UB research looking at freshwater fish with deep sea eyes

Feb 1, 2021

Have you ever looked out across Lake Erie or Lake Ontario and wondered what’s going on in that water? The Great Lakes have changed drastically over the last few centuries and there is increasing scientific interest to figure out why.


The Great Lakes are one of the treasures of the planet, vast flowing tanks of fresh water, filled with plants and fish. There are also pollutants and overseas invaders.

A University at Buffalo researcher is studying a mutating fish called kiyis -- a branch of the Cisco family -- in Lake Superior that appears to be regaining its ability to see better deep underwater.

Assistant Professor Trevor Krabbenhoft is trying to figure out why that vision is changing and whether it reflects changing light in the lakes because of overseas invasive species that have moved in.

"We’re studying these fish much more broadly, and not just vision, but other aspects of their biology and trying to understand how genetic variation, in particular, links to how they behave in the environment, ecologically and in the food web," he said. "There’s an old fishing adage that says 90% of the fish are found in 10% of the lake and with this work, we want to understand why."

Coregonus Kiyi from Lake Superior.
Credit U.S. Department of the Interior

Krabbenhoft said the Lake Superior research may well relate to the lower lakes.

"Some of the species that historically occurred in Lakes Erie and Ontario, for example, have been lost over time," Krabbenhoft said. "The invasion of sea lamprey and overfishing and pollution played an important role in those populations crashing. So a big part of this research is trying to understand how we can bring those populations back in some of the Lower Lakes."

That is because the water flow down from Superior brings the good and the bad toward the ocean.

The Lower Lakes have been hit hard by those overseas invaders, like the zebra mussel, quagga mussel and lamprey. There also have been severe pollution issues, like the agricultural runoff leading to algae blooms in western Lake Erie.