You’ve probably heard the story about pesticides and how bad they are for the environment, but have you ever really thought about who they hurt and how? Pesticides don’t just kill those pesky little critters in your bed; they are applied to almost every type of crop and object you can think of and many of them can be carried by rainfall into nearby streams and estuaries where they can directly harm fishes and invertebrates. The goal of my research is to understand the effects of pesticides on the behavior of fishes, and how this affects their survival and interactions with other species. I have found that exposure to pesticides at concentrations similar to those you would find in the environment can reduce the ability of fishes to swim normally, socialize, feed on prey, and avoid predators. This implies that even small amounts of pesticides that are found in nearby watersheds can alter the ecology and survival of fishes in many subtle but important ways. My research helps scientists and policy makers understand the ecological consequences of very low concentrations of these chemicals in marine and estuarine environments. A greater understanding of these ecological effects can help us to effectively manage and conserve all kinds of fish species in degraded habitats.
Unlike many marine ecologists, I grew up a long way from the ocean on Lake Huron in Ontario, Canada. Despite my distance from dynamic marine ecosystems, they were all I could think about during my youth. Luckily, the unique aquatic environment provided by the Great Lakes provided me with the spark to learn about fishes and the multiple threats to their health, ecology, and persistence. Before long, my interest grew into a passion and the motivation to join the fish ecology lab of Dr. Todd Anderson at San Diego State University under the Joint Doctoral Degree in Ecology (JDPE) with the University of California Davis.
The goal of my doctoral research is to blend ecology and ecotoxicology to better understand the effects of pesticides on the behavior of fishes, and the consequences this might have for their ecology and survival. I study the changes in ecological behaviors of fishes after exposure to pesticides at concentrations that are typically found in coastal marine environments such as estuaries and marshes. Estuarine environments provide many important benefits for humans and host an impressive diversity of plants and animals – however they are also commonly the most polluted coastal habitats. By understanding the subtle effects of very low concentrations of chemicals on fishes we can effectively manage the water quality in degraded estuarine or marine habitats, and better conserve all kinds of ecologically and commercially important fish species that live in these habitats.
For my current research I am studying the behavior of a common and small but pretty darn cute estuarine fish species, the California killifish, Fundulus parvipinnis. The first goal of my research is to determine whether individual fish have consistent behavioral traits; just like you have a personality, so do fishes! To do this, I study fish one at a time to observe correlations in their behaviors such as their willingness to explore an unfamiliar environment, to spend time away from their fellow fish, and to forage before and after a predator attack. My second goal is to investigate how individuals behave differently when exposed to low concentrations of a common and toxic pesticide, chlorpyrifos. So far I have found that many fish exposed to the pesticide are much less active and spend much more time closer to the surface of the water, spend less time with their fellow fish, do not forage readily and have a slow reaction to a model bird predator. This indicates that these fish may be at a greater risk of death by starvation or being eaten by a predator.
The majority of my days are generally spent doing two things: taking care of my little fish, and observing their behavior. To be happy and healthy the fish need daily water changes and feeding, and are frequently removed for a health checkup (measuring their weight and length, and the presence of any parasites or wounds). When I am not in the lab, I am often exploring new marsh sites where I can collect my experiment fish with large seine nets. This is one of my favorite parts of the job – playing outside in the mud and seeing what cool new species I will find each day.
You get to play outside and study a lot of different and fascinating habitats! I love exploring all kinds of marine environments – from muddy marshes to underwater reefs while scuba diving. I also get a rush doing research that can one day help us better understand and protect marine organisms and their environment.