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USF St. Petersburg's 'squid chick' finds life's work at bottom of sea

ST. PETERSBURG — The squid was long dead and could not apologize for its detached eyeballs free-floating in mucus, its inside-out body baring bloated organs, or the red-brown juice of its digestive tract that dripped off the table onto the floor. What didn't land on Heather Judkins' tennis shoes, she collected in a bucket.

"This is my Christmas," Judkins said more than a few times.

An assistant biology professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, Judkins, 42, was doing what she loved most: examining rare squids. Deep-dwelling, inky and cannibalistic, they're her life's work. Over the course of a decade, she's handled tens of thousands.

This squid was picked up by fishermen off the coast of Grand Cayman. By measuring each of its arms, its razor-sharp suckers, and taking samples from its slick body, Judkins would confirm that this squid, exposed and oozing and stinking of the sea, was a Megalocranchia. The Florida Museum of Natural History would want it. At 6 feet long, it was an incredibly rare specimen.

Her hands disappeared into the squid. "There's probably some gonadal material right there," she smiled.

Even rarer than the squid is the person who loves it.

At an age when Judkins should have wanted to be a princess, she dreamed of becoming a whale trainer. Later, she studied marine affairs at the University of Rhode Island before moving to Tampa. She began teaching science across the bay at Seminole High School while earning her master's in education.

She loved teaching and seeing kids get excited about science, and stayed at Seminole for 17 years. When her students graduated they all swore they would go into marine biology. She would say, "Yeah, right."

When they wrote her emails from college asking if it was okay if they went into business instead, she said yes. "Just do what you're passionate about," she wrote back.

And she wanted to follow her own advice. As much as Judkins liked teaching science, a shrimp was always going to be a shrimp. The currents were always going to move in the same direction. "I was bored," she says.

She started looking for topics to research to get her doctorate at USF. Judkins needed something that could hold her interest. An adviser suggested ice fish. But cataloging ice fish by counting their rings through a microscope sounded boring too. Flatworms didn't do much for her. Neither did crabs.

And then she found squids.

"They're very mobile, they're all muscular, they have great adaptations to them," Judkins says in the same tone and words a 16-year-old might use to describe Justin Timberlake. "Not that the other animals out there aren't. It's just a pretty cool group."

And then there's another thing. Judkins, the self-titled "squid chick" of St. Petersburg, believes that the deep sea-dwelling invertebrates are not just slimy, not just inky, not just cannibalistic — but cute.

"When they're alive, anyway."

In her office she pulls up video of a squid. It putters around the sea floor, oversized eyes blinking, flaps floating up and down without focus. It looks like a character in a child's cartoon.

In another video, a gelatinous blob of blush-pink toddles toward the underwater camera. Judkins calls this the "Piglet squid."

"He's just checking things out."

In a third video, "We're literally seeing squid sex going on," she says brightly. "These little pieces just add to the puzzle."

Because that's why Judkins loves squids: They're a puzzle. She examined the first squid of its kind found in the Caribbean. With most living in the deep sea, miles from human reach, there's so much she doesn't know about them. She can't see how she will ever get bored.

Contact Lisa Gartner at lgartner@tampabay.com. You can also follow her on Twitter (@lisagartner).

USF St. Petersburg's 'squid chick' finds life's work at bottom of sea 11/02/13 [Last modified: Saturday, November 2, 2013 11:11pm]
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