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Shrimp on a Treadmill: or, studies that make my day

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By Cat Viglienzoni — August 23, 2011

There are some days when I feel like science knows EXACTLY what makes me happy.

For example, when studies like this one, done by the researchers at the College of Charleston’s Grice Marine Laboratory, put shrimp (and crabs) on treadmills to see how they respond to changing bacteria levels in their water.

But there’s a shrimp. On a treadmill. Observe:

I don’t know about you, but I’m delighted.

I found out about this only after this NPR article brought this study up as one that had been lambasted by government officials as wasteful spending. And if you only watch that video yeah, half a million dollars to make me giggle for a day and spawn excellent YouTube versions with background music (my personal favorites are “Eye of the Tiger” and “The Final Countdown”) seems a bit excessive.

Except that, as the NPR article points out, this video was not even the major part of the study in question. The grant from the National Science Foundation actually went to a lot of different research projects studying seafood species that are economically important. Shrimp were only one of them. And of that, the treadmill experiment was a single, small part of that, and a way to measure how water quality affects this particular specimen of marine life.

It was NOT, then, $500,000 spent to see if shrimp could qualify for a hypothetical Atlantis Marathon.

And as biologist Lou Burnett, who led the study, explains, the treadmills themselves weren’t even very costly, with the first one built out of scraps and essentially free, and the second, nicer one costing around $1,000, which as anyone in science education can tell you, doesn’t go very far when purchasing materials.

In order to study performance, the shrimp can’t just sit around in its tank. Shrimp are capable of swimming for hours. They have to move. Hence the treadmill. And as this crab video shows, it has to be done in a controlled environment where researchers can eliminate variables.

 

What’s happening there is that the researchers have created an environment where they can make the Atlantic blue crab walk on a treadmill, thus increasing its oxygen uptake and producing lactic acid. The treadmill is contained within a respirometer, which will measure that oxygen uptake. That’s something you couldn’t do, say, in the ocean, or even a normal aquarium. So yes, they would have to spend some money to build that level of controlled environment.

But considering the number of people who eat shrimp and crab, or who depend on crustaceans for their livelihood, it might be worth it to see if pathogenic bacteria are harming them.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t believe in wasting money on useless things. But let’s make sure before we boil down a study to merely “shrimp on a treadmill” that there really isn’t more to it than that. Because when you get past the perceived absurdity of the idea and look at the broader picture, there is probably a legitimate scientific question at hand.

However, if you do happen to be some closet shrimp-hoarder with a secret desire to give your shrimp a way to work out … now you know it can be done. For not more than $1,000.

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Written by Cat Viglienzoni

August 23, 2011 at 11:34 AM

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