This Sixth-Grade Science Fair Project Shocked Scientists

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Florida has a lionfish problem. This menacing creature, which comes decorated with venomous spines, is an invasive species threatening the state’s habitat and wildlife. Until now, researchers thought the fish only thrived in the salty waters off Florida’s coasts. But a 6th grader’s science fair project proves otherwise.

"Scientists were doing plenty of tests on them, but they just always assumed they were in the ocean," 13-year-old Lauren Arrington told NPR. "So I was like, 'Well, hey guys, what about the river?'"

Yeah, guys, what about it? (Any 13-year-old who has the candor to address scientists with “hey guys” is already a winner in my book.) Lauren, a Florida native, wanted to know if the fish could survive in freshwater. So, with a little help from her ecologist dad, she set out for answers. She placed six different lionfish in six different tanks. Like any good scientist, Lauren was sure to have one control fish, which got to hang out in saltwater during the experiment. Over about a week, she slowly lowered the rest of the tanks’ salinity.

We express salinity by the amount of salt found in 1000 grams of water. So, one gram of salt equals a salinity of 1 parts per 1000. The average ocean salinity is 35 parts per 1000. Lauren lowered the salinity in her test tanks to 6 parts per 1000 and was surprised to find that her fish were still alive and well. She might have lowered the salinity further, but she didn’t want to kill the fish.

The lionfish has no natural predator on the Florida coast, so the fact that it can survive in freshwater means ecologists now know they must keep lionfish from migrating into the area’s rivers lest they do even more damage.

Lauren’s findings caught the eye of Craig Layman, an ecology professor at North Carolina State University. He replicated Lauren's results in a study published in the science journal Environmental Biology of Fishes. Lauren got a shout out in the acknowledgments.

UPDATE

But there’s a controversy brewing over whether Lauren’s project is authentic. A marine biologist named Zack Jud claims he published work back in 2011 [PDF] proving the lionfish’s tolerance for low salinity. His former supervisor, he says, is a close friend of Lauren’s family. On his Facebook page, Jud writes that "At this stage in my career, this type of national exposure would be invaluable...if only my name was included in the stories.”

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July 22, 2014 - 10:00am
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