The scientist behind Paul the sheephead

Meet Dr. Becca Selden, the scientist behind Paul.

Dr. Becca Selden loves being a scientist. She spends a lot of her brain energy thinking about predators and prey.  Becca was curious about what happens to fish as their body sizes change. Body size is very important to fish: it controls what prey they can eat, and what predators can eat them! In some parts of the ocean, people have fished out most of the large fish, changing how predators and prey interact with each other.

Becca wanted to know how the size of predators (sheepshead fish) changed when the size of prey (sea urchins) changed.  To figure this out, she created an experiment in the Channel Islands of California, where sheepshead fish live in

Here are sheepshead choosing the urchins they want to eat in a quadrat. The quadrat is a big square made of white poles.

kelp forests. There were some areas around the island where people weren’t allowed to fish, called Marine Reserves. Pumpernickel, where Cher and Emi ended up was a marine reserve, and that’s why there were so many other big fish there. Becca tested what prey sheepshead liked to eat when they lived in marine reserves. She also tested what they could eat when they lived in other places around the islands that weren’t protected from fishing. To test the fish,  she put out different sized urchins in a quadrat, like putting a bunch of food out on a table. Then she watched what different sized sheepshead ate.

Becca discovered that until sheepshead get bigger than a half a foot long, they  don’t eat urchins. She also found that smaller sheepshead can only eat smaller urchins. In marine reserves where all the big sheepshead have been fished by people, this means the smaller sheepshead left behind can’t each the big urchins. Urchins eat the kelp forests where sheepshead live, so if predators like big sheepshead don’t eat them, urchins will eat too much kelp and destroy the forest.

A fish in Becca’s experiment, snacking on an urchin. Yum! That’s a good dinner.


predator: an animal that eats other animals

prey: an animal that is eaten by other animals

Channel Islands: islands off the coast of Southern California that are home to many kelp forests and the animals that live in kelp forests

Marine Reserves: an area of the ocean where fish is either not allowed, or limited to protect the ecosystem

quadrat: a portable square grid that makes a border around ground where scientists do experiments