6th grader’s lionfish project stuns scientists

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

Lauren Arrington used 6 fish tanks and 6 lionfish for her experiment, slowly lowering the salt content in the water to see if they would survive.

Never underestimate the power of experimental science to challenge old assumptions about the world, because 13-year-old Florida native, Lauren Arrington, has just rocked the boat! Ecologists, who study the way that organisms interact with their environment, were shocked when Lauren’s science fair project showed that the ocean-dwelling lionfish can survive in nearly fresh water.

The venomous marine fish is known for its beautiful red, white, brown, and black stripes, and the tentacles that stream outwards from it. “Scientists were doing plenty of tests on them, but they just always assumed they were in the ocean,” explained Lauren to NPR. “So I was like, ‘Well, hey guys, what about the river?'” To really get her hands dirty, Lauren placed lionfish in cages at different locations in a river, but the whole process was getting too complicated. After all, it’s hard to control river conditions in the wild to ensure repeatable results. So, she went to her dad, who has a Ph.D. in fish ecology, and he suggested using fish tanks.

By closely observing 6 lionfish in 6 separate tanks, Lauren carefully made sure they all survived. After all, the science fair organizers said that none of the little guys could die during the project. Although lionfish were known to survive in water with salt levels of 20 parts per thousand (ppt), it was widely believed that any environment less salty than that would be unlivable. Little by little, she reduced the water’s salinity (saltiness), and by the 8th day of her experiment, lionfish were surviving in water that only had 6 ppt! Freshwater, by comparison, is usually less than 0.5 ppt.

The venomous lionfish is dangerous and beautiful.

Okay, so what’s the big deal? Well, if the lionfish were to migrate upstream in Florida, they have no predators on the coast, so their population would spiral out of control. This could upset the balance of the ecosystem, which is the network of organisms and their environment, because too many of one species tends to gobble up limited resources. Even if that seems like a good thing for the species in the short-term, once there’s no more food, the population pendulum can swing sharply back in the other direction. So, if the lionfish chomped down on their usual diet of small fish, invertebrates (spineless organisms), and mollusks, they could potentially starve themselves and any other animals that share similar eating habits.

Now, Lauren’s discovery can help scientists prepare for possible lionfish invasions into environments they once assumed were too deadly for the fish.

A scientist from North Carolina University, Craig Layman, even described the young lady’s project as “one of the most influential sixth-grade science projects ever conducted.”

Images of Lauren Arrington courtesy of Lauren Arrington. Image of lionfish courtesy of Christian Mehlführer on Wikipedia.