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Wooing A Blood-Thirsty Vampire Fish
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Wooing A Blood-Thirsty Vampire Fish

JACKI LYDEN, host:

Ah, nature. Sometimes you get a beautiful starfish, and sometimes you get the lamprey. This hideous fish is an invasive species in the Great Lakes, and it's been doing a great deal of damage there.

More popularly known by its nickname, the vampire fish, it attacks larger fish and sucks their blood, and leaves them for dead before going on its way to spawn. Charming.

But that urge to spawn led a group of researchers to a big idea. Like novelists, they figured out a way for love to lead to death. It's Science Out of the Box.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: Here to discuss a new approach to pest control in the Great Lakes is Nicholas Johnson. He was the lead field researcher for Michigan State University, where the report was produced. Welcome to the show, Nick.

Mr. NICHOLAS JOHNSON (Field Researcher, Michigan State University): Thank you very much for having me.

LYDEN: Now, let's talk a little bit about the lamprey. Someone called this the worst thing that has happened to the Great Lakes since European settlement on its shores. What has it done to the Great Lakes?

Mr. JOHNSON: It came into the Great Lakes, and it attacked the larger fishes, the lake trout, the lake whitefish. And instead of being a parasite like it is in the ocean, it actually ended up being a predator and killing off those large predator species, which completely changed the ecosystem of the Great Lakes.

LYDEN: This has been a very, very costly problem, that $20 million are spent annually across the Great Lakes, all five of them, to control this invasion. But you have come up with something that romances the lamprey.

Mr. JOHNSON: Exactly. We've come up with an odorant that actually attracts the fully mature, the ovulating females, upstream and into our traps. We're actually fooling the females into thinking that there are a bunch of nice males in that trap, and we call the odor Pheromone.

LYDEN: Now, perfume makers have been studying pheromones, of course, really for centuries, even before they called them that, and how they help humans attract each other through scent. How different is your approach to attraction than the work of, say, perfume researchers?

Mr. JOHNSON: I think the perfume researchers kind of cue in our natural attraction to scents that we might associate with food or with flowers. Our work is really looking at the odors that are produced by males, and how they use that to attract females.

The lamprey seems to have a very large nose for these things and seems to rely heavily on their nose to find mates.

LYDEN: So what's the next step for the research team? Are there any other applications for what you've learned?

Mr. JOHNSON: We've only worked on one stream and shown it's very effective in that one stream. Well, our next step is to actually expand our research and go out into 20 different streams in the United States and Canada, and see what impact we can have on a large management scale.

LYDEN: Well, congratulations to you and the rest of the team, but I do think you need to come up with a better name than the Pheromone.

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, it's - we call it 3KPZS, 3-keto petromyzonol sulfate. But for our research purposes, we often just call it the Sea Lamprey Love Potion.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Sea Lamprey Love Potion Number Nine. Thank you so much, Nicholas, for being with us.

Mr. JOHNSON: You're welcome. Thank you, Jacki.

LYDEN: Nicholas Johnson. He was the lead field researcher for Michigan State University on finding Sea Lamprey Love Potion.

(Soundbite of song "Love Potion Number 9")

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