Saturday, June 30, 2012

Juvenile Striped Burrfish, Puffers, and Lookdowns

Above is a juvenile striped burrfish Chilomycterus schoepfi, a relatively common type of porcupinefish of the Family Diodontidae, meaning "two teeth" found in the Bay. They have the ability to inflate their bodies like "puffers" Family Tetradontidae or "four teeth" also found in the Bay, but have several physiological differences including "burrs" or spines that help define porcupinefishes, and as their family names indicate burrfish have one upper tooth plate and one lower tooth (2 total), while puffers have two on top and two below (4 total). Striped burrfish and northern puffers both use these beak-like teeth plates to crush the shells of crustaceans and scrape invertebrates off rocks, pilings and vegetation, so naturally both species are often found in grass flats and near structure.

A juvenile northern puffer

Despite their ecological and physiological similarities, the two species display very different behaviors in a captivity. Northern puffers Sphoeroides maculatus are extremely aggressive and often bully much larger fishes, using their beak-like teeth to nip at skin and fins. They usually must be separated from fishes with long fins or appendages, as puffers will eat them off. Burrfish however are usually docile and reclusive, at least in comparison to puffers. Because of their unique look, small size (less than a foot as adults) and interesting behavior, both puffers and burrfish are a favorite for aquarists and guests alike.
Juvenile lookdowns Selene vomer can be very ornate and are patterned to mimic sea grass

Lookdowns, a type of jack, have very elongated, elaborate fins as juveniles to help disguise them in vegetation. Puffers however, will eagerly nip at fins such as these and must be kept separately from most species.

Turtle census part 3: guest blog by Susan Summers

 The third and final session of our turtle trapping program was full of wonderful information and more turtles!

We began our morning visiting Linda Addison, the Museum’s vet tech who told us much about caring for injured turtles.  She showed us examples of the types of injuries that turtles can have and what veterinarians do to heal them.  For example, some turtles will eat items that can cause blockages in their internal organs, other turtles may have been hit by cars or other objects which can fracture their shells, and some turtles, those that have been taken from the wild as pets, often have complications from poor nutrition.  Each turtle is an individual case, and while surgery may be an option for some, it may not for others.  Repositioning the shell to help a turtle heal may be the best and easiest solution for some, yet for others giving them a liquid that can help them pass any indigestible matter might be the answer, and often it may not be possible to do anything at all.  We were fortunate to meet several different types of turtles during our visit with Linda; a box turtle, a painted turtle, a red footed tortoise as well as African spur footed tortoises.  We learned quite a bit about turtle care!

A painted turtle with an injury
After visiting Linda, we headed to the lake to check our traps.  We were in luck!  We collected 5 turtles, one of which was a snapping turtle and was immediately released (after some work disentangling the fellow from the net).  We captured and released 2 northern red-bellied cooters, 1 red eared slider and 1 intergraded turtle (which had an injury to its beak).  Students assisted with all aspects of data collection, and then released the animals safely back into the lake.  
A turtle with a damaged beak
Our team, processing turtles
Alisa getting ready to release a turtle
Releasing the turtles
We finished our morning with a visit from Chris Crippen, our Aquarium Curator who talked to us about sea turtles and how the Museum cares for them.  We have had several loggerhead sea turtles in our care over the years, and Chris and his staff have learned quite a lot about what it takes to keep these animals healthy and happy.
Showing the size of a sea turtle shell
 Did you know that there are 5 different species of sea turtles that can be found off the coast of Virginia (some are more prevalent than others).  These are the loggerhead, the Kemp’s ridley, the green, the leatherback and the hawksbill.  The Museum cares for a loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta).  We discovered that there is a large variety of fish that our turtle is fed daily, that sea turtles need their vitamins just like people do, and that people can have large impacts on turtles – pick up your trash!  Sea turtles are not so very smart and often confuse our trash for food items.  This can have serious consequences for them. 

We asked our participants what they wanted other kids their age to know about turtles and this project, here is what they said:  

“It was fun, but you always have to be gentle.”
“Don’t take turtles from the wild, because they will die in captivity.”
“Turtles are not smart and are hard to take care of.”
 “If you are interested in a career in herpetology you will need to get a degree – a bachelor’s and a master’s, and often it is a good idea to volunteer in places that have herps, like the Virginia Living Museum.”
“The turtle census is very fun even though you don’t catch very many turtles.”
“Turtles are cool to work with but they are stinky and messy!”
“Turtles eat trash that looks like food, which can kill them. Some people need to know that by littering, they are killing animals.”

I want to thank our participants (who were extremely helpful and wonderful to work with) and our volunteer Larry for spending their Saturday mornings with us.  The staff enjoyed our experience and we are looking forward to doing all again next year.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

mountain redbelly dace in an underwater video of our mountain stream

Above is a video of our Mountain Stream exhibit from a fish's viewpoint. I hope you enjoy a unique look some of the over 20 species we display in this exhibit. Most prominent are: the mountain redbelly dace (in post-breeding splendor), blacknose and rosyside dace, central stonerollers (a couple of large males with head tubercles) and roanoke logperch (the camera hogs). Many stream fishes are relatively skittish by nature, and some of the more shy fish species can be seen briefly in the video if you look closely including: redline darters, longfin darters, snubnose darters and fantail darters.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Turtle Census part 2

The second session began with a talk from Travis Land, our Herpetology Curator, who spoke about turtle husbandry.  He talked about what it means to have a turtle in your care and what they need to survive.  Committing to having a turtle for a pet is serious business, so learning about their needs, their life cycle and lifespan is extremely important.   I think our participants might have been surprised to learn how complex turtle care can be. For example:  food that you are giving a turtle must mimic what they find in the wild; worms, slugs, insects, fruits, leafy greens; all of this is important –some leafy greens can be bad for a turtle, so just finding any old lettuce is not a good idea.  You need to do your research when caring for a turtle.  Food is just one aspect of turtle care, there are many more to consider! 
 Travis and Phoebe mark the turtle

After our talk we checked what we caught in the traps, and were in luck!  We collected two turtles: a northern red-bellied cooter, and an inter-graded turtle.  Different slider species can mate in the wild and produce offspring; many do not have characteristics of either parents but a blend of both, this is what we consider an inter-grade. 
Wyatt helps measure the plastron

Participants helped with the measuring and marking of the turtles before they were safely released.  This was the first time they had come across wild turtles and were able to handle them, it was an exciting moment.  They discovered that “ turtles have completely different personalities” and that “turtles have sharp claws and beaks”.
Grace measures the carapace

After our data collection ended, we walked the boardwalk to observe the turtles that might be out sunning on a log.  Unfortunately the water level was high and many of the sunning logs were underwater!  So although we spotted some turtles sunning, there weren’t as many as we were accustomed to.
Matt records turtle data

We returned to the main Museum building to learn what to do if you want a career in herpetology.  We learned that a career in herpetology can be fascinating and take you to places to learn about animals many people have never seen!  For example: Scientists study pelagic sea turtles from NOAA’s oceanic vessels, they study large aquatic salamanders in the streams of Asia, they look at the life cycle of amphibians (frogs, toad and salamanders) and threats to that life cycle on many continents.  Depending upon your interest, there are many avenues to explore.  Locally students can get involved by volunteering at museums and zoos, or for local wildlife departments or herpetology organizations. Staying in school and continuing on to get an advanced degree is also helpful and will give you more information about what is happening out in the field.  Making connections with folks who work with reptiles and amphibians is the best way to discover if this is a career for you.  And of course, working on a citizen science project like our very own turtle project, also gives one an idea of what field work is all about. 
 Julia checks her measurements

Our students went away from today with a lot more information and hands-on experience about the field of herpetology!  They commented that “there are way more turtle species than I thought”, that sometimes being a biologist means “getting up early in the morning, I don’t like that”, and “that sometimes field work is hard, but it is fun and hands-on! I love it!”

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Longfin darters

The VLM displays only native fishes and invertebrates - with a few exceptions in the coral reef exhibit - so I exert a great deal of effort to maximize the number of interesting species we display. Fortunately, Virginia has one of the greatest number of fish species in the country due to our diverse geography and temperate climate, boasting over 200 freshwater species, not including all the saltwater species living in and visiting Virginia waters throughout the year. Any fisherman can recognize a bass, catfish, or sunfish, but most people are not familiar with the vast majority of species that create Virginia's great species diversity: over half of the species are from the minnow family (67species) and perch family (45 species).

The common carp is a member of the family Cyprinidae or "minnow" family

The warpaint shiner is also a cyprinid

Even an expert has a difficult time identifying many "minnows", but carp, goldfish, dace, shiners, chubs, and many other groups are all recognizable "minnows" or Cyprinids, but most are dace or shiners that are extremely difficult to discern with the naked eye. Perches include popular game-fishes such as the yellow perch (obviously), the walleye and sauger, but the vast majority are "darters". As described in a previous blog about the "king of darters" the roanoke logperch, despite their striking beauty, they are little known and even less seen.

Longfin darter, looking good but not quite ready for primetime

My primary goal for the VLM fish collection is not to just increase diversity, rather to display any and all Virginia species that we logistically can, and foremost of those the ones the public find interesting and unusual. Many species we house here are from these two groups, many of which are in my opinion the most beautiful; one of which is the longfin darter. No fish person will dispute the beauty of a candy darter, tangerine darter, or a redline darter- just to name a few, literally - but darter fans (yes there are some, one of which I know to have a large, detailed tattoo of a redline darter across his ribs) often overlook the longfin darter.. This darter is relatively common and is not unusually attractive throughout the year, but when the males become ready to spawn they can really put on a show. They are aptly named for their exceptionally long second dorsal fin, which becomes an orange-speckled flag to attract females. These blue and orange beauties are also notoriously secretive yet combative; staking out a secluded spot and chasing off trespassers relentlessly.
A male longfin darter putting his best fin forward

Darters are fascinating to watch, and extremely rewarding to display, but they require specialized care and specialized facilities. Most species need water much colder than room temperature (ours is kept at 53 degrees F), so a chiller or heat exchanger is needed, which is often far beyond what the average hobbyist is willing to spend. Also, they (most species) require moderate to high water flow and very high water quality; both of which can be difficult in a closed system. Powerheads to create current and lots of filtration help, but most of all, the staff and I contribute a LOT of physical effort: hand scrubbing algae off of rocks, gravel washing detritus, etc. In a natural healthy stream system, rains would wash away waste, organic matter, silt etc, but in a closed system this must be removed - often! But in the end its worth it. Our Mountain Stream exhibit is my favorite exhibit here and one of my favorites anywhere. But just like in the wild, this exhibit and these beautiful unique fishes go unnoticed by most people right out in the open.

A male mountain redbelly dace in our stream exhibit also makes a good mating display

Friday, June 1, 2012

VLM Turtle Census - by Susan Summers, Education Associate

The Virginia Living Museum turtle census for 2012 has officially begun!  
For the past two years, the Museum has conducted a census of the basking turtles in Lake Maury (behind the Museum) in order to determine what the status is of the native turtles that live there.   We want to know if the (non-native) red-eared slider (Trachemys scripatelegans)  is outcompeting the native basking turtles in the lake. 

In order to gather this information, we set live traps in the lake, hoping that the turtles will enter them.  If they do, they become trapped until they are released (alive).  The basking turtles we want to catch and learn more about are the: eastern paintedturtle (Chrysemys picta picta), yellow-bellied slider (Trachemys scriptascripta), and northern red-bellied cooter (Pseudemys rubrivenris). There are other turtles we might encounter, but we are focusing on those listed above. 

 Turtle trap set of the VLM floating dock

This season we are joined by six middle school students, Matt, Grace, Julia, Alisa, Wyatt and Phoebe.  When asked why they wanted to be part of the project they had a variety of responses:

“I want to see turtles in their native habitat”
“I want to learn more about turtles”
“I want to learn how to tell the difference between turtle species” 
 “I think turtles are cool and want to learn more about them”

We think turtles are cool too, and are glad that they are on hand to help.  Before we began, our budding herpetologists learned about turtle characteristics, practiced with the gear they would be using, and learned why studying non-native species is important; how non-natives can affect an ecosystem.

One of the snapping turtles captured from the lake

Unfortunately, our first session met with limited success.  Our students did learn how to measure turtles safely with calipers, they saw what a turtle trap was and how it was set and retrieved from the water.  They also got to see (up close and personal) snapping turtles from the lake.  Unfortunately, these weren’t the turtles we were looking for!  Yet, we knew the turtles were out there, as we saw them sunning themselves on the logs.  So, we turned to volunteer Larry Riddick, who has been part of the Wildlife Mapping program at the museum for several years, and can, with binoculars, identify sunning turtles on logs. 

Several turtles basking in the sun on logs

Armed with binoculars, students learned how to identify turtles on logs, what field marks to look for, and what might make this a challenge.  All returned a favorable report on this part of their day, despite it not being what they were hoping for.  We still counted turtles, but were not able to collect some of the data we were interested in.

Our group visually surveys the lake for turtles

After our visual observations were through, we returned to the museum classroom to learn how reptiles and amphibians are classified, and met some of examples of each in the process.  We are hopeful that our next session will provide us with a hands-on experience with the basking turtles.

We’ll let you know how it turns out!


Three weeks ago, a bird was brought into the museum because it had fallen out of a tree and did not seem well. This happens almost daily at the Living Museum; many members of public bring us injured or abandoned animals. I responded to the call and when I saw the bird, he seemed very dehydrated and weak. I immediately began to get some food and water into him, and within a few hours he perked up and was begging, or gaping, for food. After examining him, we realized that we had acquired a common grackle, Quiscalus quiscula. Within a few days, our grackle was eating and drinking water very well. He has developed quite the personality, is very active, and can even fly a few feet now. In a few weeks, after his rehabilitation is done, and after he is examined to ensure he is completely healthy, he will be released back into the wild.

Our Grackle

Common grackles don't have the nicest reputation. Often called "trash birds" they can be found rummaging through garbage cans trying to find a delicious snack.  Contrary to popular belief, grackles are very intelligent. They can do problem solving and even prevent infection by rubbing ants on themselves. This "anting" behavior is believed to help act as an insecticide for the bird. As the bird rubs ants on itself, the ants secrete formic acid, which is a natural insecticide, fungicide and bactericide.
Grackle squawking
Grackles can be found all over North America, and being mostly non-migratory, they tend to stay permanently in their regions  Some of the more northern flocks have been seen migrating to the southeast side of the United States during the colder months. Other than eating trash, they forage for insects, seeds, fruits, mice and minnows.  All grackles are black in color, with golden, almost white eyes. Our grackle still has black eyes, but once he is older, the eyes will change color. Grackles, more commonly male grackles, develop a beautiful iridescence that shines green, purple and blue. They have long tails, long legs and slender bodies.  The have large beaks that are perfect for their omnivorous diet.
Gaping for food
Many guests ask the animal keepers what they should do if they ever find a baby bird on the ground. The main thing to remember is that some baby birds, especially older babies, or fledglings, often fly to the ground, where the mom will continue to feed them. If the bird seems healthy, it is best to just leave he or she alone.  Bird parents are far better at raising baby birds than any human would ever be. If you find the baby bird is injured, seems like it hasn't been attended to for some time, or if you are sure the mother of the bird is dead, then you should contact a wildlife rehabilitation organization (many veterinarian offices have numbers you can call).  Until then, leaving the baby in a dark, dry and warm place is best until the professional rehabilitator arrives. Don't ever try to raise a baby bird on your own. Not only is it illegal, but without professional care and proper time (many baby birds need to be fed up to 100 times a day!) the bird has little chance of surviving.
Our baby grackle is doing well thanks to the many hours our team has put into him, and his future looks very promising.
Healthy baby grackle

By :Sarah Peake