Sea Cucumbers: East Meets West

Our new Olympic Coast exhibit features marine animals native to the rugged coastline of Washington State in the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. From giant Pacific octopuses to rockfish to swaying anemones, the exhibit dazzles with bright colors and movement. It's fascinating to compare these residents with their East Coast counterparts just steps away in the Gulf of Maine exhibits! Both live in colder water, but many are wildly different.

Olympic Coast exhibit, can you spot any cucumbers?

Let's take a pair of similar — and, perhaps, under-appreciated — residents from both exhibits and compare. Meet, the sea cucumbers! There are hundreds of species of sea cucumber, and the ones you find in our local waters have significant differences from ones you'll find along the Olympic Coast.

First up, the West Coast variety: the California sea cucumber (Parastichopus californicus

In this image you're looking at its undersides, which is a jumble of tube feet. These tube feet help this animal cling to surfaces and (slowly) navigate coastal habitats from Baja, Mexico, to mid-Alaska. Sea stars and urchins also have tube feet. The shock of pink at one end is its mouth surrounded modified tentacles that sift through sediment as it creeps along the seafloor — or along the crystalline glass of the new exhibit.

West Coast: Bristling tube feet
The back of the California cucumbers are leathery brownish, orange color studded with soft spikes. These invertebrates can grow to an impressive length of 40 cm (1 ft 4 in).

West Coast: The soft spines on the back of the California sea cucumber
Now to East Coast to meet the orange-footed sea cucumber (Cucumaria frondosa).

The East Coast sea cucumbers that you might find in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary feature five orderly rows of tube feet around their entire cylindrical body. They serve the same purpose: to get around and cling to surfaces. The feathery appendages are those modified tentacles on the mouth-end of the animal. Unlike their West Coast cousins that have downward-facing tentacles that graze along the seafloor, the tentacles of the orange-footed cucumbers are flayed out in the currents to ensnare passing plankton.

East Coast: Lines of tube feet on the undersides
of these orange footed sea cucumbers
This species maxes out at 20 cm (8 in) and found in the North Atlantic Ocean all the way up to the Barents Sea (near Norway and northeastern Russia).

East Coast: Orange footed cucumbers also have lines of tube feet on their back.
This helps grab on to any surface, above or below. Also note the fringe of feeding tentacles. 
Sea cucumbers are not the only animals you'll encounter in our Northern Waters gallery. Hardly! Come visit and meet the giant Pacific octopus that inhabit the new Olympic Coast exhibit near the California sea cucumbers. Then saunter down to take a look at the goosefish and lobsters in the boulder reef of the Gulf of Maine exhibits. The Aquarium is a great place to explore our blue planet — from East Coast to West!

Aquarist Bill Murphy cradles California sea cucumbers as he transports them
from their transport container to the new Olympic Coast exhibit.  


Egg Veil 2016: She's done it again!

Our beloved goosefish has done it again. She's spun a gossamer shroud of eggs that is currently billowing through her exhibit. A million eggs woven together in a single sheet 60 feet long and only a single egg thick. A natural masterpiece!

Goosefish eggs in a veil
Bill Murphy, the aquarist in charge of the cold water exhibits, had been expecting the eggs as the fish usually swells up before the veil arrives. The egg veil arrived Tuesday afternoon in the blink of an eye. (In fact, our aquarists missed her actually laying the eggs! If anyone snapped a pic or video please share on social — FacebookTwitterInstagram, whatever! We'd love to see them.)

The aquarists can always tell when the goosefish is about to lay another egg veil. Look how fat she was!
She looked much more comfortable after the eggs arrived, sitting flat on the bottom as she usually does.
Without a male in the exhibit, the eggs aren't fertilized, so no baby goosefish. But the veil will remain in the exhibit with her for a couple days. After that it starts to fall apart and the aquarists remove it from the exhibit. Plan a visit soon because this beautiful event (usually) happens only once a year and it's exquisite.

Bill expects Collette (yup, the goosefish has a name) to be pretty hungry over the next couple days after all that work of producing the eggs. Besides admiring the egg veil, don't forget to take a close look at this pretty lady! She has an enormous mouth, a fishing "lure," and intricate skin fringing her body.

Pretty lady
We never tire of the goosefish and her natural masterpiece. In fact, previous egg veils have also been well documented. Take a look back at some of her previous works of art.


Flamboyant Cuttlefish All Grown Up

Cast your mind back to last fall, when we were touting the happy arrival of a clutch of flamboyant cuttlefish eggs. The small, clear orbs were taken behind the scenes and carefully aerated and doted over by our aquarists. Weeks later, one of the eggs hatched. And now...

We're thrilled to introduce you to our very first home-grown flamboyant cuttlefish!

Flamboyant cuttlefish, all grown up and on exhibit in the Living Coral exhibit 
This solo cuttlefish was the only one to survive to maturity — no small feat since the Aquarium is only one of a handful of aquariums across the country to successfully rear this species. It is on display in the vibrant Living Corals exhibit. Look for it crawling along the bottom by the euphyllia (hammerhead coral) or resting mid water on the rock work. Yup, this little guy gets around!

Living coral exhibit: Look for the little cuttlefish along the bottom,
at the waterline, or anywhere in between!

Like all cuttlefish, it can change color in the blink of an eye from drab browns to vibrant purples and yellows. When it is hunting, it'll shoot out a pair of clear, retractable tentacles to grab its prey. The menu includes tiny live mysid shrimp and juvenile grass shrimp.

Subdued colors
As soon as a fish comes along, "Watch out, I'm poisonous!"

Full size flamboyant cuttle fish grow up to three inches long, this little cuttlefish is barely an inch long. But last fall it was barely the size of your pinky nail!

Here's the cuttlefish as a wee hatchling, barely the size of your pinky nail!

The New England Aquarium is one of very few places that exhibit this species in a living reef habitat. These animals are so exquisite, they're usually on display all by themselves. So it's exciting to see them in a vibrant reef habitat. Come see one of our tiniest tentacled residents as Tentacles take hold at the Aquarium this summer!


Even Camouflaging Cuttlefish Need to Eat

We just added 16 common cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis) to the cuttlefish exhibit. Yes, 16!

Common cuttlefish
But sometimes you might have to exercise your powers of observation to see these little guys. The juveniles often settle into different nooks and burrowed into the sand throughout the exhibit. We've pointed out just a few of them in this handy GIFs.

These little guys have had quite the journey, starting their life at the Ripley's Aquarium in Tennessee (Fun fact: this species has black eggs. When the females lay the eggs, she places a small amount of ink into each egg!) and coming to us via Monterey Bay Aquarium. When they arrived back in January, they were just 2 cm long. They've grown to be 4 – 5 cm long!

While they love to hide out, even timid juvenile common cuttlefish have to eat. They are fed a mixture of krill and small pieces of shrimp, and each one is slowly getting used to eating from a stick. Check out this short video to watch one of the wee cuttlefish creep past a hiding cuttlefish and grabbing a shrimp snack from the gravely bottom of the exhibit.

We slowed down a portion of the video so you could get a better view of those tentacles. If you want a real treat, check out this super-slow motion video of a cuttlefish grabbing a meal.

More amazing cuttlefish facts are on the blogs. Dive on in, the information is fascinating! Click on a link below for more pictures and video to learn more.


Right Place, Right Time, and a Shark Egg Case

Recently, a staffer had his camera phone recording as a brown banded bamboo shark laid an egg in The Trust Family Foundation Shark and Ray Touch Tank one evening. It was a special moment that not everyone gets to see, so we're happy to share it here! This short informative video shows where the adult sharks live, what the eggs look like as the tiny sharks are growing inside, and where juvenile sharks mature.


Learn even more about shark egg cases in the shark and ray touch tank! Check out these blog posts:


Of tentacles and turf: At home with the octopus

Our newest exhibit is beautiful to behold. Visitors have been wonderstruck by the diversity of species, the colors, and the artistic elements, like the rock formations inside and the sculptural rails along the outside. You might be interested to know that as much care went into designing the exhibit behind the scenes — especially the giant Pacific octopus habitat. 

Exploring the new digs!
You see, octopuses are strong, have flexible bodies and can learn and problem solve. Oh…and they have LOTS of suction cups. The giant Pacific octopus, like the ones in our new Olympic Coast Sanctuary exhibit, has over 2,000 of these sticky appendages! The octopus can taste and smell with the suckers and use them as a mode of transportation. If an octopus can grab hold and stick to a surface, the animal is strong enough to pull itself along, including in a vertical direction. This makes it possible for an octopus to climb over an exhibit wall.

A sticky situation!
Close-up of the suction cups
Since we want the best home possible for the animals in our care, staff took every precaution to make our newest exhibit a healthy, safe place for the octopus. The first line of defense? We give our animals enrichment activities, like puzzles and playtime, in addition to their regular stimuli and feedings to ensure the octopuses are physically and mentally challenged.

Wilson (the human) playing with Sy (the octopus)
In addition to the puzzles and enrichment, aquarists simply make sure the exhibit is designed in a way that doesn’t give the octopus any way to climb out anyway! Our past public exhibit had a large, heavy lid, one that the octopus couldn’t lift and thus prevented walkabouts. But with the new exhibit, aquarists were interested in keeping the top of the exhibit open for easier access. So what to do?

The old exhibit—a heavy lid prevented wandering octopuses
The first step to preventing a wandering octopus is to create enough distance between the water line and the top of the exhibit. Behind the scenes, there’s a tall wall enclosing the octopus tank. At close to 2.5 feet, that distance would be difficult for the octopus to move without water. Doors opening to the top of the exhibit are held closed by heavy latches. However, we took extra precautions and covered the tall wall and doors with a prickly material. What is this miracle octopus deterrent? Surprise…it’s AstroTurf!

Strong latches keep the doors closed
A tall wall and door at the top of the exhibit

AstroTurf has been uses for the past several decades to prevent giant Pacific octopuses from getting out of their exhibits. It’s easy to use, aquarium safe and has enough air space to prevent an octopus from sticking to it. If you’ve ever tried to stick a suction cup to a window or your GPS to the windshield of your car, you know that you need a good seal. A little gap lets air underneath and the strong hold is broken. The same idea works for the octopus and AstroTurf: the grassy blades of the turf prevent the suction cups from getting a tight seal. No seal, no sticking, and no sticking means no climbing, which means no escaping octopus resulting in happy aquarists!

Covered in the green stuff
AstroTurf covering the door
So while Inky is world-famous for his escape back into the ocean, we’d rather have our octopuses "stick" closer to home. And while you can’t see the behind the scenes walls of the exhibit, know that it’s covered in green artificial grass. Perhaps the “Astro” should stand for “Anti-Sticking-To-Repel-Octopus” turf. With this octopus deterrent in place, the Aquarium ensures that our octopuses will stay put and not repeat Inky’s miraculous escape. Make sure to come visit the giant Pacific octopus soon—you know they will be there!


Baby Seahorses: Seven-Month Check In

It takes about 9 months for baby lined seahorses to grow to full size. So as you can see, these seahorses born this past September are already well on their way to adulthood. Several weeks ago they graduated to adult food — mysid shrimp — and a few are large enough to go into the larger tank!

Finally, a few of the largest seahorses made it into the large exhibit
across from the electric eel on Level 3!

Let's take a walk down memory lane to see how these amazing creatures have grown over the past few months! Here's a collection of pictures of the baby seahorses, starting with newborn pictures from last September.

September (squeee!): Newborn seahorses float around their small exhibit around the corner from their parents 
October: Still free floating but getting bigger
December: Their tails are stronger and grabbing onto the habitat added to their exhibit
Early January: Coloration getting much darker
Late January: Starting to look like tiny adults!

March: The seahorses started eating frozen mysid shrimp and grew by leaps and bounds.
They were just weeks away from joining the adults!

April: A few of the babies were added to the large exhibit finally! You can tell the young ones from the adults
in the exhibit because the youngsters are smaller, obviously, and they are much lighter in color.

Watching the babies grow has been an absolute treat this winter. Be sure to come visit to see these youngsters before they're all grown up!

For comparison, here's an adult lined seahorse. 

If you liked this post, here a couple more posts you might enjoy:


Hoppin' Happenings: Poison Dart Frogs!

Animals have different ways of protecting themselves in the wild. Some are masters of camouflage, blending in with their surroundings until they are practically invisible. There are some animals, however, that advertise their presence with bright patterns or colors…just like our poison dart frogs!

I see you!
Located on the third floor of the Aquarium, our Poison Dart Frog exhibit has four different species of brightly-colored amphibians. Seen hopping around or sticking to the glass, the species showcased are found throughout the rain forests and humid lowlands of South America, including places like Brazil, French Guiana, Venezuela, and Colombia. To make it seem like home, the exhibit has live plants, “rains” and has a constantly running water feature to keep it nice and humid.

Home Sweet Exhibit
Among the green vegetation of the exhibit, it’s easy to pick out the vibrant yellow, cobalt blue, lime green and deep black patterns that these species wear so well. But why the bright colors? Animals that stand out from their environment are often warning other animals that messing with them will end in bad news! These brightly colored or patterned animals may be venomous (like lionfish), have a foul odor (like skunks) or be poisonous to eat. As you might guess by their common name, poison dart frogs have a toxin on their skin that makes them non-palatable to other animals.

How many frogs do you see?
So where does that toxin come from? The frogs don’t create their own toxin but rather gather it from the food that they eat. In the wild, the frogs would eat various insects that have the toxin. The more insects they eat, the more toxin the frogs bioaccumulate and transfer to their skin. And while the Aquarium’s frogs continue to have the same bright colors as their wild counterparts, the frogs here aren’t actually poisonous!

Instead of insects they would eat in the wild, we grow fruit fries for the frogs to eat. Yup, the same fruit flies that bother the overripe bananas you left on the kitchen counter. The flies have none of the toxin so thus the frogs can’t accumulate it. And thank goodness! Different species have different toxins of varying levels of potency, with many of the toxins causing such symptoms as general pain, cramping, partial paralysis, heart complications or even death!

Fruit flies for lunch
These toxins and symptoms may seem extreme, but important research is being done to see how they work! Scientists have made synthetic versions that show promise as painkillers, muscle relaxants and heart stimulants. So there are lots to learn from these species! It’s important to keep their environment healthy and preserve these animals for future generations. In the meantime, spread the word about these amazing amphibians. March 20th is World Frog Day according to some calendars, so it's the perfect time to hop over to the Aquarium to see these petite purveyors of potent pigments

Beautiful blues


A crab for the cuttlefish

A beautiful broadclub cuttlefish is currently stalking our cuttlefish exhibit. It is fed an assortment of seafoods, including live crabs now and then. Recently a staff member had their phone recording video during afternoon snack. Take a look at this cool behind-the-scenes video!

[Check out our Behind-the-Scenes Tours if you want another perspective on our exhibits—like this one.] 

While it takes about a half-hour to eat a fish, it may take the cuttlefish more than an hour to devour the crab because of its crusty exoskeleton. The aquarist usually find only the carapace and a few legs after the meal.

The way cuttlefish capture their prey is pretty fascinating to watch, too, but it happens so fast! We actually have some spectacular slow-motion footage that shows exactly how a cuttlefish (a common cuttlefish, in this case) nabs its meal. Watch how this cunning cephalopod captures its food with two retractable tentacles, then pulling it into the grasp of eight waiting suction cupped arms.

This footage was taken by photographer Keith Ellenbogen at 500 frames per second, about 17 times slower than it occurs to the naked eye. A typical video camera records at about 30 frames per second.

The broadclub cuttlefish noshing on its crab snack

With your new appreciation for cuttlefish, look for these invertebrates in their Level 1 exhibit here at the Aquarium. Whether they're changing color or hunting, they never cease to amaze! And if you're interested in behind-the-scenes perspectives like in the video on this post, check out our Behind-the-Scenes Tours!


How to Train Your Dragon...Fish

Did you know you can train a fish? It’s true! Like our marine mammals, many fish at the Aquarium have been trained to target, touching a body part, like their snout, to a particular object. Targeting helps lead animals to where we want or orientate them to a specific area. For fish, a lot of targeting behaviors center around feeding. And one of these well-trained fish lives on the Aquarium’s second floor!
Asian arowana

The Asian arowana, aka dragonfish, is a beautiful red and gold-colored fish located in our Ancient Fishes exhibit. With lots of animals in this exhibit, it’s important to know that everyone has a chance to eat. Fortunately, our arowana has a “fin up” on the competition — he’s target trained! Having traveled from the Toledo Zoo many years ago, it’s an old pro at this behavior by now. By associating one particular object with food, the arowana will swim over and get something to eat when it spots that object.

Behind the scenes view

To start the feeding process, a large blue and white circle is lowered and hung off the side of the exhibit. This highly contrasted color combination helps the arowana see it against the background of the exhibit. Once the target is located by the arowana, it knows that it’s time to eat. The fish will swim over to the target, touch its snout to the circle (or at least get close), and then is quickly rewarded with a shrimp or small fish.

Feeding target
Just as the arowana learned how to target, there are some others that have figured it out! It’s not the only fish that swims over when the target goes in the water.  A couple of exhibit-mates, including a lung fish, can be seen hanging around trying to steal a morsel. But the aquarists are careful to try and feed only the arowana with this target, ensuring that gets its particular food selection.

Right behavior, wrong fish species

This type of feeding might seem like a lot of work for one fish. However, it’s really important for the overall health of the exhibit. It ensures that the arowana gets enough food specifically for it and allows the aquarist to get a good close at how it’s doing. Target feeding also helps alleviate competition during feedings. The arowana is a fast fishy predator, while some other fish on exhibit are a bit slower. By feeding the fish in this way, arowana only associates the target with food. No target = no food for the arowana and let’s the other animals have a chance to eat. It’s such a successful feeding strategy that we do this with other animals at the Aquarium, including sea turtles and different fish species in the Giant Ocean Tank!

Feeding and getting footage is tricky!

To see the target feeding from a visitor’s point of view, check out the video below! You’ll be able to see the arowana swim up to the blue circle. Once it swims close, Jeremy, one of our head aquarists, quickly lowers in a fish or shrimp and then it’s snack time! Next time you come in to visit, check out the Ancient Fishes exhibit and our extraordinary Asian arowana.  If you see a blue circle in the exhibit, it may mean lunch isn’t too far behind.


Lunchtime with the Shorebirds

The shorebirds exhibit at the Aquarium is a quiet, sunny oasis for the rescued birds that live there. Watching them bop up and down the exhibit's shoreline, listening to them cheep and squawk, is also a treat for visitors.

The shorebirds get the corner office with a view of Boston Harbor.

But mealtime might make some folks squirm.

This day, our aquarists fed the birds a tasty buffet of beetle larvae, served up in trays and distributed discretely around the exhibit. The trays keep the larvae from wriggling into the sand and pebbles in the exhibit. The fish-eating birds — the common terns and black skimmer — also dine on frozen (then thawed) silversides and capelin, which are also on the menu for other Aquarium animals like the penguins and large fish in the Giant Ocean Tank. And no, they don't actually eat the fish in the exhibit!

Preparing lunchtime for the shorebirds

And now and then, the aquarists also release a jar of crickets into the exhibit. That's when you can really see the birds forage!

Special delivery for the shorebirds: crickets

In the wild shorebirds 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.

Most of the shorebirds in the exhibit were injured and could not survive on their own in the wild. There are the common terns, Ike and Truro, the semipalmated sandpiper, and piping plover. On your next visit to the Aquarium, be sure to take a moment to watch the shorebirds in their exhibit—you'll be transported to warm summer days at the shore no matter what the weather is like outside.