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Loggerhead Sea Turtle: Behind-the-Scenes Update

In early January 2015, visitors to Birch Aquarium will be able to see a rescued Loggerhead Sea Turtle that was recently transported to San Diego from South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston, South Carolina. To learn more about the history of the turtle and find out how you can help support its ongoing care, visit the aquarium’s website. We will be blogging updates on the turtle’s story, from its arrival in San Diego to exhibit preparations in the Hall of Fishes and the turtle’s behind-the-scenes care.

Previous post: Meeting our Loggerhead Sea Turtle

After a wonderful send-off from the staff and volunteers at South Carolina Aquarium, the Loggerhead Sea Turtle’s journey continued with the help of Delta Air Lines and the coordinated efforts of staff at Charleston International, Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta, and San Diego International Airports. Since the East Coast was experiencing a cold snap during the trip, and Loggerheads are accustomed to more moderate climates, Birch Aquarium husbandry experts and airport personnel worked together to ensure a safe and comfortable cross-country journey for the turtle.

Precious cargo aboard!

Precious cargo aboard!

Since arriving in San Diego, the turtle has been busy adjusting to its new surroundings. We are pleased to share that the turtle’s acclimation to life in San Diego has been going quite well!  The husbandry team at Birch Aquarium has been making sure the turtle is receiving the highest quality nutrition and care.  One way they do this is through target training (the red triangle in the photo below is the “target”). Using this technique guarantees the turtle will get critical vitamins and food when it moves to the Hall of Fishes in January.

Target training

Target training

While behind-the-scenes, Husbandry and Animal Health teams worked together to assess weights, measurements, and baseline blood values for the turtle. These routine evaluations help aquarists monitor and care for the turtle as it grows—at about one hundred pounds, the turtle is currently only a juvenile!

Loggerhead turtle during routine physical

Loggerhead turtle during routine physical

Additionally, with the help of UC San Diego Health System, the husbandry team was able to utilize a CT Scan (Computed Tomography) at Thornton Hospital in La Jolla to view the turtle’s scoliosis, skeletal structure, and importantly, the flippers.  The information from the scan helps aquarium staff provide the care needed to keep the turtle healthy for years to come.

Arrival at Thornton Hospital in La Jolla

Arrival at Thornton Hospital in La Jolla

We are very grateful to our UC San Diego Health System for helping us get an important “closer look” at our turtle.

CT scan

CT scan

On January 6, 2015, visit Birch Aquarium to see our Loggerhead Sea Turtle in the Bahía Magdalena tank in the Hall of Fishes!

SEA Days: Understanding Ice

by Rasheed I. Al Kotob, Volunteer Programs Assistant

Each month, the third Saturday is a special day at Birch Aquarium: SEA Days! As the tagline suggests, SEA Days are always full of  “Science, Exploration and Adventure.” Visitors and members can meet a Scripps Institution of Oceanography or UC San Diego researcher and get hands-on with science, participate in activity stations, and get creative with a thematic craft.

What do you think of when you picture the world’s water content? You may imagine our oceans as vast bodies of water that span most of the globe. However, a large amount of the water on Earth also exists as ice. For example, the ice on the continent of Antarctica alone accounts for 90% of the world’s ice, and 70% of our fresh water. Now that’s impressive! Understanding all that ice is important. For example, researchers study ice to help predict the rate of sea level change around the world and to learn about microscopic life in other areas of our solar system.

Our visiting scientist for December’s SEA Days is Sasha Peter Carter, Ph.D., a researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who has the opportunity to closely observe and participate in a variety of research projects that study the incredible phenomena that take place in ice. Below, Sasha answers questions about his experience in the field and gives advice to future scientists.

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Where did you go to college?

I started by taking college classes as a high school student at UC Riverside, then completed four years of College at UC Santa Cruz.  Following that, I spent seven years at the University of Texas, Austin completing my Ph.D.


What is your area of research?

I study the river systems beneath the Antarctic ice sheet.  They are as complex and varied as any of the rivers you may know, but buried beneath hundreds if not thousands of feet of ice.  We now know that these systems harbor life, which bears similarity to that we might expect to find elsewhere in the solar system.  These rivers are also of critical importance for how fast ice flows into the ocean, which matters if you want to predict sea level changes.


Who or what inspired you to become involved in marine science?

I always loved being outdoors, and I was concerned about pollution and change to the environments.  I saw studying science as a way to make the world a less polluted place.


What qualities do you need in order to become a scientist?

Never forgetting to play.  


What will you be bringing with you to SEA days?

Flubber, a material that like glacial ice, is solid, but flows under its own weight.  


What is the best advice you have for people interested in becoming involved in your field of research?

Look around you. Then look deeper.  


What are your favorite ocean organisms?

Penguins.

 

 

Join us on Saturday, December 20 for SEA Days: Understanding Ice—there’s something for everyone!

SEA Days are 11 a.m – 3 p.m., are included with aquarium admission, and always free to aquarium members. Not a member? Join today!

SEA you there!

 

Meeting Our New Loggerhead Sea Turtle

In early January 2015, visitors to Birch Aquarium will be able to see a rescued Loggerhead Sea Turtle that was recently transported to San Diego from South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston, South Carolina. To learn more about the history of the turtle and find out how you can help support its ongoing care, visit the aquarium’s website. We will periodically blog updates on the turtle’s story, from its arrival in San Diego to exhibit preparations in the Hall of Fishes and the turtle’s behind-the-scenes care.

Birch Aquarium aquarists Kylie Washer and Fernando Nosratpour went to Charleston to meet with the team and turtle at South Carolina Aquarium Sea Turtle Rescue Program.

Loggerhead Sea Turtle

In order to ensure a smooth transition to its (we won’t know if the turtle is male or female for a few years) new home, the experts in South Carolina showed Kylie and Fernando how they have been caring for the turtle. Here they are with Sea Turtle Rescue program manager Kelly Thorvalson learning about the turtle’s history and behavior.

Birch Aquarium aquarist Kylie Washer and South Carolina Aquarium Sea Turtle Rescue program manager Kelly Thorvalson

Birch Aquarium aquarist Kylie Washer and South Carolina Aquarium Sea Turtle Rescue program manager Kelly Thorvalson

The staff at South Carolina Aquarium worked with the turtle to help it know when to go to the side of the tank for feeding. Due to competition from the other animals in the tank, and its rear flipper paralysis, the turtle will be able to eat more easily when it is guided to the side of tank. This training will also help staff move the turtle for routine physical examinations.

In addition to learning the turtle’s routine, habits, and health history, Fernando and Kylie took time to observe and introduce themselves to the newest member of the Birch Aquarium animal community.

Kylie says hello!

They also had the opportunity to meet some of the other animals currently being treated at the Rescue Program. They even assisted with collecting a blood sample from a Green Sea Turtle that was recently stranded in South Carolina.

Fernando assisting with collecting a blood sample from a Green Sea Turtle

Birch Aquarium is grateful to the staff at South Carolina Aquarium for rehabilitating the turtle and showing it so much care during the time it was at the Sea Turtle Rescue Program. The team even wrote “good luck” notes on the outside of the crate to wish her well on the next phase of her journey—the trip across the country to Birch Aquarium at Scripps.

Staff at South Carolina Aquarium sending well wishes off with the turtle!

 

SEA Days: Kelp Kornucopia

by Rasheed I. Al Kotob, Volunteer Programs Assistant

 

Every month, the third Saturday is a special day at Birch Aquarium: SEA Days! As the tagline suggests, SEA Days are always full of  “Science, Exploration and Adventure.” Visitors and members can meet a Scripps Institution of Oceanography or UC San Diego researcher and get hands-on with science, participate in activity stations, and get creative with a thematic craft.

What’s so spectacular about kelp? Well, all the protein shakes in the world can’t get us to grow as fast as kelp does. The type of algae known as Giant Kelp is, under the right conditions, able to grow anywhere between 12” to 24” per day. Now that’s impressive! Furthermore, kelp forests harbor a greater diversity of plants and animals than almost any other ocean community.

Pacific fish at Birch Aquarium at Scripps

Our visiting scientist for November’s SEA Days is Christian McDonald, the Diving Safety Officer at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who has the opportunity to closely observe and participate in a variety of research projects that study these amazing communities. Below, Christian answers questions about his experience in the field and gives some advice to future scientists.

1. Where did you go to college?

I studied marine biology and graduated from UC Santa Cruz.

2. What is your area of research?

As the Diving Safety Officer, my job at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego involves training our faculty, staff, and students who wish to use SCUBA to conduct their research and education. I’m also able to help facilitate the science our researchers pursue by providing expert advice, technical support, or project oversight when needed. This allows me to participate in a wide variety of research projects.

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3. Who or what inspired you to become involved in marine science?

I grew up in the Central Valley of California. Though I spent a lot of time in the water (pools), I was fairly “landlocked.” Much of my early inspiration to marine science came from Jacques Cousteau documentaries and a natural history TV show called Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. I was later inspired by NASA and our space program to explore extreme environments such as space and the ocean.

4. What qualities do you need in order to become a scientist?

There are many avenues a scientist could pursue (academia, research, science education, non-profit, etc.). Whichever trajectory, it takes a lot of schooling and a lot of hard work to become a scientist. Truly being curious as to how the world works and passionate about understanding these processes more will help one remain inspired through all the hard work.

5. Why is your research topic important?

Our researchers work very hard to study and find solutions to complex problems. When that work involves going onto and into the ocean, my job is to help them do it as safely and as effectively as possible.

6. What will you be bringing with you to SEA days?

I’ll be bringing a poster showcasing our historic Scientific Diving Program and the science we are able to support. I’ll also bring along some SCUBA equipment and some of the tools our researchers use to collect data underwater. 

7. What is the best advice you have for people interested in becoming involved in your field of research?

Spend time on and in the ocean in whatever capacity is available to you. Look around you. Ask questions about what you see. Learn to snorkel. Learn to dive. Explore.

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8. What is your favorite ocean organism?

I do like “charismatic megafauna.” Sharks and particularly, manta rays.

Join us on Saturday, November 13 for SEA Days: Kelp Kornucopia — there’s something for everyone!

SEA Days are 11 a.m – 3 p.m., are included with aquarium admission, and always free to aquarium members. Not a member? Join today!

SEA you there!

SEA Days: All Shook Up!

by Rasheed I. Al Kotob, Volunteer Programs Assistant

Every month, the third Saturday is a special day at Birch Aquarium: SEA Days! As the tagline suggests, SEA Days are always full of  “Science, Exploration and Adventure.” Visitors and members can meet a Scripps Institution of Oceanography or UC San Diego researcher and get hands-on with science, participate in activity stations, and get creative with a thematic craft.

In the spirit of the annual Great California ShakeOut which was held October 16, and as part of Earthquake Safety Month at Birch Aquarium, this month’s SEA Days theme focuses on the science behind earthquakes and other tectonic plate activity that is responsible for many different natural phenomena that affect land and marine ecosystems alike. Our visiting scientist for the day is Ekaterina “Katia” Tymofyeyeva,  a Ph.D. student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography who conducts research in the field of geophysics. Below, Katia answers questions about her experience in the field, and gives some advice for future scientists.

Where did you go to college?

I got my undergraduate degree in physics at The College of New Jersey. I originally wanted to become an experimental physicist, so I focused on optics, photonics, and electronics. I spent two years after that working at Princeton University doing atomic physics.

What is your area of research?

My area of research is called satellite geodesy. Basically, we use data from satellites to look at small movements on the surface of the Earth. We then use our observations to create mathematical models that can enlighten us about important processes, such as ones that cause earthquakes.

fieldwork
Who or what inspired you to become involved in marine science?

When I was in college, I took just one geology course, and it made me realize I wanted to be involved in geophysics. What inspires me about geophysics is the beauty of being able to look at the Earth and describe it with mathematics. It is also wonderful to work in a field where the long-term goals may have a positive impact on society, such as earthquake prediction.

What qualities do you need in order to become a scientist?

Curiosity and creativity are the most important, because curiosity provides inspiration, and creativity is essential for solving scientific problems. Patience and optimism are also important, because research can be hard work, and things almost never go as planned.

Why is your research topic important?

In general, it is important to learn as much as possible about the planet we live on. But also, geophysics has applications that are important to society, such as the prediction of earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. The more we understand about how the Earth works, the more we can use that knowledge to take better care of it, and of ourselves.

What will you be bringing with you to SEA days?

I will be bringing pictures and hands-on activities to teach people about the Earth, earthquakes, and Earth science.

What is the best advice you have for people interested in becoming involved in your field of research?

If you are curious about something, remember that most scientists love to talk about their research, and will be happy to answer your questions. Don’t be intimidated or afraid, and get involved as early as possible.

Katia and team


What is your favorite ocean organism?

Because I am not an ocean scientist, I can’t provide a very meaningful answer to this question. Instead, I will tell you about my favorite rock. It is called a “pseudotachylite,” and it is pretty rare. It is produced when a rock experiences an earthquake somewhere deep in the Earth’s crust, and part of it melts. Many years later, it becomes exposed on the surface. These rocks are sometimes nicknamed “fossil earthquakes,” because they tell a story about deep earthquakes from long ago.

Join us on Saturday, October 18 for SEA Days: All Shook Up! — there’s something for everyone!

SEA Days: All Shook Up!  is generously sponsored by  Time Warner Cable  as part of  Kids Free in October.

SEA Days are 11 a.m – 3 p.m., are included with aquarium admission, and always free to aquarium members. Not a member? Join today!

SEA you there!

 

A Seadragon Birthday

Our First Hatched Baby Seadragon Turns 1!

Following in the footsteps of our successful Seahorse Propagation Program, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, Birch Aquarium’s husbandry team is developing a propagation program for seadragons. Found only off the coast of Australia, seadragons are endangered and breeding programs such as ours can help protect these beautiful animals in the wild. In August 2013, we completed construction of our Seadragon Propagation Lab. Shortly after, on September 23, 2013, we experienced the hatching of our first baby weedy seadragons.

Of this momentous brood, a juvenile seadragon can now celebrate a first birthday at Birch Aquarium at Scripps. He (although it could be a she; we won’t know the sex for another 1-2 years) is now approximately 8 inches (21 cm) long. With a bit more growing to do, this dragon can grow to 17 inches within a few years.

Soon, this juvenile seadragon will join the adult weedy seadragons in the breeding tank in the aquarium’s Seadragon Propagation Lab. It has been fascinating to raise baby weedy seadragons for the first time. Weedy seadragons grow quickly during their first year and change so much during this exciting period. They begin to develop their oversized, characteristic “weedy” appendages that allow for better hiding. Also, now as a sub-adult, he is eating live adult mysis shrimp, as opposed to the live larval brine shrimp and 1-7 day old mysis shrimp he was fed when first born.

 

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(Clockwise from the upper left)  1 day old, 3 1/2 months old, 6 months old, and almost 1 year old!

See Inside the Lab

In the Seadragon Propagation Lab, we have set up lighting systems to regulate the day length and moon phase to simulate seasonal changes. This system also simulates the gradual light changes during sunrise and sunset. We also simulate seasonal water temperature changes as well. We believe this will give the weedy seadragons environmental cues to stimulate a natural breeding process.

We have set up a video surveillance system to monitor and record the weedy seadragons’ behaviors. We are hoping to capture an egg transfer from female to male, something we have not yet witnessed.

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Behind the scenes of our seadragon propagation room

We have been working with Scripps scientist Greg Rouse on our propagation program and if we are able to record the breeding process on video, we will be able to share what we find with Greg and his fellow Scripps researchers for more investigation. We will also be setting up the video system so aquarium visitors will be able to view, in real time, the weedy seadragons in the seadragon propagation room from a video monitor just outside the room. This will give our visitors a chance to see the seadragons and show what we are doing with our Seadragon Propagation Program.

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Current cameras that capture seadragon activity

There has been much courting behavior occurring in our breeding tank and three females were gravid (carrying eggs) and released eggs. Unfortunately, the males were not receptive and did not accept the eggs from the females. We are hopeful though that in the near future, we will have a successful egg transfer and will be able to document and study it.

See what weedy seadragon eggs look like below.

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April 29, 2014: Female releasing eggs in breeding tank in seadragon propagation room

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Weedy seadragon eggs

We appreciate the support of the Lowe Family Foundation of our Seadragon Propagation Program. We have had a tremendous year watching our baby weedy seadragon grow and look forward to the day we have another brood of baby weedy seadragons to celebrate at Birch Aquarium!

Read Leslee’s other seadragon blog posts.

International Octopus Day 2014

By Danny Beckwith

International Octopus Day is part of a week-long celebration about cephalopods, the “head-footed” animals such as octopus, squid, cuttlefish, and nautilus, called Cephalopod Awareness Days. This celebration of creatures with arms and tentacles started in 2007 by members of TONMO, The Octopus News Magazine Online forum. Though it is not yet proclaimed by any governing body, these days are designed to increase the awareness of the world’s cephalopods as well as their conservation. Octopus have eight arms while squid and cuttlefish have eight arms and two tentacles, so we celebrate these awareness days beginning October (the tenth month) 8 each year! Since there are more than just squid and octopus in the cephalopod group, more days were added to include their relatives and the popular culture that surrounds these mysterious and awe-inspiring animals!

Octopus

  • October 8 – Octopus Day, for all the eight-armed species
  • October 9 – Nautilus Night, a time for all the lesser-known extant cephalopods
  • October 10 – Squid Day/Cuttlefish Day, or Squittleday, covering the tentacular species
  • October 11 – Kraken Day, for all the fantastical cephalopods of myth, movies, literature and legend.

To celebrate this special day, here are eight (get it?) facts about cephalopods and other animals that live with them as featured in the aquarium’s Hall of Fishes.

Giant Pacific Octopus (Tank 5) – The Giant Pacific Octopus is the largest and longest-lived octopus species. They average about 16 feet in length, 110 pounds, and can live up to four years. They can change the color and texture of their skin and are highly intelligent.

Crabs, Prawns (Tank 6) – Crabs, lobsters, and other crustaceans are some of the favorite prey items of octopuses. Octopuses use their hard beaks to break through the exoskeletons of these creatures to reach the soft flesh inside.

Pier Pilings (Tank 14) – Many cephalopods eat clams and mussels. Once they have broken the shell, the octopuses use a rough tongue called a radula to scrape out the insides. Many octopuses have a compound in their saliva that paralyzes prey.

Kelp Holdfast (Tank 17) – Being masters of disguise, octopuses can hide in many places, including the holdfast of giant kelp. The holdfast, which looks like roots, can be the home to many other invertebrates. These invertebrates make great prey for octopuses.

Tropical Seas (Tank 26) – The blue-ringed octopus, found in the western Pacific and shallow reefs off of Australia, has 50-60 bright blue rings that pulsate with color, warning predators of its venomous bite.

Cuttlefish (Tank 31) – Cuttlefish are relatives of the octopus. They can change color rapidly to communicate warnings, mood changes, courtship displays, and for blending in with their environment. Cuttlefish have eight arms and two feeding tentacles.

Cuttlefish at Birch Aquarium at Scripps

Nautilus (Tank 32) – Chambered Nautilus are another relative of the octopus. Nautilus can have more than 90 tentacles to taste and touch the world around them. The nautilus is the only cephalopod that has an external shell.

Lionfish (Tank 33) – The wunderpus, or mimic octopus, can alter its color, shape, and movements to look like the venomous lionfish in this exhibit.

See how many you can spot on your next visit!

SEA Days: Plankton Power

by Rasheed I. Al Kotob, Volunteer Programs Assistant

Every month, the third Saturday is a special day at Birch Aquarium: SEA Days! As the tagline suggests, SEA Days are always full of  “Science, Exploration, & Adventure.” Visitors and members can meet a Scripps Institution of Oceanography or UC San Diego researcher, get hands-on with science, participate in activity stations, and get creative with a thematic craft.

They are tiny, abundant, and floating around in every ocean. Perhaps you have witnessed them giving color to the water, or have unknowingly come across them while eating seafood (as they are the bottom-level organisms in the food chain). Even though you need a microscope to view them, did you know that plankton are like microscopic cogs that keep the ocean working properly?

September’s SEA Days: Plankton Power, is your perfect opportunity to find out more about these small creatures, and better yet, be able to see them in stunning 3D clarity with our new 3D microscope! Saturday, September 20 at Birch Aquarium is all about plankton and the role they play in our oceans. 

Our visiting scientist is Christian Briseño, a UC MEXUS Graduate Fellow, as well as a Ph.D. candidate here at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He has conducted extensive research on zooplankton and their interactions with the marine environment. Below, Christian answers various questions about his experience in the field, and gives some advice for future scientists.

ChristianBriseno2 Where did you go to college?

I received my undergraduate degree from the Universidad de Guadalajara, Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico. I graduated with a degree in Biology.

What is your area of research?

My current research focuses on applying new technologies, optical and acoustical, to study zooplankton ecology.

Who or what inspired you to become involved in marine science?

I explored diverse areas when I was in college, from neurosciences to cell biology to botany. But it was when I first “peeked” into a dissecting scope where there was a net sample containing zooplankton that I first encountered these incredibly diverse, alien-looking microscopic organisms. I then learned how important they were in the ocean ecosystems and ultimately to the early (and sometimes adult) life stages of so many fishes, including commercial species important to the human diet. I am still fascinated that the largest animals on the planet feed on the smallest ones; baleen whales, for example, are known to feed mainly on aggregations of euphausiids and copepods.

It was after this experience as an undergrad that I decided that I wanted to be a plankton ecologist. This led me to write my undergraduate thesis based on the zooplankton samples that I had collected over an annual cycle on the Eastern Tropical Pacific. I did this with no financial compensation, but I was so ecstatic to be learning so much about these fascinating organisms that it didn’t matter. My undergraduate mentors where very supportive and encouraged me to pursue graduate school and continue my career as a plankton ecologist.

What qualities do you need in order to become a scientist?

I think the most important quality in a scientist is the capacity to be inquisitive and curious. A scientist always wants to learn more about certain processes, phenomena, or organisms. Another important quality is the capacity of synthesis, for there is a plethora of information one needs to sieve through to find the most appropriate path to answer our questions.

Why is your research topic important?

To be able to understand how zooplankton distributions fluctuate in time and space, scientists rely on new technologies to sample these organisms at the smallest spatial scales – and as quickly as possible. I am working with an underwater camera system (a submersible microscope, so to speak) to study how zooplankton interact with their physical environment, as well with other members of the plankton. It is with the aid of these newly developed cameras that we are beginning to observe some phenomena in situ, in the least undisturbed way since we are not collecting the organisms but just imaging them.

What will you be bringing with you to SEA days?

I will be showing the 3D microscope, developed in the Jaffe Lab for Underwater Imaging, that now belongs to Birch Aquarium. I will talk to visitors about what organisms they will be seeing on the screen, why they are important, and why should we care. Hopefully we will have a fresh plankton sample from the pier to show them this marvelous microscopic world usually hidden from most of us. I might be able to bring some preserved plankton samples as well and people might be able to see them on a dissecting scope.

What is the best advice you have for people interested in becoming involved in your field of research?

Definitely find a program near you and volunteer; dive into the field you like, get wet, and obtain hands-on experience. I would strongly recommend paying attention to the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) curricula; this will provide a strong foundation for future careers not only in oceanography, but virtually any area of the sciences.

What is your favorite ocean organism?

I feel I shouldn’t have a favorite. They all fascinate me in one way or another! I do, however, have soft spot for copepods. Arguably the most abundant metazoans in the world, copepods come in different sizes, shapes, and colors, all with different behaviors that make each of them unique. Not to mention their important role in biogeochemical cycles, such as carbon cycling and export.

ChristianBriseno3

Join us on Saturday, September 20 for SEA Days: Plankton Power—there’s something for everyone!

SEA Days are 11 a.m – 3 p.m., are included with aquarium admission, and always free to aquarium members. Not a member? Join today!

SEA you there!

Schooling 101

As kids of all ages head back to classrooms across San Diego, and shorter days remind us that fall is around the corner,  Birch Aquarium looks closer at schooling fish in honor of one of the most exciting natural events of the summer.

 On July 8, 2014, a massive school of northern anchovies swam along the coast of La Jolla on their migration north. Scripps scientists say it is the largest school seen in more than 30 years. A school of fish is simply a group of fish of any size, ten or several thousand, swimming parallel in the same direction. It’s synchronized swimming, fish-style.

northern anchovy aggregation in La Jolla. July 8, 2014

Photo credit: Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego

In the back-to-school spirit, let’s explore the schooling behavior of fish through core elementary “school” subjects.

Math: Is there really safety in numbers? Swimming as part of a group may reduce the likelihood of an individual fish being attacked by a predator. More fish = more targets. Predators have a more difficult time zeroing in on individual group members, making it statistically less likely that a particular fish will be picked off. A flurry of swirling baitfish may even disrupt the ability of predatory fish to sense their prey using their lateral line.

However, swimming in a large, conspicuous group can also skew the numbers game in the predator’s favor…

Physical Education: Sea lions, sharks, and sea birds rise to the challenge of feeding on open ocean fish using speed and agility. Interestingly, biologists recently discovered that billfishes, like sailfish and marlin, can insert their long, slender bills into schools of fish without scaring them. Talk about stealth! The billfish then tap targeted prey with their bill or slash through schools with powerful side-to-side thrusts (1).

Social Studies: If this has you worried, little fish, practice your cross-cultural skills. Some schooling fish swim alongside larger predators, like tuna or sharks, who serve as bodyguards. Other fishes form multi-species groups for better foraging. Zebraperch and opaleye in Birch Aquarium’s Kelp Forest often do this!

Oceanic whitetip photographed at the Elphinstone reef, Red Sea, Egypt, accompanied by pilot fish

Oceanic whitetip photographed at the Elphinstone reef, Red Sea, Egypt, accompanied by pilot fish. Photo licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Carcharhinus_longimanus_1.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Carcharhinus_longimanus_1.jpg

Recess: Do fish learn to school or is it instinct? This is not a well-investigated area of research, but some species have been observed to gradually attempt schooling behavior. Just as recess is time for socializing, young fish will practice swimming alongside each another in pairs, joining larger and larger groups as they develop ability.

After-school enrichment: If you enjoy the performing arts, check out the acrobatics of shrimpfish (Aeoliscus strigatus). These fish swim in a headstand position, with their tails up and heads down. The shrimpfish’s schooling “choreography” resembles blades of seagrass swaying back-and-forth in the water, helping them blend in with their seaweed home.

Birch Aquarium’s former executive director Dr. Nigella Hillgarth took a video of this behavior:

Want to spot more schools of fish at Birch Aquarium? Keep an eye out for blue-green chromis, shiner surfperch, and señoritas. Be sure to also check out our photography exhibit, Mexican Seas/Mares Mexicanos, for sardines, trevally, and more.

 

- Kate Jirik

(1) Domenici P. et al. 2014. How sailfish use their bills to capture schooling prey. Proc. R. Soc. B 281: 20140444. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2014.0444

 

Meet the Locals: Soupfin Sharks

“Meet the Locals” is a 3-part blog series in honor of our local elasmobranchs (sharks and rays) and Shark Summer 2014. This is the second post. Part 1: Sevengill sharks

With Shark Summer in full swing, by now we are all pretty familiar with our local leopard sharks, which aggregate in the warm shallow waters of La Jolla Shores each summer.  Did you know that one of the leopard shark’s closest relatives is also a local? The soupfin shark (Galeorhinus galeus) is a member of the family Triakidae, which includes the leopard shark and the smooth hound shark. Soupfin sharks are similar in size and shape to the leopard shark, topping out at just over six feet long. However, soupfin sharks have a dark gray back, lacking the distinctive saddle patches that the leopard sharks have. Soupfin sharks frequent both shallow inshore waters and pelagic habitats, and they feed on a variety of prey, including fish and invertebrates such as lobster, crabs, octopus, and worms.  An interesting study found that soupfin sharks separate themselves by gender- and not just by a few miles. Most of the soupfin sharks in Southern California are females, while the males range from British Columbia to Northern California. Their range overlaps in Central California, where the male to female ratio is about equal.

Soupfin shark. Photo courtesy of Kyle McBurnie, www.sdexpeditions.com

Soupfin shark. Photo courtesy of Kyle McBurnie, www.sdexpeditions.com

Wondering how this shark received its unique name? The soupfin shark was heavily fished in the 1930s and 1940s in California, as its fins were used to make traditional sharkfin soups. The soupfin shark was also known as the vitamin shark because the oil in its liver was so rich in vitamin A that it was used to make Vitamin A supplements. The heavy fishing pressures placed on this species took a toll on its population size.

However, this story has a happy ending. Synthetic Vitamin A was developed in the late 1940s, eliminating the need to harvest it from the soupfin shark’s liver oil. And more recently, California has become a safer place for sharks due to a 2011 law that banned the sale or possession of any shark-fin products throughout the state.

Sharks are amazing, vital, and often misunderstood animals. By participating in Birch Aquarium’s Shark Summer activities, you can take an active role in learning more about all of our local sharks in order to advocate for and protect them.

Shark Summer 2014 at Birch Aquarium is sponsored by ESET. http://www.eset.com/us/protection/goexplore-birch/