Now Showing: The Itty-Bitty Shrimp Circus


HUMBOLDT STATE ALUM ALEXANDRA Goodell runs her very own carnival and she has appeared on the History Channel—but she is not a circus barker.

Goodell is the self-made impresario of the “The Copepod Carnival,” a light show starring itty-bitty shrimp named copepods (“koepuh-pods”).

“If you’ve ever seen the cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants, Plankton is a copepod,” explains the HSU alumna, who earned her master’s in Biology in spring 2008. “I like that show,” she adds. “The villain is a copepod!” (Coincidentally, SpongeBob SquarePants creator Stephen Hillenburg is an ’84 grad of HSU).

But “The Copepod Carnival” is a scientific drama, not a TV series. It caught the attention of the History Channel for the “Evolve” documentaries, one of which centered on the evolution of the eye.

Goodell uses her multi-colored light emitting diode (LED) show to research whether aquatic invertebrates such as copepods and jellyfish can sense color as well as light. She exposes them to different wavelengths to test their behavioral responses. When the History Channel contacted HSU alum Chad Widmer (‘96, ’00), senior aquarist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, he immediately thought of Goodell’s videos of her jellyfish experiments. (The two were previously introduced when he gave a talk at HSU while she was working on her master’s degree.)

Alex Goodell (’08) uses a multi-colored LED to research whether tiny shrimp and jellyfish can sense color as well as light.

The History Channel crew wanted to film jellyfish responses to light, so Goodell—“Carnival” in tow—journeyed to Monterey Bay, Calif., early in 2008 for a shoot of her experiments from the aquarium’s dock and jellyfish laboratory. “It was interesting to see how things get filmed,” she says, adding that she discovered right away how repetitive and laborious a shoot can be. Reenactments are a staple. “We had to film things multiple times to get the angles and lighting just right.”

Much work lies ahead before Goodell and her colleagues ascertain if jellyfish really sense color, but the research to date is suggestive. Her light show comprises specific wavelengths—red, orange, blue, green and purple. In the laboratory, she shifts the lights above, below and to the sides of a glass tank.

Her thesis work on copepods provided evidence that these critters do indeed sense color. “It’s anthropomorphic to say so, but they seem to ‘like’ or move toward long wavelength light that is red or orange,” she says. “They move toward those lights, no matter what position the lights are in.”

Alternatively, short-wavelength light, such as purple or blue, causes copepods to swim downwards in a seemingly frantic manner.

Goodell’s subsequent experiments with jellyfish show early indications that they too respond differently to different wavelengths of light. In green light, they appear to relax; their tentacles expand and their movement is slow and smooth. When exposed to purple light, however, they “flip out.” Their tentacles contract and they move upward quickly, often flipping in circles.

The jellyfish Goodell has researched do not have what we think of as eyes; they have ocelli—primitive sensors that detect light but do not form an image. Jellyfish have no brain, only a tiny nerve net. With more testing and research, Goodell hopes to confirm definitively if the ocelli react to color.

Originally from New Jersey, Goodell first moved to California to study music (she attended the Musicians’ Institute and continues to play bass guitar), but disliked living in Hollywood, Calif. She had always loved biology, and moved to the Redwood Coast because she heard good things about Humboldt State. After a stint in the Wildlife Department, she switched to Biology and hasn’t looked back.

Jellyfish are seasonal and fragile and the research is time-consuming. Goodell has approached a professor of evolutionary biology, Todd Oakley at UC Santa Barbara, for support in continuing her study. She wants to expand her jellyfish sample size and the number of species to find out more about behavior patterns.

Ultimately, Goodell hopes to learn a lot more about the entire ecology of “itty-bitty shrimp.”

In the meantime, she plans to enter UC Santa Barbara in fall 2009 and carry on with her study and research.