Students get up close and personal with fish in the Tennessee River during Dr. Mark Schorr’s Ichthyology class.
Water: Fall and Spring
Each spring, Dr. Schorr teaches the ichthyology class, while every fall he has a class in limnology, the study of lakes, rivers, streams and other inland waterways, examining their biological, chemical and physical characteristics. Both have two outdoor visits to the Tennessee River.
Fire-engine red life vests around their chests, three UTC students stand in a boat on the Tennessee River. On opposite sides of the boat, two of them hoist long, orange-plastic poles with a bare-metal pole connecting them at front end. The other holds a fishing net, also on a long pole.
Every of couple of minutes, the metal pole is dipped into the water at the front of the boat, then pilot Rob Mottice flips a switch on a rectangular box—he calls it the “magic box”—whose face is covered with switches, knobs and lights. The sound of a small generator kicks in and, a few seconds later, fish float to the top of the river, stunned by a zap! of electricity. The students scoop them up in nets and put them in a 3½-foot, water-filled cooler. Within a few seconds, the fish start to twitch and flutter, then swim again.
After about 20 minutes on the river, the boat pulls into shore, where Dr. Mark Schorr, UTC professor in biology, geology and environmental science, and a group of other students——each in chest-high waders—squelch across a muddy “beach,” into the water and out to the boat to examine the fish in the cooler.
Blue herons, buzzards, ducks and osprey wheel through the sky as the students examine the various fish and Schorr throws questions at them. What kind of fish is that? What is its Latin name? What are the identifying features of this species?
There are bluegill sunfish, smallmouth, spotted and rock bass, catfish and—somewhat shocking and exciting to the students—an eel-like chestnut lamprey. Once the question-and-answer is over and the fish have been ID’d, measured and examined to see if they have any anomalies such as fin rot, spinal scoliosis or excessive parasites, they’re released back into the river.
Schorr teaches an ichthyology course each spring, combining classroom lectures with two visits to the Tennessee River so students can “dive” into what they’ve learned. When the course is finished for the semester, he hopes students leave with “an appreciation for science, to have a fundamental understanding of the biology, the anatomy, the physiology of fishes and know something about their evolutionary history and know how they are important in the fact that how they’re related to other animals.
“We talk about their evolution, but also how fishes have been important to our culture in terms of recreational and commercial subsistence.”
Students in his ichthyology class are “learning techniques that biologists use in the field,” Schorr explains a few days later in his Holt Hall office. “I try to teach them in the most practical way I know that relates to what I was taught and what I do when I’m collecting fishes for research.”
Crunching the numbers, Schorr says more than 90 percent of students who’ve taken the course over the past four years are biology or environmental science majors, but there also have been students majoring in history and psychology.
Jarid Prahl says the class fits in well with his goal of earning a master’s in environmental science with a focus on wetland ecology and disease transmission.
“I decided to take the class in order to not only aid in my ability to identify fish species, but to better help me understand their impact on aquatic ecology,” Prahl says. “This plays into my research interests, which focus on wetland and river ecology—specifically, I am looking into fungal disease transmission between amphibians and other aquatic organisms such as crayfish and mosquitofishes.
Schorr “has given me a larger understanding of fish morphology, the ability to confidently identify many native species and how fishes factor into the ecosystem,” he adds.
As a senior majoring in environment science, taking the ichthyology class was a no-brainer for Taylor Mulliniks who says, “I love fish.”
“I have a pond in my backyard and five aquariums in my house. I also grew up with a dad whose favorite hobby was fishing and I spend almost all my free time around rivers.”
Schorr’s “enthusiasm and passion for fishes are contagious and I have learned so much about fish evolution and ecology. Plus, the labs we have done in the field have provided me with incredibly unique experiences capturing and identifying fishes in local waterways. The electric fishing boat was my favorite lab that I have ever done at UTC. “
For more than 20 years, Schorr has partnered on the river lab and other research projects with Mottice, the senior aquarist at the Tennessee Aquarium.
“Any of these students could, one day, be one of next our state or federal fish biologists,” Mottice says. “So it’s good to give them as much instruction and training as possible. Not every university has this sort of program.”
If a fish is especially interesting or colorful, Mottice will take it back to the aquarium for its Native Fish collection.
“It provides us with an opportunity to add more fish to our exhibits, especially our native fish exhibits,” he says, “and it allows the students to achieve their bragging rights that they’ve provided fish to the Tennessee Aquarium.”
“I’ve told Rob that he has the most popular part of the lab,” Schorr says with a smile.