Thursday, December 19, 2013

Keeper Spotlight: Jake Steventon

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 and suggestions to us at @TNAquarium using the hashtag #QTheKeeper.

Name: Jake Steventon

Title: Aquarist II

In charge of: Fly River, Chinese Mountain Stream, Volga River, Southeast Asian Rivers, Nishikigoi and Lake Tanganyika exhibits and associated back up tanks. Also cares for sea turtles and is in charge of sandbar shark training. Steventon also manages mysid shrimp, rotifer and algae supplies.

Jake Steventon began his career at the Tennessee Aquarium as an intern in 2005 – when he worked at the Aquarium’s offsite Animal Care Facility (ACF), where all of the Ocean Journey animals were housed in preparation for the opening of the new building. He was later hired as an Aquarist in January of 2006. 

Training Sea Turtles and Sharks

Jake feeding Oscar, the Aquarium's rescued sea turtle

Jake is in charge of some of the most popular animals at the aquarium including two sea turtles that collectively total over 500 pounds! Each afternoon, Jake hits the Aquarium’s food prep kitchen where he chops and dices veggies for Stewie and Oscar as well as seafood for some of the larger fish in his care, like the sandbar sharks.

Our two Green Sea Turtles are trained to come to target poles for feedings so meals are also part of their ongoing training. “Stewie was already trained when I took over in 2007, but I had to start training Oscar from scratch. It took three long months of very patient work with him, but it has really paid off!” said Steventon.

The sandbar sharks are also fed using target poles with fish placed on the end. Jake is part of a team that is currently working toward teaching the sandbar sharks to swim into an acclimation pool on their own in case they ever need extra care. He started this training by having them swim through a square the same size as the acclimation pool gate and gradually moved to using two squares.

“Now I’m gradually moving the rings further apart and making a tunnel for the sharks to swim through. When it’s complete, the tunnel will be as long as the dive platform where our divers get in and out of the Secret Reef,” said Steventon. “The reason for this is that the sharks will have to swim over the platform to get into the acclimation pool. Each feeding, the sharks have to swim through the tunnel in the right direction to get fed.”

 The idea is to get the sharks accustomed to using the tunnel. Over time it will be moved until it is positioned right in front of the acclimation pool gate. At that point the sharks will be comfortable enough to swim through the tunnel and into the acclimation pool.

Most people don’t think of sharks as an animal capable of being trained, but Jake jokes that working with them is a lot like training your dog, except a shark won’t roll over and have its belly rubbed.

Maintaining the Food Chain

Jake Steventon working with the Aquarium's algae supply

While Jake spends some of his time with a sea turtle that outweighs him, another important part of his day is working with sea creatures that you can barely see.  Mysid shrimp, rotifers and microalgae are grown at the Aquarium as a food supply for smaller fish living on and off exhibit.

A typical day for Jake begins and ends working with the Aquarium’s mysid shrimp culture, which is used to feed baby cuttlefish, weedy seadragons, seahorses and more. The mysid shrimp, which are less than an inch long, are fed even tinier brine shrimp each morning and afternoon. Before the afternoon feeding, Jake harvests young mysid shrimp from a special tank system he designed and built. Jake says the tank works “kind of like a slip-n-slide”. “The adults are in a long narrow breezeway with a small amount of current. They have the babies in here and then the current gently pushes them toward a screen too small for the adults to fit through.”

Besides, mysid shrimp, Jake also maintains the rotifers used to feed tiny baby seahorses, jellyfish and anything else too small to eat brine shrimp. These psuedomicroscopic organisms require a super clean environment to grow so regular tank scrubs and water changes are necessary. 

What does a rotifer eat, you might ask? The answer is microalgae, which Jake is also in charge of growing. Microalgae also require frequent cleanings and a special food called “micro algae grow”.

Exhibit Upkeep

Jake’s daily routine also includes checking on six exhibits he is responsible for in the Rivers of the World gallery. This includes maintaining the backup tanks to each display. His daily care routine for these tanks includes checking temperatures, cleaning windows and doing routine maintenance like backwashing sand filters. 

After lunch, Jake feeds the fish in his exhibit tanks as well as in backup tanks behind each exhibit. Generally, fish are kept in backup spaces for two reasons: either they are going through a quarantine period, or they need to grow to a certain size before being exhibited.

Jake Steventon mending a screen during an exhibit dive

Aside from his daily duties, Jake also dives one or two times a month within Aquarium exhibits. He also aids his co-workers with projects, and helps keep track of the Aquarium animal census.

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

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Seven Reasons to Make the Tennessee Aquarium Part of Your Holiday Plans

1.  Holidays Under the Peaks

You probably know that a group of fish is called a school. But did you know that a group of stingrays is called a fever? Frogs? An army. Butterflies? A flutter. And owls? A parliament. Whatever you call your group of loved ones, the holidays are a great time to spend with them at the Tennessee Aquarium.

Guests are invited to meet a waddle of penguins, a shiver of sharks and a smack of jellyfish during Holidays Under the Peaks. Aquarium educators and animal experts will deliver daily programs to help connect visitors to some of nature’s most wonderful gifts.

A company of parrots can be found during special scheduled programs in Ranger Rick’s Backyard Safari along with a menagerie of native and exotic creatures guests may encounter throughout the day.

Get the full schedule here.

2. Sounds of the Season

If you plan your Aquarium visit during Holidays Under the Peaks, you and your family can also enjoy live performances of classic holiday music. Steel drum artist Paul Vogler will perform on the second level of the Ocean Journey building on December 21-22. Local bluegrass artist, and member of the Old Time Travelers band Matt Downer with perform in the Tennessee River gallery of the River Journey building December 9-20 and December 23. Check the daily schedule for times and locations.

3. SCUBA Claus

SCUBA Claus will make his underwater weekend appearances in the River Giants exhibit alongside some of the world’s largest freshwater fish species. Look for the jolly old elf on Saturdays at 11 am and Sundays at 2 pm through Dec. 22nd.

4. Small Fry Programs

Looking for some fun and interesting indoor things to do with your little ones during one of the coldest months of the year? Come join us at the Tennessee Aquarium on selected Mondays and Thursdays for Small Fry Mini-Programs! Drop in between 10:15 and 11:00 to participate in exciting activities designed to appeal to 2-5 year olds (and their parents). On these special days, we will visit galleries, meet live animals, play games, listen to stories and make simple crafts. You’ll be directed to the program location at check-in. Check the schedule of weekly topics for more information.

5. Yuletide FISH-tivities

There’s lots to do in the 12 days after Christmas at the Tennessee Aquarium. In addition to more than one dozen daily keeper talks, animal programs and dive shows, Aquarium experts will offer Yuletide FISH-tivities each day from December 26 to January 6.  These enriching and entertaining programs help extend the spirit of fun by focusing on the special gifts a wide variety of creatures have to thrive in their habitats. 

Some creatures have eye features that allow them to see equally on land and underwater. Others have offset ears to hear in surround-sound and extra vertebrae that allow them to see what’s directly behind them. What more could you wish for? Skin that secretes a toxin – naughty? Colorful feathers that appear to change colors in the light – nice.

Each of the twelve days focuses on a different theme like Sea Stars, Penguins, Ancient Animals and more. Get the full schedule and daily descriptions here.

6. Polar Express and Penguins 3D at IMAX

From a treasured classic to a new favorite, there is a lot to be merry about at IMAX. Don your best pajamas and take a magical 3D train ride to the North Pole on the Polar Express, playing now through December 26. 

Or, follow a very special King Penguin, who returns to his birthplace in the sub-Antarctic in the new Penguins 3D. Known as Penguin City, the island is home to hundreds of albatrosses, fur seals and brawling elephant seals—as well as six million penguins! Somehow our hero must earn his place among the island inhabitants and fulfill his destiny by finding a mate and raising a family.

7. Winter Wildlife Cruise - "Eagles Eyes"

Winter is prime time to watch for the arrival of wintering Bald Eagles in the Chattanooga area. With the leaves down and the eagle population up, viewing is even better on the river from the vantage of the River Gorge Explorer's observation desk. Bring your binoculars and dress appropriately for an eye-full of our national mascot. Along the way, we'll discuss the tumultuous history of this spectacular bird of prey from endangered days and back to its current protected status.  Register here.

Get four seasons of fun with an Aquarium membership. Renew or purchase a membership today and enjoy special benefits all year long, like unlimited Aquarium admission and IMAX and River Gorge Explorer discounts.  It’s also a great lasting – not last-minute – holiday gift option!

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Special ThanksGIFing Message

On Thursday, November 28, whether your nature is to:

Wake up early to start the big meal in the kitchen

Or lounge and snack all day long,

Make new friends at the kids' table

Or fight with a sibling over the last drumstick,

Politely wait for your turn in the line

Or steal an extra nibble while someone’s not looking,

Pile on the veggies

Or dive right into dessert,

Stare at the door until your loved ones arrive

Or tend to eat and run,

Eat neatly with the proper silverware

Or stuff in that one last big bite,

The Tennessee Aquarium wishes you 

a very Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 22, 2013

Keeper Spotlight: Bill Hughes

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: Bill Hughes

Title: Senior Herpetologist

In charge of: Flooded Forest, Amazon, Zaire River, Color and Camouflage, Rain Forest Pond exhibits in Rivers of the World, Salamander exhibits in the Tennessee River Gallery, Aquarium turtle breeding areas and incubator/nursery room. Also oversees shipping of turtles and amphibians to and from other AZA-accredited institutions.

Turtles are often looked at as some of the slowest members of the animal kingdom so you might find it hard to believe that caring for them takes so much time and energy. Bill Hughes began working at the Aquarium in July 2004 and has had his hands full with one of the largest collections of turtles in the U.S. ever since. 

Raising Baby Turtles

A typical work day for Bill starts at 7:00 a.m. with a stop in to the Aquarium’s turtle nursery. Checking on tiny hatchlings and eggs in the incubator room can be a big job.  The baby turtles get fed a special diet and cleaned according to their needs three to four times per week.  If any eggs are hatching on that particular day Bill also takes steps to set up a space for the new turtle in the incubator room.

Turtle eggs in the Aquarium's incubator room

Wrangling Reptiles (and Amphibians)

Once the baby turtles are fed and happy, Bill heads down to feed the animals in his care within the Rivers of the World exhibit. Feeding all these animals can sometimes take more than one hour – and requires repeated trips back to check on their progress.   He feeds turtles in the Flooded Forest and the small Amazon exhibit. The caiman lizard in this Amazon exhibit also gets fed clams a couple of times per week.  Snakes in the second Amazon exhibit get fed thawed rodents every two to three weeks.  The dwarf crocodile in the Zaire exhibit gets fed thawed rodents when the snakes are fed.

Next, he checks and feeds the mossy frogs in the Color and Camouflage exhibit. This exhibit also gets misted every day and a complete water change is done weekly. He then examines and feeds the aquatic caecilians. Their tank gets a weekly water change as well. Bill continues on to the Salamander exhibits. Compared to the turtles, Salamanders are low maintenance and these tanks usually just need a bit of spot cleaning and an occasional water change. 

Bill Hughes watering a turtle tank

Turtle Matchmaking

Afterward, Bill heads up to work with turtles living in a special off-exhibit area often used to encourage breeding on the sixth level of the River Journey building.  Feeding these turtles is a quick process but cleaning them all can take up to five hours. During the spring and summer, he checks nest boxes daily.  Depending on the species of turtle, he places males and females together.  Special projects in this space like plumbing, trimming plants, scrubbing algae and changing lights also fall on to Bill’s to do list. 

Bill Hughes introducing a new animal to the Aquarium's quarantine room

Later, Bill spends his time caring for animals in the “Q room” which are going through a routine quarantine period before being placed on exhibit in the Aquarium.  Another special area in the Q room contains non-quarantine animals that need lower temperatures, such as black-breasted leaf turtles and hellbenders.  The temperature in the cold room varies from upper 60’s – low 70’s during the summer to mid 40’s during the winter.  This winter, several turtles from the area on level six will be cooled down in this space in order to facilitate breeding. The quarantine rooms also hold reptiles and amphibians that require medical care. 

You might think that taking care of so many creatures with such differing needs could be overwhelming but Bill says, “The best part of working in this field is that every day is different and there are always surprises and new problems to solve.”

A turtle being housed in the Aquarium's cold room.

Species Tracking and Conservation

In his spare time, Bill uses his extensive knowledge about turtle species as the studbook keeper and coordinator for three Species Survival Plan (SSP) programs – the Spiny Turtle, Arakan Forest Turtle and Four-eyed Turtle - and the studbook keeper for a fourth, the Keeled Box Turtle. (This means that he is in charge of documenting each individual animal of his assigned species living in zoo or aquarium care.)  He also serves on the Chelonian Taxon Advisory Group (TAG) steering committee and the AZA Institutional Data Management Advisory Group.  

Four-eyed turtle at the Tennessee Aquarium

While Bill says that he enjoys working with each species at the Aquarium, he is especially proud of the Aquarium’s success with breeding some of the threatened and endangered species like the spiny turtle and four-eyed turtle. Aquarium guests can see some of the juveniles on display in the Turtle Gallery.

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

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Win BIG in Our #FinsAndFamily Instagram Contest!

Step 1) Follow @tennesseeaquarium on Instagram!

Step 2) Share a photo of you and your group at the Tennessee Aquarium on Instagram and include the hashtag #FinsAndFamily. Photos of past trips, and from any year since the Aquarium opened, are acceptable - and encouraged!

The top five photos will be selected on December 3 and the public will vote for a winner to be announced on December 10!
Check out the entries on the contest Facebook tab. We may also share some of your entries from time to time on social media!

Helpful Tip: Have you previously posted your Aquarium photos to Instagram? Simply adding a new comment with #FinsAndFamily will enter them in the contest!

*Official Rules: No purchase necessary. Must be a U.S. citizen of age 18 or older to win. By submitting a photo to the #FinsAndFamily Instagram contest, the user grants to the Tennessee Aquarium full use of  the photo.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Five Haller’s Round Stingrays Born Behind the Scenes at the Tennessee Aquarium

Last week, aquarium keepers welcomed five baby Haller’s Round Stingrays to the world. These adorable little rays were born to a mother that recently arrived at the Aquarium. While going through a routine quarantine period, this stingray gave birth. The mother, and eight other adult stingrays acquired at the same time, will be put on display in the Stingray Bay touch tank once the quarantine period is complete. The babies will be cared for off-exhibit until they are large enough to be displayed.

The Haller’s Round Stingray, Urobatis halleri, is a common species of ray native to the coastal waters of the eastern Pacific. The species prefers sandy or muddy bottoms in shallow waters close to beaches. Round sting rays eat primarily benthic invertebrates – organisms that live in or on the sediment of the ocean floor - and small fish.  

Right now these babies measure about three inches (minus the tail). Mature adults can reach maximum disc sizes of slightly more than 12 inches.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Keeper Spotlight: Peter Larson

A monthly series about the staff and volunteers that care for all of the animals living at the Tennessee Aquarium. You can tweet your questions to us at @TNAquarium using the hashtag #QTheKeeper. 

Name: Peter Larson

Title: Aquarist II

In charge of: Invertebrates in the Quarantine Room, Jellies Living Art (upside down jellies and moon jellies) and Boneless Beauties, breeding cuttlefish, training new octopi and culturing coral.

Peter Larson began working as a husbandry volunteer at the Tennessee Aquarium in 2005 just after the Ocean Journey building opened.  By 2007, he was a full time aquarist. 

An average work day for Peter begins a little after 7:00 am, harvesting the day's food for the Jellies Living Art exhibit. (This process involves collecting brine shrimp from a special system, refilling salt water in that tank and adding new brine shrimp eggs for the next day’s food supply.) Next he drops into Boneless Beauties. As soon as the exhibit lights come on, Peter checks the tank systems in his care, and performs any needed maintenance like scrubbing or vacuuming a tank.   

Peter Larson vacuuming the upside down jelly tank

After that, Peter heads to the live coral exhibit – which has been in his care from the beginning.  He logged several hours plumbing it together and constructing the rock work with the help of several fellow aquarists. Now maintaining the tank is part of his daily routine. Peter says that this particular tank can seem like a lot of work but, “spending a little time on it each day saves a lot of work later and the life forms within stay healthier.”

Check out Peter in our YouTube video about the live coral exhibit:

At about 10 am, Pete makes his way down to the Quarantine room.  He manages several marine systems within the “Q room” - most of which house animals that will eventually end up in Boneless Beauties after a routine quarantine period.  Other tanks contain some of Peter’s special projects such as basket stars, young cuttlefish, and food for both. You can visit the “Q room” and see some of the creatures Peter cares for behind the scenes on the Aquarium’s River Journey Backstage Pass tour. 

The rest of Peter’s day is typically spent performing any needed maintenance on back up tanks, feeding animals in his care and helping other aquarists when time permits.  He also enjoys doing maintenance dives in exhibits and giving the occasional dive show.   

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

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

(More) Baby Turtle News: Endangered Keeled Box Turtle Hatches at the Tennessee Aquarium

Photo credit: Bill Hughes

This past Sunday, a Keeled Box Turtle (Cuora mouhotii) hatched at the Tennessee Aquarium.   The egg was the only viable one of a clutch of seven laid in July.  "The egg began hatching last Thursday, October 10th and the baby had fully emerged by the 13th.  The incubation time was 92 days at 82 degrees Fahrenheit," said Herpetologist Bill Hughes.  The baby weighs 0.41 oz (11.7 grams) and has a carapace length of 1.75 inches (4.45 cm). This is the second time this species has reproduced at the Aquarium. The first hatchling arrived in October of last year.

Keeled box turtles get their common names from the three raised ridges, or “keels” running the length of their shells. The edge of the shell has a number of sharp spikes near the tail. Their rugged appearance doesn’t match a tender start. This species tends to lay rather fragile eggs that are often crushed by the parents. 

Photo credit: Bill Hughes

This species is native to China, India, Laos, Myanmar and Viet Nam. Like many other Southeast Asian turtles, keeled box turtles have been over-collected in the wild for food and the pet trade and are classified as Endangered by the IUCN. Several conservation organizations are working to protect the remaining wild populations from illegal trade, while zoos and aquariums are working toward increasing assurance populations in human care. This assures that the species does not go extinct if these animals disappear in the wild. Currently the U.S. population of keeled box turtles at AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums is less than 20 animals.

Photo credit: Bill Hughes

The Tennessee Aquarium has one of the largest turtle collections on public display with more than 500 individuals representing 75 species.  The hatchling and its parents are maintained off-exhibit but there are two other Keeled Box Turtles on exhibit in the Aquarium’s turtle gallery.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Seven Alligator Snapping Turtles Hatch at the Tennessee Aquarium

Seven alligator snapping turtles recently hatched at the Aquarium. Each hatched within the last few weeks and are generally about two inches in length (not including the tail). 

Their parents are our large male snapping turtle and the larger of the two female snapping turtles, from our Delta Swamp exhibit.

Senior Herpetologist Bill Hughes said, “The turtles hatched between the 5th and 13th of September from a clutch of seventeen eggs laid in early June.  The incubation time ranged from 89-97 days at 82 degrees.”

Two of the seven offspring have very light coloration.  “These may be hypomelanistic and it will be interesting to see how they appear once they grow older,” said Hughes.

It could take more than a decade for these turtles to reach maturity and grow to the size of their parents. The hatchlings are currently on a diet of food pellets, but they will become carnivorous as adults. In the wild, alligator snapping turtles often eat freshwater mollusks, fish, other turtles and carrion.

Did you know that baby turtles have “belly buttons”? Even though they hatch from eggs they still get their nutrients through a process similar to an umbilical cord before they hatch.

Got questions about our newest hatchlings? Tweet them to us @TNAquarium

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Top 7 Reasons for a Fall Visit to the Tennessee Aquarium

1) Splashes of Fall Color

Fall washes over our area with beautiful views of colorful leaves and clear autumn skies. What better way to catch the splendor of the season than from the Tennessee River aboard the River Gorge Explorer? Our “Awesome Autumn Fall Cruises” begin October 15th and run through November 10th.

Want to see ALL of “Tennessee’s Grand Canyon?” We will offer two “River GORGEous” Fall Cruises departing on Saturday, November 2nd traveling through the entire 26 mile Tennessee River Gorge during peak color. You can take a commemorative look at the site of Historic Hale's Bar Lock and Dam - the first dam ever built on the Tennessee River - and explore the site's engineering legacy and tales of its haunting 100 years to the day after its construction.

Earlier in the season, you’ll scan the skies and riverbanks for hawks, eagles, osprey and vultures while soaking in the first colors appearing in the "Tennessee's Grand Canyon."  The “Hawk Watch” Wildlife and Color Cruise departs at 10 am on Saturday, October 12.

2) (More) Penguin Pandemonium

Our  new gentoo chicks are getting ready to enter the water and officially join our colony on Penguins’ Rock. In the next few months, keepers will find out the sex of each chick and the naming contest will begin.

While young penguins are getting ready to explore the exhibit on their own, our adult penguins are entering molting season. Each bird will lose old feathers and grow new ones in a process that occurs after breeding and nesting season. During this time, the birds will appear extra fluffy and discarded feathers can often be seen all around the exhibit. It’s a pretty odd sight.

3) A Whole Month of Animal ODDities

Speaking of odd things, Aquarium animals with strange and interesting characteristics or behaviors will be highlighted this fall during ODDtober. During the month of October, a special schedule of animal encounters and shows will take place throughout the day. Get up close with a legless lizard, learn how butterflies taste with their feet, meet a giant marine toad and more!

4) Trick-or-Treat: Pirate Style

Arrgh Mateys! Join the Aquarium crew for AquaScarium VI – our annual safe, but spirited Halloween party. This year’s theme is “Pirates of the Aquarium”. Dueling pirates and costumed SCUBA divers will welcome guests to both Aquarium buildings brimming with fun activities for “bouys” and “gulls” alike! Come in costume (check out our Pinterest board for DIY inspiration) and set out on a trick-or-treat scavenger hunt. Boogie with a buccaneer, learn how to talk like a pirate, and more. Bring your camera and your favorite trick-or-treat bag! 

5) Sesquicentennial Celebration

Chattanooga is rich in Civil War history, landmarks and legend. In addition to the hues of autumn, this fall will be a particularly great time to cruise the Gorge as Tennessee officially commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Battles for Chattanooga. Four special cruises, spanning September through November will mark such historical events as the Browns Ferry Raid and Sherman’s crossing of the Tennessee River at Chickamauga Creek.

From September 30 to October 30, the Gold Pass includes a guided tour of the Aquarium plaza with a Tennessee Aquarium naturalist. Also known as Ross’ Landing, this linear park reflects the unique history and culture of Chattanooga. Known as Ross’s Landing, this site has been the temporal center of early European exploration, Cherokee heritage, Civil War strategy and the rise of railroads and industry. (A guided tour of both aquarium buildings and a river cruise are also included in the Gold Pass.)

6. New Season - New Art

Outside isn’t the only place to see new colors arriving this fall. Two new art installations in the Jellies: Living Art gallery are sure to please art and ocean lovers alike. A new set of glass sculptures by Stephen Rolfe Powell and a mixed media display of metal mesh and crushed glass by Lanny Bergner celebrate the beauty and wonder of undersea life. Surrounded by live jellyfish tanks, this exhbit continues to be a sight that is not to be missed.

7. An Unlikely IMAX Adventure

The Rocky Mountain Express 2D rolls into IMAX on October 4. This movie propels audiences on a steam train journey through the breathtaking vistas of the Canadian Rockies and relates the epic adventure of building the nation’s first transcontinental railway.

The completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) in 1885 ranks among the greatest engineering feats in history, The project drew on the labor and expertise of thousands from around the world, including a young American railway Superintendent named William Corneleus Van Horn. Spanning thousands of miles and some of the world’s greatest natural barriers, this grand transcontinental project, and its wandering ribbon of steel, drew together far flung communities isolated in the wilderness, shaped a new nation and changed the face of the North American continent forever.