TRENT Magazine Excerpt: An Invader in Our Midst: Stopping the Spread of Invasive Round Goby

We're excitedly working on the autumn edition of TRENT Magazine, with stories that range from a look back at Canada 150 to an examination of the Canadian real estate bubble to an exerpt from Cecily Ross' The Lost Diaries of Suzanna Moodie. Plus much, much more!

In the meantime, we'd like to share one of the feature stories from the summer edition of TRENT.

Award-winning author/conservationist Drew Monkman (Hon) '15 shines a light on the round goby -- and how Trent University research has helped in stopping this invasive species from spreading through even more Canadian waterways.

Photo of a round goby.Unbeknownst to most, a small but aggressive invader is lurking in the tranquil waters of Peterborough’s Little Lake. Fortunately, for the time being, it seems to have met a roadblock in its attempt to expand and plunder waters further north. The round goby (Neogobius melanostomus) is an invasive, bottom-dwelling fish that was first found in North America in the St. Clair River in 1990. Native to Eurasia, it is believed to have arrived in the ballast water of transoceanic ships. The goby has spread through all five Great Lakes and is now invading inland waters, including the Trent-Severn Waterway. Dr. Michael Fox and his colleagues at Trent University are doing fascinating research on gobies and may have discovered evidence that the Trent-Severn invasion has been stopped. Where, you might ask? Right at Peterborough’s iconic Lift Lock.


Round gobies are small fish, measuring up to about six inches (16 centimetres) in length. They have a blunt snout and a large, frog-like head, which gives them the appearance of a tadpole. They can be distinguished from all other Ontario freshwater fish by a pair of fins on the underside of the body that are fused together to form what looks like a suction disk. The tail fin is scallop-shaped, and the brown-to-olive body is covered with prominent, dark brown spots.

The goby’s diet consists mostly of invertebrates found on lake and river bottoms. Mussels, in particular, are relished. These include invasives like zebra and quagga mussels, as well as native freshwater mussels, many of which are species at risk. Gobies ingest zebra mussels whole, crush them with their teeth, and discard the shells before the soft body of the mussel is swallowed. Eating zebra mussels is not without negative impacts, however, and is linking the gobies to botulism type E. Botulism kills fish-eating birds like ducks, gulls, grebes and loons. The disease is caused by a toxin that is produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. It is suspected that zebra and quagga mussels are ingesting the botulinum bacteria (invertebrates are not affected by botulism) and concentrating the toxins in their tissues. It appears that the toxins are then passed from zebra mussels, to gobies, and finally to fish-eating birds. A large percentage of dead birds in the Great Lakes that test positive for botulism have gobies in their stomach.

Gobies have another troublesome habit. They feast on the eggs and young of other fish. This makes them a serious threat to native fish populations, including game fishes. Most affected, however, are native bottom-dwelling species such as logperch, mottled sculpins, northern madtom and the eastern sand darter. Madtoms and sand darters are listed as species at risk in the Great Lakes Basin. Gobies also compete with native fish for food and spawning habitat. Being larger and more aggressive, they take over prime spawning sites traditionally used by small-bodied native species. They also lay more eggs than many native fish and spawn more frequently. To make things even worse, gobies are at an advantage in killing prey, since they can hunt in total darkness. Gobies are so successful that divers have found up to 100 fish per square metre of lake bottom in parts of the Great Lakes.

Students examining fauna in a wetland at Trent University.Trent Research

Much of the research on the round goby has been carried out by Dr. Michael Fox and his students here at Trent University. Working with Jason Brownscombe in 2009 and 2010, they were able to identify some of the variables of goby range expansion. For instance, Fox and Brownscombe observed rapid range expansion during the non-reproductive season. These “pioneer” gobies tended to be smaller individuals and most often females when compared to gobies at other range locations. The trailblazers also exhibited more of a preference for rocky bottoms at range edges than in areas where a goby population has existed for longer periods. It appears that range expansion occurs when some of the gobies are forced from occupied areas by competition with others of the same species. They therefore migrate in search of alternate, high quality habitats.

A Trent study led by Emily Myles-Gonzalez, now a master’s student at the University of Guelph, found that certain gobies are predisposed to exhibit behaviours associated with dispersal (moving into new territories) such as boldness, a higher resting metabolic rate and even a predisposition to “explore.” Gobies such as these are more likely to be located along the invasion front—“to boldly go where no goby has gone before”—than at a location where the species has been established for a longer period of time.

Two new honours theses in Fox’s lab have shown other interesting goby behaviours. Using laboratory experiments, Rebecca Paton investigated “functional response,” which is the amount of prey consumed relative to the amount available. She worked with fish from the invasion front (Little Lake), a high-density site in an established area (Hastings) and a low-density site in an established area (downstream of Hastings on the Trent River). Paton also compared the functional response of gobies with that of a native bottom-dwelling species, the northern logperch, from the same site. She found that gobies have a higher functional response than logperch, and that the functional response of gobies increases with goby density. Functional response has been of interest to a number of researchers studying invasive species, as tests like the one the Fox lab did provide additional ways to assess their potential impacts, even before they invade.

Another honours student, Scott Blair, did an intensive study of the round goby population in lower Cobourg Creek. He assessed the population each week from spring until the end of November, using electrofishing to capture the fish. This technique uses direct current electricity flowing between a submerged cathode and anode. The electricity affects the movement of the fish so that they swim towards the anode where they can be caught. Small injectable tags were used to mark the gobies, which could then be identified upon recapture. His results suggest that over 10,000 gobies occupied the lower 800 m of Cobourg Creek in 2016. More importantly, the spatial and temporal patterns of abundance during his study suggest that the gobies are migrating up the creek to spawn and returning to Lake Ontario to overwinter. Dr. Fox’s own sampling in small Belgian streams suggests that the same migration pattern Blair found in Cobourg Creek may be happening in Belgium. This contrasts with what another student, Chelsea May, had found in Cavan and Baxter Creeks near Peterborough, which the gobies appear to occupy year-round.

Photo of a round goby in a hand.There is no direct evidence that gobies in the Peterborough area have been able to establish a population above the city’s Little Lake, either in the Trent Canal, which leads to the Peterborough Lift Lock, or in the Otonabee River. The front appears to have been stationary for at least four years. According to Fox, this may represent the first time a goby invasion front has been stopped in its tracks. Chelsea May and her team carried out extensive searches using seine nets, minnow traps and angling, but were unable to find a single goby above Lock 20 at Little Lake. There is, however, some uncertainty. An angler has reported catching gobies in the Otonabee River above Little Lake. In addition, a PhD student of Dr. Fox, Lawrence Masson, tested for environmental DNA (eDNA) along the invasion pathway and did detect goby eDNA in one location north of Parkhill Road, which is above Little Lake.

The apparent containment of the goby’s range expansion is probably due to the combination of an artificial barrier, namely the dam on the Otonabee River at London Street, and water management practices in the Trent Canal. While there is no barrier in the Canal as such (gobies can pass through locks), the water level below the Lift Lock is lowered in winter to prepare the Canal for skating. A lower winter water level means less dissolved oxygen for the fish to breathe. Gobies may be unable to survive in these conditions, unlike some of our native species, such as pumpkin seeds. Asked why the gobies aren’t passing through the Lift Lock in summer, Dr. Fox said that small numbers may indeed get through, but not enough to establish a reproducing population.

You Can Help

Once round gobies are introduced to a new location, they can expand on their own. This may happen inadvertently when anglers use gobies for bait and then release them live in waters they do not yet inhabit. This is the most likely scenario for future goby expansion above Little Lake and in the Trent-Severn Waterway as a whole. It is important to never buy or use round gobies as bait and never to release baitfish of any kind into lakes and rivers. If you find a round goby in the wild, please contact the toll-free Invading Species Hotline at 1-800-563-7711.

Drew Monkman: Dedicated to the Natural World

Photo of Drew Monkman.A retired teacher, naturalist and writer, Drew Monkman (Hon) '15 has a love for all aspects of the natural world. As a local Peterborough resident, the retired French immersion elementary school teacher always brought his passion for the environment and natural history to the classroom. For over 20 years, Mr. Monkman oversaw the development of a schoolyard naturalization project and outdoor classroom at his school, Edmison Heights, which has been a model for many similar projects.

Mr. Monkman studied Biology and Geography for two years at Trent University, before completing an undergraduate degree in journalism at Université Laval in Quebec City. He later went on to complete a master’s degree in Education at the University of Toronto.

Perhaps best known as an award-winning nature writer and naturalist, Mr. Monkman writes a weekly nature column in the local newspaper, The Peterborough Examiner, and is the author of three books, Nature’s Year in the Kawarthas: A Guide to the Unfolding Seasons; Nature’s Year: Changing Seasons in Central and Eastern Ontario; and The Big Book of Nature Activities: A Year-Round Guide to Outdoor Learning. This latest work, co-written with fellow alumnus Jacob Rodenburg ’87, is a comprehensive guide for parents, grandparents and educators to help youth of all ages explore, appreciate and connect with the natural world. Most of the activities and information will be of interest to adults as well.

Mr. Monkman also maintains a website where he posts local nature sightings of note. The website features all of his past columns, his Twitter feed, information on his books, as well as information on climate change in the Kawarthas.

He is a former board member of Camp Kawartha and the past president of the Peterborough Field Naturalists, where he continues to lead field trips. He participates in special bird monitoring projects and is an active member of For Our Grandchildren, a group that works to increase awareness of the threat of climate change. He speaks regularly to a wide number of groups on topics such as nature through the seasons and climate change in the Kawarthas.

Mr. Monkman has won a number of awards for his writing and environmental advocacy, including induction into the Peterborough Pathway of Fame, the Carl Nunn Media and Conservation Award from Ontario Nature, and the Environmental Excellence Conservationist Award from the Otonabee Region Conservation Authority.

In 2015, he received an honorary Doctor of Science degree, awarded for achievements in promoting knowledge of, and an appreciation for, the natural environment, especially in the Kawarthas.





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