Jimmy Bernot is an evolutionary biologist at George Washington University and a Research Associate at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. His research interests include crustacean phylogenetics, copepod taxonomy and systematics, parasite evolution, and computational biology. He is working to resolve the crustacean tree of life and understand the processes that have resulted in the spectacular morphological diversity of modern crustaceans, with a particular focus on parasitic copepods.

He is also passionate about science communication, public engagement, education, and outreach. He regularly participates in outreach events in Washington DC, especially at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

Read more about Jimmy, in his own words, below.

My main focus in biology is understanding the diversity of life. There are about 1.5 million described species that we share the planet with. A large part of my work is focused on documenting and describing species and understanding their evolutionary relationships. It’s like building a family tree, but for all life.

It turns out that the 1.5 million species I mentioned is just a small fraction of the total diversity of life on this planet. There are probably at least 9 million species that we share the planet with, which means, over the course of human history, we have described and documented less than 20% of the life on earth! If you look to the sea, where I typically work, it is estimated that as much as 90% of the species in the ocean remain to be described. That is mind-blowing to me! We need to train more scientist-adventurers to go out and explore and carefully look at the organisms we share this planet with to document the diversity of life on earth.

Since there are already about 1.5 million described species with millions more out there to be described, scientists like myself that describe species specialize in a smaller piece of that massive diversity of life. Most people have never heard of the main group of animals I study – copepods. Copepods are small, shrimp-like crustaceans that are usually about the size of a grain of rice, and they are probably the most abundant animals in the ocean! They are so abundant that copepods are sometimes referred to as “the insects of the sea”. A bucket of seawater or ocean sand may contain tens of thousands of copepods and much of the ocean food web relies on these small creatures. Yet we know very little about the biology and evolutionary relationships of these super abundant animals.


My postdoc research will focus on building a tree of life for copepods by sequencing hundreds of genes from as many copepod species as possible using a technique called targeted capture sequencing. Because I am particularly interested in how parasites evolve, and about one-half of the nearly 12,000 species of copepods are parasites, I am focusing most of my collecting and sequencing work on parasitic copepods.

To me, parasites are some of the most interesting life forms on this planet. Like any organism, parasitic copepods have evolved amazing adaptations to their environment, only their environment isn’t the type of habitat we normally think of (such as your backyard, a jungle, or a savannah) – their environment is another animal. Almost every group of multicellular animals in the ocean is host to parasitic copepods: fish, whales, coral, worms, snails, clams, crabs – they all host their own specialized parasites.

Over millions of years, parasites have evolved incredible adaptations to find a host, stay attached to it, feed on it, and reproduce on it. Is this sometimes gross? Yes, but it is also impressive, amazing, and I would say it can even be beautiful. 

When it comes to parasitic copepods, I have two main questions:

1) Because copepods parasitize just about every group of multicellular life in the ocean, I seek to understand how copepods evolved this association with so many different host groups.

2) Some parasitic copepods have such highly modified bodies that they are hardly recognizable as copepods, crustaceans, or even arthropods – how have these extremely different morphologies evolved in copepods? Using large genomic-scale data sets and phylogenetic analyses, I hope to better understand how the spectacular diversity of parasitic copepods has evolved.

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