Published July 11, 2011, 08:00 AM

Great Lakes Aquarium joins battle against invaders

It’s the stuff of horror movie plots: Jawless, sucking creatures slipping quietly into a tranquil area that locals have called home for years. Soon, the invaders make themselves known, out-eating and out-reproducing the local population until they have gained complete dominance, turning the once-familiar habitat into something foreign and threatening.

It’s the stuff of horror movie plots: Jawless, sucking creatures slipping quietly into a tranquil area that locals have called home for years. Soon, the invaders make themselves known, out-eating and out-reproducing the local population until they have gained complete dominance, turning the once-familiar habitat into something foreign and threatening.

Not just a movie, this is the very real problem posed to Lake Superior and habitats across the Northland by aquatic invasive species. It’s also the subject of a Great Lakes Aquarium exhibit, “Aquatic Invaders,” intended to educate the public about the threat of invasive species like sea lampreys — jawless fish that use their sucker-like mouths to piggyback onto other fish.

“It’s very important that people understand the potential threat, not only to Lake Superior but also to the inland lakes,” said Jack LaVoy, the aquarium’s executive director. “I hope that (visitors) come away with a greater sense of the need to protect our environment.”

That concern extends to both those who already know something about the battle, and those hearing about it for the first time, added Sarah Erickson, the aquarium’s education director.

“Some of the folks who are very active in recreation have heard these messages before, but we wanted to have a clear connection for people who aren’t as familiar,” she said, adding the new display isn’t just about educating visitors, it’s also meant to motivate them.

“We want them to be familiar with the kinds of species we have here, but we also want them to feel empowered to do something and learn more,” she said. “People can take simple actions to stop invasive species.”

Adds LaVoy: “There aren’t just big lessons; there are also small lessons about what each individual can do.”

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more than 25 invasive species of fish have entered the Great Lakes over the past two centuries.

Invasive species, which are prohibited or regulated by state, provincial and federal governments, can cause damage to local economies,the environment and human health. They are often transported to new areas on recreational boats or in the ballast water of shipping vessels.

The exhibit, which opened on June 30, is designed to be highly interactive and appealing. A bright heading from one panel reads “You can help stop invasives!” Another features cartoons detailing the adventures of Nicholas, a young boy who learns the danger of invasive species after he improperly frees his pet goldfish. Interactive stations, including a video display, help visitors identify with the display’s message.

“If people take the time to pay attention, it’s very helpful information,” said Andrea Buck of Duluth while her son, Sam, played with an interactive display showing the consequences of daily decisions that affect the spread of aquatic invaders.

Though many of the display’s features are kid-oriented, Erickson says it should appeal to all ages. “Even adults want to reach out and touch something,” she said.

The exhibit also includes an interactive animation created by University of Minnesota Duluth students. In addition, Edward Downs, an assistant professor of communications at UMD, will study learning styles in a museum environment by performing a cognitive evaluation of the display. The University of Wisconsin-Superior and other area organizations also contributed, Erickson said.

“We worked on the exhibit with scientists and educators in the community,” said Erickson. “We worked with several scientists from UMD, and there’s a lot of work going on at UWS as well.”

Erickson says she hopes visitors will want to learn more after visiting the aquarium, and lists the Minnesota Sea Grant Program, DNR, EPA, and U.S. Forest service as great places to get more information, as well as local universities and pet stores.

The exhibit is now a permanent feature at the museum, which is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

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