7/12/14

Plankton: They're kinda a big deal

Ever wonder why the murky, green waters of the northern latitudes are different than clear, blue waters of the tropics?

The murky green waters of Boston Harbor contain lots of life!

Or why New England had such large cod populations when the colonists arrived? Or why coral comes in so many beautiful colors?

Vibrant colors of a tropical reef

One reason: plankton! Well... so if plankton is such a big deal, why doesn't the Aquarium have a plankton tank? Well, one could argue that we do. Every tank in the aquarium is interconnected with plankton.

What are plankton? 
Like the term “cat,” plankton is an umbrella term used to describe a diverse set of organisms. The name plankton is derived from the Greek word planktos, meaning wanderer or drifter. Any creature carried by the ocean currents is considered plankton, from microscopic bacteria and algae to gelatinous siphonophores that grow in colonies longer than a blue whale.

 

Phytoplankton like diatoms, dinoflagellates, and coccolithophores are photosynthetic. They not only provide the base of the ocean food web, they also provide up to half of the oxygen that we rely on to breathe on land! But not all plankton photosynthesizes. Zooplankton feed on other organisms. Some plankton, called holoplankton, spend their whole life at the whim of ocean currents. These creatures
include copepods, brine shrimp, and sea jellies. Other plankton, called meroplankton, grow out of their drifting phase and embrace a more benthic or pelagic form. Lobsters, crabs, urchins, sea stars, barnacles and many fish all start their life as plankton!

Plankton…. They’re Kinda a Big Deal 
Phytoplankton are the base of the food web. These organisms convert the sun’s energy, along with carbon dioxide and water, into chemical energy and oxygen through photosynthesis. Because they are the first link between the sun’s energy and the rest of the food web, they are referred to as “primary producers”. This chemical energy, in the form of carbohydrates, is the fuel that helps to power the rest of the food web.

A right whale skim feeds on copepods. Watch video of a right whale feeding in Cape Cod Bay!

As the major primary producer of marine environments, phytoplankton provides the fuel for the rest of the system. Though some of the food webs they fuel are complex, some of them are relatively simple! One such food connection can be found right off the coast of New England. Phytoplankton feeds zooplankton, which feeds whales. From one of the smallest organisms to the biggest in only two
steps!

That water off New England is also very different from the sparkling turquoise waters you might see in the tropics—because of plankton. You see, the cold, nutrient rich water travels up to the surface of the ocean and hits sunlight, sparking a bloom of phytoplankton. The nutrients and blooms cause the waters here to appear murky and green. Tropical waters, however, have very few nutrients and thus phytoplankton blooms can’t occur. Without the phytoplankton and nutrients, the water is super clear. This abundance of phytoplankton supports the food web that is responsible for the iconic fisheries of New England. (Check out some of the tiny planktonic animals that appear in Boston Harbor!)

Cod is a cold water fish with iconic status in this region 

Corals, along with some other marine animals like upside-down jellies and giant clams, rely on photosynthetic organisms most commonly referred to as zooxanthellae. Zooxanthellae help create food for their host. The zooxanthellae, mostly planktonic dinoflagellates (see the sketch above), are ingested by the host, encased in a membrane to protect then and then they go to work. The carbohydrates they create fuel the corals (and give them beautiful colors) while the zooxanthellae get a home and needed nutrients. Everybody wins!

So from the cool dark depths of our Gulf of Maine exhibits to the sparkling Giant Ocean Tank, these marine ecosystems are teeming with life that can all be traced back to the humble plankton. Keep that in mind the next time you visit the Aquarium and see our 600-lb fur seal lounging on the deck! (Pick up your timed ticket and print at home and you'll breeze right into the Aquarium!)

This post comes to us from Aquarium educator Kim McCabe.

6/25/14

LAP: Behind the scenes with Skip

The marine mammal trainers work very closely with the seals and sea lions at the Aquarium. But you may not know that they work with other marine animals around the Aquarium, too—like lobsters, lumpfish, snakes and even Myrtle the turtle

This is a post from trainer Meg Stone, who has been working with a different kind of turtle.

Skip, a Blandings turtle, not only does live animal presentations for the public, but gets training sessions behind the scenes. Teaching Skip helps this shy guy get comfortable meeting new people during these presentation, keeps him active in his environment and allows Skip to participate in his own health care.

Skip is a handsome fellow. Here he is in his container during a live animal presentation!

Throughout the day, like all the animals in the Aquarium, we offer him some enrichment, or play. Here is Skip playing around with some peas.



Come by the Aquarium and you might Skip during a live animal presentations in the Blue Planet Action Center. Or you might see another fascinating animal from our blue planet—like axolotls, lobsters or Eastern box turtles. There's just so much the learn!


6/24/14

Exams for Anacondas

Today's post comes to you from Kerry McNally in the Animal Health department. She takes us behind the scenes to show how the Aquarium's veterinarians with the whole health care team take care of its animals. Kerry also blogged extensively when she was with the Sea Turtle Rescue department.

Staff and volunteers work hard to ensure all of the animals at the New England Aquarium are well taken care of. We provide the right food and nutrients, habitat and enrichment opportunities to make sure everyone is healthy. This also means trips to the veterinarian for small and big animals alike. This includes our anacondas!

Checking heart rate

Every year or two, we remove our three large green anacondas from their exhibit and head upstairs to our Animal Health department. We lightly sedate the animals for easy handling, maneuvering and for human and animal safety. Once the snakes are comfortable, our veterinarian begins a thorough physical exam to ensure the snakes are growing properly and to identify any potential health issues early.

Say "aaaaahhhh"

The vet starts by evaluating every inch of the body to make sure there are no wounds or scale loss. The next step is to get current weights and lengths. This is no easy task-the anacondas are big! It’s hard to imagine that two of the snakes, Wilson and Marion, were less than a pound when they were born on New Year’s Day 2008. Now they weigh in at over 65 pounds and are over 11 feet long. But they are not the largest snake in the exhibit. That’s our oldest anaconda Kathleen, who weighs in at 101 pounds and is 13.5 feet long!

Taking measurements

One radiograph at a time: Kerry maneuvers the machinery while her partner holds the snake

Radiograph of Wilson's head




Just like an annual physical you might get at your doctor, our vet looks in the mouth and at the eyes, collects a blood sample for analysis and even does radiograms! This allows us to check the snake’s bones for healthy growth, ensures there are no unusual masses and even to see if there are ovarian follicles. It takes quite a few shots to get the full length of a 13 foot animal! After checking lots of x-rays, as well as the rest of the tests, all of our animals look like they are in good shape. 
The snakes were then moved to a holding tank once their exams were finished so they could fully recover and slowly wake up from the sedation. They were then returned to the exhibit the next day with no issues. We can now say our anacondas are in good health and, until their next exam, you can see these amazing animals on exhibit in the Freshwater gallery.











Back home

6/22/14

A Little Trap for a Little Lobster

The Edge of the Sea touch tank lets visitors get up close to some local tidepool animals, and often times there are small lobsters on display. Only a few inches long, these animals come from the New EnglandAquarium’s Lobster Lab, where we grow young lobsters in order to study their growth patterns, shell rot and impacts of climate change.

Lobster growing in our lobster rearing facility

These lobsters are usually happy to stay inside their special enclosure. However, we recently had one feisty lobster get out of his enclosure at night and found a nice spot to live inside the rockwork. While he wasn’t doing any harm inside the rockwork, the staff wanted to find him a new home and needed a way to get him out. So how do you catch a little lobster? With a little lobster trap, of course!

Finished trap

Michael O’Neill, a Visitor Educator in the Visitor Experience Department (who's also volunteered with the Rescue Dept.), also happens to be a volunteer for the Edge of the Sea exhibit. Hearing of the lobster’s escape, he decided to put his building skills to good use. Using small pieces of wood, dowels, mesh from an old dive bags, cable ties and some metal rings, Mike created a fairly accurate 1/8th scale of a lobster trap.

Construction started...

Nets being added

After spending a couple of weeks on construction, the trap was ready to be deployed in the exhibit. Mike cleared out a space in the tide pool, placed the trap on the bottom and then baited it with small pieces of smelt.

The wait began…

Deploying the trap in Edge of the Sea

A month had gone by…nothing. The trap remained empty. However, late last week, success! Upon opening the exhibit in the morning, educators found the lobster in the trap-the trap had worked! During the evening hours, the lobster had made his way out of his hiding place, took the bait and landed in the trap!

Caught ya!

Visitors and staff, especially Mike, were happy to see that the trap worked! Innovation, some wooden dowels and a fun idea managed to catch our lobster Houdini and show to visitors how lobster traps work! Let’s hope that the little lobster stays put for now!

Happy Mike!
Update! Researchers have found that lobsters spend relatively little time in lobster traps, able to climb out after getting a snack. True to form, our little lobster remained inside the trap for one day…and managed to escape back into the exhibit rockwork later that night. Looks like the trap has some more work to do!

6/4/14

Unicorns are real!

And they live in the colorful Pacific Reef Community at the New England Aquarium. We're talking about two unique and beautiful species of fish with "unicorn" in their common names!

Can you find the unicorn tang and bignose unicornfish in this picture?

Without even knowing its common name, you might guess that this fish is known as a unicorn. It's the unicorn tang with an impressive horn protruding from the area near its eyes. These fish can grow to be more than a foot long, light bluish color with a gray underbelly. While these fish are listed as Least Concern according to the IUCN Red List, this species is a targeted food fish. There have been significant reductions in biomass in parts of its range.

Unicorn tang (Naso unicornis)

Now the bignose unicornfish is easy to distinguish from the other unicorn in the exhibit. This fish is more than a foot long with a darker blue pattern of dots and vertical lines. Most notably, adults develop a rounded snout and unusually tall dorsal and anal fins. Their populations are stable, listed of least concern according to the IUCN. But they are usually found on coral reefs, which are vulnerable as a result of degraded by water pollution, human pollution pressures, overfishing, tourism, Crown of Thorns sea star outbreaks and coral bleaching.

Bignose unicornfish (Naso vlaningii)

In the wild, you can find bignose unicornfish throughout the Indo Pacific in lagoons and seaward reefs. These are among the larger fish in the exhibit so it'll be easy to spot them weaving their way through the colorful corals along the tank.

Look for these unicorns on Level One near the rockhopper penguins. The Pacific Reef Community is buzzing with colors, patterns and movement. And if you're feeling adventurous, try to spot the dragons on Level Two!