On Saturday, April 21st, Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium welcomed 9,256 visitors to its sprawling campus along Lake Michigan’s shoreline. 1225 of the youngest visitors grabbed “passports” to learn more about the migratory fishes on display for World Fish Migration Day. 4, 824 watched a video about fish migrations as they waited in line for the 4-D picture show.
But about sixty of the Shedd’s visitors that day migrated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison for a different reason – they were part of the class behind a 50-year partnership between Wisconsin’s land-grant university and Chicago’s iconic institution.
Standing beside a large cake adorned with icing fishes and colorful coral to celebrate the occasion, John Magnuson, professor emeritus at the UW-Madison Center for Limnology told the students about his experience building the course and its connection to the aquarium.
It all started in the mid 1960s when Magnuson was visiting a now-defunct oceanarium outside of Los Angeles, California called Marineland of the Pacific. At the time, Magnuson worked at a biological laboratory in Honolulu, serving as the chief of the Tuna Behavior and Physiology Program for what was then called the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries.
He was especially interested in the Pacific bonito, a species of tuna that was swimming around in Marineland’s big oceanarium tank.
“I went down to look at that tank and within twenty minutes I was talking to the director saying … ‘Can we write a paper together,’” Magnuson told the students.
They began, Magnuson told the group, by doing “something that you probably did today – we counted the tail beats and how fast they swam but what we were doing was really exciting, it was the first time anyone had observed spawning behavior of a high seas pelagic fish that never sees the land.”
The study ended up published in the scientific journal, Animal Behavior, and it taught him, Magnuson said, “that you can actually do science looking through the windows of an aquarium.”
So, when he moved to the Center for Limnology in 1969, he reached out to the aquarium just a few hours down the road.
Since then, Zoology 510 (now Integrated Biology 510), or “Ecology of Fishes,” as it’s called has capped the semester off by requiring students to travel to Chicago and come up with a research project based at Shedd Aquarium.
“The idea is that they come up with a question about something on display at the aquarium, then formulate a hypothesis and collect data during the day to test that hypothesis,” says Holly Embke, a graduate student at the UW-Madison Center for Limnology and a teaching assistant for the Ecology of Fishes course.
For example, one of the students Embke worked with spent her day in the “At Home on the Great Lakes” gallery observing a school of cisco, a silvery fish that is an important part of many Great Lakes food webs.
“She was trying to quantify when a fish would leave the school or move to a different position within it,” Embke says. By observing the schooling dynamics, the student hoped to learn more about what sorts of stimuli kept the fish tightly balled together and what led them to break ranks.
After the trip, Embke says, the students then go back to campus and find more information on their topic in the scientific literature so that they can pull together a paper on the topic.
And students don’t just study schools of fish. Sometimes they formulate a hypothesis about the hordes of visitors at the Shedd. One year, Magnuson recalled, the Shedd had just opened a special exhibit on seahorses and some students banded together to conduct interviews on visitors as they entered the exhibit and as they left to see how much they’d learned. It turned out that “they learned quite a lot,” he says. “In all, we’ve had somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 students come do some silly and some excellent projects at the Shedd.”
While the whirlwind day of formulating a research question and collecting data is unlikely to yield many full-fledged scientific papers, it can be one step on the path to a career in aquatic sciences.
Jake Vander Zanden, director of the Center for Limnology, has taught the Ecology of Fishes course since Magnuson’s retirement in 2000. He was just looking at a picture taken from the annual trip to the Shedd back in 2004, he told the class as they ate their 50th Anniversary cake.
In that photograph, he said, “one of the guys is now the Great Lakes fisheries biologist for the state of Wisconsin. Another woman is a research biologist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency out of the Denver office. Fast-forward to now and many of the students have careers established in some field relating to ecology, environmental sciences or aquatic systems – and that could be you.”
Top Photo: CFL graduate student, Holly Embke, and a Zoology 510 student discuss cisco schooling at the Shedd Aquarium. Photo: A. Hinterthuer.