We recently caught up with our Field Team member Parker Kalan who lives in San Luis Obispo, California and is currently working with Pacific Lamprey (Entosphenus tridentatus) and researching how they can clean coastal watersheds.
Pacific Lamprey are a jawless fish that look a lot like eels, although they are distinctly different. They've been leaving bones in the fossil record for over 350 million years, a testament to their timeless form and function. Pacific Lamprey are naturally occurring along the entire Pacific Rim from California, up through Alaska and Siberia, and down into Japan. They live within their natural range unlike their human introduced invasive counterparts in the Great Lakes. Feeding as parasites in the open ocean they maintain a punk rock reputation in the ecological scene. However, as juveniles in rivers, lamprey eat by filter-feeding particles out of the freshwater, including bacteria that may otherwise infect people and other river-loving animals if allowed to proliferate. My research is helping us figure out just how much bacteria lamprey filter out of the water, and if their appetite is for these harmful microbes is helping clean our rivers for the benefit of people and wildlife. At first it may seem difficult to appreciate a savage example like the lamprey, but they may be the unsung hero helping to keep watersheds clean.
Field days start early, this one was no different. I strapped on my waders and headed to the creek. Watershed research means cold mornings, muddy clothes, and fishy conditions. I love it. I dropped down the bank of the creek brushing past the reeds and dodging poison oak. I was collecting water that had been contaminated by urban run-off. The plan is to take this “dirty” creek water back to my lab where I could effectively “treat” it with larval pacific lamprey. Filling up the carboys with contaminated water I thought, 'How can I relate this experiment to a broad audience?' Contributing to river health seems so natural to me, but at large, what do we all have to gain from an experiment like this? I lugged the dirty water back to my lab and filled up an experimental tank.
Back at the lab for the fun part: catching lamprey out of the holding tanks. This involves slowly dredging sediment with your fingers until you spook a lamprey out of its burrow. Once spooked, a "skilled" lab assistant stands by with an aquarium net and hopefully catches the free-swimming lamprey. Not an easy task. After chasing these mysterious creatures around a big aquarium tank we collected 6 beautiful specimens. This new cohort of lamprey will live in the experimental tank with "dirty" creek water for several weeks. During this time, I'll be monitoring the levels of bacteria in the water.
We hypothesize that Pacific lamprey will reduce the concentration of harmful bacteria and pathogens creating a cleaner creek for salmonids, amphibians, and humans alike. Moving forward, it is the hope that this research will expand our limited understanding of such a unique species. Furthermore, it could be applied to watershed management strategies; giving lamprey a voice when their name comes up in legislation and adding value to their importance as a species through the empirical lens of science. Moving forward I’ll be continuing the watershed improvement research as well as investigating their range distribution of Pacific Lamprey using environmental DNA.