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How a shrimp on a treadmill became a Web sensation

Videos of a lowly shrimp valiantly scampering along on a treadmill to such inspiring tunes as the “Chariots of Fire” theme have drawn millions of views on the Web. But it's actually a serious experiment, explained the two scientists who created it.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Many Americans feel as if they’re on a treadmill these days, running as fast as they can just to stay in the same place amid plummeting home prices, wild stock market gyrations and rising unemployment.

Maybe that’s what they find so compelling about the image of a lowly shrimp, valiantly scampering along to nowhere on a treadmill. Since the “running shrimp” video first appeared on a faculty page at Pacific University of Oregon, at least 62 versions of it — many set to such inspiring tunes as the themes from “Chariots of Fire” and “Rocky” — have been posted on YouTube, drawing millions of viewers.

What those who have been amused by the running shrimp may not know is that they’re actually watching serious science, on issues that could affect us all. On Tuesday, David Scholnick and Lou Burnett, the two marine biology researchers who devised the experiment, told TODAY’s Matt Lauer, Meredith Vieira and Al Roker how surprised they were to discover the sensation their courageous crustaceans have become.

“We had no idea,” said Scholnick, an associate professor of biology at Pacific University in Oregon.

Later in the show, the two biologists returned and let their dogged decapod show off his moves to Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb. “That shrimp would rather be on a treadmill than on a barbie,” Gifford quipped.

As the tiny creature scrambled on, his little legs churning tirelessly to another movie anthem, Gifford suggested she and Kotb could come up with their own song, as she did for those featured on their Everyone Has a Story series, “because every shrimp has a story.”

Serious science
Jokes aside, Scholnick and Burnett — the latter of Grice Marine Laboratory at the College of Charleston, S.C. — had a serious purpose to their peculiar exercise regimen: to learn how bacterial infections affected a shrimp’s endurance. They hit on the idea of putting one on a treadmill. It’s an important question, they explained — one that’s actually related to TODAY’s recent Ends of the Earth special series, in which the TODAY anchors fanned out across the globe to investigate the strain put by humans on our most precious resource — water.

Both climate change and the runoff from agriculture and human activities affect the composition of ocean water, which in turn can lead to higher levels of bacteria. If shrimp with bacterial infections have less endurance and strength, that affects their ability to survive.

Just as with sick people, “we found that the diseased shrimp have a more difficult time performing on the treadmill,” said Burnett. “The difference is, when you get a cold or an infection, no one tries to eat you.”

At first, Burnett and Scholnick weren’t sure the little critters would actually run on the rotating belt in their aquarium, or whether they’d last for more than a couple of minutes even if they did.

Energizer shrimp
To their amazement, they found that, like the Energizer Bunny, healthy shrimp just kept going and going and going — just as a sample shrimp did in an aquarium that Burnett and Scholnick brought along with them to Studio 1A.

“We thought they would pedal along, swim and walk for a few minutes, and [instead] just hours and hours went by,” said Scholnick. “We just stopped the experiment because they’d just go on and on.” Some were still going strong after more than four hours.

The shrimp used in the experiments were bred for research and were not taken from the wild. The research was funded by a National Science Foundation grant.

Now that Burnett and Scholnick have a handle on how disease affects shrimp, they’re applying treadmill research to other critters that most of us think about only when they show up on a menu.

“We plan on building one for lobster,” Burnett said. “We have one for blue crabs.”

Which just goes to show: One person’s lunch is another’s research subject.