Relation to Patterns of Human Migrations

What is most relevant to the MERTI project is the fact that each country has both native and introduced species of terrestrial isopods. The most abundant species common to all the countries seem to be concentrated in port cities assumed to be a result of the transport of their ancestors into harbors by human immigrants.

MERTI explores the biogeography of native and introduced species of terrestrial isopods around the Med Rim as it relates to patterns of human migrations and diasporas such as the millennia of Jewish dispersion in all the countries bordering on the Mediterranean Sea from the time of Jonah’s aborted attempt to cross the sea from Jaffa to Spain until the current concentration at the eastern end of the sea in the Land of Israel.