Field Research

Biological sciences student Marissa Senna performing research last summer.
Biological sciences student Marissa Senna performing research last summer.

By Dominick Senna, Loyola Parent

Marissa Leigh Senna is a senior at Loyola working towards her B.S. in biological sciences. She became interested in Ichthyology while studying under Dr. Frank Jordan. She is especially interested in the Red Lionfish (Pterois volitans), an Indo-Pacific species which has invaded Florida and tropical Caribbean reefs and is feared to be competing with native species. They are indiscriminate eaters, which is the most likely reason they have become established. Sold as pets for aquariums, lionfish quickly outgrow their tank and begin eating all the other fish in the tank. Rather than destroy their pets, aquarium owners simply release them into the ocean. They are a venomous predator with no natural enemies, and breed all year round penetrating as far north as New England.

When Marissa approached Dr. Jordan with her curiosity about this exotic species, he told her that it would be useful to establish exactly what they are eating by creating a reference collection at Loyola as a baseline for further studies.

Along with a box of specimen jars, she then set out from Loyola to South Florida last June with an enthusiasm to make new discoveries.

As an avid SCUBA diver, Marissa personally collected many of her samples on the reefs of Ft. Lauderdale, Pompano Beach, and Boynton Beach. Her collection methods consisted of coaxing the smaller lionfish into a collection bag with a net and spearing the larger ones with a pole spear. Back on the dock, she then removed their throats and stomachs and preserved them for later study. In her laboratory (our dining room table), she carefully dissected each stomach, then measured, recorded, and preserved each of the creatures found within.

Marissa was able to procure many more specimens by contacting other environmental and diving organizations who sponsored “Lionfish Derbies.” In these, sportsman outings divers are encouraged to collect and return with all the lionfish they can find in return for prizes and a dinner party at the end of the day. The filleted lionfish were kept for the dinner party, but the divers were glad to part with the stomachs of their catch for science.

Marissa returned to Loyola in August with data on 200 specimens for Dr. Jordan’s lab. Some of these needed further analysis: i.e., was that really a partly digested immature lobster in a lionfish stomach? Only genetic analysis revealed the truth.

When I asked Marissa about her experience, she said, “I learned a lot last summer, Dad! I learned how to be a researcher and create and structure a research project. I learned the integrity and discipline of data gathering that will withstand peer review. I learned how to network with other professionals in the field to accomplish our respective goals.”

It was a joy to watch her mature from this experience. Marissa arrived in June as a curious student. She left in August a confident scientist.

Photo Gallery of Marissa Senna's Research

View the complete spring 2012 issue of LOYNO.

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