Researchers find 'Dory' — in a lab

July 21, 2016, 1:05 p.m.
captive-bred Pacific blue tangs, 55 days post-hatch
Photo: Tyler Jones/UF Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory

The problem with movies that feature cute creatures is that so many people leave the theater and decide they want a pet just like it when they get home.

It happened after "Finding Nemo" when the popularity of orange striped clownfish soared. So it's no surprise that after seeing the sequel, "Finding Dory," moviegoers are interested in the film's colorful star, the Pacific blue tang.

However, to make it to a fish tank, blue tangs have to be harvested from reefs, primarily in Indonesia or the Philippines. Until now.

Researchers have found a way to breed the fish in captivity, hoping to cut back on destructive practices that can harm reefs and marine habitats when fish are collected in the wild.

Biologists with the nonprofit Rising Tide Conservation and the University of Florida Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory have partnered to produce the first Pacific blue tangs in captivity. The spawning and hatching part were easy, Craig Watson, director of the UF Tropical Aquaculture Lab, wrote for Rising Tide Conservation on Facebook. It was the next part that was difficult.

"Newly hatched Pacific Blue Tangs are just under two millimeters long, have no eyes or mouth, and are left to drift around in the water for the next two days while they absorb their yolk. During that time they develop eyes and a mouth," Watson writes. "If the parents nutrition isn’t just right, the yolk won’t be enough, or of the right quality to carry the larvae through. Water quality, including temperature, is critical, and if anything goes wrong they can be gone in hours."

Eventually, the team of researchers figured out the right combination of food, water quality, lighting and other factors to be successful. And the first captive-born baby "Dory" was photographed in a greenhouse in Ruskin, Florida.

The blue tangs from these first trials aren't available for sale, but it's expected that a few of these "first blue tangs" may be available later this year.

"The work with Pacific Blue Tangs is still not done; success is dependent on a number of steps still to go," Watson writes. "We need commercial producers to be able to replicate the UF success. We need consumers to choose aquacultured Pacific Blue Tang because they want to speak with their wallets. In spite of this, the frustration and challenge today is smaller, just knowing that it is indeed possible."