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Writog: writer-photographer.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Looking For Lamprey

PLATTSBURGH CITY - Sept. 28, 2012


A man wades through a shallow pool near the mouth of the Saranac River, the boxy device strapped on his back emitting distinctive electronic sounds.  He appears to be a cross between a fisherman and a Ghostbuster: cap, waders, rubber boots, and what appears to a crude knock-off of a proton pack cabled to a long white pole he uses to probe the water.

Wading next to him is a woman wearing sunglasses, her dark hair up in a bun, holding a plastic bucket in one hand and a pole topped with a  mesh net in the other.  When there's a long beep, the woman scoops up something from the water and dumps it into the bucket.

OK, so what's this all about?  I just have to ask.

The man is a technician from the University of Vermont, Alex Sotola, who graduated last May from Plattsburgh State University College.   The woman, Aude Lochet, is a student from the Rubenstein School (UVM) working on her post doctorate.  They're soon joined by George Maynard, a student in the Master's program in Natural Science at PSUC, who also grabs a bucket and net.  The three slowly walk around the shallow pool created by a stretch of ground and rocks near the shore, one person beeping, the other two netting and bucketing.

(Left to right)  George Maynard, Alex Sotola and Aude Lochet net another baby lamprey in the Saranac River.

Aude explains later that she's working on a project involving sea lampreys, an invasive lake species that spawns upriver.

According to my online research the offspring from those aquatic honeymoons work their way downstream into Lake Champlain, later becoming adults to continue the cycle.

Also from my online research I learn that adult lamprey die after spawning but the thousands of eggs laid by the female -- up to 100,000 -- drift downriver and burrow into the riverbed, feeding on algae, microscopic organisms and detritus, growing into wormlike larva.

An adult lamprey -- which can grow up to 24 inches long -- looks like an eel with a circular sucker mouth ringed with teeth.  The parasite attaches itself to a fish, boring in to drink its blood and fluids.  Most victims are species like trout which have commercial value.

Aude and her companions are looking for young lamprey as part of her study.  The pack that Alex is wearing emits a shock similar to the charge given off by an electric fence.  The long beep is a warning that current is being generated and that no one should reach into the water during that time.

The purpose of the shock is to jolt the young lamprey to the surface from their ensconced safety in the muck at the bottom of the pool.  Aude will take the lamprey back to the lab to determine where they have originated from upstream.  George explains that a water source can be tagged by the chemicals (pollution) and minerals peculiar to that source.

A baby lamprey looks cute but it will grow up into a blood-sucking multi-fanged killer.  At this point this one is a transformer -- so-called because it's transforming into an adult, developing eyes and a round disc of teeth.

Aude says that she will examine each lamprey for water source traces.

Because my hearing isn't the best at times, I email Aude later because I thought she was going to examine "ear bones" for those traces.  Fortunately she responds before I make a boneheaded mistake.

In her email response she talks about ear stones or what are usually called statoliths. 

"Statoliths," she explains, "grow by accumulating elements from the surrounding water and I want to make sure that the statolith chemistry of sea lamprey transformers differ among streams.  If true, I'd like to analyze the chemistry of statoliths from sea lamprey parasitic stage found in Lake Champlain to determine the river they were born."

The objective of this project, Aude adds, is to improve the efficiency of lamprey control.  

So if you see someone wading in a river with a beeping box strapped to his back, sticking a pole in the river bottom, he's not a sea monkey herder.


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