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  • Writer's pictureEmily Kane

Guppy FAQs with middle school students

Today I live-tweeted with Patrick Goff's middle school students after they watched my "Why my science is awesome" video. They had lots of great questions for me, and loved that I was responding in real time to their questions. This was a fun opportunity for science communication for me that allowed me to engage with Patrick's students inbetween satisfying my own commitments, like teaching, attending a seminar, and writing my lectures. I enjoyed answering their questions, so I thought I would post them here for anyone else who may be interested.

1. How do you choose what projects or experiments to work on?

The projects that I do are determined by who I have to help, what their interests are, what funding I have, etc.

Megan Roeder helping analyze guppy videos.

She is now in vet school at Colorado State University.

2. How long do you expect this experiment to last? And what or how will this help science in the future?

Wow, that's a good question! It's hard to answer since each project leads to more questions, so there doesn't always seem to be an "end". But the fish we have in the lab right now only have a lifespan of a few years. So the work with them will have to be done by then. The type of science I do is "basic science", meaning that it's more about answering questions than a particular application. Therefore, this will help science by giving us a better understanding of how the world works. I study evolution, and this can help us understand how organisms adapt and respond to new environments, including those affected by humans. I also study biomechanics, and learning about how systems work together can help us understand how humans work, or even robots!

3. How did you come up with this idea to study the guppies?

I became interested in guppies as I was finishing my PhD. Dr. David Reznick worked with guppies at my school and I asked him questions. I learned that my particular questions hadn't been answered yet, so I designed a project to test them.

One of the first videos I filmed of a guppy in Dr. Reznick's lab.

This was used for preliminary data in my postdoctoral NSF grant.

4. What makes guppies so adaptable?

Wow, that is a great one! The easy answer is genetics, since genes determine a lot about an animal. But what, specifically? We're not sure. We do know that guppies have a remarkable ability to change their traits in response to the environment they grow up in, called plasticity. This helps them survive short-term, but how plasticity interacts with genetics over the long term we are still trying to figure out.

5. Does your lab study any other type of fish in your experiments?

We also have a mudskippper in the lab right now! Her name is Mama and she's teaching us more about how water vs. air affects her behaviors. My grad student, @EvoCohen, might also work with some local sunfish like bluegill and bass. We're not sure what the project would be yet. I'm open to different systems, depending on how they help us answer the questions we're interested in. I even studied beluga whales once!

Mama, the mudskipper in our lab

6. Does the gender of the guppy impact the results?

Ya'll are on a roll! I don't know. I suspect so, but I haven't had the resources to also test males yet. I started with females because they give birth to live young, so feeding is important to be able to support the babies inside. For this reason, I suspect the need for feeding and swimming to work together is probably stronger in females. I would love to test males! We know males and females feed in different parts of the water column, so the pressures are likely very different.

A male (L) and female (R) guppy

7. Are you able to compare these results with any animal on land?

I've been thinking about that and have talked to another researcher who studies lizards. It's tough right now to make any generalizations since we are only beginning to scratch the surface with these ideas. But it's likely there are some common threads. My hypothesis would be that prey capture strategy plays a big role. For example, animals that actively chase prey probably rely on swimming/moving in similar ways compared to those that sit and wait.

8. How long does it take on average for a guppy to adapt to new surroundings?

Well, it depends on what part of the surroundings/environment and what adaptation you're interested in. For example, guppies can adapt to small changes in salinity over a few hours, large changes over a few days. For something like changes in predator community, it will take longer, if they get the chance to survive and adapt. If a population that hasn't experienced predators has a new predator move in, they may get eaten before they have a chance to reproduce. In this case, they will never adapt to the change. The salinity example is one of a plastic response - the expression of their genes can change to help them survive in the new environment. Beneficial genetic changes will take longer, because they require the change to spread throughout the population across generations. For the population to be considered adapted to the new environment, the trait should be present in most fish and should help them survive. A guppy can have babies once they are about 12 weeks old. Then they will have babies about every 30 days. This is one reason guppies are good for studies of adaptation - genetic changes can spread quickly compared to humans.

A pike cichlid, a common predator of guppies

9. Have you been able to test and see if the guppies use different parts of their brain as they multitask (swimming & feeding)?

Oooo, no not yet. But I know @EDaleBroder looked at how they use the different halves of their brains to inspect predators! There's got to be some kind of division of labor happening, but I'm not sure exactly how they're doing it. An interesting layer is that a large portion of their body muscles power suction feeding! @CampAriel has done a lot of work here. So how do they coordinate using the same muscles across two behaviors? Maybe timing? Maybe using different parts of the muscle? (From Ariel Camp: Definitely an open question of how fish use body muscles for both behaviors, and how these muscles may be adapted for swimming AND feeding)

10. Can observations of the guppies in the lab be applied yet to help humans?

Most likely, but at this point I haven't attempted to make any direct applications to medicine for example. BUT, it's always helpful to understand more about environments that we live in so we can keep living here.

Collecting guppies from a natural stream in Trinidad

Thanks to Patrick's class for such thoughtful questions! I look forward to meeting with his and other classes again in the future! If you're interested in a similar experience for your students, please contact me!

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