Thursday, April 17, 2014

Keeper Spotlight – Otter Edition: Courtney Lewis and Jennifer Wawra

Keeper spotlight is a monthly series about the staff and volunteers that care for the plants and animals living at the Tennessee Aquarium. You can tweet your questions to us at @TNAquarium using the hashtag #QTheKeeper.

River Otter Falls officially opens inside the Tennessee Aquarium’s Cove Forest on May 2nd. With just two weeks until the grand opening, this month’s special Keeper Spotlight “otter” be a good one! Our two otter keepers, Courtney Lewis and Jennifer Wawra, have learned to move quickly. It’s a big job caring for seven high-energy otters, but Courtney and Jennifer were able to take a little time to answer some questions about what it’s like keeping up with these feisty fur balls.

What is your favorite thing about working with river otters?

CL: Training, especially in that moment when I see the information “click” and know that the otter truly understands the new behavior.

(Courtney Lewis leading training in the backup area of the original exhibit)
JW: I absolutely love to go in to the backup area in the morning and wake them up and bring in breakfast. Breakfast is the most important meal and they sure get excited when a keeper first walks into backup each morning! Training the otters is another large part of my day and one of the best parts of my job here at the Aquarium.

What are some of the things you are training the otters to do?

CL: We’re teaching them behaviors that will help us care for them in their habitat. A lot of it has to do with rewarding them for doing things like standing in the same spot – which allows us to examine or weigh them, or running out onto the exhibit which helps us rotate the groups that explore their habitat throughout the day. The training is all done by practice and positive reinforcement.

JW: Specifically, we’re working on stationing, shifting, targeting, teeth/paw presentation, scale training, standing (for visual confirmation that the animal is healthy), and holding (staying still in a particular spot for a second). 

(Jennifer Wawra and Delmar take a quick photo during training inside the original exhibit)

As an otter keeper, what are you most looking forward to about the new exhibit?

JW: River Otter Falls is a dynamic new exhibit which appeals to our otters in many ways.There are a total of five waterfalls, three different pools, three digging areas, a den and a slide. There is also a ton of land area to run, logs to shimmy across, stumps and rocks to climb to keep our otters actively engaged in their environment. You name it, we’ve got it. We have put so much thought into designing our otters’ new home. We paid close attention to every detail to provide an enriching environment for our otters. They can play in the water, dig in sand or mulch, climb up and down the rocks….this new home allows a lot of choices of how they want to spend their day. I cannot wait to see guests watching our otters enjoy their new home.

What do you think visitors will enjoy most about River Otter Falls?

CL: River Otter Falls is very dynamic for two reasons: its size and how we will present various combinations of otters at one time. I think guests will have fun seeing that. Some of the most fun I’ve had so far has been seeing how the different groups of otters interact with one another once they’re in the exhibit. 

Do you work with any other Aquarium animals?

CL: I started caring for animals at the Aquarium first as a herpetology volunteer while I was working as a gallery associate. Now, alongside otters, I take care of reptiles and amphibians in the Cove Forest, Discovery Hall, and half of the Rivers of the World gallery. I also occasionally get to do Ranger Rick programs with tarantulas, which I love!

JW: I work with a lot of the snakes here at the Aquarium, most of which are housed in keeper areas. I also work with a variety of our turtles. I am currently working on training our large female alligator in Delta Country, as well as caring for the smaller gator and all three alligator snapping turtles. I also help out at Penguins’ Rock every now and then. Occasionally I get to work in the Ranger Rick Gallery providing guests with up close and personal one-on-one animal encounters. I feel blessed beyond words to work with such incredible animals and an unbelievably educated staff. 

Got a question for Courtney and/or Jennifer? Tweet it to us at @TNAquarium with  hashtag #QTheKeeper. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Amazing Baby Horseshoe Crab Beats the Odds!

Aquarists were shocked to find a young Horseshoe Crab (Limulus polyphemus) in the Stingray Bay touch tank this week. It was removed and placed in a small tank in the quarantine room.

Many facilities regularly breed these animals. So, why were aquarists so surprised to discover this quarter-sized crab?

To begin, our male crab (who could often be seen hitching a ride on the back end of the carapace of one of the female crabs, waiting to fertilize eggs) passed away several months ago. Apparently, before we lost him he fertilized some eggs.

The female crab can lay 15,000-65,000 eggs at a time. Horseshoe Crab eggs are extremely small and would be vulnerable to predation by every single animal in the tank. Some would also get pulled into the strong flow of the exhibit’s 420 gallon-per-minute filtration system.

If by chance some eggs did not get eaten or filtered out, they could hatch. At this point the young animals are still in a very tiny larval stage, swimming for five to seven days. Any larval Horseshoe Crabs would remain very vulnerable to being gobbled up by other animals in the touch tank and would still be prone to being caught in the filtration system.  They would also struggle to find food that would be small enough to eat.

And yet, one tiny crab managed to overcome these odds.

After the larval stage, the baby Horseshoe Crab settled to the bottom and began growing and looking like a miniature version of the adults. At this point it was less likely to be eaten by the smaller fish in the tank, but it would appear more and more like a snack for a stingray or shark. Our tiny crab would also have the same issue of finding food small enough to eat.

And yet, this tiny crab avoided predators and a strong filtration system, scrounged up enough food to be nourished and grew.

The fact that this little crab survived long enough to attain the size of a quarter in an exhibit packed with its natural predators is nothing short of mind boggling!

You can watch a quick video of the little horseshoe crab in a Q room tank below:


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

ChattaNessie? Loch Ness Monster-Like Creature Spotted in the Tennessee River

Today, a passenger aboard the Tennessee Aquarium’s River Gorge Explorer captured a shot of a long, dark figure as it breached the water’s surface. The photo was taken during the boat’s Williams Island Family Adventure Cruise. A preliminary examination of the photo led experts to conclude that the creature likely measures close to 20 feet long and five feet wide.

Loch Ness Monster-like creature on the Tennessee River (April 1, 2014)

“There are only so many freshwater creatures that even come close to that size,” said Tennessee Aquarium Naturalist John Dever. No dorsal fins or sting ray barbs were detected (ruling out any wayward bull sharks, giant freshwater rays or even the area’s legendary catfish).

Dever, who was on board during the trip, says current weather conditions are ideal for sighting wildlife in the Gorge, although no one expected to see anything quite like this. “We tend to see Bald Eagles, Osprey, Deer and Turkeys this time of the year,” Dever said. “But April 1st does tend to be a peak date for more unusual sightings on the Tennessee River.”

Loch Ness Monster-like creature under Market Street Bridge (circa 1920)

It is unclear if this creature is related to the infamous “Nessie” from Scotland’s Loch Ness – or perhaps a closely related American species on a spring migration through the Scenic City.

A quick archival investigation, with assistance from Picnooga, brought up an old photo of the Market Street bridge in which a smaller, younger version of the same monster is slightly visible.

The Tennessee Aquarium is inviting the public to share any theories or knowledge about this, or other river monster sightings, across their favorite social networks using the hashtag #ChattaNessie.

The Williams Island Family Adventure Cruise runs daily through April 17. While bird, turtle and other wildlife sightings are common, an appearance by Nessie or any other aquatic monster is not guaranteed.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Keeper Spotlight: Jennifer Taylor

Keeper spotlight is a monthly series about the staff and volunteers that care for the plants and animals living at the Tennessee Aquarium. You can tweet your questions to us at @TNAquarium using the hashtag #QTheKeeper.

Name: Jennifer Taylor

Title: Entomologist

In charge of: The Tennessee Aquarium’s Butterfly Garden

You might say that Jennifer Taylor was bitten by the entomology “bug” in college. She became interested in the subject during a basic class about the study of insects and eventually decided to focus her studies on this fascinating field.

Fast forward to 2005 when she became the resident entomologist overseeing the Butterfly Garden atop the Aquarium’s newly constructed Ocean Journey building. Now she cares for dozens of butterfly species in a carefully maintained habitat that also includes some birds and reptiles.
Jennifer Taylor inspecting the chrysalis case

Each morning, Jennifer’s first task is to check the chrysalis case for butterflies that have emerged over night. The new butterflies are collected in a screen cage to be released throughout the day into the garden. The case is also cleaned and disinfected weekly.

Jennifer Taylor showing off a Blue Morpho butterfly

Next on her to do list is feeding all the butterflies in the garden. This involves both cleaning out the old fruit from feeding plates and adding new fruit where needed. Different species enjoy sucking juices from the fruit and/or sampling nectar and leaves from plants growing in the garden.

Butterfly feeding plate

But other inhabitants need to be fed as well. The Aquarium’s Butterfly Garden is home to two special bird species: a Palawan Peacock Pheasant and a Crested Wood Partridge. These birds are given a mix of fruit, seeds and specially formulated bird food. Several geckos also make their homes within the garden. Although they are rarely seen by visitors or staff, a special gecko diet blend is left out for these reclusive reptiles.

Gecko from the Butterfly Garden

At any given time there are around 1,000 butterflies living in the garden. Many guests wonder where they all of them come from. Each week, a new shipment of pupae is received at the Aquarium. Each viable pupa is sorted and pinned inside the chrysalis case where it can safely grow until it’s time for the butterfly inside to emerge. Each species’ pupa is different in color, shape and size. Another part of Jennifer’s job is recording the outcome of each individual pupa and reporting back to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) annually.

Pupae sorting tray

Though she spends her day surrounded by numerous exotic species, Jennifer says that the best part of her job is “talking to visitors who are interested in butterflies.” She often invites those who spend time in the garden to help with butterfly releases. Releases are also a scheduled activity for visitors during our Keeper Kids programs.

You can listen to Jennifer talk more about the Aquarium’s Butterfly Garden, watch butterfly releases and see the pupae pinning process in this video:

Got a question for Jennifer? Tweet it to us at @TNAquarium with hashtag #QTheKeeper.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Keeper Spotlight: Amanda Pippin

Keeper spotlight is a monthly series about the staff and volunteers that care for the plants and animals living at the Tennessee Aquarium. You can tweet your questions to us at @TNAquarium using the hashtag #QTheKeeper.

Name: Amanda Pippin

Title: Animal Trainer & Presenter II

In charge of: Ranger Rick's Backyard Safari encounter animals

Amanda began working in the Tennessee Aquarium IMAX 3D Theater gift shop in April 2003 never dreaming she would soon be handling hairy tarantulas and spiny hedgehogs while delivering animal facts to guests from all over the world. But three years later she transitioned to the Aquarium’s education department, first as an Education Gallery Associate and eventually earning her current role as Animal Trainer and Presenter in 2009. Pippin says, “I've always wanted to work with animals since as far back as I can remember. What's great is that I work with a wide variety of small animals.”

Daily Routine

An average work day for Amanda begins around 7:30 AM. The Aquarium has around 115 animals that participate in education programs. Amanda is trained to take care of all of these amazing creatures, from a 14-pound Virginia Opossum to a tiny Madagascar Hissing Cockroach. Amanda takes great pride in being part of a team that “does it all.” Each morning all the birds and mammals are weighed to make sure that each is at a healthy size. Their weights also determine how much food they will receive for the day. 

After each weigh-in, it’s time for cleaning homes. Enclosures get special “maid service” each morning and are spot-checked throughout the day. 

Enrichment activities are also very important for the animals. These exercises help keep the animals stimulated both physically and mentally. New toys are added, or old favorites are spruced up for the critters to enjoy. The enrichment items could be anything from wooden blocks that the parrots love to chew on, to a cardboard box stuffed with newspaper for the groundhog, to a portion of a brick for the snakes to rub against when shedding.

The reptiles, amphibians, and terrestrial invertebrates don't require as much care as the warm-blooded animals. Due to slower metabolic rates, some of the cold-blooded animals are only fed two or three times a week. In fact, some of the snakes are only offered a meal every 10 days. Think of how much money you'd save on groceries every year if you only had to eat three times a month! However, Pippin says it's still important that these animals are looked in on and accounted for each day. That includes providing fresh water and bedding.

The first animal encounter occurs in Ranger Rick's Backyard Safari at 10:30 am and these educational programs continue through 3:30 pm. Amanda often delivers these shows throughout the day. Animals are rotated frequently in the program schedule which gives them a nice balance of being “on-stage” and off. 

The Aquarium offers bird shows six times each day. Pippin says, “I really enjoy going out and interacting with guests, especially if I can make someone smile or laugh! Most importantly, though, I want to educate guests about the animals that share this world with us.”

After programs are over for the day, Amanda does another round of checks on the animals in her care. Evening diets are served and water bowls are refreshed. Work areas are tidied up and data is recorded.

Animal Training

Delivering programs is just part of the routine. Pippin also spends a lot of her time at work training animals who appear in the Aquarium’s daily Ranger Rick and bird shows. All of the behaviors guests enjoy in these shows are natural behaviors brought out using positive reinforcement techniques, much like you would use to reward desired behavior in a cat or dog. So, when trainers see an animal perform a behavior they would like to encourage, the animal is rewarded. By rewarding good behavior, it's more likely that the behavior will increase.  “Therefore you won't see a bird riding a bicycle on a high-wire in our shows. We want to everyone to better understand these animals, so we try to showcase their natural talents,” says Pippin.


Watch Amanda giving the hyancinth macaws a “shower”, an important enrichment activity for the birds.

When asked about the steps to take for a career in animal training, Amanda’s best advice is to get as much experience as possible. You can volunteer or complete an internship at a zoological facility. A four-year college degree is also beneficial – Pippin’s is in Anthropology. She also recommends practicing with family pets. She says, “It took me over 10 years to be where I am today, and I'm still learning how to be a better trainer and keeper.”

Got a question for Amanda? Tweet it to us at @TNAquarium with  hashtag #QTheKeeper. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Five Crazy Animal Mating Facts (in Honor of Valentine’s Day)

1. A male seahorse becomes “pregnant” and gives birth after a female passes her eggs to him for fertilization.

Watch a seahorse birth in the video below!

2. You can tell the sex of an octopus by looking at its arms. Males have one arm without suction cups. (Can you tell if the octopus in the Vine below is a girl or boy?)


3. Rising global temperatures could cause alligators to produce more male eggs per nest. 

4. Special lighting at Penguins’ Rock simulates the changing lengths of daylight  that our penguins would experience throughout the year in nature. This helps to trigger courtship behavior. At the appropriate time each spring, our keepers introduce rocks to the exhibit. As soon as they do, the penguins get to work building their nests (and breeding).

Watch this process in the video below:

5. Female sea turtles return each year to the beach where they hatched to lay their own eggs. 

The Tennessee Aquarium has two (male) sea turtles – Stewie (shown below) and Oscar, a rescued turtle with a special swimming style and story.

Want to learn more about animal courtships or have a question you’ve always wanted to ask when visiting the Aquarium? Join us for Uncensored: Tennessee Aquarium After HoursThe evening festivities will include a wacky costume photo booth (bring your smartphone), animal presentations by aquarium educators, games and chances to win silly prizes. Our UNCENSORED event is a social experience to be held in the River Journey lobby and Seahorse Gallery. 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Chattanooga Chuck Makes Groundhog Day Prediction for 2014

This Groundhog Day is pretty unique,
with the big game on tv, and snow this past week!

What’s a groundhog to do when his time comes around,
and it all hangs on whether his shadow is found?

Should we all keep our boots on, or reach for our sandals?
These are questions this furry forecaster can handle.

But a matchup between Broncos and Seahawks is stranger.
Predicting a winner put my own record in danger.

Mess up on both means I’d go “Oh-Fer,”
and I’d be humbled like a silly old gopher.

So first I reached out to my friend Peanut the possum.
His football game picks are always quite awesome.

He shared some of his wisdom and to him I’m in debt,
for adding “seasonal sports analyst” to my skill set.

After Peanut, I visited the rest of my weather team,
to decide if warmer weather is coming, or only a dream.

First to the brook trout, which legend will say
all refuse to bait when a storm’s on the way.

Next with the screech owl, I sat for a spell.
He hoots extra loud before rain, folklore tells.

I stopped by the frogs to have a short listen.
When winter warms up, their croaks often quicken.

But February 2nd is called Groundhog Day
So I’ll have to go by what my own instincts say.

My Super Bowl pick goes out to Denver.
This Tennessee native hopes Peyton will deliver.

And speaking of deliveries, what will Mother Nature send? 
I see something that looks like my friend.

YIKES! It’s my shadow and you know what that means.
Six more weeks of chill before things get warm and green.

Groundhog Day fun for kids! Download some folklore forecaster game pages before visiting the Tennessee Aquarium during February.