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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Zoo Review: New England Aquarium

For all of its centuries-long history, Boston has been a harbor town, a city built on fishing and trade.  With such an intimate history with the sea, it's no surprise that the city boasts a world-class aquarium, located directly on the waterfront.  Opened in 1969, the New England Aquarium is one of the great aquariums of the northeastern United States.

The fun of exploring the aquarium begins before a visitor has even purchased his or her ticket.  Outside of the main building is a stand-alone habitat for harbor seals.  The handsome little pinnipeds, natives of the Boston area, can be observed above or below the surface of the water.  Training demonstrations occur frequently, allowing visitors to watch as aquarium staff interact with the marine mammals to practice behaviors which allow the seals to assist in their own care and management.

More seals and sea lions can be seen in the New Balance Foundation Marine Mammal Center, adjacent to the main aquarium.  Here, California sea lions can be observed in an open-air pavilion where, like the harbor seals, frequent training demonstrations occur.  The sea lions are joined by northern fur seals - a species that is very seldom seen in American collections.  These were the first fur seals that I'd ever seen, as I was completely taken in by them - so much smaller, sleeker, and (to shed objectivity) so much cuter than the more common Californians.  They also looked so soft and touchable... which, as a nearby docent was happy to demonstrate, using a sample pelt,  is exactly what led to their massive decline as they were hunted for their namesake furs.

Stepping into the main aquarium, the eye is immediately drawn to the literal and metaphorical heart of the aquarium - the Giant Ocean Tank.  Reopening in 2013 after extensive renovations, this 200,000 gallon habitat forms the core around which the rest of the aquarium is built.  Spiraling walkways encircle it, allow visitors to get eye-to-eye with loggerhead turtles, bonnethead sharks, moray eels, and a host of other ocean-dwellers in a recreated Caribbean reef.  The climb eventually ends at the top of the tank, where you may watch divers enter the tank of feed and service the enclosure, or listen to an educational presentation.

Huddled around the base of the Giant Ocean Tank are three separate habitats for penguins from around the world.  African penguins, rockhopper penguins, and little blue penguins - the world's smallest species - inhabit pools studded with rocky islands for them to climb across.  Little blues are uncommon in zoo collections - this was only my second time ever seeing them, which was a treat... although I was unfortunately there during their annual molt, which meant that most of them looked like they had just fallen out of a laundry machine after a double-spin cycle.

Other galleries line the various levels of the aquarium - guests progress up the central ramp around the Giant Ocean Tank, hopping off as the mood strikes them on one floor or another.  The Temperate Gallery has an attractive display of schooling bait-fish, but the stars in the eyes of most visitors are likely either to be the massive Goliath grouper (which looks like it could - and maybe just did - swallow a kindergartner for breakfast), as well as the ethereal sea-dragons - both the weedy and the leafy - drifting in a rounded tank among strands of kelp.  The Northern Waters Gallery is dominated by a massive giant Pacific octopus, as well as lobsters (this is Boston, after all), and an attractive aviary of non-releasable shorebirds.  The Freshwater Gallery displays creatures of the Amazon, including such aquarium favorites as anaconda, piranha, and electric eel, as well as salmon.  There is also a touch tank replication of sea life of the New England coast.  Also present is an exhibit of Asian arowana, I species I first learned about through Emily Voigt's excellent book, The Dragon Behind the Glass.

As with many aquariums, New England tries to engage its visitors with rotating exhibits - at the time of my visit, the theme was "The Science of Sharks", with a touch tank of small sharks and a series of interactive exhibits on the ocean's most famous predators.  Past rotating displays have featured jellyfish and turtles

Like most of the larger, AZA-affiliated aquariums, the New England Aquarium is active with the rehabilitation of marine life. most of which is done off-exhibit.  It also maintains a specialized rehab center for porpoises, located outside of the city.

As a final treat, New England Aquarium boasts of a spectacular wildlife viewing opportunity that makes it very worthwhile for a whole day of enjoyment (post coming tomorrow).

Boston is a fine old city with many exciting historical and cultural attractions to enjoy,  A visit to the city, however, wouldn't be complete with an exploration of its natural heritage as well, and the New England Aquarium is fine place for that exploration to begin.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Sand Tiger Shark (Carcharias taurus)

Sand Tiger Shark (Gray Nurse Shark)
Carcharias taurus (Rafinesque, 1810)

Range: Temperate and Tropical Oceans Worldwide
Habitat: Shallow Waters, Bays, Reefs
Diet: Fish, Crustaceans, Cephalopods
Social Grouping: Solitary, Small Groups
Reproduction: Breed in October and November.  Gestation period 6-9 months.  Females give live birth (eggs hatch within the mother's body) in sheltered areas, typically breeding once every two years. Believed to be mature at 4-10 years (females take longer to mature than males)
Lifespan: 35 Years (Wild Estimate)
Conservation Status: IUCN Vulnerable

  • Maximum length up to 6 meters and weighing up to 300 kilograms, but 3.5 meters long and weighing 95-110 kilograms is more typical.  Females are usually larger than males
  • Grey coloration, fading to dirty white on the underside, with some metallic brown or red spots on the sides
  • Snout is pointed and slender, and long teeth are visible even when the mouth is closed.  This gives the shark a fierce appearance, which results in their having a reputation for being more dangerous than they actually are
  • Although only two pups are usually born, a female may have hundreds of eggs inside their uterus,  The first pups to begin growth will eat the other, less-developed embryos in what is known as intra-uterine cannibalism
  • Populations at northern and southern extremes of the species range will migrate towards the equator in the winter and back towards the poles in the summer
  • Sometimes hunt cooperatively, working together to herd fish into congregations where they can be more easily seized
  • The first shark species to be granted legal protection.  Believed to be in decline, primarily due to overfishing for meat and fins, as well as accidental entanglements in nets set for other species; during 18th and 19th centuries, their liver oil was used in lighting

Zookeeper's Journal: Compared to the great white shark and many of the other large, predatory shark species, the sand tiger shark is a relatively placid fish, which adjusts well to life under human care.  As a result (and bouyed by the popularity inspired by its fearsome appearance), they are one of the most commonly kept large sharks in aquariums - they certainly were the first shark species that I ever saw growing up, and remain my archetypical "shark."  For large sharks, however, "easy" is a relative term with respect to captive care.  Large sharks don't swim in the wild as much as they glide; in an aquarium tank that is too small, they may have to swim much more actively than they would in the wild.  This sometimes results in a somewhat hunched posture for a shark.  The best tanks are the biggest ones which facilitate the constant motion that these sharks would employ in the wild.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

From the News: Chester Zoo successfully breeds rare Catalan newts

Earlier today, the news broke that the removal of a ban on the import of African elephant trophies into the United States has been reversed; the ban is now back in effect.  One good news item deserves another.  Here's a story that is not going to be getting social media all fired up or drawing lots of celebrity star-power, but is just as deserving of attention: the first captive breeding ever of the rare Montseny newt!  Congratulations to the Chester Zoo!

Catalan newt
 Experts have created a purpose-built breeding facility for the newts to ensure their bio-security. Photograph: Chester Zoo

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Elephant Trophy Ban Lifted

Not a zoo issue in particular, but one which many keepers are discussing today.  Today, the Trump Administration announced that it will be lifting a ban allowing the import of elephant hunting trophies from some countries in southern Africa. 

The announcement has been met with widespread condemnation from the keeper community.  There is a fear that this measure could promote the feeling that elephants are worth more dead than alive, that it could serve as a backdoor to smuggling ivory, or that monies supposed to be going to be conservation could be funneled elsewhere. 

The fact that one of the countries involved in this arrangement has undergone a coup this week isn't helping matter.  Nor is the fact that the President's sons are known to engage in the odd trophy hunt.  Maybe someone was hoping for some new decor for the Oval Office...

PHOTO: A Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) ranger leads volunteers to carry elephant tusks to a burning site on April 20, 2016, at Nairobis national park for a historic burning of tonnes of ivory, rhino-horn and other confiscated wildlife trophies.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Just Because It's On the Internet...

Image may contain: plant and outdoor

This was making the rounds with a fury earlier this month.  A woman in Virginia was purporting to have evidence of a red panda (which, incidentally, looks not much like a red fox) in a suburban backyard.  Sure, it was a heck of a haul from Norfolk, where an red panda went missing from the  Virginia Zoo months ago, but crazier things have happened, right?

Right, but not in this case.  In this case, it was a prank that spread a little too far and a little too fast.  Someone took a photo of a red panda at a zoo and jokingly sent it to someone else as a "Hey, look what's in my yard!" joke.  That person immediately posted it on the Internet where, it is said, a lie can run around the world before the truth gets its shoes on.

Not that it was a deliberate lie, and I'm sure no one wanted it to build up and then dash the hopes of the Norfolk keepers.  It just goes to show that once something is online, it can definitely take a life of its own.

I have an annoying suspicion that this is going to keep popping up for sometime...

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum)

Ambystoma mexicanum (Shaw, 1789)

Range: Central Mexico
Habitat: Lake Xochimilco
Diet: Algae, Aquatic Invertebrates
Social Grouping: Solitary
Reproduction:  Breed from March through June in the wild.  Sexually mature at 12-18 months.  Males dance to initiate courtship, deposit sperm packets for females to pick up.  Hundreds of eggs laid in mucous envelopes, glued to rocks and other substrate.  Hatch after 2-3 week incubation period.
Lifespan: 10-15 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Critically Endangered, CITES Appendix II

  • Body length 30 centimeters.  Weight 125-180 grams.  Females larger than males
  • Demonstrate an extreme form of neoteny, in which salamanders do not fully undergo metamorphosis and retain their larval features, most notably their branch-like gills
  • If the habitat dries up, the normally larval-like axolotl is capable of undergoing metamorphosis and turning into a "normal" salamander.  Metamorphosis can be induced in captives by thyroid hormone injections
  • Coloration is dark brown or green, often blotchy.  Albinos are frequently bred and seen in captivity, but are not seen in the wild.
  • If wounded, they are capable of converting the affected cells into a stem-cell like state and regrow missing tissue, including whole limbs
  • Herons and other marsh birds are the primary natural predator; larger fishes have recently been introduced to the lakes where axolotls live, adding to the predation pressure.  They are aso consumed by local peoples
  • Common name means "water dog" in the Aztec language, referring to the Aztec god Xolotl, god of the dead and resurrected, as well as ugly beings 
  • Commonly used in biomedical research due to their unique properties.  Breeds very well in captivity; before breeding was established, capture of wild axolotls was a major form of population decline.
  • Major threat causing the decline of the species is habitat loss (one of the two lakes where tis species occurred no longer exists) and pollution from agriculture and sewage disposal, as well as the introduction of predatory fishes

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

A Leave of Absence

Due to some personal matters which have popped up, I'll be taking a brief leave of absence from the Blog - I expect to start up again in the second half of this month.  Hope to be back refreshed and ready in a few weeks!