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Playing matchmaker for sea lampreys

Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The mouth of a lamprey. It uses suction, teeth, and a razor sharp tongue to attach itself to its prey.

Sea lampreys are invasive parasites found in every one of the Great Lakes. It’s a fish with a round mouth like a suction cup. It latches onto big fish like trout and salmon... and kills them by drinking their blood.

It costs fisheries managers in the U.S. and Canada 20 million dollars a year to control the lamprey.

There’s one secret weapon in development that could eventually save them money... pheromones. Those are odors that male lampreys release to attract the lady lampreys.

I called Nick Johnson with the Michigan lamprey research team to find out how the team's third and final year of testing these pheromones is going.

You could call him a lamprey matchmaker.

"Pheromones are typically species specific, so they should have minimal impact to other species, they're highly potent, effective at very low concentrations. So once they're developed they could be applied relatively cheaply and with little environmental impact."

Johnson says, so far, after two years, traps with synthesized pheromones are capturing more lampreys - right now it's about 30% more lampreys than the unbaited traps.  But he cautions that pheromones won't take care of the lamprey problem... we're stuck with the parasites.

The hope is that pheromones will be irresistible to the critters... and will help managers keep them in check more effectively.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.