FAQ: Touching Sharks and Rays

The Trust Family Foundation Shark and Ray Touch Tank is one of our most popular exhibits – and with good reason! In this beautiful space, you get the chance to touch some of the world’s most fascinating animals – stingrays and sharks. To prepare you for your visit, here are some Frequently Asked Questions:

How do I get to the Shark and Ray Touch Tank?
The touch tank, two additional viewing tanks and the jellies exhibit are in the Aquarium’s West Wing. Reach the West Wing from the lobby, directly next to the restrooms and lockers. 

 Photo: J. Correa

What is the best time to be there?
If you are planning to visit during school vacation time, be prepared for the touch tank area to be busy. First thing in the morning (the exhibit opens at 9:30 most days) is the best time to be there. If you can’t do that, the end of our day (check the website for closing times) tends to be quieter.

Photo: J. Correa

Stingrays? Won’t they sting me?
Nope! Our rays have all had their stinging barbs clipped, just like you might clip the nails on a cat or a dog. The barbs grow back, and are clipped again before they have a chance to get big enough to be a problem.  Also, rays generally only sting if they feel that their lives are in danger.

Photo: S. Cheng

Sharks! Won’t they bite me?
Even though sharks have a bad reputation, they are not into biting people. Our sharks, like most sharks, are small, shy animals. In fact, you may not even see them when you first get to the exhibit. They like to hide.

What’s the best way to touch them?
Roll up your sleeves. Make a flat hand, like you’re giving a high-five. Place that flat hand into the water, with the water somewhere between your wrist and your elbow. Be still and quiet – rays and sharks can hear you, and can feel your movement, and they will get scared away if you are too loud or move too much. When they come near, you may gently reach down and pet them on their backs.

We hope to see you soon at the Trust Family Foundation Shark and Ray Touch Tank!


Sharks in Residence

Next week is December school vacation, so the Aquarium will be filled with families! However, the week before the holidays is pretty quiet, making it a great time to visit. One of the many benefits of coming to the Aquarium when it isn't extremely busy is that you can spend more time looking at the exhibits and closely observing the many inhabitants. And one of the best exhibits to take a closer look? The Trust Family Foundation Shark and Ray Touch Tank!

Two animals that get overlooked during the hubbub of the summer are the whitespotted bamboo shark (Chiloscyllium plagiosum - previously mentioned in this post) and the brownbanded bamboo shark (Chiloscyllium punctatum). Both species tend to rest and hide throughout the day, making them less likely to be seen during the course of a visit.

Brownbanded bamboo sharks have very faint light and dark brown stripes

Whitespotted bamboo sharks have dark stripes and white spots

Both species of bamboo sharks are benthic-type sharks, spending much of their time on the sandy bottom. To prevent being bothered by other animals (or predators) the sharks will find hiding places in which to rest. Coral reef overhangs or mangrove roots provide great cover and allow the sharks to rest in peace and quiet. And as our exhibit has lots of overhangs and roots, our exhibit animals take full advantage of these spaces!

Some of the many mangroves in the exhibit-can you find the sharks?

So next time you are at the shark and ray touch tank, take a peek under the coral pieces that dot the exhibit or among the roots of the mangrove trees. You may just spot a shark resting on the sandy bottom.

Resting on the sand

In the mangrove roots


A behind the scenes look at jellies

One of the oldest groups of animals alive today, jellies often appear elegantly simple to the casual observer. But spend a little time with one of our jelly lab aquarists and you get the impression that, when it comes to jellies, there is a lot more to them than many people suspect.

Here at the New England Aquarium, we frequently have a dozen or more species of jellies (like the moon jelly). Some are on exhibit for visitors to see while others are raised behind the scenes to be sent to other aquariums all over the world.

Younger lagoon jellies (Mastigias papua) contain photosynthetic algae. As they mature, they need less light and loose their bluish color.

In order to successfully raise jellies, our aquarists must be familiar with their unusual reproduction strategy. Like something out of a science-fiction film, jellies go through several life stages that are drastically different from one another. Adult jellies, called medusa, can reproduce sexually by releasing eggs and sperm. Fertilized eggs become free-swimming planula larvae.

The lifecycle of a local species, the moon jelly, is so complicated that it helps to have an illustration courtesy of Senior Aquarium Educator Lisbeth Bornhofft.

Jellies can also reproduce asexually by forming anemone-like polyps (jellies and sea anemones, along with corals, are related to each other) that strobilate, or bud off, identical copies of themselves. These free-swimming “buds” are called ephyra. In some species, several ephyra can bud off of one single polyp.Since the jelly lifecycle in the wild is seasonal, our aquarists recreate a temperature shift from winter to spring, or spring to summer, to cause the polyps to strobilate.

Thumbnail-sized ephyra of purple-striped jellies (Chrysaora colorata)

Some ephyra are photosynthetic; they have symbiotic algae called zooxanthaellae that converts sunlight into food. Other ephyra are quite content to munch on tiny brine shrimp. Feeding and growing, they will eventually “bell over” into an adult medusa. This is when the shape of the jelly changes from a pointy star to more of a solid dome.

Despite their small size, these ephyra are already predators. If you look closely, you can see the brine shrimp we raise and feed to our jellies.

Here at the Aquarium, we have jellies on exhibit in both the Thinking Gallery and in the West Wing. While most of the jelly raising happens behind the scenes, we currently have Cassiopia jellies reproducing in the live mangrove exhibit. These jellies are often referred to as “upside-down” jellies since as adults they settle to the bottom of shallow, sunny tropical waters and use their bell like a suction cup. Being upside-down allows the photosynthetic algae to get plenty of sun!

Below is a video of both adult and ephyra stages of Cassiopia on exhibit. Or better yet, come to the New England Aquarium and see them for yourself!