Does the lowly sea slug feel the urges of spring? You bet! There are nudibranch eggs in several exhibits, including bell-shaped egg cases in the melibe display.
Help Save the Oceans One Bid at a Time! Our Cooking for Solutions online auction starts today, benefits the Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program and features outstanding culinary adventures, great wines and one-of-a-kind items.
Have you visited yet? Our new restaurant, Cindy’s Waterfront, is open for business!
Celebrate World Oceans Day June 8-9 by falling asleep next to your favorite fish! Come with your family or group of 12 or more and enjoy special evening activities and programs, and get a tour of our jellies lab.
Our snowy plover eggs hatched behind the scenes! In case you were wondering, the dots on their heads are our way of telling the birds apart until they are old enough to get banded.
(Thanks to Aimee Greenebaum for the photo.)
Love street food? So do we! The Street Food Extravaganza takes place May 18 at Cooking for Solutions, with host Carla Hall. Tickets still available!
Staffer Ali Barratt just loves whale watching, and we can always count on her to bring back amazing photos. Check out these humpbacks feeding on krill (the orange color) 16 miles offshore!
Our new restaurant, Cindy’s Waterfront, serves up farm-to-table deliciousness! Learn more in our latest podcast.
The Secret Lives of Seahorses special exhibition has become one of the most popular in the history of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It’s also been a labor of love for the Aquarium’s husbandry staff.
“It’s been hugely rewarding to see how well it’s been received,” says Jonelle Verdugo, associate curator of fish and invertebrates. “Years ago, when we thought of doing a seahorse exhibit, we knew it would be popular, but we didn’t expect it to be one of our highest-rated temporary exhibits.”
Along the way, Jonelle and her staff have learned a few of their own seahorse secrets.
A Seahorse Laboratory
Behind the scenes, there are rows of tanks, large and small, full of seahorses of every size. A thicket of pipes and tubes run down the aisles, keeping the water clean and aerated. Charts and white boards indicate recent work performed. Staff and volunteers scurry about with siphons and cleaning equipment. It’s a daunting task to keep 19 species healthy and cared for (including seahorses, sea dragons, pipefish, and pipehorses), but at the same time, it all looks orderly and efficient.
Seahorses may be small, but they can be quite demanding. It takes three full-time staff to run the exhibit, plus five part-time workers and 12 volunteers. “It’s a lot of work,” says Jonelle. “It has to do with the size of the exhibit, the number of animals, and the fact that each exhibit tank can be tough to access.”
Feeding is a never-ending task. “Seahorses have no true stomach,” says Jonelle. “That means they need to eat a lot. Food passes through them quickly.” Adult seahorses are fed two times a day, sub-adults are fed three times daily, “and babies are fed constantly,” says Jonelle. The type of food depends on the size of the seahorse, and includes everything from plankton (for babies) to mysid shrimp and krill (for large, fully grown animals).
And, not surprisingly, all that food needs to go somewhere after it’s eaten. “We don’t want poop or leftover food to sit in the exhibit or holding tanks. So it’s a matter of constantly feeding, cleaning, feeding, cleaning….”
The staff does a “gravel wash”—using a vacuum-like device—twice each day. Several exhibits are large enough for aquarists to stand in while cleaning. The sea dragon displays are actually big enough that staff can don dive gear and get completely underwater to do their work—though it’s a bit of a contortion act. About once a month, staff stays after hours for a “deep cleaning,” spending a few hours scrubbing everything and bleaching the plastic algae.
And it’s not just seahorses and their kin that need to be cared for—there are also 10-15 non-seahorse species in the exhibit, including fish, urchins, crabs and the like.
Babies Behind the Scenes
Part of the fascination with seahorses is their reproductive process—the males become pregnant and give birth. “We’ve seen babies from all nine seahorses species that we have here,” says Jonelle. “There have been some weeks where we’ve had babies every morning.” Species producing young on exhibit include the longsnout, zebrasnout, potbelly, yellow and White’s seahorses. Those producing behind the scenes include the Pacific, lined, dwarf and shortsnout seahorses.
They typically go into labor in the wee hours of the morning. When the aquarists arrive, the first step is to remove and isolate the juveniles to ensure they get enough food. The tool of choice for this? A turkey baster. “We need to suck them up and not expose them to the air,” says Jonelle. “And a net would damage them.”
Next, the miniature seahorses are placed in a fish bowl, which is suspended in a larger tank to ensure a uniform water temperature. For some species, like the Pacific and yellow seahorses, a current is provided to ensure they don’t become stuck at the surface, where they might ingest air and become buoyant. Other species, like the White’s and potbelly seahorses, use their tails to grab onto objects and remain in mid-water. Some even grab onto each other, forming a “daisy chain” that can be 5-10 seahorses long.
“We’ve been making big steps forward in learning how to raise many of the species that we have. Our hope is to become self sufficient and keep our exhibit stocked as well as being able to send surplus animals to other aquariums.”
When it comes to seahorses, it’s all part of a developing science. “We’re always learning how to make things better,” says Jonelle.
Visit soon, as the exhibit closes Labor Day 2013!
By Anne-Marie Alden
Each year from March through September, tiny snowy plover chicks appear on beaches along California’s coast, looking like balls of fluff with two stick legs. “We call them cotton balls on Q-tips,” says one Aquarist. These small shorebirds are also in trouble.
Once numbering in the thousands, U.S. Pacific coast western snowy plovers were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1993. Today it’s estimated that only about 2,100 plovers breed along the coast, with the largest number found from south San Francisco Bay to southern Baja California.
Loss of the plovers’ preferred habitat, sandy beaches, is largely responsible for the population’s shrinking numbers, but the design of their nests also makes them vulnerable. The birds make their homes in shallow depressions in the sand—sometimes using human footprints, in areas where people walk. And they’re mostly invisible. Adult snowy plovers have bright white stomachs, but their top halves are perfectly sand colored.
A Site for Shore Eyes
Males and females take turns sitting on the nests, but when people or animals approach, the adult plover will flee in fright and may not return for hours, leaving its eggs to be crushed, overheated in the sun or eaten by a sharp-eyed predator.
Fortunately, there are lots of friendly eyes watching the nests as well. As part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Snowy Plover Recovery Plan biologists, California State Park employees and volunteers fence off fragile areas during breeding season to keep people and predators out, and monitor snowy plover nests.
The Aquarium Helps Out
Birds in distress and eggs that have been abandoned are often brought to the Monterey Bay Aquarium—one of the main rehabilitation sites for shorebirds in northern California. Here, sick and injured birds are treated and eggs are transferred to an incubator.
If all goes well, an egg will hatch about 35 days after it’s laid. Hatching takes about 24 hours, but can take two days.
Newly hatched chicks are paired with the female snowy plover from the Aquarium’s Sandy Shore Aviary exhibit. In the wild, males spend time with the chicks and the females mate again, but our male isn’t comfortable with chicks, so the female keeps them company.
Our goal is to release the chicks to the wild, but the baby birds can’t fly the coop until they satisfy a lengthy checklist, including wariness of humans, a minimum weight of 30 grams (adults weigh about 57 grams and are 6-7 inches long), the ability to fly, and the savvy to find food on their own. A healthy chick can be ready for release after about a month.
Since the Aquarium’s plover recovery program began in 2000, dozens of chicks have been raised, including many from eggs. And dozens have been banded and released from the Aquarium.
The released birds are tracked and the aviculture staff is alerted when Aquarium-released birds have been sighted, which proves the system is working.
What You Can Do
Help keep adult plovers from abandoning their nests. Keep your dog on a leash on beaches during snowy plover breeding season and stay out of areas that have been blocked off as bird nesting sights.
(You can see snowy plovers and other shorebirds on exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium on our live aviary web cam.)