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. 

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