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Friday, July 31, 2015

Sporcle Quiz: Sea Dragons

In Poseidon's Steed, marine biologist Helen Scales explores the world of seahorses.  She barely introduces, however, their very remarkable cousins - the sea dragons.  I took the liberty of highlighting one of the three living species earlier this month, but can you find all three - they're hiding amidst some imposters...

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Documentary Review: The Blue Planet - Seas of Life

"Our planet is a blue planet: over seventy percent of it is covered by the sea. The Pacific Ocean alone covers half the globe. You can fly across it non-stop for twelve hours and still see nothing more than a speck of land."

- Sir David Attenborough

When the first public aquariums opened in the 1800s, many milestones were achieved in rapid succession.  One of these was the first ever photograph of a living fish, for the first time introducing many people to a glimpse of life under the surface of the water.  Today, we have far better cameras, SCUBA gear and submersibles, and much larger and more naturalistic aquarium displays with many more species on display.  Still, the vast majority of people will never see the mystery and majesty of life in the ocean.

In an effort to correct this, BBC Natural History Unit (the same studio that produced Life in Cold Bloodhas produced one of the most spectacular documentary series every filmed - The Blue Planet: Seas of Life.  Filmed over five years at approximately 200 locations (and narrated by Sir David!), Blue Planet is the most ambitious, complete overview of ocean life on earth.  Many of the behaviors and species featured had not been filmed before, and the filmmakers crossed the boundary between documenting and discovering.  For example, three years were devoted to solving on of the persistent questions of marine mammal biology - where do blue whales go on migration?  It seems remarkable that, for the single largest animal that has ever lived, we didn't know the answer to such a basic question before, but it just goes to show how mysterious much ocean life is.

The ocean is often treated monolithically, as one entity of unbroken water.  In reality, it is home to habitats and ecosystems as diverse from each other as are the habitats on dry land.  The fifty-minute episodes of the series explore a variety of marine habitats, such as coastlines, frozen seas, and the open ocean.  Some of the most spectacular footage comes from the bottom of the ocean, where scientists and filmmakers use submersibles similar to those used to explore the Titanic to investigate life in one of the most inhospitable environments we could imagine.  The first episode, for instance, features footage of the carcass of a gray whale, having sunk to the bottom of the sea.  Over the course of a year and a half, hagfish, sleeper sharks, and other scavengers reduce the behemoths to bones.

If I have one quibble with Blue Planet, it's that its focus is a little... biased.  Watching some episodes, it would be easy to get the idea that the sea is almost exclusively full of mammals.  Whales, dolphins, and seals dominate the series, with penguins, polar bears, and sea turtles probably getting more than their share of screen time as well.  Among the fish, it's the sharks that dominate.  And don't get me wrong, those animals are cool, but for me the real pleasure of Blue Planet and its sister series (such as the famous Planet Earth) is the chance to discover something brand new, something incredibly unique.  I mean, there is a creature out there with a Latin name that translates to "Vampire Squid from Hell?"  Can we please talk about that one a little more?

One modest quibble aside, I absolutely love this series.  Its beautiful shot, sometimes moving (especially the scenes of a successful attack of an orca pod on a young whale), and, like the ocean itself, flows effortlessly and clearly from episode to episode.  Because so much ground (... or water) is covered in the series, sometimes I feel like the viewer doesn't get a chance to learn too much about any one topic or animal before being ushered along to the next one.

That's okay.  There are millions of species scattered across seemingly endless amounts of ocean, too much for any one series to cover.  The Blue Planet, I like to think of, is something of a teaser... and invitation to dive in for more.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Touch Tank

Unless you're a diver, as I am not, you may find that aquarium animals can be a bit harder to relate to than traditional zoo animals.  Tucked away behind glass, you can't hear them or smell them.  In a way, the displays are just like those fish screen-savers you see - movement and color, but removed, distant, and alien.

A major goal of zoos and aquariums is to inspire the public to develop an appreciation for wildlife. It can be hard to get people to feel a connection or be inspired to care about something so separate from us.  We're an interactive species, and we like to use all of our senses (well, not all of them at all times...).  The result, cropping up at aquariums and nature centers around the world, is the touch tank.

The concept of the touch tank is pretty simple.  It's a tank where you... touch things.  Living things, specifically.  Virtually every aquarium large and small has a touch tank these days, where visitors can get their hands in the water to feel fish, mollusks, and other aquatic organisms, under the careful supervision of aquarium staff.  I haven't been able to find out much on the history or origins of the tanks, but I know they've been going back for decades.  Growing up, the National Aquarium in Baltimore was the aquarium I visited most frequently, and I remember their touch tank well.  It was removed a decade or so ago to make way for new exhibits, but came back in a big way this year with the aquarium's new Living Seashore exhibit.  Here, horseshoe crabs, whelks, starfish, and moon jellies can be gently handled by visitors.

By far, the most popular touch tanks around the country are sharks and rays.  People love sharks... and by "love," I mean "tend to be terrified of," so giving visitors a chance to touch a shark (of a small, harmless species) is an incredible experience that many participants won't soon forget.  Years ago, temporary sting ray feeding stations (all named, invariably Sting Ray Bay) were traveling around the zoo world.  They were so popular that many zoos decided to host them as permanent fixtures.  The rays are made "safe" for visitors by having the stinging barbs at the end of their tails trimmed off, a painless procedure (so I'm told) that in no way     harms the ray.

Speaking of safety, though...

Obviously aquarium officials are going to make sure that touch tanks are safe for visitors - hence no piranha or moray eel touch tanks that I know off.  The question is, how safe are they for animals?  Doubtlessly there are some fish and invertebrates which are relatively well-suited for these types of enclosures.  They have to be comfortable in shallow water and tolerant of disturbance and handling; fish that will get stressed too easily need not apply.    The fact that people are reaching in and out of the water also raises the possibility of contaminants entering the water - lotions, perfumes, soaps, etc.  Perhaps these are the sorts of things that the filtration systems can easily handle.

Supervision is essential.  I'm willing to believe that a horseshoe crab will tolerate plenty of stroking on its carapace.  I have a hard time believing that it will put up with banging - all visitors need to be monitored closely and instructed on what is appropriate or not.  Lastly, having time limits and break-periods for the animals is also a must.  When a friend and I visited Adventure Aquarium recently, it seemed like we reached each touch station right as it was going on break.  Sure, we were a little frustrated that we barely got chances to touch the sharks and rays, but we understood - the animals needed rest and privacy.

I think there needs to be more research done into exhibit tank vs touch tank fish - water quality, stress levels, lifespans - just to give some hard, empirical data to examine.  From what I've seen, however, a well-planned touch tank - one that is manned responsibly and stocked with appropriate species - can be a tremendous boon to any aquarium.  Certainly it gets people relating to fish and other aquatic creatures and making personal connections, and that should be a key goal of any aquarium.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Zoo History: Secrets of Mermaids

"The secrets hitherto known only to fishes and mermaids are laid open to all who choose to know them."

- Daily News

The earliest zoos have their origins in antiquity, being present in ancient cultures around the world.  Aquariums, not surprisingly, have a much briefer, more well-documented history - the technology and understanding of biology needed to keep wholly-aquatic animals alive in captivity came to us much more recently.  

While fish had been kept in bowls and ornamental ponds for some time, the major breakthrough in aquarium-keeping came about in the mid-1800s with the discovery of symbiosis - essentially, fish and plants could be kept in a tank together, each aiding the survival of the other through respiration and excretion.  While not the initial discoverer, the credit often goes to Philip Henry Goose, a Victorian naturalist who was coping with a nervous breakdown through a vacation to the beach.  Experimenting with keeping fish in tanks, he eventually achieved some level of success and presented his findings to the Zoological Society of London.  The Society was convinced to give the aquatic displays a try, and the first public aquarium (called, perhaps inevitably, "The Fish House") was opened.

The earliest aquarium, opening in 1853, was a humble one.  We would see more variety and more attractive habitats at a modern pet shop.  There were no sharks or other very imposing sea creatures, and the tanks were small, along the lines of what we would expect for home aquaria these days.  The creatures of display were those of the local rivers and streams, as well as fish and invertebrates of the North Sea, transported to the Zoo in casks of seawater via railway.  Still, it was a tremendous novelty, the first of its kind - among the other firsts occurring here, the first photograph of a live fish (a pike, taken by Count Montizon) was taken

Nor was the aquarium quite as successful as Goose believed it would be - he and his colleagues had developed a method for keeping fish alive for longer than was previously possible, but it was by no means sustainable in the long-term.  Keepers frantically tried to keep the plants and fish alive, adjusting the lighting and pumping water, sometimes by hand.  Temperature regulation was another problem, and exhibits were often either too hot or too cold.  Eventually, the whole thing was given up as a fiasco and the aquarium folded.
Domestic Aquarium, Shirley Hibberd.  Rustic Adornments for Homes of Taste, 1891

A new aquarium did not appear at the London Zoo for fifty years.  By this time, enormous developments had been made in the keeping of aquatic creatures.  The phenomena was not limited to the zoo world, but had spread to the home environment also, with an explosion of hobbyists, amateur naturalists, and professional keepers and breeders fueling the business.  Such an explosion of interest led to great changes in the way we take care of fish and aquatic invertebrates.  We have more detailed knowledge about feeding and husbandry.  We have more sophisticated technology for life support - filters, skimmers, pumps, chillers, etc.  Some species are bred in captivity with great ease, and our knowledge of their veterinary care is far beyond what Goose and his colleagues could have ever dreamed of.  

I wonder what those earliest fish keepers would think if they were to visit a modern public aquarium.  They could go to the Newport Aquarium and meander through acrylic tunnels through the tanks, or watch shark rays glide past the enormous windows of their theater-like tank.  They could have gone to the National Aquarium in Baltimore and descended through the ramps of the Atlantic Coral Reef tank, watching SCUBA divers service the exhibit.  Or maybe if they were feeling adventurous they could have petted the sting rays at the South Carolina Aquarium while gulls, ibises, and other marsh birds swooped overhead.  The site of whale sharks and giant manta rays at the Georgia Aquarium would have doubtlessly left them speechless.

Our modern aquariums are beyond anything that the Victorians could have dreamed of, yet they are the ones that made it possible.  They showed the world that fish could be kept alive in aquaria (albeit briefly), the inspired others to improve upon the methods.  That's the wonderful thing about innovation, in this field or any other - every improvement paves the way to future improvements that the original innovators could hardly imagine.

I wonder what we would think about the aquariums of the future.  I like to think that they'd be something we couldn't believe.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Scooping Poop Under the Sea

"I never drink water.  Fish pee in it."
-W.C. Fields

From the perspective of a zookeeper, especially one who mostly takes care of mammals and birds, with a smattering of herps thrown in, the world of an aquarist is just weird.  For one thing, your day is confined, largely, to a single building, indoors all day long, whereas we trek back and forth across acres and acres of zoo.  There is less focus on managing individuals animals, more on managing tanks and schools.  Outside of marine mammals, there is less focus on training and behavioral enrichment, though there have been changes on this frontier also.  Feeding aquarium fish is much different than feeding most zoo animals.  (There are exceptions to all of these).

And then, of course, there is the major difference.  There is no poop to scoop.

Fish do poop, of course.  So do aquatic invertebrates.  It's just that their excretory byproducts tend to vanish into the water that surrounds them.  That, of course, is the same water that they spend their entire lives immersed in, breathing and swimming.  Just because we can't readily see or smell the droppings doesn't mean they aren't there.  And it doesn't mean they aren't a problem.

Plenty of aquatic zoo animals love to defecate in their pools.  Hippos, tapirs, and capybara are notorious for it, but so do penguins, flamingos, and crocodilians, to name a few.  The difference between these guys and fish is that they can survive on land - you can empty the pool, drain it, bleach it, scrub it, or power-wash it before refilling it.  With fish, that's not much of an option - not unless you move them to an entirely different tank while you clean and reset their old one with clean water.

There are two methods that aquarists can use to keep the water clean for their fish.  One is a partial water change - remove a certain amount of the water (20%, 50%) with a siphon and hose and replace it with clean water.  The siphon vacuums among the substrate of the exhibit, sucking up not only water but uneaten food and droppings which collect at the bottom.  The idea is that nastiness (that's a scientific term right there) gets collected before it accumulates.  The second option is some sort of filter - chemical or mechanical - that removes or purifies contaminants in the water.  Protein skimmers agitate the water and, well, skim off the bad stuff that floats to the top.  Often all of these options are used together.

With the earliest aquariums, the dream was to create perfect, self-contained ecosystems of plants and animals, whereby the plants would purify the water and the animals would support the plants.  Unfortunately, it didn't work out too well in long-term studies.  The idea has gotten some new attention, however, with an increased focus on biological purifiers.  For example, mollusks like oysters and mussels naturally filter water as they feed.  Perhaps aquariums could someday culture colonies of shellfish to purify at least some of their exhibit water.  Not only would it help clean tanks in an environmentally friendly manner, it would serve as an educational demonstration to visitors on the importance of oysters and their relatives in maintaining healthy aquatic ecosystems.

Water changes and filters are the same basic methods used to take care of home aquariums - the scale is just multiplied tremendously.  Take the mess made by your little goldfish, then imagine what the whale sharks of the Georgia Aquarium can do.  Dealing with filters and water changes and skimmers and such is a major reason that I was never able to get too much into working with aquariums.  I felt like I was spending more time taking care of machines and pumps than I was animals.  The thing is, though, is that those machines and pumps are what keep the animals alive.  When  they fail, the consequences can be horrific.

That, in the end, is why I think I'll stick to my land animals, my rake and shovel.  The job may be harder and more physical and certainly smellier, but it's also a whole lot simpler.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Splash Zone

So far, this summer has been unseasonably cool, but I know there are a few scorchers coming our way.  It can be exhausting enough working at a zoo in the summer and dealing with the heat.  What can make it worse is having to deal with the heat, keep the animals cool, AND deal with an army of visitors complaining about how hot they are.

Fortunately, at one Japanese aquarium a thoughtful beluga has decided to help the keepers out by cooling off some visitors.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

National Zookeeper Week

It's that time of year again!  Happy National Zookeeper Week!  And presumably aquarist, as well...

This absolutely awesome graphic comes from Peppermint Narwhal Creative - check their page out, they have a lot of other really cool animal-themed artwork and educational graphics

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

From the News: 'Adorabilis' octopus on display at Monteray Bay Aquarium

This Friday, a new species went on display at Monterey Bay Aquarium... very new.  So new, it doesn't even have a Latin name.  The staff at the aquarium do have a suggestion however.  Adorablis.

Adorablis, MBARI

The little octopus is one of five collected in the deep waters of Monterey Canyon this summer, and it appears to be a newly described species.  Being a very little known species, there are obviously going to be some challenges in caring for it. Since these little guys are the only members of their species in captivity, and none have ever been kept before, nothing is known about their husbandry needs - only that which can be inferred from what we know of other octopuses.  Fortunately, Monterey Bay Aquarium has a history of success with keeping challenging marine species in captivity.

Whatever is learned about Adorablis (if that's what we end up calling it) will be new information for everyone.  You could ask, fairly enough, about what the big deal of having one more octopus species described to science and sitting in a tank is.  Well, this little guy seems to be a huge hit with the visitors at the aquarium, including locals.  Getting people to understand that there are such exciting, unique animals waiting to be discovered in their own backyards (and down a quarter-mile) can help inspire them to act and protect those habitats.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Fattening the Fishes

There was a friend of mine who used to have some pet piranhas, back before I knew him (and back before they were illegal in our state).  In addition to the piranhas, he also maintained a colony of feeder fish, which he raised to feed to the piranhas.  He went out of town for a week or two and asked a neighbor of his to feed the fish - flakes to the feeders, feeders to the piranhas.  The neighbor got confused.  When my friend came back, he found that the piranhas had only been offered fish flakes and were all dead.

Or so he says.  This friend of mine liked his tall tales, and I'm never sure what to believe. The point is, feeding fish can be tricky.

Often, however, it isn't a question of what to feed them, but how much.  During my brief stint in the aquarium field, a few times a week I mixed up a batch of what we called "cut mix" - various fish, shellfish, and blocks of frozen krill, chopped up into various sizes - big, small, and super fine, almost powder, depending on the size of the fish to be fed.  At each tank, I was to fork over a certain amount of each - somewhere between "a pinch" and "a bit," but never "too much."

There were a select few fish, like this puffer, at the aquarium which were fed individually.  For everyone else, it was kind of a free-for-all.

I tried getting more specific feeding directions, but never got past the vague, "Oh, you know..." No, I didn't know, and it drove me nuts.  I was used to taking care of birds and small mammals, where the diet was weighed out to the gram, or of reptiles and amphibians, where you gave out so many mice or crickets, or so much salad a few days a week.  Imagine being sent to feed a tiger, and not having a clear idea of whether you were supposed to feed it a hamburger, or half a cow.  Plus, there were so many fish in each tank, I was scared that if I didn't put enough in, someone wouldn't get anything.

Invariably, I'd overfeed.

Overfeeding is a problem with zoo animals... and domestic animals... and people... but especially with aquarium animals.  You see, if you overfeed an animal, that food that is eaten is eventually going to turn into... something.  Makes sense, the more you eat, the more you poop - the difference between a tiger and a tetra is that the tiger isn't floating in and breathing in its own urine and feces (not unless you are really bad at cleaning your enclosures).  That's not even taking into account the food that doesn't get eaten, falls into cracks and crevices, and rots.

Fish are cold-blooded, like reptiles and amphibians.  Unlike reptiles, they don't have the option of soaking up some sun, basking to help speed up digestion.  As a result, they eat a lot less than we would suspect.  You've heard the adage about someone's eyes being bigger than their stomach?  With fish, that's basically accurate.  It took me a while of excessive tank and filter cleanings to figure out what was going wrong.  It certainly took me a while to get used to the idea of always erring on the side of underfeeding.

.  Knowing all of this now, if I were to go back and try again then I'm sure I would have had some cleaner tanks and a lot less leftover cut mix stinking up the kitchen (that fine-cut mix took forever to chop).  If I'd spent more time with fishes before retreating back to the safe, comfortable world of the air-breathing, I'm sure I would have eventually figured out that art of how much to feed fish

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Species Fact Profile: Leafy Sea Dragon (Phycodurus eques)

Leafy Sea Dragon
Phycodurus eques (Gunther, 1865)

Range: Coastal Southern Australia
Habitat: Reefs, Seaweed Beds, Seagrass Meadows
Diet: Small Invertebrates, Larval Fish
Social Grouping: Solitary or Paired
Reproduction: Female lays 250-300 eggs, which are carried by the male in a brood patch, located at the base of his tail.  Eggs hatch after 6-8 weeks, at which young are completely independent.  Sexually maturity reached at two years
Lifespan: 5-10 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Near Threatened

  • Body length is 35 centimeters, about half of which is consists of tail.  Unlike the closely-related sea horses, the tail cannot be coiled and uncoiled
  • Scaleless body is covered with hard, bony plates (each with a sharp spine for defense) yellow or green in color with pink banding.  The long, thin head tapers into a pipe-like snout.  
  • The entire body is covered with elaborate leaf-like appendages, camouflaging the sea dragon by making it resemble seaweed
  • Very slow swimmers due to plating on the skin (will sometimes remain sedentary for days at a time), only able to move forward with their ventral and pelvic fins (the pectoral fins are used for maneuvering)
  • Feeds by drawing water into its mouth and sucking out mysid shrimp, plankton, and other small marine animals
  • Threats include habitat loss, pollution, and over-collection by humans, especially for Traditional Chinese Medicine
  • Captive breeding of the species has so far been unsuccessful, despite major advances in husbandry
  • Official marine emblem of South Australia

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Zoo Review: Dallas World Aquarium

There are a handful of cities in the United States that have more than one zoo - New York City has one for each borough.  To the best of my knowledge, the only city in the country to have more than one aquarium is Dallas, Texas, home to both the Children's Aquarium at Fair Park (managed by the Dallas Zoo) and the Dallas World Aquarium.  The later is easily the most unconventional aquarium I have ever visited.  I mean that as both a positive and a negative.

From the visitor perspective, Dallas World Aquarium is extraordinary.  Located in the heart of the city, it stands on the site of gutted, abandoned warehouses. It's a relatively young facility, opening in 1992, the oldest part of which is also the smallest - the actual aquarium.  I have to say, I've never seen an aquarium facility of such size with so few fish.  There are several relatively small tanks featuring popular aquarium fish - clownfish, tangs, Moorish idols - as well as jellyfish, clams, and corals.  For the aquarium connoisseur, the stars will be the three species of sea dragons, those bizarre cousins to the already-bizarre sea horses.  Still, the aquarium section doesn't contain much in the way of "Wow" factors... for that, you have to go upstairs.

Many aquariums have a rainforest display in their building.  Dallas World Aquarium has two - both of them enormous, both stocked with rare and marvelous animals seen in few (if any) other zoos in the country.  In Orinoco - Secrets of the River, visitors pass through a tropical forest filled with birds of every shape and size, from songbirds to waterfowl to the biggest collection of toucans that I've ever seen, representing several species I'd never heard of before.  The aquarium gained fame with its work with Orinoco crocodiles, with over fifty hatchlings produced her being reintroduced into the wild.  Virtually every Orinoco crocodile in the US can trace its ancestry to this facility.  The crocodiles share their star-power with another aquatic predator, the giant river otter, seen in a nearby display with underwater viewing.  The centerpiece of the display is a massive tank filled with Amazonian giant river fish, such as arapaimas, as well as West Indian manatees.

Any Neotropical forest animals that the Dallas World Aquarium couldn't fit into the Orinoco hall it had to squeeze into a second rainforest gallery - Mundo Maya.  A darkened stone hallway features Neotropical nightmares, such as bats, tarantulas, and an assortment of venomous reptiles (including beaded lizards), before passing by a pool of Morelet's crocodiles and emerging into the forest.  Harpy eagles and scarlet macaws are among the birds encountered here, though for most visitors the jaguar exhibit is the centerpiece (actually my biggest disappointment here - both in space, complexity, and aesthetics, it's far surpassed by all of the other displays).  A final pathway takes visitors through an underwater tunnel, while sharks and sawfish glide silently overhead.  Additional exhibits around the aquarium include tree kangaroos, African penguins, rhinoceros hornbills, shoebills, and a variety of chameleons.

What makes Dallas World Aquarium so unique from many zoos and aquariums is that it is privately owned (though still AZA accredited).  The collection, the facilities, the animal care - everything is the reflection of one man, the owner and founder, Daryl Richardson.  Richardson has a passion for animals that are seldom displayed and little known, hence the prevalence of species here seen nowhere else - jabiru storks, three-toed sloths, black-and-white hawk eagles.  The space currently occupied by the manatees was originally slated for Amazon river dolphins (currently none on display in US zoos or aquariums) until outcry from concerned members of the public led to his permit for importation being denied.

The problem is that, because little is known about the husbandry needs of these species, they often don't do terribly well.  Amazon river dolphins, for instance, have traditionally fared poorly in captivity compared to other cetaceans, one of the key arguments of Richardson's import-opponents had in defeating him.  According to former keepers, DWA has had some mortality issues in the past (also explained by the fact that wild-caught, imported animals have a harder time adjusting to captivity).  You could certainly make the argument that having the one and only member of a species in captivity, while really cool for zoo nerds like me, doesn't do much for conservation.  You need a sustainable breeding population for that.

Jabiru stork and Orinoco crocodile, just two of the many species that I'd never seen in person before my first visit to the Dallas World Aquarium

Which is not to say that Richardson and his aquarium don't do a lot for conservation as well.  Orinoco crocodiles are a clear example where he pioneered work with a species that no one else was really paying attention to and has had a lot of success with them (I took a behind-the-scenes tour during my last visit and there was seriously a room full of hatchlings, some of which slated for Venezuela).  Similarly, the aquarium has had a lot of success breeding many bird and reptile species which other zoos have had less success with, such as Andean cock-of-the-rock.  I wonder if part of it is just a matter of emphasis - with elephants, gorillas, and other more conventional star attractions, DWA just might put more of its focus on some of the obscure species than other zoos do.  Plus, DWA does contribute pretty handily towards field conservation efforts in Latin America.

What makes a privately-owned facility like Dallas World Aquarium, the property of one man, different from a facility like Virginia Safari Park, or any other private zoo?  Depending on who you ask, everything or nothing.  Critics will say that both have skeletons in the closet, that both exploit animals, and that both lack the accountability found in zoos that are run by societies or government bodies.  I'm inclined to look a little more charitably at the World Aquarium.  I see a facility that does do a lot of good in promoting conservation of species that not a lot of other people are fighting for, while working with other accredited facilities to establish sustainable breeding populations of threatened species.

What would I like to see (besides a better jaguar exhibit)?  Less of a focus on importation and acting like the world is a pet store where you just have to have the coolest new animal you learned about yesterday.  The Wild West days of the zoo and aquarium world should be behind us.  It's time to face a future where wild populations rely on zoos and aquariums... not the other way around.

For an interesting article recently describing Daryl Richardson, the Dallas World Aquarium, and some of its controversies, along with how it fits in the modern zoo world, click here!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

From the News: Brookfield Zoo investigating cause of malfunction that left 54 stingrays dead

Brookfield Zoo investigating cause of malfunction that left 54 stingrays dead

I've often thought that caring for marine life in an aquarium is probably the closest thing we have to taking care of an extraterrestrial species in captivity.  With conventional zoo animals, no matter how exotic or strange they may be, they at least breathe oxygen.  With fish and aquatic invertebrates, you have to worry constantly about the quality of the water which they inhabit - its oxygen levels, its salinity, its nitrates - any of which can quickly lead to disaster if they get out of whack.

I'm very sorry to hear about the tragic loss at Brookfield Zoo.  It's doubtlessly all the more frustrating for them because, as of now, they don't know exactly what caused the equipment failure.  There have been bigger and more disastrous aquarium life-support failures, but all of the ones that I can think of have been the result of major natural disasters, the most obvious one being the Hurricane Katrina, which wiped out almost the entire collection of the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas.

Again, condolences to the staff at Brookfield Zoo's Stingray Bay.  I hope it gets figured out soon, so that all aquariums and zoos around the country can learn how to prevent a similar disaster at their facilities.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Giants in the River

At virtually every public aquarium I've been to, the emphasis has been on the ocean.  Which makes sense, I suppose.  Saltwater covers about three-quarters of the surface of the planet.  The seas and oceans are home to some of the most popular of aquatic animals - dolphins and sharks, seals and penguins, octopuses and sea turtles.  All of this emphasis on the ocean, however, does mean we pay less attention to the freshwater habitats of our planet - the lakes and rivers and streams.

There are some freshwater animals which are featured prominently in zoos - otters, hippos, crocodilians - but freshwater fish tend to be overlooked in aquariums.  This is unfortunate, since the freshwater habitats are home to some of the most exciting and unique fish species on earth.  Also, some of the most endangered.

There's been a lot of awareness raised lately about the threats facing oceanic fish - global climate change, coral reef die-offs, overfishing.  In some ways, I feel like the freshwater fish have the rawer deal.  Their habitats are smaller and more localized, leaving them more vulnerable to threats.  They also tend to butt up against our habitats - farms, factories, and cities - leaving them vulnerable to pollution (yeah, I know, the ocean gets polluted too, but at least it dilutes a little with its massive size).  Rivers are dammed.  Invasive species are transported from one lake to another.  Like I said, it's a rough deal.

Among the most fascinating of freshwater fish are the river giants - the biggest fish found in their rivers and lakes across the world.  These include the arapaima, the Mekong catfish, the alligator gar, and the Australian freshwater stingray, among others.  These fish are the living legends of their native waterways - and like legends, their very existence is being thrown into doubt.  The biggest fish in a river or lake tend to be the ones that are fished out the quickest, and many of these river giants are becoming increasingly rare.  Fish, like reptiles, grow for as long as they live, and not many are surviving long enough to achieve giant status anymore.  Furthermore, the ones that are taken are often likely to be the biggest, meaning their genes for "bigness" are being removed from the population, resulting in survival of the runtiest.

Shark conservation has gotten a tremendous boon in recent years from the amount of attention paid to them. They are the stars of every aquarium and the subjects of countless TV documentaries (some better or more accurate than others).  An obstacle that many giant freshwater fish are facing is that no one knows that they are even there, let alone that they need our help.  A decent number of aquariums and zoos feature displays of Amazonian fish.  Considerably less attention goes to Asian river fish... or Australian... or even North American.  One of the most exciting captive breeding and reintroduction projects going on in this country right now is the work being done with sturgeons.  No one is really talking about it.

Recently, I visited the National Geographic museum in Washington, DC, currently playing host to an exhibit called "Monster Fish."  I watched video clips, played with interactives, observed some baby alligator gars in a tank and, when no one was looking, played on the life-sized fiberglass models of the giant fish.  All I could think of was how cool it would be to have seen some of these fish - adult, huge versions of them - in real life, to watch a six-meter sawfish cruise by, or go eye-to-eye with a gnooch, just one of the monster fish I'd never heard of before entering the exhibit.

It would be great for more aquariums to devote some exhibit space to the imperiled freshwater fish of the world, maybe even start some captive-breeding programs that could be used to replenish some of the more endangered species.  Don't get me wrong, sharks and dolphins are cool.  But to look at the lazy river that runs alongside my zoo and through my town and to wonder what kind of behemoth used to lurk beneath the waves there?  That makes me look at the river in a way I never did before.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Satire: Doug Lipstick's All-Eel Zoo

Not to brag, but I was hired as an eel master.  There really is absolutely no reason to share this, and it's so unrelated to zoos and aquariums to barely qualify as "Satire", but oh well...

You’ve Been Hired As An Eel Master At Doug Lipstick’s All-Eel Zoo!

Great news! Your skills and previous work experience make you qualified to be an Eel Master at Doug Lipstick’s All-Eel Zoo! As an Eel Master, your duties include killing the eels during eel rebellions, feeding people’s best friends to the eels during mealtimes, and protecting the eels from my hungry daughter, Priscilla Lipstick, age 40. After Doug Lipstick, you’re basically the most powerful person in Doug Lipstick’s All-Eel Zoo! Congratulations, and welcome aboard!

Friday, July 10, 2015

From the News: How Goldfish Eluded Huge Predator for Years

Live prey is seldom fed out in US zoos and aquariums these days, except for feeder insects and other invertebrates... and sometimes fish.  Often the encounter between predator and prey is brief and to the point (so to speak), but sometimes the prey escapes - as any reptile keeper who has been driven mad by the constant chirping of escaped crickets can tell you.

And sometimes you wind up with an unexpected mixed-species exhibit.

In this case, it looks like everyone is a winner.  The aquarium gets a new star attraction, the arapaima gets switched over to a healthy new diet, and the goldfish?  Goes from hiding in a tube to living a life of pampered luxury for the rest of its days.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Species Fact Profile: Suriname Toad (Pipa pipa)

Suriname Toad
Pipa pipa (Linneaus, 1758)

Range: Northern South America, Caribbean
Habitat: Tropical Rainforest, Flooded Forest
Diet: Small Fish, Invertebrates
Social Grouping: Solitary
Reproduction: Mate at the onset of the rainy season; 3-10 eggs laid by the female are transported onto her back, where they became covered with skin (each egg in its own pocket) - process is repeated until the female is carrying up to 100 eggs.  3-4 months later, the eggs hatch and the toadlets (which undergo metamorphosis while within the pockets of skin) burst out
Lifespan: 10 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern

  • Body length 10-17 centimeters (males generally smaller than females); very flattened body with outward-splayed limbs and a small triangular head with small flaps of skin and small, lidless eyes
  • Drab coloration - upper parts are blackish-brown with a paler underside, spotted or banded with brown
  • Lacking a tongue, the Suriname toad feeds by pushing food into its mouth with its forelegs 
  • Almost completely aquatic, the Suriname toad can remain underwater for up to an hour without surfacing for air
  • Juveniles often stay towards the surface of the water, but swim and dive by the time they are one month old
  • COmmunicate with a series of clicking calls, both to space themselves out and to determine receptiveness to breeding; males will fight one another by butting heads, biting, and kicking
  • Not considered endangered, but possibly in decline due to loss of habitat and collection for the pet trade

Monday, July 6, 2015

Dancing at the Aquarium

When reading Poseidon's Steed, I came across this little gem.  In the late 1800s, the public aquarium craze was beginning to spread across Europe, especially in Britain, its land of origin.  Seeking to add to its popularity, the Westminster Aquarium sought permission to add dancing to its attractions, a license for which was denied by a magistrate.  Trying to speculate why, one humorist suggested that it was the fearsome thought of dancing sea-life that turned the judges off the idea.

Within the Royal Aquarium
What monsters have they prancing
That the authorities refuse
A license there for dancing?

Are they afraid the octopus
Will write in a fandango?
Or lobsters caper to pousette
To airs from 'Madame Angot'?

Will lively crabs the can-can dance
Or learn to bounce and royster?
Or flounders wobble to the strains
Accomplished whistling oyster?

Are seals as ready for a spin
As Gray says, when (look o'er him)
'My grave Lord Keeper led the brawls,
The seals,' they 'danced before him'

Will uncrimpt skates, as in the rink
Be dreadfully disporting>
And hippocampus-major take
To capering and snorting?

From Funny Folk magazine, 23 October 1875

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Book Review: Poseidon's Steed: The Story of Seahorses, From Myth to Reality

“But seahorses hold a secret intimacy, a special reward for the keen-eyed.  And perhaps deep down I held on to a childhood suspicion, an irrational part of me that didn’t quite believe that seahorses really do inhabit the oceans.  Seeing one felt like glimpsing a unicorn trotting through my garden.”

When visitors come to the zoo, they expect to see specific animals – monkeys and bears, giraffes and zebras.  When they go to the aquarium, on the other hand, their expectations are a little more general.  They expect to see… fish.  And for the most part, they are all just that – fish.  There are very few groups of fish which stand out in the mind of the visitor, sharks being one obvious exception.  There is another group of fish, however, which is so unique, so spectacular, so utterly different from anything else in the sea that any aquarium visitor can identify it in a moment.  Those are the seahorses.

Seahorses are like no other fish; in fact, for a long time, early scientists weren’t even sure that they were fish.  Maybe they were crustaceans.  Or baby dragons.  Or who knows what.  What is known is that throughout human history and culture, from the folklore of pre-Columbian Latin America to the rock paintings of Australia to the treasure hordes of the Middle East, people have recognized that seahorses are special.

In Poseidon’s Steed: The Story of Seahorses, From Myth to Reality, marine biologist Helen Scales takes readers on a tour through the world of seahorses, both as they exist in real life and as they exist in our collective imagination.  Starting with a description of her first ever encounter with wild seahorses while diving of the coast of Vietnam, she welcomes the reader to the world of the most remarkable fish in the sea.  We are treated to detailed descriptions of the courtship and mating of seahorses, the only animals on earth where males get pregnant and experience childbirth (and I appreciate Scales anticipating and answering the question I’ve always had – then what makes them males?)  We explore sea horses in myth and culture, from ancient societies to Pokemon.  I’d always vaguely thought of seahorses as being pretty cool, but it wasn’t until reading some of the descriptive passages of their lives, their behaviors, and their courtships that I really realized just how bizarre and unique they really are.

Most distressingly, we’re given a glimpse into the dangerous world that seahorses find themselves in today.  Like rhinos, tigers, bears, and turtles, sea horses are threatened by the demand of their bodies for Traditional Chinese Medicine, and Scales’ description of the history and philosophy of TCM is the best I’ve read ever.   As a counterbalance, however, we’re also taken to a unique Filipino fishing community, where community-based conservationists are using seahorses as a flagship species to save their endangered reefs from dynamiting, poisoning, and overfishing.

Seahorses in captivity – both in public and private aquariums – receive a special chapter.  Scales describes the birth of the public aquarium, and notes that seahorses were some of the first fish to be displayed in them.  She then offers a behind-the-scenes look at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, TN, describing the care and breeding of seahorses in modern aquariums.  While emphasizing the need to protect seahorses in the wild, Scales calls attention to the importance of zoos and aquariums in introducing the public to seahorses and other animals, giving them a chance to meet and become infatuated with such unique creatures.

I’m somewhat of a wimp around water, and have never taken to SCUBA diving, so I don’t expect to ever meet a seahorse out in the wild.  Not that I should expect to, anyway; the author notes the great difficulty that she had in finding them, having searched for them on countless unsuccessful dives before finally encountering one.   Still, seeing seahorses in aquariums, and having them as a reminder that there are still wild ones roaming the oceans of the world, is enough for me.  It’s certainly enough to remind me what Loren Eiseley once wrote – “If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.”

And, he might have added, “It is called the seahorse.”

Friday, July 3, 2015

Just When You Thought It Was Safe...

Just in time for one of the busiest beach weekends of the summer in the United States (to say nothing of Shark Week), we've had a spat of shark attacks on the eastern seaboard.  Seven shark attacks have occurred off the coast of North Carolina in three weeks, some of them in very shallow water.  An eight-foot hammerhead has been seen cruising off the coast of Ocean City, Maryland, one of the most popular resort towns in the mid-Atlantic.  A Florida fisherman was yanked bodily from his kayak by a shark he hooked (though you could certainly argue that that was on him).

We have a complicated relationship with sharks (to say nothing of other potentially dangerous animals) in our culture.  On one hand we have the folks to love to sensationalize them, hence their roles in books and movies and TV shows.  Plenty of people fear them - a kill order is out for a 4 meter shark that attacked and severely injured a bodyboarder off the coast of Australia.  Other people try to downplay the danger sharks, crocodiles, bears, and other big predators pose, pointing out the accurate statistics that attacks are very rare.

That's true.  But they do happen.  And with more people crowding into what once was solely the domain of animals, they happen more often.

Instead of either alternatively sensationalizing or glossing over the danger that certain animals pose towards people, I would love to see more zoos and aquariums address it practically and realistically.  The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore features an exhibit, Polar Bear Watch, that describes how residents of Churchill, Manitoba, co-exist with the big white bears that roam their streets.  A nice idea - but maybe they could take a page from the Naples Zoo in Florida and instead focus on how the residents of Maryland could better coexist with the American black bears which are becoming more common in the western and central parts of the state, from how to discourage bears in your yard by securing your trash and putting food sources away, to how to behave if you suddenly encounter a bear.

Pretty much every zoo in the southern US has a pool full of big ol' gators - how about making these displays a teachable exhibit of human-alligator conflict?  Like sharks, alligators are often attracted to fishing piers by fisherman cleaning their catches and tossing scraps to the waiting gators - a behavior which teaches alligators (and sharks) to hang around expecting food.  Or rattlesnakes - maybe teach people that if they fear having rattlesnakes in their yards, there is a solution besides killing snakes (which is equally likely to get you bitten) - learn to make your yard less attractive as snake habitat.

As mountain lions begin their slow but steady march to the east, reclaiming lands that have been cat-less for decades, it would be good for human residents to learn how to coexist peaceful with their new neighbors.  Similarly, coyotes are cropping up across the east, filling in the gap left by wolves.  They've trotted past the White House and popped up in Central Park, spreading concern wherever they go.

Focusing on the dangers that animals can pose to people can be unpopular in some circles.  To some zookeepers, it would seem to be its own form of sensationalizing, putting too much focus on the relatively few times that attacks do occur, too little on the more frequent cases where humans imperil animals.  I get what they're saying.  I do know, however, that - as evidenced by the aforementioned shark in Australia - when an animal does kill or harm a person, it leads to retaliatory measures against the animals, and not just the "perpetrators" (to say nothing of possibly sparing any human victims the damage that they'd suffer).

In terms of improving human attitudes towards the big predators in our own backyards, a little prevention is much better than a draconian cure.

If you're not a zookeeper or aquarist and actually DO get holidays like the Fourth of July off, don't let all this put you off.  It's still safe to go into the water... probably.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Diving In

Taken as a whole, my family has been very supportive of me in my career as a zookeeper.  There are, however, two career-relevant ways in which I know that I let my father down.  Firstly, I never took an Invertebrate Zoology course in college ("How could you not?  It's 99% of all animals!").  Secondly, I never learned to scuba dive.

This diver at the National Aquarium in Baltimore is a celebrity and she knows it

These twin fixations of my dad's are probably attributable to the fact that he studied marine biology in college.    I, on the other hand, never felt too drawn to the aquatic world.  Drowning was one of my major phobias growing up.  I didn't learn to swim until an embarrassingly late age, and I'm still not very good at it.  I have a complete inability to open my eyes underwater, no matter what.  If there was a window for becoming a diver, I think I missed it.

Which is a pity, because diving is a phenomenal opportunity to explore a part of the world that, until a few decades ago, was completely off limits to humans.  Being unable to see beneath the surface of the water is like being in a library and being unable to open three-quarters of the books there.  Divers get to explore a world of underwater ecosystems, from coral reefs to kelp forests, that I'll only get to know from documentaries and aquarium displays.

You see some diving going on in zoos - mostly for maintaining the largest aquatic exhibits - but not too much, and many zoos have no use for it.  It's mostly used in enclosures that have fish sharing a habitat with other aquatic animals, such as hippos (many zoos with underwater viewing of hippos fill the tanks with cichlids and other fish to help keep the water clean). Obviously the pool can't be completely drained because of the fish, so staff have to dive to clean the pool.  Again, SCUBA diving in zoos is pretty rare, limited mostly to the bigger institutions.

In aquariums, however, diving is an essential part of animal care.  Staff are SCUBA certified and enter the larger tanks frequently for feeding, cleaning, or to monitor the health and well-being of the inhabitants.  Some even allow special visitors the chance to join the staff on dive sessions; Georgia Aquarium, for example, has a program to let visitors dive with their whale sharks in a 6.3 million gallon tank.  In many ways, divers are some of the biggest attractions at the aquariums.  Watch a diver appear in a tank, one at which no visitors were gathered previously, and then watch the crowds materialize.

Even those of us who can't dive can still get a chance to interactive with divers.  Among the most impressive educational additions at many aquariums are special communication systems that let aquarium divers talk with  their audience outside.  It's a great way to stir up interest about the aquatic world and help visitors make a personal connection with the institution, the staff, and the animals.

I volunteered briefly with an aquarium, taking care of a small section of marine creatures - moray eels, chambered nautilus, leopard sharks.  Moving along the catwalk behind the tanks, tossing in food and siphoning off waste, I never really felt a connection with the animals, nothing like the first time I went behind-the-scenes at a zoo with a giraffe or a tiger.  Instead, I felt like I did when I was in the public area, like there was a barrier between me and the animals still... and there was - the surface of the water.  The only animals in the section that I really did feel like I related to were the loggerhead turtles, who would put their heads above the surface for me to feed.

If I had been able to dive like the aquarists were able to - to put on a mask and flippers and tank and splash through the surface, it would have been much different.  I would have been able to enter a different world, where animals float overhead or drift around you, seemingly free from gravity.  As it was, I was just a spectator - but a spectator to something incredible.