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How to beat the sea lamprey with its own pheromones, bile salts

Researchers are now closer to using the invasive species's predilection for bile salts against it.

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The invasive sea lamprey affixes itself to fish and sucks out their fluids, threatening to hobble Great Lakes fisheries. Scientists have proposed that the animal's pheromones can be imitated to create traps into which seduced sea lampreys can’t wait to swim.

John Flesher/AP

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What could be more seductive than bile salts? Well, for a sea lamprey, bile salts are about as good a come-on as come-ons come.

The sea lamprey, an invasive and destructive species in the Great Lakes, has evolved to use bile salts, acids brewed in their livers to assist in digestionas pheromones. That's right: female sea lampreys are so enthusiastic about digestive aids that they'll squiggle upstream in pursuit of the enticing males producing them.

It’s an unusual preference — so unusual, new research shows, that not even the silver lamprey, a cousin to the sea lamprey but a native to the lakes, shares the sea lamprey's predilection. That’s a find that could help researchers develop traps that use the sea lamprey’s affinity for bile salts against it, while sparing the native lamprey species. 

Understanding how the two species respond to bile salts is “very interesting when developing a pheromone program for sea lamprey control,” said Tyler Buchinger, a graduate student at the Michigan State University and an author on the paper, in an email to the Monitor.

“This research provides necessary data on the effect of sea lamprey pheromones on closely related non-target species,” he says. The findings are published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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