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Released June 27, 2003

SOUTHERN MISS GRAD STUDENT ONCE NURSEMAID TO NEMO

BILOXI - A new "Nemo" exhibit at The University of Southern Mississippi's Scott Aquarium has triggered Sara Pelleteri's memories of playing midwife and nursemaid to a host of the colorful clownfish currently riding a wave of popularity in the Disney movie "Finding Nemo."

Pelleteri, a Southern Miss graduate student who is also an aquarist at the J.L. Scott Marine Education Center and Aquarium, worked with a species of the Indo-Pacific clownfish while employed with a large metropolitan aquarium a decade ago.

She worked with clownfish at an off-site water quality and animal health lab used for breeding, researching and quarantining large animals.

"Now it is old hat for large aquariums to raise their own clownfish for display, but back then it wasn't quite as routine," Pelleteri said. "Sometimes things wouldn't go as expected, and it was a challenge to figure out the different variables that made some breeding pairs successful and others not."

When Pelleteri worked with clownfish, she found them to be just as intriguing as young moviegoers find Disney's Nemo today.

"Their breeding and reproduction behavior is complex," she said. "They have a whole little courtship dance that they do. Also, if there is not a female around, the dominant male usually becomes a female in about two months.

"We would pair the clownfish up, and they would lay their eggs inside of flower pots that we used. They cleaned the eggs, kept them free of fungus and guarded them just as if they were in the wild protecting their eggs from predators. When the babies hatched, they were a little larger than the width of a pencil lead."

Although the Pass Christian resident wasn't involved in setting up the new exhibit, she shares concerns about tropical reef fish with Scott Aquarium educator Howard Walters, who initiated the display of living Nemos as a teaching strategy.

"A lot of tropical reef fish are collected in environmentally unfriendly ways, sometimes using cyanide or dynamiting reefs," she said. "The large public aquarium industry and responsible dealers in the home pet trade are trying very hard now to ensure that the fish for the U.S. aquarium trade come from environmentally friendly and sustainable collection that does not kill the reefs."

Walters said clownfish are one of the easier tropical fish to breed, and the Nemos in the 210-gallon tank at the Scott Aquarium were purchased from a source that retails clownfish bred and reared in commercial aquaculture operations.

He said he hopes the exhibit will help children and visitors separate fact from fiction about the living species that served as the model for the movie.

"Juvenile clownfish have never been observed outside the host anemone," Walters said. "Some clownfish species can get up to five inches in length. Our fish are about an inch long, and the real juvenile clownfish are much smaller in comparison to other fish than Nemo appears in the movie. And, of course, they don't talk!"

"Don't flush," Pelleteri emphasized to youngsters who want to "free" a Nemo from an aquarium. "The chances are slim to none that a saltwater fish would survive a trip down the sewer. First of all you would be putting it into freshwater. If that doesn't kill it, most sewage treatment involves chemicals.

"As long as you keep the tank clean and feed the fish correctly, they will be happy in the habitat you have created for them."

The Nemo display can be seen at the aquarium 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Admission is $4 adults, $3.50 for seniors, $2.50 for ages 3-17, with 2 years and under free.

And what about the former Nemo nursemaid?

She is now concentrating on another kind of tiny marine animal - tanaids, minute crustaceans that live in the ocean bottom sediments.

"These little guys are interesting because they are not a well-known order at all. Scientists are just now learning about the diversity of species out there. They think there are potentially hundreds of different kinds of taniads that have yet to be described scientifically, particularly deep water ones."

In a couple weeks she is leaving her position at the aquarium to complete work for her master's degree - including her taniad research - with the Department of Coastal Sciences at the Southern Miss Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Ocean Springs. The first item on her agenda is heading to Bermuda Biological Station for Research to take a tropical invertebrates class.

"It is a four-week course and includes a lot of diving. I'm excited," she said.

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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM

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