7/10/15

Local Turtle Species: The Blanding's Turtle

Turtles are the stars of the show this summer…and many different species call the Aquarium home. Some turtles are on exhibit full-time while some of turtles only make special appearances. One of these special guests is a local freshwater Blanding’s turtle named Skip!

Oh hi there...
Named for the naturalist who discovered them in the 1800’s, Blanding’s turtles can be found in wetland areas, like ponds and marshes, from Massachusetts through the Great Lakes. Even though they have a big range, they face some tough challenges and their numbers have dropped over the past several decades. There are now only pockets of them left, including some in Massachusetts.

Range of Blanding's Turtles (www.blandingsturtle.org)

Blanding's Turtle in its wetland habitat (www.blandingsturtle.org)
One biggest challenge for Blanding’s turtles? It’s something we use every day…roads!

Trying to cross the road (Dav Kaufman)
Imagine trying to cross a busy highway on foot. Not easy, right? Roads make life tricky for many species. Blanding’s turtles will move a mile or two to find food, mates and nesting sites, so crossing roads is a necessary part of life…but it’s also dangerous. Many are hit by cars and don’t survive. Fortunately, there are communities working with state transportation departments to install road signs that warn motorists of Blanding’s turtles in the area as well as building fences around nesting locations in hopes of reducing road mortality.

Turtle crossing sign in Maine (Maine DIFW)
You too can help! If you see a turtle crossing a road, first make sure it is safe for you to move the turtle. Then pick the turtle up and move it to the other side of the road, making sure to maintain direction and place it in the direction it was heading.


If these turtles are threatened in Massachusetts, then why do we keep two here at the Aquarium? One of our turtles, Skip, was found by a family who decided to bring him home as a pet. Not a good idea! It’s illegal to remove a threatened or endangered species from the wild, so state wildlife officials confiscated the turtle and brought him here.

Good thing to remember (www.ma.gov)
Skip can't return to the wild for a couple of reasons. First, we don't know what population he came from, and second he may have been exposed to diseases that he could transmit to native populations. As there were concerns about his ability to survive in the wild, the decision was made to give him a forever home on Central Wharf!

Skip gets ready for a meal
Skip, and all of our other turtles, are well taken care of by Aquarium staff, with lots of space to swim and gourmet meals of worms, fruits, veggies, crickets and more. He is visited by our Marine Mammal trainers, who work with him during enrichment sessions to keep his mind sharp and feed him a snack  (check out the video). Skip even gets “shell-icures”, having his shell scrubbed with a toothbrush. And in return for his prime accommodations, Skip is an ambassador for his wild Blanding’s turtle counterparts, showcasing how we can all help turtles, even it’s helping them to cross the road.

7/2/15

Cuttlefish lays eggs!

The Aquarium is all turtle, all the time this summer. But there are still thousands of other animals, just swimming there and being fascinating! Just this week, the pharaoh cuttlefish began laying eggs. It's a process that can take a couple days. Luckily, aquarist Brianne Dent was on hand to record a quick video of this special event!


These eggs should be fertilized since Brianne has observed breeding behavior between individuals. Visit in the next few days and you might be able to see the eggs! They will probably only stay on exhibit for a few days so they can mature and stabilize a bit. But as soon as it's save, the aquarists will take the eggs behind the scenes—away from the hungry mouths of the urchins.

Pharaoh cuttlefish (Sepia pharaonis)

Behind the scenes, the eggs will go into a holding tank and we will rear them behind the scenes for the next generation of pharaoh cuttlefish for the exhibit! The animals on exhibit are currently from wild caught eggs that were hatched out by our colleagues at a fellow aquarium. That means they have good genetic stock and aren’t too inbred, which can be a problem with captive cuttlefish.

More cuttle time:

6/29/15

Turtles Ready to Rescue!

Last winter, the New England Aquarium’s Rescue and Rehabilitation made national news when more than 700 sea turtles came through our doors needing help. These cold-stunned turtles were found on the beaches of Cape Cod, brought to our rehabilitation facility in Quincy and were nursed back to health by our knowledgeable staff and volunteers.

Visitors can try their hand at feeding sea turtle patients.

This summer, visitors get to experience sea turtle rescue with our new interactive hospital. Have you ever wanted to see what it’s like to rehabilitate a turtle and be part of the life-saving crew? Now’s your chance to join turtle rescue team!

This sign will greet you when you arrive.
Upon entering the interactive hospital, you will receive a quick overview of why sea turtles strand...but then it's straight to work! Turtles are brought up from Cape Cod to the Aquarium's Quincy facility in banana boxes, which are the perfect size for these small turtles, and nestled in a towel for safe transport.

Banana boxes full of replica turtles
As their body temperature drops, a turtle's heartbeat may slow to one beat per minute! Pick one of the three turtles and see if you can find a heartbeat. Use the doppler to listen carefully…did you find it? Next, listen to how the heartbeat of a cold-stunned turtle compares to a healthy turtle. Quite a difference!

Look and listen for a heartbeat
Once a heartbeat has been established, it’s on to diagnostics. First, a rescued turtle is stabilized with fluids and slowly brought up to the right temperature. Then the hard work of identifying all of a turtle's issues begins. Some turtles are just cold and dehydrated; some come in with other issues. Scan the respiratory, digestive and skeletal systems of each turtle to see what's wrong.

Work to diagnose what's wrong
Scanning systems...
Now that you have a diagnosis, learn what treatment the turtle needs to get better and see the Aquarium staff in action as they work to save animals and get them on the road to recovery. 

Working to solve the problem
Now that the turtles are on the mend, turn your attention to the next rehabilitation station. After you’ve been sick, what do you want to do when you feel better? You want to eat, of course! Turtles need to eat on their own before they can be released as they will need to forage successfully to survive. At the feeding station, offer a squid snack to the hungry turtles.

Try your hand at feeding
You may try to feed a turtle, and it won't eat. Try again, however, and see how their appetites grow over time! One bite closer to being released to their ocean home! 

Success!
Thanks to the work that YOU did alongside our Aquarium team, these turtles get a new lease on life. But this is just one piece of the turtle rescue team puzzle. The job isn’t done. Throughout the Aquarium, you will see what more we all can do to help sea turtles, as well as other species of turtles. Whether it is single-use plastics or climate change, turtles face challenges in their environment, both across the world and in our own backyards. Thankfully, the Turtle Rescue Team is growing, and together we can help solve these challenges to ensure a successful future for turtles…and humans!

Join the team!

6/10/15

An Anemones Breakfast

This morning in the Pacific tidepool exhibit it looked like sea star was on the menu.

Spotted in the Northern Waters Gallery
Giant green anemones are sessile creatures, meaning they remain mostly fixed to the sea floor by a smooth, muscular disk. That disk can move about very slowly so these animals often feed opportunistically on fish, crabs, and sea urchins that come their way. Looks like this sea star got a little too close to those stinging tentacles.

It just goes to show you that you never what you'll find at the Aquarium—and in the wild. Last year, photos of a green anemone digesting a cormorant circulated around the internet.

Cool stuff, right? Here are some other links you might enjoy:

6/2/15

Local Species: Skeleton Shrimp

This post is part of an occasional series on local marine species compiled by New England Aquarium aquarist Peter Gawne. Unless otherwise noted, all photos are Peter's. When he's not diving locally for these posts or researching coral reefs in Belize, Peter takes care of the touch tank's sharks and rays and the jellies exhibit. Today's post is about skeleton shrimp (family Caprellidae).

According to evolutionary theory, half a billion years ago each of the major arthropodan groups, the Crustaceans (shrimp, crab, amphipods), Uniramians (insects, millipedes, centipedes), and Chelicerates (spiders, mites, horseshoe crabs) shared a common ancestor, probably something resembling a trilobite. Skeleton shrimp are classified as Crustaceans, alongside shrimp, crabs, and lobsters.

Skeleton shrimp are classified as amphipods of the family Caprellidae.  They are sometimes known as caprellid amphipods.  While they might resemble a science-fiction monster, skeleton shrimp rarely achieve 2 inches in length.

While outwardly skeleton shrimp look quite different from crabs and lobsters, they are actually closely related. They have branched appendages, two pairs of antenna, the same number of legs, and a similar general body form. They differ, however, in that they lack a carapace and females possess a brood pouch. Skeleton shrimp also do not have a free-living larval stage. This means that the population is dispersed not by currents, but rather the actual migration of the adults.

The body of an amphipod is divided into three sections: head, thorax, and abdomen.  In skeleton shrimp, and all amphipods, the legs of the thorax differ from the legs of the abdomen.  The thorax of the skeleton shrimp also contains the respiratory structures: two pairs of paddle-like gills.

Skeleton shrimp bodies are long and cylindrical. They possess two pairs of legs at the front of their bodies, and three pairs at the back. The front legs are praying mantis-like claws, used for defense, grooming, and food capture. The rear legs are used to hold onto algae or other surfaces.

Skeleton shrimp are found throughout the marine waters of New England, usually clinging to algae, bryzoans, or hydroids with their posterior legs. Skeleton shrimp are especially abundant in fouling communities, which means they are frequently found on docks, pilings, and ropes. Their slender body resembles the very algae that they cling to, allowing them to virtually disappear as they wait to ambush prey.

Microscopy reveals the brood pouch of this female skeleton shrimp, an amphipod of the family Caprellidae.  Female skeleton shrimp brood their larvae until they are ready to emerge as miniature-sized adults.

As a group, skeleton shrimp are opportunistic omnivores. They are able to feed upon diatoms, detritus, various larvae, and even other skeleton shrimp. Some species use fine hairs on their antennae to filter particles from the water column. Most skeleton shrimp are predators, using their front claws, called gnathopods, to capture smaller invertebrates.

An array of feeding and sensory structures allows skeleton shrimp to capture and consume a wide variety of food sources.
Most skeleton shrimp possess a venomous tooth on their gnathopods. Males may use this tooth as a weapon during competition with other males. This tooth is capable of inflicting serious damage, and combat can result in death. This is an extremely rare case in the animal kingdom–the only other animals known to apply venom in intraspecific completion are male platypuses and slow lorises. Females sometimes use this tooth to kill a male after mating. But rest assured, the venomous tooth of skeleton shrimp is tiny, and poses no threat to humans.