Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Eggs Already? Tennessee Aquarium Penguins Off To A Fast Start!

The penguin breeding season appears to be off to a fast start. The first eggs have appeared less than two weeks after the Tennessee Aquarium's penguins received the rocks used for nesting materials. 

In the video above, you see how eager many of the penguins seemed to start building their nests this year. The first egg was laid by macaroni penguin "Little Debbie" on Saturday. Macaronis lay two eggs, but the first egg is almost always smaller than the first egg. The birds will normally discard or break the first egg fairly quickly. Unfortunately it appears that "Little Debbie" has not paired up with any of the males, so her second egg will likely turn out to be infertile.
In the picture above, macaronis "Shamrock" and "Hercules" are seen next to gentoo penguin "Nipper."
On Monday, April 16th "Shamrock" laid her first egg. "Hercules" is seen in the picture above sitting on this first egg. We expect this egg to get broken before the first egg arrives, but senior aviculturist Amy Graves they have a well-built nest and both birds appear to be diligent parents.
So while this first egg isn't expected to produce a chick, it will be interesting to observe this couple for the next few weeks.
Aquarium guests should look for this couple near the middle of the exhibit on the upper level near the utility door. 

Bonus Podcast! Listen to Amy talking about what visitors can see and what may be ahead: http://yourlisten.com/channel/content/122983/Penguin%20eggs%202012

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Challenges of Transporting Fish

The Challenges of Transporting Fish

By Thom Benson, communications manager

My heart sank when Thom Demas, the Aquarium’s curator of fishes, called to inform me about the loss of our two beluga sturgeons. Big animals, such as “Horace” and “Boris,” quickly become guest favorites and are also adored by our staff and volunteers. The sadness of this loss is especially great for the aquarists who have shared the joy of bringing both of these magnificent animals to Chattanooga, hand-feeding them and spending long hours caring for “Horace” when he battled health challenges in recent years.

These two fish first came to the United States from the former Soviet Union in 1976. They were flown to San Francisco in a small cooler. It was assumed at the time that both of these juveniles were male and they were named Horace and Boris. Both quickly grew on exhibit, so in 1991 the decision was made to donate one of the sturgeon to a new aquarium that was preparing to open as the world’s largest freshwater aquarium. When the Tennessee Aquarium’s doors opened for the first time in 1992, Horace was among the first creatures to greet visitors.

I was working for a local television station in 2006 when I was privileged to cover Boris being reunited with Horace. I remember the excitement mixed with concern. At the time, Boris was more than five feet long and weighed 86 pounds. Flying nearly 2,000 miles from San Francisco to Atlanta was a big move. Then he was delivered by truck up I-75 to Chattanooga. I recall thinking how jet-lagged I might feel after a lengthy day of travel such as this. But being a robust, healthy, fish Boris made the journey in fine shape and was soon on exhibit with Horace in the Aquarium’s Volga River exhibit.

Since joining the Aquarium staff, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve smiled watching visitors take pictures of these two fish with outstretched arms. For nearly 20 years, millions of people learned about the plight of endangered beluga sturgeon in the wild because they had met Horace and Boris in Chattanooga.

Horace and Boris steadily grew on exhibit and it became apparent that they would eventually need an even bigger home. Boris had reached seven feet one inch in length and weighed 212 pounds.

Horace sustained a spinal injury in 2009 and was moved off-exhibit to the Aquarium’s Animal Care Facility, ACF, for treatment. Aquarists worked steadfastly for months to improve his health. Eventually his appetite increased and it appeared as though his vitality had returned. Plans were in the works for the new River Giants exhibit, so the decision was made to leave Horace at the ACF until he would be moved into his new home.

About a month ago, Boris was transported from the Aquarium to the Animal Care Facility to begin a quarantine period before being placed on exhibit. While his appetite briefly dropped off, it soon returned. Thom Demas says feeding habits often change for a short period of time whenever a fish is moved.

Once the quarantine period was complete, it was time to move Horace and Boris to their new home. After careful planning, these fish were moved the short distance from the Animal Care Facility to the Aquarium. It seemed as though all went smoothly and both fish appeared to be acclimating well to their new home alongside all of the other species that went through a similar quarantine and transport process.

Sadly, Boris died on Saturday. Horace today.

When the Aquarium’s veterinarian performed a post-mortem examination, it appears both animals had been dealing with very different, but very serious health challenges.

It was discovered that Boris was actually a female sturgeon and had been egg-bound with nearly 17 pounds of roe. It appears that this condition led to an infection which had taken over this fish’s intestinal tract and was spreading. In Horace’s case, his right kidney had failed completely due to aging or chronic kidney disease.

Tissue samples from both fish are being sent to outside labs for testing to confirm the preliminary examination results. It may take several weeks before those results are known.

Unfortunately, their behavior did not indicate they were facing these health problems. According to Demas, Horace and Boris would have continued battling these silent issues until the inevitable occurred - whether that would have been in the Volga River exhibit or at the Animal Care Facility. For healthy, strong fish, careful transport is not a problem. In these two cases, it was the tipping point.

As our husbandry staff will attest, providing care for a living collection is both challenging and rewarding. It can also be heart-breaking on days like this.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Aquarium Members Capture Amazing Animal Action in Africa

 Tennessee Aquarium members Donna Bourdon (right) and Beverly Still (left) were part of a group travel adventure to Botswana, led by Charlie Arant, Aquarium president and CEO, in late 2010 when they captured some incredible images.
 As an avid amateur photographer, Donna takes some stunning shots like this dazzling lilac breasted roller.
 When Donna is busy snapping pictures, Beverly is usually zeroing in on the action with a video camera. (Note the leopard sleeping in the tree behind them in the shot above.)
While in South Africa they were able to capture a dramatic life and death struggle between a crocodile and a water buffalo. Their footage quickly garnered the attention of the producers of, "Caught in the Act," a nature program that features spectacular footage from around the world which airs on National Geographic Wild. The premiere for this episode is tonight at 8 pm eastern. Producers came to Chattanooga to interview Donna and Beverly about their trip and this unforgettable experience.

Learn more about the Tennessee Aquarium's travel adventures, including an upcoming trip to Mongolia, go to:

Sunday, April 1, 2012

April Fool's Day - Pranksters of the Animal World

Pranksters are not the only ones doing the “fooling” on April Fool’s Day. Several of the Tennessee Aquarium's animals engage in trickery to ward off predators and / or confuse prey.

Photo by Todd Stailey

While epaulette sharks typically reach around 3.5 feet in length, their large eye spots (found on either side of their torso) make them appear to be much larger.  Their ability to camouflage themselves along the sandy bottom makes these large spots appear as if they are the eyes of a much larger sea creature… one that other fish/sharks won’t want to mess with. 
Photo by: Todd Stailey
 Butterflies and moths use similar features to keep predators away.  The tawny owl gets is common name from the large eyespots on the hind wing.  These spots are used to startle predators.
Photo by: Thom Benson

The giant Pacific octopus is the largest known octopus species. Like many octopi, the giant Pacific octopus has the ability to drastically change the color and texture of its skin.  These abilities not only help the octopus camouflage, but they can also be used to communicate warnings to other octopi.
Photo by: Bill Hughes
Alligator snapping turtles are freshwater turtles that have a special way of “fooling” their prey.  To catch a fish, the turtle will sit very still in the depths of a pond or river for up to 50 minutes. There it waits patiently, holding its mouth open and wiggling the small, pink, worm-like appendage on its tongue to lure passing fish. And if a fish sees the fake worm and swims in to eat it...Wham! The fish becomes the dinner instead of the diner!

Learn more about color and camouflage during special animal presentations offered daily in Ranger Rick's Backyard Safari at the Tennessee Aquarium.

Have a great day and watch out for pranksters!