Students’ collaboration with Shedd Aquarium aids conch conservation efforts


Northwestern junior Lachlan Stevens feeds a Japanese spider crab a “GastroPop,” an artificial shell full of seafood designed to help conservation efforts.
Courtesy of Northwestern University

What do you call a faux gastropod that’s actually a man-made snack for aquatic predators?

GastroPops.

That’s according to a group of Northwestern University engineering students who collaborated with Shedd Aquarium scientists this spring. As part of one of their courses, the four students were asked to design a biodegradable artificial shell full of seafood to help with conservation efforts — specifically predation research.

Northwestern engineering students test their artificial snail shell design on the Shedd Aquarium’s Caribbean spiny lobsters and Japanese spider crabs.
Courtesy of Northwestern University

“One of the most exciting ways that an ecosystem functions is by transferring energy among different levels, and that’s often done by predation,” Shedd research biologist Andrew Kough said. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be really cool if we could develop an artificial snail to see how things are different when it comes to predation on animals resting on the bottom?’”

Snails, which are typically hidden from the public eye in both a literal and figurative sense, are important parts of underwater ecosystems as both herbivores and sea snacks for predators, Kough said.

For instance, queen conch are crucial algae eaters, but they’ve seen population decline from overharvesting and disease. The species was recently listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Two Northwestern students examine an artificial shell of their design at the Shedd Aquarium. The “GastroPops” were molded and baked by the students themselves.
Courtesy of Northwestern University

The data that comes from knowing where, when and how many GastroPops are eaten can help restoration experts identify areas with less predators and help young conch have a better chance at survival when transferred to the wild.

Before traveling to Miami to test their tasty creation, the Northwestern students behind GastroPops introduced the treats to the Shedd’s Caribbean spiny lobsters and Japanese spider crabs. One lobster spent over an hour chomping on two GastroPops, proving they could also serve as a novel source of physical and mental stimulation for the predators.

The young researchers filled their artificial shell creations with seafood bait to help lure predators. The “GastroPops” can also be a valuable source of physical and mental stimulation for the predators.
Courtesy of Northwestern University

“We were really fortunate that the Shedd was super cool in letting us enrich these animals, and those continual check-ins really helped the project,” Northwestern junior Lachlan Stevens said. “It was so rewarding to see them in Miami, too.”

Stevens boarded his plane to Miami with 90 homemade GastroPops in his carry-on. Made of a carefully tried and tested ratio of oyster shell powder and sodium alginate binder, the artificial shells were molded and baked by the students themselves.

The team stayed aboard the Shedd’s research vessel, which was docked in the Miami River, though they placed the GastroPops off the seashore in one of Florida’s state parks.

Each morning, Kough and the students woke up with the dawn to a long day of swimming, walking and carrying heavy buckets filled with GastroPops up and down the beach.

Four Northwestern students designs a biodegradable artificial shell to help with predation research at the Shedd Aquarium. Knowing where and when GastroPops are eaten can help restoration experts identify areas with less predators like this Japanese spider crab, helping young conch have a better chance at survival.
Courtesy of Northwestern University

“The next day, it was just carnage. GastroPops were missing. Many of them were flipped upside down with the bait extracted, some of them had been crushed in half and there were just little remnants left, and others had been peeled so you could see into the inside of them,” Kough said. “That was a real delight.”

One special moment happened in about six feet of water underneath the sand ledge. It was only the second time the students went into the water, and they discovered a huge den of spiny lobster — the very same species that had so enjoyed the GastroPops in captivity back at the Shedd.

The students “screamed with joy,” Kough said, and were transfixed with watching the animals hang out off the seashore so close to where they planned to place their artificial shells.

“How awesome it is to be able to have two of the local cornerstones in Chicagoland, Northwestern and Shedd Aquarium, work together to help students grow,” Kough said. “But also to help them grow empathy and the conservation ethic for the marine ecosystem, which is pretty far away from Chicago, but the majority of this planet.”

Jenny Whidden, jwhidden@dailyherald.com, is a climate change and environment writer working with the Daily Herald through a partnership with Report For America supported by The Nature Conservancy. To help support her work with a tax-deductible donation, see dailyherald.com/rfa.

Made of oyster shell powder and sodium alginate binder, “GastroPops” got their name from a play on the word gastropod.
Courtesy of Northwestern University



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