Natural Connections: 'Doing Research with the Amazing Threespine Stickleback'

Sunday, July 22, 2018 | by Emily Stone |


“Welcome to Alaska (soon)!” wrote Kat O’Brien in response to a post I made on the listserv for the Ecological Society of America. In preparation for my sabbatical in Alaska, I was reaching out to scientists who might be willing to let me tag along on their research or visit their lab so I could gain a better understanding of how science is done…and then write about it for Natural Connections.

Kat was one of the first and friendliest people to respond to my post. She continued, “I work in a threespine stickleback facility and we often go out collecting up in Talkeetna and Big Lake. If you have any interest in stuff like that, let me know!” She closed her email with “Please bring cheese.”

Well, I couldn’t manage to transport Wisconsin cheese safely for almost two months without a cooler, and I missed out on their field work, but Kat still invited me to come see their labs on the University of Alaska Anchorage campus. As I walked out of the cold drizzle and into the Ecosystem-Biomedical Health building, not just one, but four young women greeted me inside. Two were students (one undergrad, one Master’s) doing research on threespine sticklebacks, and another was the lab manager whose job it was to order supplies and keep everyone organized so that the fish stayed alive. Kat O’Brien was the one with wild red hair. She’s a Husbandry Technician for UAA.

Introductions were short, because the scientists were excited to show me their fish. We entered a small white room lined with three levels of tanks. The top two shelves held research subjects, and on the bottom level were effluent tanks which filter dirty water cycled out of the tanks. As inch-long threespine sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus) hovered in their tanks, Kelly Ireland (the Master’s student) enthusiastically listed the benefits of sticklebacks as study subjects. Many folks (including me) would just call them a minnow, but they are so much more.

These small native fish are easy to collect, and relatively easy to keep alive and breed in the lab, making them good research subjects. Sticklebacks feed a lot of sport fish, and they are regarded as a “sentinel species” who could alert of us of environmental issues before they pose a significant threat to humans.

Sticklebacks are widespread, and are native throughout the Northern Hemisphere. My groups of 5th graders used to catch threespine sticklebacks in tidepools on the coast of Northern California. They’ve also been introduced into the Great Lakes. Those are two quite different habitats, and while the sticklebacks who inhabit them are the same species, they look quite different. In all of those habitats, sticklebacks have their three namesake-spines in front of the dorsal fin.  But their phenotype—physical characteristics that vary based on the way their genes interact with their environment—changes from freshwater to brackish water.

What also caught my attention was that threespine sticklebacks live in Japan. They are almost circumpolar, just like some of my favorite plants! (Their absence from the north coast of Siberia, the north coast of Alaska, and the Arctic islands of Canada prevents them from being truly circumpolar.) Just a few weeks ago, hundreds of researchers gathered in Kyoto, Japan, for the 9th International Conference on Stickleback Behavior and Evolution.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when Kat invited me to their lab, but five minutes into my visit, I was hooked on the young women’s enthusiasm and this cute little research subject with big eyes and transparent juveniles.

With all the homemade tank systems, plumbing, electronics and tools packed into their lab, (as well as their sense of fun and friendship on the research team) these young women reminded me a lot of the sediment coring crew I went out with. This type of science can’t be done without getting wet, dirty, using tools, and doing a lot of problem solving.

What useful science could they possibly do, though, with these tiny critters? In that first room full of tanks, the left wall had all been treated with different concentrations of Fluridone. This herbicide is used on entire lakes or rivers to treat aquatic invasive plants. In Alaska, Elodea is the target. In Wisconsin, it’s used on Eurasian watermilfoil. So far, the herbicide seems safe to use. The lab and its collaborators are looking at how it impacts the sticklebacks’ microbiome—or all the bacteria that live in and on their bodies.

This lab is also using experiments to study how changes in the fish’s microbiomes impact their growth, development, and immune systems, as well as the impact of crude oil on their health. The right wall is a “common garden experiment,” explained Kelly. “We’re seeing how different stickleback populations respond when raised with the same microbiomes, to see how genetic background and microbes interact.”

It was a whirlwind visit, and as Kat walked me out of the lab, we talked about how great it is to work in a team of women. “This is the first lab I’ve worked in where the PI (principal investigator) is a woman. Dr. Kat Milligan-Myhre really listens to us and makes us all feel like true collaborators.” It’s good to know that—at least in some cases—that is how science is done.


For more information on sticklebacks, read an article by researcher Kelly Ireland here: http://northexposure.net/2017/12/05/stickleback-the-super-fish/.  Emily is in Alaska for the summer! Follow the journey in this column, and see additional stories and photos on her blog: http://cablemuseum.org/connect/.

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: “Bee Amazed!” is open.

[Photo: Kelly Ireland, Rachael Kramp, an additional lab-mate, Katie D’Amelio, and Kat O’Brien all work on threespine sticklebacks in Dr. Kat Milligan-Myhre’s lab at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Photo by Emily Stone]


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