This January, the Marine Bio Lab became the home to one of Lovett’s newest and biggest families, 40 baby clownfish. The adoptive parents of these little fish are seniors Charlie Hicks and Reagan Marshall, both marine biology interns and students in Dr. Reynold’s class. Just like any parental unit of 20 day old infants, the two are very over protective, even telling me to “not get too close to the tanks” before our interview. But parenting clownfish is no laughing matter. This month, Charlie and Regan have become the first group in over 10 years to successfully breed clownfish babies after a strenuous, semester long preparation period.
Charlie and Reagan’s breeding assignment is a part of a year long project with the marine biology program at Lovett. “The program has been around since the 90s when Dan Dalke started it,” explains Dr. Reynolds. “And the research project program…that started pretty early on as well.” Dr. Reynolds was hired by Mr. Dalke to take over the program around 10 years ago. “I enjoyed the research projects so much I continued them with my students,” she explains.
The marine biology research project begins on the first day of class. “We spend a little bit of time at the beginning of the year with the students learning who is in our tanks, what they do, who they are, and how they act,” Dr. Reynolds explains. “After that, students pick their top 3 choices of organisms they want to conduct a project around. They do research on the different methods they will use throughout the year and how they will be collecting their data.”
Charlie and Reagan’s project also holds a special place in Dr. Reynold’s heart. “I have been wanting to raise clownfish since I came to Lovett 9 years ago,” she beams. “Over the years groups have had varying success depending on how much time they invest… but no group has ever gotten this far.”
“It’s a three step process,” Regan explains as she joins me at the small tank. “First, you have to grow algae. Then, you have to feed that algae to planktonic microorganisms called rotifers. Finally, once you hatch the eggs of the clownfish successfully, you will feed the rotifers to the baby clownfish.” At ten days old, the baby clownfish are only a forth of an inch big. “At this age, we are feeding them brine,” adds Charlie as he carries a filter over to the tank. The filter he is holding is filled with what looks like orange sand. Responding to my confused look he continues, “This is the brine. Brine are like tiny living shrimp.”
Though feeding little fish might seem trivial, this project has been far from easy. The task of clownfish breeding is important because the fish have trouble fostering the growth process themselves. “The clownfish parents lay eggs every two to three weeks, however as soon as the eggs hatch, the parents will mistake their own larvae for food and eat them,” says Charlie. “That or the babies are so small they get sucked into the filtration system.”
Another challenge is that “it’s really difficult to raise clownfish because they are really fragile and will only eat live foods, which adds a whole other growing process,” Charlie explains. “The food that we have to grow for them includes rotifers, which means keeping algae alive and monitoring water parameters and bacteria all the time. So, we have to sterilize all of our equipment to make sure the cultures don’t become contaminated.”
For Reagan, the most difficult part of the process was “figuring out exactly the steps we needed to take, and then how to take them, if that makes sense.” Laughing, she adds, “Because no groups have been successful in the past, it was a lot of trial and error.” According to Charlie, some of the most frustrating days were when “the carboy’s of algae became infected with other bacteria or when a lot of the clownfish died after going through metamorphosis, which is when they go from larval form to fish form.”
But in the end, all the hard work has paid off. “My favorite part has been seeing all of our steps come together. Now we have 30 baby clownfish that actually look like clownfish,” says Reagan. “See!” she points. “They are orange and are starting to get their stripes.” For Charlie, the enjoyment of this project has been another encouraging factor to pursue a Marine Biology degree.
“I have been interested in marine biology ever since I was a little kid,” he says. “When we went to the beach I would scoop up seahorses, pin fish, and blue crabs and examine them.” Charlie didn’t truly realize that he wanted to pursue marine biology, however, until this past summer when he went on a research trip to Fiji. On the trip Charlie spent most of his time diving with sharks, “including Bull Sharks, Sicklefin Lemon Sharks, Tiger Sharks, Grey Reef Sharks, Black Tip and White Tip Reef Sharks, Tawny Nurse Sharks, and Silver Tip Sharks,” he says. “I helped marine biologists collect data on these species and take pictures.” The trip was a “big eye opener” for Charlie about “issues, like pollution, that our oceans are facing.” These realities have prompted Charlie to pursue a degree in Marine Science next year, “which will most likely take me to Eckerd College in St. Petersburg Florida, a large research based marine school,” he shares.
In the end, Lovett’s Science Department feels that regardless of success rate, Charlie and Reagan are gaining valuable life skills. These projects take “a lot of time, love, effort, creativity, all of those skills that I feel we as faculty are trying to cultivate in our students,” Dr. Reynolds says. “It’s important that I am teaching students how to be creative problem solvers, especially before they go away to college.”