A lot of people are only familiar with lamprey from their least flattering angle, that is, this one:
Probably on account of their toothy grins and reputation as bloodsuckers, the most common question regarding lamprey conservation I get (less at Whitman, where I’m surrounded by other Biology nerds) is “why should we even bother?”, a question rarely applied to, say, monarch butterflies. But the pacific lamprey is just as much a part of the natural ecosystem, and in a perfect world, that is all it would take to justify our efforts to protect it.
However, the lamprey is important to more than just itself, and in fact, the lab I work in is funded in large part by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, whose are interest in the species studied in the Wet Lab is not only motivated an interest in restoring the watershed and all its species, but also by the history of the lamprey, alongside salmon, trout, and mussels (which the lab also works on), as one of the traditional “first foods”. Restoration and support of natural populations of these food animals is important to assure continued links to tradition as well as resource availability to the tribes.
The lamprey at the Wet Lab mostly don’t even look anything like our darling display specimen. Lamprey have a complex life cycle, involving, like salmon, a long journey from the stream to the sea and back again. At the beginning of their life cycle, the portion they spend in rivers, they have a completely different lifestyle and diet.
While adult lamprey have a stage during which they are parasitic on fish, giving them their signature chompers, baby or “larval” lamprey live in sediment, sifting out particles of food from the sand. Scientists believe they may look a lot like some of the very earliest vertebrates at this stage.
Experiences like Casey’s are made possible by the Whitman Internship Grant, which provides funding for students to participate in unpaid internships at both for-profit and non-profit organizations. To learn how you could secure a Whitman Internship Grant or host a Whitman intern at your organization, click here or contact Assistant Director for Internship Programs Victoria Wolff