Meet the small fish who eat Anaconda skin - cory cats

There are several species of small Amazon catfish inhabiting the Amazon Reptiles Exhibit. The smallest are the cory cats. There are several species of Corydoras (cory - helmet, doras - leathery skin) catfish. The species on display is Corydoras adolfoi, named for Adolfo Schwartz, the explorer who discovered the species in 1982. You may have seen these or similar species for sale at your local pet store. They are a popular hobbyist fish.

A close up of some Corydoras adolfoi in holding at the aquarium.

This species maxes out at about 2.5 inches from the tip of their noses to the tips of their tails. They are originally from a tributary of the Rio Negro in Brazil. A slightly timid species, they prefer to live in groups of six or more fish. There is a large school in the Amazon reptiles exhibit. They can often be seen munching on shed anaconda skin.

A school of Corydoras adolfoi in the Amazon Reptiles Exhibit, sitting on and around an anaconda.

- Marion



Snakes Never Blink

Did you know that snakes have a scale over their eyes? Snakes don't have eyelids and they never blink. The scale over the eye protects the sensitive ocular tissue from damage.

One of the first signs a snake is going to shed its skin is cloudy eyes. The scale over the eye begins to lift as a new one replaces it. It turns milky in color while the new layer is formed. It becomes clear right before the snake sheds.

Ashley the Anaconda, about to shed.



How often do Anacondas shed their skin?

Anacondas, like all snakes, shed their skin. We humans replace our skin, too, but our skin cells slough off a little at a time. Snakes shed their skin all in one piece, sliding out of it like one long sock.

Ashley laying on top of Kathleen, both are about to shed.

When anacondas are babies they shed more often (up to twice a month). As they get older and their growing slows down, they shed less frequently, unless they are in a rapid shed cycle where they shed immediately after finishing a shed. Rapid shed cycles can occur if the snake has damaged scales or other physical issues like pregnancy or a shed that didn't come off quite right. Ashley and Kathleen usually shed between 5 and 8 times per year.

A shed anaconda skin.




A Very Positive Interaction

A few days ago I went into the anaconda tank to scrub off some very stubborn algae on the window. I had a spotter in the back to tell me where the snakes were while I wore a mask and snorkel so I could see underwater. Every time I had the mask settled on my face and got down to work, Ashley the anaconda came to see what I was doing.

A job that should have taken ten minutes stretched into an hour and a half. On the upside, I had a wonderful interaction with Ashley. She came over and put her head on my arm for a while and allowed me to touch and handle her with no protest. Normally I can handle Ashley but she will usually wander off to do her own thing. I was very excited to have had such a long and very positive interaction with her.

Ashley and me.




What ever happened to the turtles in the Anaconda exhibit?

You may remember that there used to be Amazon yellow-spotted turtles in the anaconda tank. The anacondas and the turtles coexisted peacefully. But one day we noticed that Ashley the anaconda had a few scuffed looking scales. Further observation showed that the turtles had started to nip the anacondas. Occasionally, we find animals that cannot live in close quarters with each other. When this occurs we move one of the animals for the safety of both.

Amazon Yellow-Spotted Turtle

The turtles now live separately from the anacondas. They can be found swimming in the Amazon Flooded Forest Exhibit down the hall.




Which exhibit has more fish, the Amazon Reptile Exhibit or the Giant Ocean Tank?

You might be surprised at this answer. While the Giant Ocean Tank is the Aquarium's largest exhibit and has more than 600 fish of over 100 different species, the Amazon Reptiles Exhibit (where the anacondas live) has more that 1,000 fish. There are four different species of catfish as well as large schools of colorful tetra and freshwater hatchet fish.

A view from the front of the Amazon Reptiles Exhibit.




A recap of last year's Anaconda pregnancy

Anacondas Ashley and Kathleen have lived at the New England Aquarium since the summer of 2006. Before then, a third large anaconda, Orange, had already been living in the exhibit for many years. Due to their size, we initially thought that all of the snakes were female. It is very difficult to tell the sex of an anaconda.

The anacondas in a pile, up close and with Amazon biologist and researcher Scott Dowd
It turns out that Orange was, in fact, a male. Large constrictors rarely mate in captivity, so we were surprised when both Ashley and Kathleen were seen multiple times in a mating embrace, called a breeding ball, with Orange. By October of 2007, both of them were pregnant. Kathleen's ova proved to be unfertilized, but Ashley's was. On January 1, 2008 at about 4 a.m., Ashley gave birth to 14 squirming baby anacondas. Here's a video of the birth:

-Marion Britt, Freshwater Intern



A Sucessful Anaconda Feeding

Warning: Contains pictures of a snake eating.

Ashley and Kathleen are offered food every Saturday in the early afternoon. (Usually between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m., so if you're around the Aquarium come check it out on the third floor.) Lately, however, neither snake has been eating. I suspect both girls of being pregnant, which can throw off their internal rhythms, and anacondas have been known to have long fasts.

This past Saturday marked 19 weeks of fasting for Kathleen. However, Ashley broke a 7-week fast that included two shed cycles on Saturday August 29th and she ate again on Saturday September 5th.

Ashley takes a guinea pig.

She's almost done swallowing.

We feed our snakes frozen (then thawed) food from a mail order supplier of frozen rodents. This is less stressful for the staff, because we all love animals in this job. It is also better for our snakes. Live food can fight back with teeth and claws and injure the snakes.

-Marion Britt, Freshwater Intern



Ashley and Kathleen Part 2

I found a better picture to illustrate the differences between Ashley and Kathleen.

Ashley is on the right with the orange facial stripe. Kathleen is on the left with the pale green one.

-Marion Britt, Freshwater Intern


Meet New England Aquarium's Biggest Snakes

On exhibit we have two adult female anacondas. Our two large females are over 15 feet long.

Ashley and Kathleen, our two largest anacondas (named for two long time volunteers in the freshwater gallery) are about the same age, approximately 15 years old. Aside from age and length they are as different as night and day.

Ashley. Notice the orange on the side of her face. Kathleen's stripe is completely olive green.

Ashley is definitely queen of the exhibit. Anacondas are mostly solitary in the wild, except when they come together to mate. In close quarters they show minor displays of strength to arrange a pecking order. Ashley usually eats first on feeding day and will nudge Kathleen out of her way.

Kathleen on the front "haul-out" spot.

Kathleen is a less high strung snake. She is heavier in build than Ashley and likes to curl up in the back planter anytime she can. She is also more likely to come out of the water at the front of the exhibit. She is much shyer, and she interacts with me much less than Ashley when I am in the exhibit.

When I am talking to people in front of the exhibit, I am often asked how I can tell the snakes apart. Ashley has golden orange stripes above the black stripes on her face. Kathleen's stripes are a pale olive green. Also, Kathleen is much thicker down the length of her body and has a very stubby tail. Ashley has a more slender body type.

Can you tell them apart next time you visit?

- Marion Britt, Freshwater Intern

If you have any questions you'd like to see answered on the Anaconda Blog, feel free to leave them in the comments section.


Welcome to the Anaconda Blog!

I for one am excited about this first post. Did you know we had anacondas at the New England Aquarium? If you said no, you aren't alone.

Amazon Reptiles exhibit on the third floor.

A lot of people pass by this exhibit in the on the third floor of the aquarium and if they notice any reptiles it's the two playful, juvenile Amazon yellow spotted river turtles. Children and adults alike admire the many colorful freshwater tropical fish that can be found schooling in this exhibit.

There are Amazon Yellow-Spotted Turtle with Cardinal Tetras, Bleeding Heart Tetras, Pencil fish, Rummy Nosed Tetras, Corydoras Catfish and Red-base Tetras. But lurking deeper in this man-made jungle are a few shier and much larger creatures. If you look closely you will find them.

Can you spot the Anaconda in this picture?

Welcome to the jungle!

Ashley the Anaconda

- Marion Britt, Freshwater Intern (and Anaconda Girl)



How many birds in this picture: Take two!

In April I posted a picture of four of our shorebirds camouflaged in their winter plumage. From top to bottom are a piping plover, semipalmated plover, sanderling and dunlin. Most of you could only find two or three of them, but look closely and there are four.

The birds are all currently in their summer breeding plumage and far less camouflaged. Come see if you can tell the difference!



Mealworms, waxworms and crickets, Oh My!

What do shorebirds eat? In the wild they rely heavily on bugs and crustaceans they find on the beach, mainly in the wrack, or seaweed, that washes up and is found along the high tide line. In our exhibit, however, it would be a lot of work to constantly haul 50 pounds of wrack into the everyday and we might not know how much the birds are eating.

The public often thinks that we let the birds forage around in the exhibit for their food, and they're partly right. Carefully hidden behind rocks, logs and dunes are dishes for the birds to forage in. We load them up twice a day with a prepared diet called Flamingo Fare (flamingos also eat bugs and crustaceans so it's a great food for shorebirds too) and "live foods" like mealworms. Notice the carrots the mealworms are eating on the left. By "gut loading" our insects first we can assure the birds are getting even more nutrition.

Wax worms are their favorite. These moth larvae have the highest fat content of anything we serve them, I like to think of it as the ice cream of the bug world. No wonder these little inch-long bugs are what they pick out of their dishes first!

We also release a jar of crickets into the exhibit a few times a day and then you can really see the birds forage!

 Other food items we might offer are blackworms, trout worms, brine shrimp, fish eggs, copepods and maggots. Yes, maggots! Bon appetite!



Meet Our Shorebird Collection: Dunlin

Meet our dunlin. She was found along the Cape Cod Canal in 2003 with a fractured left wing. Vets at the Cape Wildlife Center rehabilitated her before she found a permanent home in our exhibit. She can fly a little but not well enough to make her annual breeding migration from as far south as Texas all the way to northern Hudson Bay in Canada. This picture captures her in her winter plumage, check back soon to see her in her beautiful breeding colors!



Meet our shorebird collection: common tern

Our exhibit holds one common tern. We nicknamed her "Ike" before we found out she was a female. Ike was found as a chick in the summer of 2005 on a beach in southern Massachusetts. She was mistakenly though to be abandoned by her parents and was brought to a rehabilitation center before we eventually gave her a permanent home.

Tern parents often leave their chicks on the beach while they fish offshore. So if you ever see a tern chick without a parent watch it for a while and I bet you'll see an adult come back pretty soon with a beak full of fish. If you don't see a parent return then contact a local wildlife rehabber or your local animal control officer before you try to handle any wildlife.

Ike is perfectly healthy and can fly very well but we can't release her back into the wild. Common terns need their parents to show them how to migrate and forage for food. We sometimes see her catching live silversides out of the exhibit pool but she's not very good at it, she prefers to eat defrosted fish out of a bowl!



Meet our shorebird collection: Sanderlings

Our exhibit holds two sanderlings, a male and a female. The male comes to us from a former exhibit and can fly very well.

The female was found in the winter of 2007 on a beach on Long Island. Vets in New York discovered severe fractures of her radius and ulna and successfully rehabilitated her, although she can not fly. She therefore has found a permanent home in our exhibit. You can tell her apart from the male because of her slightly droopy right wing.



A peek behind the scenes of the shorebird exhibit - the secret door!

On Tuesday I posted a riddle asked by many of our younger visitors: "how do you get out?" It does appear from the visitor side that when I'm in the shorebird exhibit I am in fact stuck.

I'm always reassuring visitors that my colleagues and I can get in and out quite easily through the "secret door." You can see our escape hatch on the left hand side of picture which was taken from inside the exhibit looking out. We do sometimes accidentally lock each other in the exhibit, so we do get stuck, but that's another story!



A peek behind the scenes of the shorebird exhibit

The most frequently asked question I get from our younger visitors is "how do you get out?" It does appear from the visitor side that when I'm in the shorebird exhibit I am in fact stuck since there's no visible door.

Here you can see my two long-time volunteers, Becky and Julia, behind the mesh feeding the fish. So how do we get in and out? Check back Friday to learn the answer!