School kids help find invasive fish in New York waters

Published on April 26, 2017
information-circle This article is more than 3 years old

Hundreds of grade school and high school students are evaluating environmental DNA by collecting water samples to identify spread of invasive fish species in New York as part of a Cornell University project.

Donna Cassidy-Hanley, PhD, a senior research associate in the College of Veterinary Medicine, said the students are helping test for the presence of round goby, sea lamprey, snakehead fish, and four species of Asian carp across the state as well as developing probes for a few species of Asian swamp eels that have started to migrate from the south and New York City. Results of quantitative PCR analysis of the students’ samples have revealed, for example, the presence of round goby in the same Erie Canal and Oneida Lake locations where professional scientists have identified them as well as in several sites where they had been undetected.

Dr. Cassidy-Hanley said the results have shown that, with the right structure and presentation, schoolchildren can contribute useful scientific data.

“Many people question the legitimacy of citizen science, especially with students—especially with something this sophisticated,” she said.

About 60 schools are participating in the project, with contributions from more than 1,500 students since October 2014, Dr. Cassidy-Hanley said. Those students have ranged from fourth-graders to high school seniors.

The students have collected water samples at about 200 sites from Long Island to the Canadian border, Dr. Cassidy-Hanley said. The results are displayed on maps that teachers can show students and students can use to tell their parents about their contributions to a scientific project.

Bretton Woods Elementary School students prepare a control filter near the Nissequogue River on Long Island, New York, where they collected water samples for environmental DNA testing in search of invasive fish species. (Courtesy of Veronica Weeks)

The university provides single-site environmental DNA sampling kits, which contain equipment including flasks, forceps, glass fiber filters, gloves, water collection bags, hand-operated pumps, and the plastic crates used to ship the water samples and controls of tap or bottled water to Cornell’s Aquatic Health Program laboratories. Cornell also gives teachers information they can use to incorporate the research into curriculum on ecology, environmental stewardship, and bioinformatics.

The project is funded through September by a grant from the Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station, which provides money to local projects. The project is intended to develop and test a collaborative education resource, validate use of quantitative PCR assays to assess invasive species presence, and integrate the project data with other invasive fish species data.

Dr. Cassidy-Hanley has heard from teachers that their students are engaged in the work, even some who are less interested than others in science but enjoy fishing or have family members whose livelihoods depend on waterways.

“Those kids will become much more interested in science because it has real-life implications,” she said.

Veronica Weeks, a teacher at Bretton Woods Elementary School in Hauppauge on Long Island, is one of two teachers of a fifth-grade class that is raising brown trout that will be released into the nearby Nissequogue River, where the trout population has declined because of habitat loss and chemical pollution. Her students have been enthusiastic about their contributions to the Cornell project, which provided some assurance they would be releasing their fish into waters free of sea lamprey and round goby, which could prey on the trout and their young.

Weeks said about 15 students have come to the river with their parents to collect water samples in each of the past three years.

The Cornell project has sparked curiosity and excitement among her students, she said. “They had a real-world question they wanted an answer to, and they wanted to know their fish were safe.”