Archive for the 'From the Curator' Category

Underwater City: The Hustle and Bustle of Coral Reefs

Blog-Header-AnimalExpertUpd

Bright, beautiful and overflowing with life, coral reefs are among the most incredible natural wonders in the world. 

national aquarium coral reef infographic

Often thought of as rocks or plants, corals are actually made up of invertebrates called polyps. These polyps can range in size from a millimeter to a foot in diameter. The polyps group together, forming a colony, and use calcium carbonate from the ocean to build a protective skeleton.

Generally, corals are classified as either hard or soft corals. Hard corals are the framework of the reef. As these corals grow in colonies, they create skeletons. Soft corals are soft and bendable, looking more like plants. These organisms form a visually stunning and biologically important foundation for many ocean inhabitants, from tiny fish to large apex predators like sharks.

Though coral reefs constitute less than one percent of the ocean floor, they support an estimated 25 percent of ocean life. They are incredibly bio-diverse, and provide critical spawning, nursery, breeding and feeding grounds for thousands of species. And, according to a report by the World Research Institute, 75 percent of the world’s reefs are considered threatened.

The Value of Coral Reefs

The loss of thriving coral reefs has real consequences, and not just to their many inhabitants. Besides being essential habitats for fish, coral reefs have a measurable value to those who live on land.

Because they essentially serve as mountain ranges for the ocean’s coastlines, they deflect the energy of brutal storms that might otherwise decimate coastal communities. In fact, in areas where we have experienced tsunamis, the areas with coral reefs fared much better than those without.

Chemical compounds unique to coral reefs are especially useful for medicinal purposes. Researchers have used coral amalgams to treat ailments including ulcers, skin cancers and heart disorders. Once the correct formula is identified, the medicines can be mass-produced synthetically.

And of course, the natural beauty of coral reefs makes them attractive for tourists, too. Visitors from all over the world flock to the Florida Keys, Barbados, Indonesia, Australia and other destinations to get a closer look. Most of these areas rely heavily on tourism for economic growth and sustainability, so preserving coral reefs is vital for their economies.

All told, the economic value of coral reefs has been estimated to be $375 billion per year.

Reef in Danger

Sadly, coral reefs are highly threatened. Storm damage, invasive species, climate change, coastal development and commercial use are just a few of the threats. Corals are extremely sensitive, so even small sifts in light, temperature and water acidity can be detrimental. Many of the choices that we make every day contribute to the devastation of coral reefs. Coral is able to grow and repair itself, but needs precisely the right environment to do so.

In order for many coral species to thrive, they must have exposure to bright sunlight. Clear-water environments are necessary for corals to receive the maximum amount of direct light. Pollution in our water from runoff and other chemicals can cause excessive amounts of algae to grow on its surface. This process, called eutrophication, clouds the water and prevents coral from getting the sun that it needs.

In addition to chemical pollutants, coral reefs are also threatened by ocean acidification caused by the burning of fossil fuels. This process sends a deluge of carbon dioxide into the air, forming carbonic acid. Destructive fish practices, such as the use of cyanide to attract specific types of fish, also contribute to the devastation of coral reefs.

To respond to the threat of ocean acidification, the XPRIZE Foundation launched the $2 million Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE last year. This new contest, developed with help from the National Aquarium and other leading ocean healthy organizations, aims to spur innovators to develop accurate and affordable ocean pH sensors that will ultimately transform our understanding of one of the greatest problems associated with the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

While the future of coral reefs may appear bleak, there’s still a lot we CAN do to protect these aquatic treasures! 

Jack Cover

Looking Forward to 2014!

Before we get too far into this exciting new year, we’d like to first take a moment to thank our amazing online community for their support and love in 2013!

national aquarium thanks you

Together, we were able to accomplish some pretty amazing things this past year and we’re excited to see just what 2014 has in store for us.

Here’s what some our experts are looking forward to in the New Year:

Jenn Dittmar, Manager of National Aquarium Animal Rescue

I’m looking forward to continuing to rehab our current cold-stun patients and coordinating their releases later this year.

national aquarium kemps ridley turtle

I’m also looking forward to hosting the annual dolphin count and coordinating exciting upgrades to our seal rehabilitation facility!

Laura Bankey, Director of Conservation

I’m really looking forward to a busy field season in 2014.  We have projects scheduled from New York to Virginia and I always look forward to winter ending so we can start restoring habitats again.

Masonville Cove

This year, I’m also excited about the opportunity to host the National Wildlife Federation and our other state affiliate partners for NWF’s Annual Meeting.  Conservation partners from across the country will be joining us in Baltimore in May and I can’t wait to show off our wonderful Aquarium and our local field projects!

Jack Cover, General Curator

In 2014, I’m looking forward to finding new ways to use our exhibits and animals to raise awareness of the diversity of life that can be found in a healthy beach ecosystem.

longsnout seahorse

Every shell found on a beach has a story to tell and I hope to share many of these stories with you all in the New Year!

Sarah Elfreth, Government Affairs

I’m thankful for the Aquarium community’s support in helping Maryland become the first state on the East Coast to ban the possession, sale, and trade of shark fins.

maryland shark fin bill

I’m excited to work on other policy issues aimed at protecting aquatic life in 2014!

Holly Bourbon, Curator of Fishes

My team will be focused on so many exciting things in the New Year. Chief among them are our brand-new exhibit, Blacktip Reef, and the settling of animals from our closed Washington, DC venue into their new homes here in Baltimore.

national aquarium loggerhead turtle

One animal from DC, a loggerhead named Brownie, is particularly exciting for us. Brownie is part of the Loggerhead Head Start program, which gives sea turtle hatchlings a head start at a great life . In 2014, I hope to see him reach a releasable size!

Leigh Clayton, Director of Animal Health

2014 is already shaping up to be a very busy and exciting year for me.

In just a few short weeks, I’m be in Orlando, Florida lecturing at the North American Veterinary Conference, one of the largest vet conferences in the US. My lectures will mostly focus on reptiles, covering everything from insectivore nutrition to oral disease.

I’m looking forward to seeing a paper written by one of our prior interns, Dr. Kathy Tuxbur, published in the Diseases of Aquatic Organisms journal. A lot of Kathy’s work with us as an intern focused on horseshoe crabs and the carapace lesions and branchitis that can sometimes present in the species.

national aquarium baby sloth scout

Lastly, I’m looking forward to seeing our newest baby sloth, Scout, continue to grow and mature!

Heather Doggett, Director of Visitor Programs and Staff Training

I am excited to spend more time with my family outdoors, enjoying nature and doing some new citizen science activities with my four-year-old.

local wildlife

I’m hoping to take more hikes in 2014 and record what we find!

What are you looking forward to this year? Tell us in the comments section! 

Dolphin Stranding Update: Investigative Range Extends Through Florida

national aquarium Animal Rescue Update

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently provided an update on the ongoing Unusual Mortality Event (UME) affecting bottlenose dolphins in the mid-Atlantic. Based on recent stranding patterns and test results from stranded dolphins, the NOAA and UME Investigative Team formally expanded the range of the event to include New York through Florida – which translates to roughly 1,600 miles of Atlantic coast.

Over the past few weeks, above ‘normal’ baseline strandings for this time of year have been reported in North Carolina and South Carolina, meanwhile, Florida is just beginning to see an increase in dolphin strandings. The population of bottlenose dolphins from New York to Virginia is mainly migratory. These dolphins are beginning to migrate south to warmer waters, which is the likely reason that North Carolina and South Carolina are seeing an overall increase in strandings.

NOAA dolphin stranding numbers

This graph from NOAA shows the total number of strandings reported this year, by state – since it’s creation, raw data from Florida’s strandings has also been collected by NOAA.

In addition to expanding the range of the event, NOAA is also awaiting final test results to determine if the virus that is attributed to this UME is also responsible for the deaths of other dolphin and whale species. Three humpback whales and two pygmy sperm whales have tested positive as carriers of the morbillivirus, however, further testing is needed to determine if these animals displayed any clinical signs and if the virus was the cause of death.

The beginning of this UME was classified as July 1, and to date the event has proven to be quite significant. According to the official NOAA website for this event, there have been more than 900 dolphin strandings from New York to South Carolina during the time frame of January 1, 2013 to November 4, 2013 – this number is 4.5 times higher than the average number of strandings.

National Aquarium continues to support this event by responding to live-stranded dolphins in Maryland. In addition to boots-on-the-ground response, our National Aquarium Animal Rescue staff are supporting the event by assisting the Incident Management Team that is coordinating the response plans within the designated UME area.

national aquarium animal rescue expert jennifer dittmar

Adventures in Jellyfish Collecting

Blog-Header-AnimalExpertUpd

When planning what species to display in Jellies Invasion: Oceans out of Balance, we knew it would be important to include species found in local waters. To keep our exhibits full of jellies, National Aquarium staff venture out to the Chesapeake Bay throughout the year to collect the following local species: Atlantic sea nettles (Chrysaora quinquecirrha), Leidy’s comb jellies (Mnemiopis leidyi) and Lion’s mane jellies (Cyanea capillata).

Our most frequented spot for jellyfish collecting is on the Eastern Bay, off the southeast end of Kent Island. This past weekend, we launched from my family’s waterfront property located in the southeastern region of the island. My nephew, Joe Cover, Jr., a resident of Kent Island and an avid fisherman, is my unofficial jellyfish monitor/assistant. He keeps me posted on when and where he is seeing groups of jellies.

Ideal jelly-collecting conditions include a moving tide (to raise jellies to the water’s surface), little to no wind and a cloudless sky (the mostly transparent Leidy’s comb jelly is almost impossible to spot when the sky is overcast). There are times when you believe the conditions are ideal, yet few or no jellies are found at the surface. When this happens, my standard line is, “You know, we have just been outsmarted by an animal that has no brain.”

jellies collecting trip 2013

We were glad to see calm waters and no clouds this past Saturday!

Equipped with collecting bags, five-gallon buckets, glass beakers and special plastic jelly-collecting nets, we motored out to the middle of Eastern Bay. The water was a bit choppy, but I stopped the boat as soon as I saw a “slick,” a narrow band or area of still water among the light waves. Natural slicks are sometimes formed when concentrations of microscopic diatoms gather at the surface and release natural oils that change the surface water’s density and retard the formation of ripples and small waves.

As we slowly drifted along with the wind and tide, we started to see Atlantic sea nettles and large Leidy’s comb jellies (a whopping 3 to 4 inches long) pulsing along the surface. We were in the right place at the right time! Upon further examination of the water’s surface, we saw thousands of tiny copepods (zooplankton) gathered – another great sign! Jellies continued to surface to feed on the copepods and, in some cases, each other. Yes, some jellyfish (like Atlantic sea nettles) include other jelly species (Leidy’s combs) in their diets.

I started filling collecting bags placed in five-gallon buckets with Bay water.

jellies collecting trip 2013

Jellyfish have no bones and little body structure. In fact, 96 percent of a jellyfish’s body is water! A delicate jelly can easily be injured if it is removed from the water or rubs against any abrasive surface. To avoid injuring our specimens, we used smooth-sided beakers to corral the jellies. The jelly is then moved, in water, to one of the water-filled plastic bags in a bucket. The beaker is submersed into the bucket and tilted to gently release the jelly.

jellies collecting trip 2013

Care must be taken to prevent the creation of air bubbles, which can get trapped in the jelly’s tissues and injure it. This is why beakers containing jellies are not poured in from above the water’s surface. Leidy’s comb jellies are especially fragile and must be transported with extra care.

In addition to their delicate body structures, quick temperature changes can be detrimental to jellyfish. It was relatively cool on this sunny afternoon, and the water in the buckets was staying close to the temperature of the Bay water. In a relatively short period of time, we filled six five-gallon buckets to capacity with jellies.

We headed back to the dock to prepare the buckets for transport to the Aquarium’s Jellies Lab. Prior to loading the buckets into the car, air is removed from each bag, which is then sealed with a rubber band. After loading up the car, I headed back over the Bay Bridge to the Aquarium. The car’s air-conditioning kept the jellies at their preferred temperature.

Once at the lab, the buckets of jellies are unloaded and the rubber bands are removed to allow gas exchange to the water.

The final leg of the jelly-collecting process is to slowly acclimate these jellies to the water in an exhibit or holding tank. I hand this part of the journey off to the Jellies staff. All incoming jellies need to be slowly acclimated to both the temperature and the salinity of our exhibit water. This process can take several hours or several days depending on how the salinity of the Bay and our exhibit waters compare.

Jellyfish continue to fascinate and amaze our visitors. We’re glad to provide our jellyfish gallery as a wonderful resource to connect people with our local jellies!

Jack Cover

Have Your Best Aquarium Experience Ever!

Whether it’s your first or fiftieth visit to the Aquarium, there’s always something new to discover!

Here are our top 10 insider tips for making this next visit even better than the last: 

national aquarium Clownfish

Visit During the Week

Visiting National Aquarium during the week gives you access to all the Aquarium has to offer…with plenty of time to linger.

 

national aquarium gouldian finch

Be an Early Bird

Start your day off right—with US! Arriving before 11 am gives you a head-start checking out Blacktip Reef and all our other exhibits. Plus, there’s so much that happens as the animals start their day, and you can be a part of it. More of a night owl? A visit after 3 pm means you’ll experience our animals during a less busy time.


national aquarium golden lion tamarin

Make a New Friend

Starting every morning at 9 am, a special meet-and-greet lets you get up close with a new best bird or lizard buddy. And throughout the day, Aquarium staff members are on-hand to share information about what they love—the ocean and all of its inhabitants! From animal encounters and educator talks to feedings and diver presentations, there’s something going on at all hours starting right when the Aquarium opens. Check out the schedule at the digital message boards in the Aquarium and on the back of the guide map.


national aquarium bottlenose dolphin Buy Online to Pick Your Time

Purchasing tickets at aqua.org means that you can pick the entrance time that works for you. Our timed entry is designed to ensure that everyone has a great experience. What could be better than that?

national aquarium eel


Look in Every Nook and Cranny

Yes, the exhibits are lovely to look at, but there’s so much more to explore if you take the time to look beneath the surface. See if you can find the sandbar shark pup in the Atlantic Coral Reef. Search for hidden gems—Upland Tropical Rain Forest is filled with them, like the tarantula who makes its home in the log or the tortoises up on the top level. Check out the wolf eel in the Kelp Forest rock and the amazing mantis shrimp in the Adaptations Gallery. Take your time—no matter where you look, there’s something incredible to discover.



national aquarium blacktip reef sharks

View Blacktip Reef From Every Angle

National Aquarium’s newest exhibit is a wonder from every perspective. Whether it’s through our floor-to-ceiling underwater viewing area or from above at multiple levels, there’s always something exciting to see.



national aquarium dolphin meet and greet

Turn Your Visit Into an Adventure

Go behind the scenes with your favorite animals and exhibits! Immersion Tours give you an inside look at what makes the Aquarium and all of its inhabitants so special.



national aquarium jellyfish

Take Great Aquarium Photos

Capture an amazing visit with incredible photos. Skip the flash, boost your camera’s ISO for low-light conditions (if yours has the ability to do that!), aim straight into the tank, and be patient. By experimenting and taking tons of shots, you’re bound to get a few gems. Planning to post your photos online? Be sure to share them with us via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and we might just highlight YOUR photo! The jellies are ready for their close-ups…



national aquarium fish

Join Our Community

Apply your purchase to a membership and maximize your aquarium experience all year! Support from our members is absolutely critical to the amazing work we do to conserve the world’s aquatic treasures. And, with free unlimited admission, discounted parking, and access to many other great benefits, membership makes sense (and cents) for everyone who loves the Aquarium.




national aquarium blacktip reef webcam

Take the Aquarium Home With You

The residents of National Aquarium are happy where they are, but there’s a lot you can do to extend the experience at home. Visit aqua.org for access to incredible webcams of Blacktip Reef and the Pacific Coral Reef, information on conservation opportunities near you, and blogs from our Aquarium experts on everything from animal rescue to marine mammal training. Explore a stream near you, looking for reptiles, amphibians, and birds that make their homes near water. Go to the library or explore online resources to learn more about the animals you met during your visit. Make sustainable choices that will help conserve our oceans and waterways.



Sign up for AquaMail

Twitter Updates


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 239 other followers