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A fish tale: Research looks at gobies' effect on ecosystem

Editor's note: This is one in an occasional series of articles about teaching and learning at the University.

Meghan Miner came to U-M with a clear goal: She wanted to work in David Jude's lab.

Jude, a research scientist at the School of Natural Resources and Environment, had spoken in Miner's Gaylord High School science class. Immediately after Miner was accepted to Michigan, she contacted Jude.
Research scientist David Jude and student Meghan Miner work in his lab. (Photo by Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services)

Two years into her undergraduate degree, Miner is hoping to publish the results of research on round gobies, small invasive fish that are gobbling up everything in their path in Michigan's waters. She conducted the research under Jude's guidance.

She learned, among other things, that gobies have become 83 percent of the entire fish population in the Flint River in some places, and that the blackside darter makes up another 11 percent because it appears able to specialize its diet so it doesn't compete with ravenous gobies.

Miner began by collecting, weighing and measuring gobies, then cutting them open to determine the contents of their stomachs—often zebra mussels, but also bits and pieces of a wide range of bugs and small fish.

"It's mind-boggling to me that by cutting open some fish, you can say, 'This is the state of the river,'" Miner says.

For many years, Jude has worked with the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) to help recruit students to his lab team. UROP helps place undergrads all over campus with advisers conducting a wide range of research, and students get experience while earning academic credit.

Jude says he loves sharing his lab with undergraduates because they come in with such zeal and in a relatively short time learn such things as how a lab works and how to report their findings. He gets extra hands with research, and the students gain first-hand scientific knowledge.

Stephen Hensler is a graduate student who works full-time managing Jude's lab, including writing grants and coordinating the eight undergraduates working on various aspects of fish research.

Hensler likes the way UROP establishes a defined goal and a deadline for students, which helps already-motivated students focus on the full range of what needs to get done. "They have a project and they feel like they're a part of it, instead of just showing up and doing things they don't see the value of."

Jude has been a research scientist since 1973, focusing on the Great Lakes. In 1990 he was studying the St. Claire River when he pulled out a fish he'd never seen before, roughly the size of a sardine. With a little help, he identified it as a goby, an aggressive fish both in eating and mating habits. It was a tubenose goby; shortly thereafter, round gobies turned up.

Since gobies are not native to Michigan but instead to the Black and Caspian seas, Jude began looking at how they got here—probably picked up by freighters that took on ballast water—and how they affect the ecosystem.

When Jude found that gobies had arrived in the Flint River, he and Miner set out to learn how far they had dispersed, how they behaved and how they affected other fish.

Round gobies have a taste for zebra mussels, and that creates problems because invasive zebra mussels tend to eat things like rotten plants contaminated with botulism, which then can spread to fish and birds that eat gobies. When gobies eat zebra mussels contaminated with PCBs in large quantities, the result is known as biomagnification—existing contamination getting condensed into a smaller place as it moves up the food chain.

That means gobies might be troublesome because they may contaminate other species that feast on gobies, Jude says. Round gobies also make it tough for other fish to coexist peacefully; they compete with other fish species for food and spawning shelters and prey on their eggs and larvae.

Jude took his team of undergraduate scientists to Lansing recently to share what they know about gobies with legislators. Besides learning to operate a lab and write for scientific journals, Jude's students also get to see the real-life implications of their work on groups from lawmakers to fishing enthusiasts.

As she finishes her research report, Miner remains committed to studying limnology, the ecology of inland waters, though she isn't sure what she'll do after graduation. In the fall, she'll spend a semester in Capetown, South Africa, adding ocean research to her experience.

For more information on Jude's research on round gobies, visit http://www.miseagrant.umich.edu/pubs/on/msg-95-500.html.

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