Alamo Bowl competitors work together on rockfish research

Environment

On the field, they're opponents. In research, the universities of Oregon and Oklahoma are partners

Rockfish photo courtesy Alaska Fish and Game

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – The University of Oregon and the University of Oklahoma are preparing to go head-to-head Wednesday in the Alamo Bowl, but at a research site in Alaska the two universities have been working hand-in-hand. 

University of Oregon archaeologist and professor emerita Madonna Moss and University of Oklahoma’s Brian Kemp are conducting research at a place called Coffman Cove on Prince of Wales Island in Alaska. Together, they’re working to identify ancient species of rockfish found at sites of an ancient Tlingit village. 

Moss said people were living there 5,000 years ago and some of the bones they’re collecting are several thousand years old. That means many bones have deteriorated, making it difficult to know the specific species of fish the tribe was eating. 

“You’ll see some of the photographs of these bones that just look like scraps and they’re very small. They’re small, little scraps of bone,” Moss described. 

But with available technology, researchers like Kemp can still determine the species. He runs the Laboratory of Molecular Anthropology and Microbiome Research at the University of Oklahoma. He and his team can take fragmented DNA samples, sequence them and compare them to contemporary rockfish species. 

The findings have given Moss and Kemp better insight into how the Tlingit people fished. 

For example, some of the rockfish species found at the site live in deep water, which means thousands of years ago, the tribe was using long-line fishing methods to catch them. 

Moss said they could have made these long lines out of kelp stipes or cedar rope. 

“Having a line that’s 50 meters long, that represents a tremendous amount of work just to make the line and that’s not even talking about the fishing hooks and the boats, but just fishing lines themselves to get to deepwater fish is a pretty amazing achievement,” she said. 

The DNA assessments have surprised Moss and Kemp in other ways. Some species aren’t abundantly local to the region near Coffman Cove, indicating that some rockfish species may have migrated due to environmental factors. 

Three of the species they’ve found are highly K-selective, which means they grow slowly, mature late and live long. Some can live more than 200 years, Moss said. These traits make the species susceptible to over-exploitation by commercial fishing operations. 

There are approximately 100 rockfish species found in the North Pacific Ocean. Moss and Kemp’s research has identified eight species from Coffman Cove.  

She said rockfish are an interesting genus to study because some of them live so long. She said she’s excited to soon work on another project with molecular anthropologist Courtney Hoffman from the University of Oklahoma, who plans to study genomes and longevity traits from some of the fish bones found at Coffman Cove. 

Moss said this could be valuable information for humans, who have been looking for ways to live longer. 

“If you’re going to live to be 200 years old, your system has to be prepared to repair DNA in a way that is different than if you’re the rockfish that happens to live 11 years,” she said. “So, they’re looking at the actual genes that drive these long lifespans.” 

Moss said the significance of the research she and Kemp are currently conducting at Coffman Cove might not be fully appreciated now, but it could prove useful to other people in the future, when humans know more about rockfish. 

For now, Moss looks forward to continuing her research on rockfish and other fish and animals of the Pacific Ocean. If the Ducks lose the Alamo Bowl, Moss said that won’t be what ends her collaboration with the University of Oklahoma. 

“When it comes to the Oklahoma Sooners and the U of O Ducks, I’m a very loyal Ducks fan, but not to the point that I would ever jeopardize my relationship with my University of Oklahoma colleagues,” she said. 

The University of Oregon says Moss and Kemp will be publishing their findings in a paper in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.

The Oregon Ducks play the University of Oklahoma Sooners in the Alamo Bowl Wednesday, Dec. 29 at 6:15 p.m.

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