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Sixth Grader's Lionfish Research Changing Florida's Ecosystem

Jul 21, 2014 01:35 PM EDT

Florida's ecosystem may be undergoing some major changes thanks to sixth-grader Lauren Arrington's research on lionfish, an invasive species.

All thanks to an assigned science project, the 12-year-old showed that lionfish can survive in nearly fresh water. Her results blew away professional ecologists and were a major scientific breakthrough.

Craig Layman, an ecology professor at North Carolina State University, called Lauren's work "one of the most influential sixth-grade science projects ever conducted." He said it demonstrated something scientists should have done years before, according to the Sun Sentinel.

But for Lauren, she was just trying to top the other kids in the science fair; not knowing then the impact her project would have on Florida's ecosystem.

"Scientists were doing plenty of tests on them, but they just always assumed they were in the ocean," Lauren, now 13, told NPR. "So I was like, 'Well, hey guys, what about the river?'"

Lauren first got the idea for her research after repeatedly seeing the colorful lionfish in Palm Beach County waters, and wanted to know how the invasive species was affecting freshwater fish.

With the help of her dad, Albrey Arrington, an ecologist, she caught six different lionfish in the Indian River Lagoon and tested just how much freshwater they could stand. Over a two-week period in 2012, she slowly lowered the salinity five parts per thousand (ppt) in five tanks, keeping one tank at the regular ocean salinity level as a control.

To their surprise, the fish survived one-sixth the salinity of the Atlantic Ocean (35 parts per thousand).

"We were completely dumbfounded," Albrey, director of the Loxahatchee River District, told the Sun Sentinel. "We did not expect that at all."

Unfortunately, Lauren had to stop her project before going further because her project would be disqualified from the science fair if any animals were harmed in the process.

She later placed third in the science fair, and scientists recognized the validity of her work, and decided to continue it.

Layman's findings were published this year in the science journal Environmental Biology of Fishes.

They were able to bring the salinity all the way to zero, finding that lionfish can tolerate a minimum salinity of five parts per thousand and even withstand pulses of freshwater.

Lauren's name is mentioned in the acknowledgments section of the research paper.

The whole ordeal made Lauren, who hopes to one day find a job involving marine science and engineering, feel "pretty cool."

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