(July 24, 2014: See the editor's note at the bottom of this page for an explanation of the story's new headline.)
When 12-year-old Lauren Arrington heard about her sixth-grade science project, she knew she wanted to study lionfish. Growing up in Jupiter, Fla., she saw them in the ocean while snorkeling and fishing with her dad.
Her project showed that the lionfish can survive in nearly fresh water. The results blew away professional ecologists. The invasive species has no predators on the Florida coast, so if they were to migrate upstream in rivers, they could pose a threat to the ecosystem.
"Scientists were doing plenty of tests on them, but they just always assumed they were in the ocean," Lauren, now 13, tells NPR's Kelly McEvers. "So I was like, 'Well, hey guys, what about the river?' "
In the beginning, she wanted to conduct her test by placing the lionfish in cages at different points in the river, but she had to simplify the project.
"It was just a small, sixth-grade project, and I really didn't have all the tools necessary," she says. Her dad, who has a Ph.D. in fish ecology, suggested that she put the fish in tanks instead.
Lauren then put six different lionfish in six different tanks where she could watch her subjects closely. Lauren was given a strict set of rules by the science fair organizers. The most important one: Her fish could not die.
Lionfish had been found to live in water with salt levels of 20 parts per thousand.
One of the six lionfish was her control fish, and the rest were the experimental fish. Every night for eight days, she would lower the salinity 5 parts per thousand in the experimental tanks. On the eighth day of her experiment, she found her experimental fish were living at 6 parts per thousand. She was amazed.
Her research did not stop there. Craig Layman, an ecology professor at North Carolina State University, confirmed Lauren's results. "He credited a sixth-grader for coming up with his idea," Lauren says ecstatically. Layman's findings were published this year in the science journal Environmental Biology of Fishes. Lauren is mentioned in the acknowledgments.
Lauren's father says he talks about science with her a lot. "We're a science bunch of dorks in our family," he tells McEvers.
Editor's note on July 24: The original headline on this page was "Sixth-Grader's Science Fair Finding Shocks Ecologists." We've changed the headline to better reflect the effect Lauren's project has had on the scientific community. We've also removed one sentence — "But no one knew that they could live in water salinity below that" — because marine biologist Zachary Jud and others had previously done work on the lionfish's ability to survive in estuaries.
For a timeline on the work that's been done by scientists, see this blog post written by professor Craig Layman of North Carolina State University. He concludes that "Lauren had made a contribution to science. One can argue the magnitude of this finding, but a contribution regardless."
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Kelly McEvers. In South Florida, an invasive fish is freaking some people out. It's called a lionfish. And it's this weird-looking, stripy thing with poisonous spines. Ecologists think they could threaten shrimp and small fish in the Atlantic. Until recently, ecologists also thought lionfish could only live in the ocean. But then a 12-year-old proved them wrong.
LAUREN ARRINGTON: I mean scientists were doing plenty of tests on them. But they just always assumed they were in the ocean. So I was like, well, hey guys, what about the river?
MCEVERS: Lauren Arrington's sixth-grade project showed that lionfish can survive in fresh water, too. Her dad's a fish ecologist, so Lauren knew some stuff about fish.
LAUREN ARRINGTON: Sometimes, we would even catch them when me and my dad were fishing. So we dissected plenty of them when we caught them.
MCEVERS: Lauren is really into lionfish. So as soon as she heard about the science fair, she knew what she wanted to do.
L. ARRINGTON: I wanted to see how far up the river lionfish could survive. So first off, I thought of putting lionfish in different cages at different river miles. You know, if the further up the river - if they could still live. But it was just a small sixth-grade project and I really didn't have all the tools necessary for that. So then, my dad was like, well, you could put them in tanks. So I was like, oh, OK. So then, I decided to put them in tanks in the river center. And then, there I could just watch them and make sure none of them died, 'cause when - we heard that the science fair would disqualify you if any of your project died.
MCEVERS: So you're working on a - under a pretty strict set of rules there. The subject of your experiment cannot die.
L. ARRINGTON: Yeah.
MCEVERS: OK. So you put some fish in different tanks and then what did you do?
L. ARRINGTON: So six lionfish, six different tanks, every night for eight days on the five experimental fish, I would lower the salinity five parts per thousand. So parts per thousand is how you measure salt in the water. Zero parts per thousand is freshwater and then 35 parts per thousand is ocean salinity. So we found the lionfish that we captured in about 25 parts per thousand. So when all of the experimental fish were still alive at six parts per thousand, I was like - pretty amazing.
MCEVERS: And then - I mean, it didn't stop there, right? I mean, there was some research published - a research paper published by North Carolina State and they mentioned you.
L. ARRINGTON: Yeah, yeah, 'cause he confirmed my results. And so, you know, he credited a sixth-grader for coming up with his idea.
MCEVERS: That's Dr. Craig Layman of North Carolina State. So it was because of you that he went on and did further research on this. How did that feel?
L. ARRINGTON: I was like, oh. And then friends at school were like, hey, congrats on being published in the science journal, you know. And I was like, yeah, yeah, that's me right there.
MCEVERS: (Laughing) Lauren, could you put your dad on line for a second?
L. ARRINGTON: Yes ma'am - Dad?
ALBREY ARRINGTON: Hello, this is Albrey.
MCEVERS: Yeah, hi. So I guess you talk science with your daughter a lot.
A. ARRINGTON: Yeah, that's kind of how we are. We're a science bunch of dorks in our family.
MCEVERS: (Laughing) I have to ask. I mean, it sounds like Lauren has some pretty good ideas about this experiment. How much of this was you and how much of this was her?
A. ARRINGTON: I'm the dad, so participating, but I'm very proud to say this is her - her ideas. It certainly was her work - sitting, measuring salinity, you know.
MCEVERS: Well, you must be very, very proud.
A. ARRINGTON: Very much so, very pleased.
MCEVERS: That is Albrey Arrington and his daughter Lauren joining us from Jupiter, Florida. Thanks so much you guys.
A. ARRINGTON: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.