There’s a lot of science happening in a 125-gallon tank in the aquaculture lab at Morrisville State College. Eight adolescent seahorses - four males and four females - arrived in November and are making themselves at home in the six-foot-wide aquarium in Bicknell Hall.
The equine-like species glides through the water, playing hide-and-seek in the live coral and fluttering along the tank floor. The saltwater tank is stocked with copepods, small crustaceans which serve as food for grazing; the seahorses are also hand-fed mysis shrimp three times a day, slurping their tiny meals into their tube-like mouths from individual pipettes.
“I love watching them - I could watch them for hours,” said student Philip Keville, who suggested the species would provide a good learning experience for the laboratory.
But the tank-bred seahorses are more than just captivating. Morrisville assistant professor Elisa Livengood and her students are hoping to learn more about how to breed the species in captivity, a vital question for the future of the aquarium industry and for conservation.
The tank provides a glimpse into the rarest life cycle: seahorses are among the few species where the male carries the offspring and gives birth.
“The seahorse is the ultimate feminist,” Livengood said with a smile. “The male is the one who gestates and gives birth.”
The courtship starts with a hooking of their prehensile tails, and the seahorses almost dance around one another as the female transfers her eggs to the male. The male fertilizes the eggs internally and carries them for 25 to 28 days.
Birth is a flurry of activity, as the pouch on the front side of the male opens and releases fully formed, but incredibly tiny, seahorses. The first spawning process at Morrisville came earlier than Livengood and her students expected.
Livengood was giving a tour of the tanks to high school students in December when the group’s chaperone pointed out the new arrivals in the seahorse tank.
“All of a sudden there were 35 little seahorses,” Livengood said. “We all were so excited.”
The unexpected arrival brought even more challenges, like how to feed the tiny seahorses and what kind of tank would allow them to thrive. Ultimately, the first offspring did not survive past the fry stage, a learning experience for Livengood and her students.
“It caught us unaware, and the conditions weren’t perfect for them,” she said “Now we know they need their own tank with special flow and they need many types of live foods like rotifers, copepods, and baby brine shrimp.”
More offspring arrived in March, and this time Livengood and her students were ready. The tiny seahorses have been transferred to their own tank and are successfully eating.
A glimpse into the aquatic ecosystem
The seahorses and other inhabitants of the aquaculture lab provide a window into the underwater world and an opportunity for students to learn about a wide variety of issues. The aquaculture and aquatic sciences two-year program is part of the college’s School of Agriculture & Natural Resources, which feeds into a four-year degree in renewable resources and technology.
In addition to Livengood’s lab, aquaculture students get hands-on experience at the campus cold water trout hatchery and the controlled environment agriculture greenhouse, where they are researching the propagation of paddlefish as a viable aquaponics species for caviar and food.
“We are one of the few campuses in New York State that has this species uniquely grown in an aquaponics system,” Livengood said.
The curriculum prepares students for entry into public and private sector jobs in natural resources conservation, environmental science, environmental technology, and aquaculture and aquatic science.
Livengood’s lectures include discussion of current events, like the water pollution issues raised by the Standing Rock protest, the ethical implications of marine animals in captivity, or the impact of climate change on ecosystems.
“They are going to be asked these questions as professionals in their field,” Livengood said. “They have the luxury in college of really dissecting the issues, critically thinking about it and forming their own opinion.”
Many student projects focus on learning how to breed different species in captivity, to help reduce the number of wild-caught fish in the aquarium trade and preserve already fragile ecosystems.
“There’s been a huge shift for the public aquariums to be less about entertainment and more about education,” Livengood said. “Home aquariums give people a window into a world that they may never see, but it comes at a cost.
It’s a huge drain on marine resources.”
Captive fish breeding or aquaculture could be part of the solution.
“Let’s just not collect them in the wild anymore,” she said. “Some species we won’t be able to have, because we will never figure out how to have them in captivity. But maybe they never should have been in captivity in the first place. Really it’s about being a responsible consumer.”
A day in the lab
Livengood’s students begin their day walking through the laboratory, checking each tank. Food is defrosted for each species, and students begin to measure the water quality, including salinity, pH and nutrient levels.
“We make sure everything is working the way it should be working,” Livengood explained. “It takes a team. Students in different parts of the program have different responsibilities.”
Tank by tank, the process is repeated several times a day, with records taken for ongoing research projects. The responsibility is something that will help students obtain internships and eventually jobs in the field, Livengood said.
“My goal is for the students to have a number of species in their repertoire,” she said. “They can say they understand their requirements for life and husbandry - how to feed them, breed them, feed the young, and keep the water quality clean and pristine.”
The lab is filled with a variety of species from around the world, and Livengood is an expert on each.
She stops first at the covered tank of Amazonian discus fish, a species she studied during her graduate work in Colombia. Both the male and female discus fish exhibit parental care, she said, and offspring attach to the breeding pair to eat the mucus from the sides of their bodies.
“For many years we did not really know why they do what they do,” said Livengood, who is interested to see if the larva are gaining some sort of immune support from their parents in the way breastfeeding newborns benefit from their mother’s antibodies. Recent publications point to some microbial benefit of discus larvae eating the parental mucus.
Livengood checks on tanks with breeding colonies of angelfish, zebra fish and Indian freshwater puffers, all part of student projects. A low tank contains a kaleidoscope of corals, which can be cut into fragments that will regenerate. A combination of tank lights are timed to imitate the rising of the moon and the sun, so the species can photosynthesize as they would in the wild.
Livengood’s most recent personal project is a colony of moon jellyfish, which started in a small six-gallon circular tank before moving into a larger tank.
It’s the first time Livengood has cared for the species, which is so delicate that even a bubble in the tank could tear apart its flesh. Livengood admits that the jellyfish have offered several husbandry hurdles, which she has shared with her students.
“My students have seen all the struggles I’ve had with this tank, and they know that I can have difficulties, just like they do,” she said.
Livengood isn’t afraid of questions that she doesn’t have ready answers for.
“My answer is, ‘I don’t know, how can we test that? What can we do next?’” she said. “That’s how we do research in a teaching setting.”
A lifelong love of the sea
Livengood’s fascination with the underwater world started at the Marine Biological Institute in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where her grandfather worked during the summer.
“I spent a lot of my formative years on the beach and got really interested in science,” she said of her time fishing with her grandfather, a professor of biology at Notre Dame. “From the time I was little, I told people I wanted to be a marine biologist.”
Livengood got her bachelor’s degree in biology with a concentration in marine biology from East Carolina University, and went to work with sea turtles from nonprofit on Bald Head Island, between the coasts of North and South Carolina.
Her love of fish and aquaculture grew when she met her mentor, Dr. Frank Chapman, a professor at the University of Florida who developed the protocol for breeding sturgeon in captivity.
She went on to receive her master’s degree and doctorate from the University of Florida, and her dissertation included a stint at the Universidad de los Llanos in Colombia, researching the sustainability of the aquarium fish trade.
While interviewing with colleges across the country after graduation, she discovered the aquaculture program at Morrisville.
“This place I’d never heard of had an aquaponics greenhouse, a cold water hatchery, space for my own lab and a really great philosophy of teaching,” she said. “It seemed like a perfect fit.”
Her commitment to the college is now a family affair. Livengood’s husband, Micheal Coons, helped develop the full-scale brewery at the Copper Turret Restaurant & Brewhouse and associated academic programs through the Morrisville Brewing Institute. The couple lives in Madison, New York, with their one-year-old daughter.
Livengood says she sees herself in her enthusiastic students.
“They have an infatuation with marine biology, but they don’t know what it means,” she said. “Some had tanks growing up, some are outdoorsmen who like to fish. Here, they can take that interest and see where it leads them.”
Renewable resources student Emilee Niejadlik said she fell in love with the field during childhood trips to the beaches and nature preserves in Florida.
While she initially chose Morrisville to play collegiate volleyball, Niejadlik has thrown herself into the aquaculture program, volunteering at the coldwater hatchery and helping maintain Livengood’s lab.
Her own personal project involves the Mandarin goby, a psychedelic species popular in the saltwater aquarium trade that she was drawn to while working at a tropical fish store in her hometown of Hamburg, New York.
“It seems to float over the water - it is so magnificent,” she said.
After discovering that more than 90 percent of the fish in the store were wild caught, Niejadlik said she became more interested in captive breeding research.
“When I came to school, I didn’t own a pair of boots or lab gear,” she said. “Now, I know this is the place that I was meant to be.”