Tracking the progress of the snails and fish flying aboard Columbia will be scientists on The Aquatic Team, as they're known to shuttle crewmembers. Researcher Michael Wiederhold of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio will monitor freshwater snails and swordtail fish in the beginning stages of their development into adults.
Wiederhold hopes to learn what physiological changes occur in the components of the gravity sensors of animals in space, whether signals sent from the inner ear to the brain are altered, and if alterations do occur, whether behavior of the animal changes. Upon return from their flight in space in Neurolab, the freshwater snails and swordtail fish will be compared to a control group on Earth to determine whether the size of their statoliths and otoliths increased while they were in "microgravity." On Earth, the pull of gravity eventually signals developing statoliths and otoliths to stop growing. "In space, however," says Wiederhold, "without this signal, they should develop to a larger size than they do on Earth. And if indeed they increase in size, how will that affect these animals?"
Scientist Steven Highstein of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, will also study aspects of the inner ear, but his research involves the inner ears of astronauts flying aboard Columbia, as well as those of oyster toadfish aboard Neurolab.
Editors: For illustrations of The Aquatic Team at work, contact: Michael Wiederhold, (314) 362-1012, or Steven Highstein, (210) 567-5655.