Beloved longtime science department "pet" dies

Release Date: September 23, 2009

PLAINVIEW – Things have been a little quieter in the School of Mathematics and Sciences over the past few weeks, especially for the second floor.

A beloved member of the science department, a South American lungfish named Dippy, went to his eternal reward a few weeks ago. While it may seem insignificant to many, add the fact that Dippy had called the Moody Science Building home for about 25 years and the loss takes on a bit more impact.

“He had a good life, if you consider what he would have had out there in some muddy river or pond,” said Dr. Herbert Grover, dean of the School of Mathematics and Sciences. “We had a real affection for him.”

Dr. Vaughn Ross and Dr. J. Hoyt Bowers, professors emeritus of biological sciences, were some of the few faculty members around during Dippy’s years at Wayland, though Bowers retired in 2008 and Ross in May 2009. When thinking about the lungfish, both commented not only on Dippy’s uniqueness but also on the growth and metamorphosis of WBU science in his decades of life there.

“He’d seen lots of changes in the department,” Ross noted, adding that Dippy was there when he joined the faculty 15 years ago. “There were probably 20-25 biology majors at the time he came and now there are close to 100 majors. All those students are in professional careers in medicine or in other science careers now.”

Ross noted that while certain biology faculty members were fond of the little lunged fellow, it was likely the students who were the most attached. Over the years, student workers in biology were charged with care of any live animals in the department, and Dippy was part of a family that at one time included reptiles and amphibians among other fish.

“You could always see the bonding take place between the students and this guy, since they’d take care of him every day,” Ross said.

Bowers concurred, adding that returning students to homecoming have often asked about the fish’s well-being when back on campus. It was a student, in fact, who dubbed the lungfish Dippy in the first place, drawing on his group name dipnoi. Judy York not only named the fish but cared for him for her years at WBU.

While there’s no record of how many students have visited with Dippy over the quarter century he lived at WBU, Bowers notes he was used in every biology class he taught (as well as those of other faculty members) in lessons on vertebrates, noting the unique nature of the lungfish as possessing both gills and lungs for breathing. He’d often drag students into the tank room to show off the live specimen that he said was actually quite rare in the United States.

Dippy’s arrival on the scene is also somewhat serendipitous. Bowers recalled an aquarium store in Plainview at the time could get him a lungfish, which he’d always wanted for a live specimen, but they cost around $75 in those days and he couldn’t spare the precious department funds.

A few years later, the owner called Bowers to say a customer had returned one that got too big for his tank and he’d sell it for $17. He took the deal, and they put the lungfish into a 10-gallon aquarium they had in the department. He grew to fit the tank, as many fish do, so Ross transplanted him into a 20-gallon tank, then began measuring him regularly to chart his growth.

True to form, Dippy grew to the tank’s capacity and then was moved to a larger home. At his death, the lungfish measured 35 inches in length.

Over the years, Dippy had also provided some surprises for the faculty and students who watched over him. Bowers recalled coming in one day to find the fish on the floor, where he’d jumped from his watery home. While the dry floor had damaged some of his scales and tiny fins, he managed to rally back to full health over the following months with regular visits and his standard diet of shrimp pellets.

From then on, Dippy’s bachelor pad had a secure cover so he couldn’t jump out and injure himself.

“He’d get to swimming around in that tank really fast and could jump out of there and nearly reach the ceiling,” Bowers said.

Mostly, Bowers said he found great teaching value in the live lungfish, enjoying showing it off to students, particularly when Dippy would rise to the surface and get some air, letting off little bubbles when he dipped back to the bottom in proof of his lung capacity.

But it was the interest of the various students over the years that kept the lungfish as a part of the permanent display. Simply put, Bowers said “there was an interest from the students, so we kept him. Most of the kids knew who Dippy was.”

Once Dippy was discovered to have slipped this mortal coil, faculty members were quick to move his body to a tub with preservative to preserve him for future generations of science students. The newest faculty member, Associate Professor of Biology Dr. Andrew Kasner, commented that lungfish can live as long as 60 years, it is difficult to tell how old Dippy was at the time of his death.

Grover said the school is planning to honor Dippy at its October 1 picnic by naming him “Specimen Emeritus” for long-time service.