Monday, December 26, 2011

Coming Soon: Underwater Videos!

Ice on Pines
I have always preferred using film cameras, especially with slide film, because of the clarity, color saturation,  and super-fine grain. I take pride in creating and using original images here at the VLM for my blog, articles etc. Photographing fishes requires a lot of creative lighting and film solutions to shooting in, through, or above water and I love to get underwater images whenever possible. However, shooting underwater requires fast film (poor for color and image quality) and lots of light, usually external flashes or strobes. This is not only disruptive to the fishes in the tank, but impractical. But now, thanks to Santa's generosity, I will soon be able to produce high quality digital underwater pictures and videos. Our next dive is Thursday December 29th and I hope to produce at least a few images to post on this blog, so keep an eye out for them. Around New Year's we will also be writing about our upcoming projects for the year and hopefully some updated or entirely new exhibits! Have a great holiday season from the aquarium department at the VLM.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Chain Pickerel

Chain Pickerel Esox niger, are a species of fresh water fish most commonly found in rivers and streams. They are named for the chain-like markings along their sides. Pickerel have long, thin bodies and broad, rounded, beak-like rostrums, with a distinctive vertical bar beneath the eye. Their mouths are full of sharp teeth and they can eat anything that is half their size (even mice!). Pickerel usually grow to about two to three feet in length. Pickerel, which are part of the pike family, are difficult to net because they reside in shallow water and move very quickly, making it an exciting catch if one is ever obtained. Luckily, Chris Crippen and myself, Sarah Peake, were able to snag one a few months ago in the Little Creek Reservoir.
We were both looking forward to seining a juvenile pickerel. I got really excited when we spotted one about 8 inches in length sitting in the water we were about to collect from. Unfortunately, we quickly found out that the pickerel were not only faster than we could pull the seine net, but were smart, and avoided the net with ease. To our disadvantage, pickerel often hang out in weedy habitats, making it even harder to pull the seine quickly enough to net one. At the end of the day (and after much frustration of pulling the net over and over again and catching a lot of weeds), we were feeling rather disappointed. Chris decided to try one more spot a few yards down. I pulled the seine out and moved along the bank of the water as quickly as I could.  Before I could even get back on shore Chris saw that I had netted one, so we moved quickly to grab it and put it in our bucket. We were both so excited to finally have gotten one, and a good sized one it was (about 6-7 inches in length). Following tradition, I named her Sarah, after myself (she who catches the prize gets to name it after themselves).
                               Sarah, with a full belly of golden shiners.

So far Sarah has grown to about 8 inches in length. She is eating live food, mostly rosie red goldfish, and has become a favorite among the aquarists to feed. As many of us say, she "annihilates" her prey quickly, to say the least.
We still keep her in quarantine, since it can be tricky to acclimate a pickerel onto exhibit for a few reasons. For one, pickerel tend to stay sedimentary, and because of this they can be easy targets for other larger fish and/or turtles on exhibit. Another concern is that they mostly eat live food. Though it is possible to get them to eat frozen fish, it can be difficult. If she is the only one on that particular exhibit that eats live food, and she is not moving around like the other fish, she may not get to the food in time, and will have lost her meal to the other fish.
                                                  Sarah and Sarah

Sarah needs to get a little larger before we put her in our Woodland Pond exhibit. Once we feel she is big enough we will move her into the exhibit where she will live until she gets too big (she'll then move into the Cypress Swamp exhibit). So for now, Sarah remains behind the scenes in quarantine, and will be on exhibit soon enough.

By: Sarah Peake

Friday, November 25, 2011

Reef Update

The Coral Reef Exhibit has been running well, the water cleared and the chemistry has stabilized. It is now the new home for several corals, anemones, and fishes. As the system matures, each animal will find its home within the exhibit and learn how to interact with their tank mates. Already the bubble-tip anemone has moved several times. Anemones can be very mobile and often move about at night to find the most suitable combination of light and current.

 A bubble-tip anemone on exhibit about 16 inches across

Similarly, soft corals have the ability to move as well, but not nearly as fast or as often as anemones. Soft corals are just that, soft; they lack the calcareous skeletons of stony or hard corals that create reef structures. Soft corals are also generally less reliant upon symbiotic zooxanthellae as hard corals and therefore do not need as much light.
Two different species of hairy mushroom corals in the exhibit.
Corals can vary widely as to flow requirements, light levels, and feeding behavior, and positioning is critical. Often one species will aggressively defend or even take over the space of another by stinging or even sending out digestive filaments that kill its competitors' polyps. Frogspawn corals (Euphyllia spp.), such as the one shown below, are considered aggressive and thus must be given space. 

Frog spawn corals may be aggressive towards other coral species.
Once the corals and anemones were positioned (for now), the fishes were added. Fishes also can be aggressive towards each other, so it is important to consider their potential conflicts, now and as they (some of them) get larger. Certain species like to bury, others such as clownfishes associate with an anemone or coral. Other fishes such as engineer gobies make burrows, while many species prefer the crevices and cracks within rocks or hard coral skeleton. To further complicate matters, some fishes have a tendency to pick and nip at coral polyps. Unfortunately, many angelfish and butterfly fishes are not considered "reef friendly" for this reason and cannot be put in the exhibit despite their beauty. We did add a flame angel (Centropyge loriculus) as the one pictured here, despite the risk (considered low).
Flame angelfish 
We also added two firefish (Nemateleotris magnifica), a small, peaceful and attractive coral reef fish, pictured below. 

One of our two new Firefish

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Reef tank modifications

We recently renovated our coral reef tank to add more substantial filtration. We added a large sand filter, a much more powerful pump, and several additional returns to dramatically improve water flow, essential to proper coral growth.
         The white pipes are returns that have valves to control strength of flow and fittings that can be angled to control direction of flow.

The first step in the process was to drain the exhibit and remove the animals. Corals and anemones attach strongly to the rocks, so their entire rock has to be removed or they have to be separated, which can damage the soft tissue. When possible we removed the entire rock, but several of the large bubbletip anemones were attched to the walls and had to be pried off. Next the fishes were captured. Most hid until there was very little water left. The corals, fishes and anemones were then put in a holding tank with enough lighting to maintain the corals/anemones. While the exhibit was still damp, I power washed the inside with a pressure washer to remove unwanted polyps and algae. Then all the old substrate was removed and discarded.
                                        Tomato clown in a bubbletip anemone in coral holding

After the tank was thoroughly cleaned and dried, work on the life support upgrades began. The new pump is three times more powerful, and eliminates the use of additional powerheads for flow, so we reduced electric use. The new pump's power allowed for a sand filter where waste is physically removed. The additional flow also let us put several more returns (where the water returns to the tank after filtration) and valves to control the flow precisely. Then the new substrate (cleaned and sterilized sand mixed with crushed coral) was added. Several pieces of coral were epoxied to the interior of the exhibit for looks and settlement areas for live coral and anemones, clean rocks were added, and then it was filled with water.
                                                The new pump and sand filter behind coral

The moment of truth comes when the new system is turned on again filled with water. There were inevitable problems and leaks in such a large undertaking and there were in this case. No need for details, but I spent all day today drying out from an early soaking. The final step is to let the water in the system clear, adjust the flow, then add the fishes, anemones, and corals back. There are a few exciting additions/changes there though: Omaha Zoo sent us some bubbletips, Jenkinson's Aquarium is sending some Montipora capricornis frags, we are getting a large number of Convict gobies from Houston Zoo that will all be new to our Coral Reef exhibit. We are excited for the new animals and hope you will be too.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Roanoke Logperch Update

Next week marks the arrival (finally) of the Roanoke logperch (Percina rex) to our museum! Our aquarium curator, Chris Crippen, will be driving out to Marion, Va to the VDGIF's Aquatic Wildlife Conservation Center to retrieve the new additions to our Mountain Stream Exhibit on Monday October 17th after an extensive state and federal permitting process, due to their highly endangered status.

 Rosyside dace and central stonerollers in the stream
In preparation for the king of darters, we have completely revamped the Mountain Stream exhibit. All of the sculpin (Cottidae) have been removed, as they are known to prey on darters and other small stream fishes. New exhibit rocks have been collected from the Tye River area - smaller, more natural and colorful - to better suit the natural habitat of the logperch. The logperch will join over twenty native stream species currently in this exhibit including redline darters (pictured below), mountain redbelly dace, rosyside dace (pictured above), blacknose dace, and several other darters species.
 A redline darter in the stream exhibit

In the wild, the logperch primarily feed on small invertebrates (bugs, snails, etc) that they uncover by flipping rocks with their snout, here we will feed them a varied diet of blackworms, mysis shrimp and a commercial gel diet.

Thursday, September 8, 2011


 A five year old cobia in our Chesapeake bay exhibit

Cobia Rachycentron canadum have a dedicated following in this area and thus many cobia fishermen are very secretive about their fishing spots. In addition to being a powerful and challenging adversary for sport-fishermen, they are an excellent food fish; so much so that they are being commercially grown and marketed. Their rapid growth and firm, mild flesh make them an ideal aquaculture species. There is of course much more to them than simply a fillet.

Cobia are fascinating fish and one of the more mysterious fishes in this area. They may be plentiful one day or one week, or nearly impossible to find. They generally migrate into the Bay in early summer and head southward in early fall to overwinter off Florida. Cobia are generally solitary, seeking out structure, but often accompany (or are accompanied by) sharks and rays, adding to their mystique. Also they get large - over 100 pounds - and have a similar shape and movement to that of sharks, giving them even more gravitas. Proof of their allure and uniqueness are their many and varied nicknames: man in the brown suit, bonita, the brown cloud, ling and lemonfish, among others. Another one, crabeater, actually makes sense as they prey heavily on blue crabs.Whatever you call them, their seasonal presence is always highly anticipated.

A young-of-the-year cobia in our Juvenile Fishes exhibit

As with most fishes at the VLM, we usually acquire cobia as juveniles. Firstly, they are infinitely easier to get at this stage and secondly they can be acclimated to captivity much more easily, and most importantly, they are BEAUTIFUL as young (pictured above) and can be displayed immediately. Cobia are extremely "friendly" fish and quite gentle for their size. We currently have four yearlings that are rapidly outgrowing their exhibit and will be added to our largest tank as nearly 2 footers as early as next summer.

Friday, August 26, 2011


The latter part of each summer is our most productive time to collect specimens. Most recently we have been collecting fishes for our Piling exhibit: blennies, gobies, skilletfish, various crustaceans, and vegetation. Late summer is prime time for these fishes, and Kiptopeake State Park is the place. Over 30 feather blennies, striped blennies, several planehead filefish, and green fleece have been added to the piling exhibit and the old (ecologically incorrect) crushed coral substrate has been replaced with sand. This tank is not only beautiful to look at but very entertaining. Blennies are combative and territorial and actually seem to enjoy fussing at each other. They will literally bite the hand that feeds them (us) and even the cleaning equipment!

A large male feather blenny takes up residence in green fleece

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Roanoke logperch

Roanoke logperch Percina rex

The "king" will soon be at the VLM! The king of what? The king of darters! Darters comprise several Genera of the Family Percidae (perches) and are typically small stream fishes but may inhabit swamps, ponds and lakes as well. And the king is Percina rex - "rex" literally means king - the Roanoke logperch. This fish is not only beautiful, but is one of the largest darters in North America, reaching up to 6 inches. It also is one of the most endangered. Listed as a Federally Threatened and Endangered species, P. rex inhabits only streams in the Roanoke River drainage, but even this small system is losing ground. The Roanoke logperch requires a clean stream bottom to feed and reproduce and many of its native streams are being degraded by sedimentation and human activity.
 Mountain redbelly dace from the Mountain Cove exhibit

We have been lucky enough to acquire some of these rare specimens to display through a loan from the VDGIF's Aquatic Wildlife Conservation Center. The fish were part of a freshwater mussel study and cannot be released into the wild, so they have generously agreed to let us display 10 of their beautiful animals. The aquarium staff and I will be revamping the Mountain Stream exhibit, which currently contains many darter, dace, sculpin and shiner species, to remove many of the darter-eating sculpins currently in the exhibit and add some specialized habitat to accommodate the logperch; they like to overturn rocks with their snouts to search for food. We will also be adding a great deal more darters and dace (such as the mountain redbelly dace pictured above) to the exhibit. Look for the changes around the end of August.
A banded sculpin in the Mountain Stream exhibit, they often prey on smaller stream fishes

Friday, July 15, 2011

Chippy the barn swallow

Juvenile barn swallow

One of the benefits of the museum is that we are exposed to a wide range of animals, not just fish. As a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, I have the opportunity to care for many types of local wildlife from red foxes to barn swallows and everything in between. This swallow (pictured above) was found at Little Creek Reservoir dehydrated, malnourished, and exposed on a very hot day. I have mentored staff member Patrycja Lawryniuk on its care and she thankfully shares the duties caring for it. Birds are often mistakenly picked up by humans who assume they were abandoned - most are not - and people quickly realize that they take an extraordinary amount of care. This little guy is fed every 45 minutes from dawn to dark. Because of its high metabolism it has grown quickly from a fledgling (above) to a flighted adult (pictured below) in less than two weeks.
This handsome bird, nicknamed "Chippy" has thrived primarily on insects, and will soon be released back into the wild to catch his own bugs. When you get an up-close experience with a bird, and I am reminded every time, you realize how delicate, beautiful and complex birds are. And what a joy it is to watch them fly off into the wild. 

***Wild animals, especially birds should only be cared for by licensed caregivers or animal medical professionals. If you do find an injured/orphaned bird here is a helpful website; 

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Unusual - but very cool - fishes

There are over 20,000 fish species inhabiting every possible aquatic habitat, so there are some very strange fishes out there. Even in this area, there are many unusual fishes that are relatively abundant, but the average person does not often see. Some of the fishes like the northern stargazer (pictured below) are ambush predators and bury in the sand, so they are deliberately hidden from view.
Others, such as searobins, are often associated with structure, deep water, or active primarily at night. There are a few species of sea robins in Virginia, most common are the northern searobin and the striped searobin (pictured below).

Searobins are occasionally caught on rod and reel while bottom fishing and despite being a good (but small) food fish are nonetheless considered a "trash fish" or nuisance by anglers.

Both these fishes are exceptionally beautiful and have highly modified structures. Stargazers have an electrical organ behind their eye that is thought to be used to stun prey. They also have venom glands at the base of their pectoral fins for defense. Stargazers as so named for the positioning of their eyes that look skyward to locate prey moving overhead as they are entirely buried in sand. Once prey is located, stargazers create enormous suction with their huge mouths and engulf their victims; a move that is almost too fast to see.

Searobins have a large bony head with a duck-like mouth and very specialized pectoral fins. The foremost pectoral fin rays are detached and singular; they can use them like fingers to stir up substrate and locate prey. The remainder of the pectoral fins are very broad and brightly colored (as seen on a northern searobin below). Also they are able to produce sounds through the contraction of muscles surrounding their swim bladder  and - similar to a croaker or oyster toadfish - they are known to croak or grunt loudly when caught.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

More jellies and the lemon sharks claim their first victim

Jellies are standard display animals at public aquaria due to their beauty and downright strangeness. But they are difficult to culture and even more difficult to procure from another institution via trade. So as a short-cut we have been collecting them and displaying what is seasonally available. Right now the resident jelly - and therefore the one currently on display - is the sea nettle Chrysaora quinquecirrha. They are notorious around the Mid-Atlantic for ruining beach outings with their irritating stings, but they are beautiful and plentiful at this time of year. Hopefully, later in the year we will be able to collect and display my local favorite the cannonball jelly Stomolophus meleagris. They are much more difficult to collect as they are very fast swimmers and have excellent senses that allow them to avoid capture; so much so they seem to see you coming and head the other way, quickly!

A sea nettle on display at the VLM

Today marks the first official casualty due to lemon shark aggression. After I performed the routine check-in for the upper level of the building, which includes cleaning the acrylic on the Chesapeake Bay Aquarium, and all seemed well, I was called to the tank by a staff member. A spadefish lay mortally wounded with four large softball-sized chunks removed from it. Apparently, the lemon sharks got hungry and decided to feed themselves. This is problematic on a few levels. Now the sharks have had success devouring a tank mate. There have been bite marks on others but until now all had survived. Also, I value all the animals here including the spadefish and never want to expose animals to uneccessary injury or death. I have raised or collected all of the spadefish (and most of the other species as well) at the VLM and feel responsible for the well-being of each. And lastly, I dive with the sharks, alone for now, and must have a renewed awareness of their activity during dives. While I certainly am not afraid of them at this point, I also do not want to experience the loss of any softball-sized chunk out of me. And as they grow the issues will only escalate.

Saturday, June 11, 2011


Virginia has many ponds and all of them contain a surprising amount of life. Ponds are generally defined as water bodies that are shallow enough for sunlight to reach the bottom. Therefore, they are often covered with and full of aquatic vegetation and plankton, making them great places for small fishes, amphibians, and insects to live and reproduce. Duckweed, waterlilies, parrot feather, pickerel weed, cattails are all common pond plants and hide many of the pond's life from our view, but also provide complex underwater habitats.

Duckweed and parrot feather cover a pond's surface

Ponds may experience drastic seasonal fluctuations in temperature and oxygen levels, so the fishes that live there must be adaptable and hardy. Common pond fishes include mosquito fish, largemouth bass, bullhead catfish, several sunfish species, and one or more pickerel species. Of these, there are two species that are especially beautiful, and even more elusive: the redfin pickerel (Esox americanus) and the bluespotted sunfish (Enneacanthus gloriosus).
A pickerel lurks in vegetation

A male bluespotted sunfish

Neither of these fishes get very large, but more than make up for it in style. The redfin pickerel is most often under 8 inches or so and the bluespot reaches only around 4. Both are relatively common in southeastern coastal ponds.

Redfin pickerel are the smallest member of the pike family which includes the musky, northern pike, and the most common chain pickerel. Although they are small, they are as voracious as their relatives, gorging on almost anything they can swallow. As ambush predators they spend most of their time motionless and hidden in vegetation; additionally they are mostly too small to be caught by anglers and thus are rarely seen.

Blue spotted sunfish are shy fish that also stick close to vegetation and woody debris. Despite their shy nature the males display very flamboyant iridescent blue spots, giving them their name. They feed mainly on small invertebrates.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

I want to do what you do!

We recently had two long-time employees, Jessi Shupe and Heidi Pankratz, move on from the VLM to new opportunities. While it is hard to lose good employees and even harder to replace their knowledge immediately, we are happy for them. The two positions have recently been filled and we look forward to working with them. There were many, many strong candidates but the two chosen were ultimately picked because of a combination of character, personality traits, and experience. The amount of responsibility that will be bestowed upon them is significant and I follow a personal philosophy of hiring people that will grow into the position and that have already proven a significant amount of dedication to doing this type of work.

Guests at the museum, often on my behind the scenes tours, ask how did you get this job? or what do you suggest for me (or my child) to do to get into this type of work? My first suggestion is to actually do it - for free as a volunteer - to see if it the reality of the job is interesting or stimulating to pursue; this is important because NOBODY is in this for the money! My second suggestion is to do well in school in the biological sciences (a BA/BS in biology or related degree is required for employment) and get some experience somewhere. Understand that there are many people with a degree, but their experience is what differentiates the candidates. So once you have the degree and experience, be patient and flexible. Always do something as closely related to what you want to be doing as possible; working at a bookstore may pay the bills but stay connected to the work in anyway possible. Every employee of mine over nearly 7 years were volunteers of mine first, except one, who volunteered at the GA Aquarium an entire summer for free.

One of the two Lemon sharks brought down from Connecticut.

So what can you expect? A lot of mundane tasks, routine work, and virtually no recognition for the amount of work and responsibility invested. BUT you also experience things that very few people get to experience. A short list of my personal experiences related to one exhibit (Chesapeake Bay Aquarium - CBA) in the past year: driving our loggerhead 19 hours straight to her new home in Dallas TX almost exactly one year ago today and nearly 5 years after driving her as a juvenile sea turtle from TX, putting her in a bathtub in Mississippi overnight, SCUBA diving over 200 times with her, raising her to nearly three hundred pounds. Then bringing another loggerhead from NC that weighed only 5 lbs as a replacement (eventually put in the Chesapeake Bay Aquarium at 26 lbs, Fall 2010); removing two 6 foot nurse sharks (due to their size)acquired over 5 years ago from a pet store at 14" and raising and diving with them; releasing a sandbar shark from CBA we raised named "Hank" after the friend of mine who caught him; driving 2 lemon sharks (currently on exhibit), from Mystic, Connecticut this winter to replace the sandbar shark; releasing two southern stingrays that were originally pupped ( at ~10") at the National Aquarium and raised until they were nearly 3 feet across (because the lemons would eat them), and acclimating three 15 pound striped bass (currently in the James River exhibit) raised from 4 inch juveniles from freshwater to full saltwater to then be added to CBA. This is but a portion of the work involved with this particular exhibit. There are 3 weekly water changes, a weekly dive for interior cleaning, weekly maintenance on the life support, daily sea turtle feedings, lemon shark feeding 3 times a week, the fishes are fed for public program 4 times a week; all of which requires supporting work such as food prep, water chemistry, daily bicarb additions, etc.

Christi, on her way to Dallas Texas to her new home.

Striped bass that will be moved into the CBA tank
So...if you think you want to do this type of work, try it. If you like it, stick with it. Patience and hard work still matter; raising animals requires it.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

crabs and lobsters

The VLM has many species of invertebrates and almost every common crab species found in VA and a few that aren't. Of course we display the iconic blue crab Callinectes sapidus, but also several hermit crab species, mud crabs, ghost crabs, two spider crab species, and the ancient horseshoe crab Limulus polyphemus who are more closely related to scorpions and spiders than true crabs. In addition to these relatively common species we have some more unusual species - the beautiful calico box crab, stone crab, portunid crab, and the giant red hermit crab - that are more common further south than Virginia. We also display the Atlantic lobster and the miniature freshwater counterpart the crayfish (in an unusual blue phase and red phase, pictured below)
We collect these animals (sometimes on accident) most often as juveniles and have them for several years. As they grow, they must shed their shells or exoskeleton and form a new shell; these discarded shells are called molts. Molting can be a very dangerous time for these animals. Their shells are ordinarily a hard protective armor against predators, but immediately after molting their shells are soft, leaving them vulnerable to predation even by humans; soft shell (blue) crabs are considered a delicacy by many people. The process may take many hours and they may not harden up for days. Female blue crabs mate at this stage and are "covered" by the males. A previous blog shows the entire process of a calico box crab molting. Not only are the animals vulnerable, but many things can go wrong during the process and result in deformities, loss of limbs, even death. 

In captivity, proper nutrition and excellent water quality are critical for the proper shell development; pH, ammonia levels, and trace elements in sea water (mg, Ca, P) seem to all factor in to molting success. Poor nutrition or water quality may result in malformed shells, shell necrosis (pitting) or death. We vary their diets as much as possible to ensure complete nutrition. Diets include: live clams, shrimp, squid, herring, mackerel, capelin, Mazuri gel diet and Ulva (a green algae). Species such as the blue crab will molt many times in their lives, growing up to 30% each time! Eventually they reach a terminal molt, a size at which they will grow no larger.

The aquarium staff keeps and carefully dries out the fragile molts for educational use, or even as decoration. Below is a picture of our latest lobster molt ( the yellow ruler is 6 inches) and various molts that adorn my office:

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Collecting season

As the water warms this spring, our collecting opportunities expand. I generally have a mental list of species we would like to have here, but there are always fishes we need each year as they outgrow their exhibits and are transitioned to larger ones (e.g. striped bass, flounder). Some species are popular not only among guests and staff, but other facilities often inquire about for trade, such as lookdowns and spadefish. Fortunately, I have many locations that I have catalogued over my many years in VA through personal experience, research/professional (VIMS) or through the museum. 
Juvenile Spadefish, a popular catch each summer

Collecting (with requisite permits of course) is one of the more pleasurable parts of this type of work. Although I never truly enjoy taking an animal out of its element, I use that sentiment to ensure a personal and professional quality of care for the animals we do keep. I DO NOT keep animals I feel are unsuitable for captivity, doubt we can handle, or care for adequately. And there are many species I would like to have, even have had, but do not fit that requirement (octopus). Back to the pleasurable part; it is hard to beat late spring through fall in VA. July and August can be brutal at times, but then again we are in the water when collecting. 
Most commonly we use a 100 x 6 foot beach seine that I acquired from my old bosses at VIMS originally used for the Juvenile Bluefish Survey. It needs repair after just about every trip anymore but it is very effective. Not only is the weather and scenery a huge highlight of collecting trips but it is also the thought of getting interesting fishes that we rarely see or do not currently display. Every now and then there are a few surprises - bluntnose ray pups (13 total), banded drum, leatherjack, moonfish - and large scale changes in species by year (2010 was an excellent spotted sea trout/bluefish year, 2009 was a striped bass/flounder year).
Bluntnose Ray pup caught at Cape Charles
So this year we can look forward to the unexpected and we certainly expect to enjoy it.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Skate Exhibit up and running

A few months ago on a recreational trip to Oregon Inlet, North Carolina I noticed an unusually large amount of flotsam around the southern jetty. Always on the lookout for interesting exhibit props, I discovered wooden poles, formally from a pound net, that would make excellent pilings in the skate exhibit. Treated wood is toxic for fishes so wood pilings could not be purchased, and our budget would not allow for fabrication of pilings from textured cement.

So...two aquarium staff members went down ASAP and discovered the wooden poles still washed up and left on the beach. They then sawed the pole down to five, 5- foot sections and brought them back to the VLM. The new "pilings" were then drilled through the bottom to hold bolts and lightly scrubbed and set aside for the project of remodeling the Skate/Ray Exhibit. The stingray that was then on exhibit was removed to a holding system, and the renovation began!

The next step was to drain the exhibit. Then the substrate was removed. Outside of the tank, the five pilings were attached to a large piece of high-strength resin that served as a base to keep the pilings stationary and stable. After the piling structure was installed inside the exhibit, sand that had also been previously collected and washed was then added to cover the base, and the tank was filled. We let the tank run for a few days and plumbed in a chiller before placing the animals in the new habitat. Once the chiller was installed, the exhibit was ready and now home to three Little Skates (Raja erinacea) and five spotted hake (Urophycis regia)!
                       Notice the diamond - shaped outline of the skate in the center of the sand!

To the left, a hake is poking out of the sand. On the right, notice the skate's outline in the sand.

RAW 2011 - by Patrycja Lawryniuk

On Tuesday and Thursday of this week, my colleague Jessi Shupe and I attended the Regional Aquatics Workshop (RAW), hosted by the Virginia Aquarium in Virginia Beach, VA. At the workshop, we attended lecture sessions with different speakers from all over the world!

On Tuesday, the sessions focused on water quality and life support systems, fee-based and animal interactive programs, and fish propogation. It was really neat to see what other facilities do with their animals. I even learned how to get started on any potential animal-interaction programs. I was especially interested in all Jeff Marliave from Vancouver Aquarium had to say on catching and raising wolf eels.

Thursday's sessions focused on husbandry, animal enrichment, and exhibit design. These three sessions were particularly useful to me as an aquarist, and the animal enrichment/behavioral conditioning was especially interesting. I really enjoyed learning how to train eagle-spotted rays and white sea bass to feed by hand. I also walked away with multiple new ideas for changing and maintaining our exhibits.

Overall I had a very pleasant experience at RAW 2011, and I really appreciate the museum allowing us to experience the workshop; we had a great time and learned a lot.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Sharks and Rays

Last Thursday prior to our weekly SCUBA program, we added our two male lemon sharks to the 30,000 gallon Chesapeake Bay tank.

Before moving the sharks, we had to first remove the southern stingray from the exhibit, as skates and rays are natural prey for many shark species. Our presence inside the exhibit helps to disrupt any potential territorial behaviors by the fishes already in the tank and allows us to closely monitor the situation and even to remove the sharks if things go poorly. In holding, these two sharks were very active and rather aggressive; in fact they ate several smaller tankmates, so caution was needed. But so far so good. Inside CBA each shark has established one half the tank as their own "territory", circling near the surface of the tank, always alert for food. They are still fed off tongs three times a week, but get several peices of food each when the fishes in the main tank are fed during the 2pm program. They showed no fear of us during the dive and swam directly in front of me whenever I was near the surface totally unafraid. Juveniles of top predators and animals that get to be very large often are fearless, perhaps instinctively knowing that one day they will be quite formidable.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Are You Feeding?

Probably the most common question we get from the visitors as we work in or around the exhibits is, "Are you feeding?" People love to watch the animals eat so I think the question may be born from wishful thinking. We do have feedings for the public at 11am and 2pm on selected days, but mostly we try to feed the exhibits before we open because feeding usually clouds the water a bit afterwards. Also, some fishes are skittish and will not feed well surrounded by activity; others are being trained for a particular feeding time.

(A typical weekly food order often includes: (clockwise from top) squid, smelt, live clams, and fresh spanish mackerel.)
 The VLM houses over 100 species of both fresh and saltwater fishes of all life-stages so their diets range from flake food to whole herring.
(Atlantic herring are a staple for the saltwater fishes, fed out in chunks, fillets, or even whole)

We attempt to mimic as closely as possible what they would eat in the wild, while providing maximum variety coupled with suppliments to ensure proper nutrition. We prepare diets every day and constantly adjust the amounts as the fishes grow. Fishes that prey on other fishes in the wild, often have the ability (and the desire) to eat their exhibit-mates, so we move them often as they become too large or aggressive for a particular exhibit. We also try to keep them well-fed but not fat; it is no simple task to ensure the most passive fishes get enough food while the most aggressive do not get too much. Successful feeding and nutrition - and their ability to be housed together - relies on the fishes' natural ecology.

(Shad roe, salvaged from fresh whole shad we ordered as a food fish, are occasionally fed out for extra nutrition.)

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Trip to Duke Marine Lab

Every spring, students from local Christopher Newport University make a trip to the Duke University Marine Lab in Beaufort, NC.  A couple of aquarium employees from the VLM accompany them on the trip to help with identification and to lend an extra hand to the chaperoning professor. This year aquarists Jessi Shupe and Heidi Pankratz were selected to go. The trip, started almost 30 years ago, is a favorite tradition for biology students at CNU.  Students get a chance to experience a boat trip on the RV Susan Hudson that includes trawling and dredging, walking through mud flats in the Beaufort Inlet Channel, and a visit to the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores.  The aquarium department at the VLM also gets a chance to collect specimens for use in exhibits.

We brought coolers on board to hold collected animals
The trawl allows us to catch species living just above sediment (hake, flounder, crabs) and the dredge pulls up species living in the sediment. The catch from the boat this year was good, but less diverse than usual because of the long winter and cold waters (~55 F).  

Students sort through catch from the dredge

The mud flats we visit are home to a variety of mollusks that thrive in an environment of changing tides, including oysters, whelks, conchs, and clams. We visit at low tide, which allows us to cover more area and find animals to collect.

Jessi fights through the deep mud

CNU student Emily Wolford shows off the lightning whelk she found (eating a clam)

After the boating and trekking through mud flats, students have a lab session that gives them a chance to go through and identify the collected specimens.

Dr. Gwynne Brown, professor of biology at CNU, talks about the water vascular system of sea urchins
The wet labs allowed us to hold our collected animals overnight until the drive back to the VLM
Jessi and I enjoyed a behind-the-scenes tour of the NC Aquarium

Species that we collected for the museum this year included white and purple urchins, lightning and channeled whelk, spider, stone, mud, and portunid crabs, spotted hake, and windowpane flounder. These species will soon be used in exhibits including the "crusty" crustacean tank and the touch tank.