True Colors: Tropical Fish Dazzle the Senses

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Queen Angelfish

With around 350 species of fish at the Texas State Aquarium; it’s hard to choose a favorite! Whether a species is known for its eating habits, long range, or relationship to other animals under the sea; it’s hard to deny the beauty and gorgeous rainbow colors of tropical fish species. Learn about some of our top picks that you can see at the Texas State Aquarium!

  1. Clownfish

Also known  as ‘Nemo’ thanks to that one movie, these bright orange, black, and white-striped reef fish are famous for their symbiotic relationship with certain anemones. Clownfish eat the leftovers from other fish and algae that gather on the anemone and the anemone protects the clownfish from a number of would-be predators. They are the only fish that are able to live in sea anemones and not get stung by their tentacles. 

  1. Parrotfish
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    Stoplight Parrotfish

These fascinating fish come in a kaleidoscope of dazzling colors and also stun scientists with their ability to actually change sex! For example, male parrotfish are known to maintain ‘harems’ of females. If the dominant male dies, one of the female parrotfish will change gender and color and become the dominant male. The Aquarium has princess, stoplight, and midnight parrotfish swimming in our Flower Gardens exhibit!

  1. Queen Angelfish

Also found in our Flower Gardens exhibit, the vibrant oval-shaped queen angel is blue-green in color with blue and yellow highlights on its fins, and can be differentiated from the similar blue angelfish by the prominent dark ringed ‘crown’ spot on its forehead.

  1. Blue Tang

These bright, bold blue and yellow fish can be found swimming in large schools cruising over the tops of reefs, grazing on algae. Known for their beautiful hue (and famous for forgetting things), tangs are actually capable of adjusting the intensity of their coloration – from light blue to deep purple.

  1. Royal Gramma

The royal gramma or fairy basslet can range from a light violet to a deep, dark purple, fading into a golden yellow toward the end of the body and through the tail. Found in our Filter Feeders bubble exhibit near Living Shores, these tiny beauties are only around three inches long, but pack a punch of vivid color!

Friends of a Feather Cluck Together

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Sean and Charlie

Training chickens is nothing to cluck about, although WildFlight Bird & Mammal Trainer Sean McLaughlin puffs up proudly when watching one of his hens present a behavior he asked her for. The female barred rock hen is one of six chickens at the Aquarium that Sean helped raise and train from just the day after they hatched.

Fast forward eight months and the barred rocks; Charlie, Blue, Delta, Echo, and the two silkie hens, Rex and Indie, now star in the Aquarium’s WildFlight Show and also delight guests during Creature Features.

Considering that the WildFlight team is home to more exotic creatures like a red legged seriema, endangered parrots, and an African serval; Sean often answers the question: Why chickens?

“A lot of people have misconceptions about chickens. They think they’re not smart, but we really want to show how intelligent they are, and that with good training, they can learn to have a focused attention on something actually other than food,” Sean explained.

And though they can be positively reinforced by something other than food; food does often work best when training, Sean says. The chickens at the Aquarium are fed a combination of grapes, kiwi, and papaya, other fruits, seeds, and a high quality chicken feed.

The first step in their training involved getting them comfortable around people. After that, it was all about what is known in the animal husbandry world as “small approximations.”

“First we got them to move from crate to crate, lengthening the distance a little each time,” said Sean, “Then we got them used to the burlap (they run through) and different parts of the (WildFlight) show.”

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Silkie chick

To do this, Sean drew on his training skills and also relied heavily on patience and pure consistency, explaining that much of training is couched in repetition.

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Sean and Chiquita, TSA’s prehensile-tailed porcupine

Sean earned his bachelor’s degree in animal biology, graduating from Oklahoma State University in 2014, and then worked with small mammals at the Houston Zoo. This animal husbandry stint was followed by training and working with birds at Natural Encounters, Inc. in Florida.

“I love working with animals and seeing the different training techniques, learning what’s effective versus ineffective and learning new ways to read animal behavior. It’s a field where you’re constantly learning.”

Developing relationships with said animals is a given, and as Sean strokes Charlie’s striped feathers, it’s obvious there is a fair amount of trust there.

Sean puts his fist in Charlie’s line of sight and she immediately runs to it, showing the effectiveness of the target training Sean and other WildFlight trainers have instilled in her.

Charlie is the largest of the six hens and is also the calmest and “most cuddly.”

“They all have distinct little traits. Echo is the ‘talker,’ and Blue is…how do I say this nicely…very food motivated,” he says with a laugh.

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Barred rock hen

The chickens not only bring laughter and educational opportunities – they are also all egg-laying hens. Some of these eggs are actually also fed to other animals at the Aquarium as part of their daily diets.

Come see Sean, his brood of hens, and learn more fun feathered facts at the Aquarium’s WildFlight Show at 12 p.m., 2 p.m., and 3:30 p.m. throughout the summer!

 

(Photos courtesy Autumn Henry)

 

The Wide, Weird World of Jellies

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Comb jelly

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Moon jellies

What exactly makes jellies so interesting? Is it the mesmerizing, pulsing way they move? Maybe it’s the fact that they’re beautiful AND dangerous (we’re looking at you, box jelly), or maybe it’s the simple fact that they look like transparent underwater aliens? Whatever the reason – we’re right there with you concerning the crazy cool factor of the wonderful world of jellies.

Incredibly, jellies are as old as time. They’ve inhabited the earth’s oceans for hundreds of millions of years, and speaking of oceans, they can be found in every single one, from the surface, to the deep sea. Some can even be found in fresh water environments, such as the craspedacusta sowerbii. 

And since we’re discussing crazy names – why do you see jellies referred to as jellyfish AND jellies? Well, in more recent years, it’s been decided that the name “jellyfish” is a misnomer. With no bones, no blood, and no brains, jellies aren’t actually fish at all, so scientists, aquariums, and zoos nationwide have begun referring to them simply as jellies. Whatever you call them; it’s impossible to deny their alien allure.

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Cannonball jellies

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Pacific sea nettle

Check out some of the amazing jelly species we have!

10 Fascinating Facts About Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins

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11330978_627060967428480_1966524532_oHere at the Texas State Aquarium, we have four Atlantic bottlenose dolphins: Shadow, Kai, Liko, and Schooner. Not only are these highly intelligent marine mammals amazing to watch glide, zip, and spin through the water at Dolphin Bay, they are fascinating in a variety of ways you might not know about! Check out these 10 fascinating facts about Atlantic bottlenose dolphins:

  1. Atlantic bottlenose dolphins are named “bottlenose” after their short, stubby rostrums, or beaks. Dolphins use tools such as sponges to protect their rostrum (beak) while foraging on the bottom of the ocean. 
  2. Dolphins can make up to 1,000 clicking noises per second. These sounds travel underwater until they encounter objects, then bounce back to their dolphin senders, revealing details like the location, shape, and size of their target.
  3. Adults eat about 5% of their body weight per DAY.Liko & Schooner (2)
  4. Because they consciously breathe, dolphins have to shut down one hemisphere of their brains in order to stay alive while sleeping. While resting, the other half of the brain monitors what’s going in the environment and controls breathing functions.
  5. Dolphins swallow their food whole, and their stomach has three chambers, which aids their digestion.
  6. Dolphins don’t make any noises with their mouth – they don’t even have vocal cords. All sounds come through the dolphin’s blowhole!
  7. Atlantic bottlenose dolphins have between 80 -100 conical teeth.
  8. On average, an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin will be 8.5 feet long and 400-500 pounds.
  9. As they are mammals, dolphins are actually born with hair. A baby dolphin (calf) is born with whiskers on its upper jaw (rostrum) that fall out soon after birth.
  10. An Atlantic bottlenose dolphin can, on average, hold its breath for 5 – 7 minutes.Liko

Education with a Vision

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Sasha shows off a blue coral to a class.

A classroom full of wide eyes widen even further as Aquarium Distance Learning Coordinator Sasha Orman picks up a live, scaly, toothy little American alligator and puts him closer to the camera for the awestruck class to inspect. Even across the many miles, their reaction is palpable. 

“That’s my favorite part, hearing the ‘oohs, ahhs,’ the smiles, laughing, and answering all of their questions,” says Sasha. “I love seeing the kids’ reactions.”

Sasha sees reactions like these from all across the country thanks to the web-based video conferencing technology of Aquavision. Via the Flint Hills Resources Distance Learning Studio, she beams out interactive and unique STEM-based educational programs from the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi all the way to even Canada and Mexico. Sasha says the education department is trying to connect with schools in Australia to deliver programs there later this year.

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Sasha and local scientist Aaron Baxter talk terrapin conservation

Programs like those featuring live American alligators are especially popular in landlocked areas.

“When we project these live feeds from the Aquarium, for some of these kids, it’s the first time they’ve ever seen a live dolphin or shark,” explains Sasha.

Sasha’s educational background in animal biology enables her to share her passion for animals and science with students at every age level. Starting as a seasonal staff member in the Aquarium’s education department; Sasha worked her way up to her current position. She largely credits growing up with a father who was a Texas Game Warden as instilling in her a passion for wildlife and conservation.

sasha yaking“Growing up, I was always around wildlife,” she says, “Not only would my dad help rehabilitate injured or confiscated animals, he encouraged us to be submerged in nature…whether that meant going camping, volunteering at the (Gladys Porter) zoo, playing outside, you name it.”

Handling an alligator is no big deal for someone who regularly saw possums, ducks, bobcats, and all manner of creatures as a youngster. But the best was her father’s stories, Sasha says. For show and tell in elementary school, Sasha took her father to share with her classmates, she recalls with a laugh.

That same passion for sharing with others about animals has gotten Sasha to where she is today. She regularly develops STEM programs depending on animals available at the Aquarium and also aligns lesson plans with TEKS-based teaching standards, sometimes even national standards, and Ocean Literacy, NOAA’s official teaching principles.

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Sasha shows off a sea turtle carapace biofact

She will regularly include incredible biofacts like turtle skulls and carapaces (baleen whale plates, anyone?), as well as live animals including jellies, seastars, urchins, and more in her programs to capture the interest of students. The otter program even involves mailing the class’ teacher a box of imitation felt otter pelts so that the children can themselves feel just how thick an otter’s fur is.

“I just really enjoy sharing my love of animals and passion for science with kids,” says Sasha, “I love spreading that knowledge and information to younger generations.”

Many generations will benefit from the opening of the Aquarium’s upcoming Caribbean Journey wing in spring 2017. According to Sasha, the new animals exhibited will provide her with a whole new world of potential programs. This challenge, just like that of spreading educational messages of conservation as wide as she can, is one she plans to face head on, camera first.  

It’s World Wetlands Day: Celebrate the Wetlands All Around Us

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By Leslie Peart, Vice President of Education and Conservation

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To the right is our own wetland area, right in the Aquarium’s backyard.

Over the last few days, I’ve tried in vain to sit still to write about wetlands.  I sat at my computer with a stack of books and brochures, combing through scientific papers and online resources.  I’ve even taken stabs at reworking articles I’d written in the past.  But I’ve encountered a problem in these beautiful January days.  Whether dark and spitting rain, or sunny and warm, I just couldn’t sit still.

I love wetlands.  I love to explore and muck around in them, and I have shoes caked in mud in the trunk of my car to prove it. I want to experience all they have to offer, from the feisty army of fiddler crabs in the narrow patch of sand out back, to the killifish that supply herons and egrets.  In our neck of the woods, wetlands taste like the redfish and drum that use them for nurseries.  A “quiet” wetland, if you can find one away from the business of being human, is a virtual symphony of watery, muddy, squishy sounds, not to mention the sounds of insects and animals. 

So this is the problem.  Texas State Aquarium is filled and surrounded by interesting coastal wetlands that tempt me away from the office.  River otters Ari and Merlin may be our most persuasive wetland ambassadors.  This is no easy feat, given the Aquarium is also home to crowd favorite Bo the alligator, who was rescued from a drainage ditch (yes that’s a wetland, too) up the road near Taft.  Grace, the rehabilitated Bald Eagle from Alaska; the wading birds, especially the roseate spoonbills known as the pink ladies, in the Nearshore exhibit; and Anna the diamondback terrapin in Swamp Tales, all speak volumes on behalf of wetlands every day. 

Bo, our American alligator, is a species success story.

Bo, our American alligator, is a member of the wetlands.

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A Roseate Spoonbill, one of our many wetland ambassadors.

From our third floor observation deck, one can take it all in – a 360 degree view of barges, ships, and bridges; Nueces Bay, the Papalote Creek Wind Farm, Indian Point, North Beach and Corpus Christi Bay.  They are my playground, and yours, as well.  These are the places we fish, swim, wade, sail, fly kites, walk, take pictures, and picnic.  These special areas between the tides, where water and land come together, make our city habitable, enjoyable, and prosperous.   

Today is World Wetlands Day.  In our normal course of business, 60 seventh graders from Corpus Christi ISD will spend the morning gathering data to profile Rincon Canal and the wetlands surrounding our SeaLab facility.  Two third grade classes will explore habitats and animal adaptations in our exhibits, and get up close and personal with a specially selected wetland inhabitant before heading back to school. 

At 3:00 p.m., all staff that can get away will leave their desks and workspaces to meet at the corner of Burleson and West Causeway Blvd.  We meet there five or six times each year to clean the precious wetland that has become a trap for windborne single-use plastic bags, Styrofoam cups, discarded fishing gear, and dumped garbage.  We’ll pick up a hundred pounds of trash or more.  This is how we’ll mark World Wetlands Day.

Learn more about wetlands with these great resources:

Great Wetlands of the World – a storymap

U.S. Wetland Mapper

Texas Wetlands

Texas State Aquarium’s Second Chances Wildlife Rehabilitation Program Reports Record Release Numbers for 2015

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The Texas State Aquarium is pleased to announce a record number of released and transferred Second Chances Wildlife Rehabilitation Program patients for 2015.

GHOW1 small258 patients were admitted for the year, 33 percent of which were rehabilitated and released back into their natural habitat, and 20 percent of which were transferred to other accredited animal facilities. This positive release rate included 32 different species of shorebirds and 15 species of raptors, making up a very high species diversity rate for the program.

Manager of Wildlife Rehabilitation Laura Martinelli said this year was a higher caseload compared to recent years, and she and her team worked hard to rise to the occasion.

“It presents certain logistical challenges as well as extra time and effort, but I am really proud of my team. It takes flexibility, hard work, and being able to adapt quickly to be as successful as we are, and volunteers are absolutely crucial to our mission and our success,” explained Martinelli.

LAGU Release3 small2015 was also a banner year for in-house surgeries. Martinelli and Aquarium Veterinarian Dr. David Stelling credit the advanced technological equipment in the Second Chances surgery suite for allowing them the opportunity to perform more surgeries and, ultimately, treat the medical issues of more patients.

“The more understanding we gain doing surgeries, the better,” said Martinelli, who also added the combined experience of Second Chances staffers provided a large boon to 2015’s great numbers.

The most common bird species Second Chances staff sees are Laughing Gulls, Black-Bellied Whistling Ducks, Brown Pelicans, and Great Horned Owls.
  

 

Making a Difference: Meet ‘Diver Dennis’

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Burk shows off his “teeth,” those gathered from our Islands of Steel exhibit residents Hunter & Orion.

In any other instance, a man that carries a bag of teeth around in his pocket might be considered a little bit strange, but in the case of veteran volunteer Dennis Burk; it’s just another day at the Aquarium. hermit crab small

Burk, a 22-year volunteer, loves showing curious kids and even adults what a pearly, pointy sand tiger shark tooth looks like up close. “It’s neat for them to make the connection that these right here [pointing to the teeth in his palm] are actually the chompers that come out of Orion and Hunter,” Burk says, referring to the Aquarium’s two resident sand tiger sharks, “And most times, I let them take one home as a souvenir.”

In his professional career, Burk worked as a RN at Christus Spohn Hospital Corpus Christi- South and also at the health center’s Beeville location. Other job duties included teaching hospital education courses in crisis intervention, CPR training, and also coaching staff how to use new medical instruments. After moving to Colorado for work, Burk decided in the early nineties that it was time to come back to the Coastal Bend.

“I missed my ocean,” he says. “I was a 35-year Divemaster and when I moved back and saw the Aquarium opening. I jumped at the opportunity to become a volunteer.”

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Burk gestures to the size of the corals in our Flower Gardens exhibit and how they correlate to those he’s seen out in the ocean.

Burk is passionate about diving, a hobby he took up while in Guam serving in the Air Force during the Vietnam War.

“The water was crystal clear and there were these huge blue starfish that were just so cool,” Burk remembers.

Since, Burk has dived all over the Gulf, as well as the Caribbean. The unique sponges found diving the waters of the Cayman Islands are one of his favorite sights, and now so are many of the fish in exhibits at the Aquarium. Burk dives in the Aquarium’s Flower Gardens and Islands of Steel habitats, befriending many a finned inhabitant. While he loves diving, Burk says it’s interacting with Aquarium visitors that “pays all the bills.”

“I’m a certain personality, you know? And teaching is a large part of my background. So not only do I enjoy talking to people, I also love to inform them, and to teach them about this amazing world, these animals around them.”

Burk started out as  what’s referred to as a “brown apron,” then took the proper volunteer training courses to become a top-tier “blue vest” volunteer, a place of honor that requires the wearer to be able to speak at length about all areas of the Aquarium.

Burk says his passion for animals, diving, and teaching are all fulfilled in his position as a volunteer at the Aquarium, a fact he’s truly thankful for. 

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One of Burk’s many hobbies includes kayak surfing.

“This place is not only great for the community and all the economic benefits it provides locally, but the people here are great. I’ve met a lot of staff and had a lot of fun here and I just love that I’m a piece of all that, I’m a part of this place,” he states.

Burk has enough anecdotes and stories concerning late night banquets, visitor questions, and diving adventures to fill the Islands of Steel exhibit he loves so much, but there’s one that stands out in his memory.

“There was a mother and her three little daughters visiting one day, years ago, and I was getting ready to dive in Islands,” he recalls. “So I went out and introduced myself to them and told them that soon I’d be diving in there. And they were hysterical! They said, ‘In THERE?! With the shark?!’ And I told them to stay and watch!”

Burk proceeded to strap on all his dive gear and enter the water, when he saw all three girls with their six hands on the acrylic, waving like mad and in awe that he was swimming with a shark. He began cleaning and also picking up ejected shark teeth he found on the bottom of the exhibit, when he noticed the oldest child trying to get his attention. He realized she was pointing to a large tooth he had missed, so he swam over, picked it up and held his palm against the acrylic so they could all get a good look.

“Their eyes were so wide, it was so cute,” says Burk.

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Burk also volunteers at the Padre Island National Seashore, where he has helped satellite tag sea turtles and assist in releasing rehabilitated turtles back into the wild.

Burk finished his dive and then went back out to the Islands of Steel viewing area, where his rapt audience met him with squeals of awe and delight. 

“They were hugging my legs and told me they were glad I was okay,” Burk says with a laugh, “So then, I pulled that tooth, the one the little girl had spotted, and showed it to them. They inspected it and touched it, and then I asked her if she wanted to take it home with her – she was beyond excited!”

Burk said they all hugged him, and the mother thanked him for such a great visit.

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Being a “seahog” is a sentiment Burk takes to heart.

“They walked away with a great visit, and me, I still think about them to this day. That’s the reason why I’ve been doing this for so long. It truly never gets old.”

 

Meet ‘Diver Dennis’ every Thursday when he dives in our Islands of Steel and Flower Gardens exhibits!

 

Talk With a Trainer: Assistant Curator of Marine Mammals Sarah Zigmond

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Ziggy3 smallFor marine mammal trainer Sarah Zigmond, life is about lightbulb moments. When working with an animal and teaching them a new behavior, then seeing the second the training takes and the animal learns the behavior – there’s not much better than that, she says.

“It’s just incredible. When you see the connection made and realize they get it, they know it, it’s just amazing,” described Zigmond. 

Better known as Ziggy, the energetic young animal lover is the Assistant Curator of Marine Mammals at the Aquarium, responsible for the top notch care of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins Shadow and Kai, as well as North American river otters Merlin and Ari.      

“My day starts off at 6 a.m. to prepare diets for the day,” Ziggy explains, “Then we SCUBA dive to help keep the exhibits clean. Throughout the day, we are constantly washing and disinfecting the area, monitoring water quality, and caring for not only the animals, but their environment as well.”

Ziggy says that at their core, the Aquarium’s marine mammal staff is there to ensure that Shadow and Kai receive the highest level of care in every possible way. To do so, the Aquarium’s trainers possess a variety of skills and educational backgrounds to benefit the animals they care for.

After graduating from Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi with a degree in psychology, Ziggy interned at the Vancouver Aquarium, and then was hired as a marine mammal trainer at the Miami Seaquarium in 2011. There, she worked and created relationships with California sea lions, harbor seals, and Atlantic bottlenose dolphins.

“And that’s a really important thing that a lot of people may not realize,” she explains, “These animals, they choose to have a relationship with you. It’s totally their choice. I’m fortunate because Kai and Shadow allow me to have a relationship with them.” Ziggy7 small

This special bond between trainer and dolphin is absolutely crucial when it comes to training or caring for them. Whether it comes to training new behaviors, participating in enrichment sessions, or for animal husbandry purposes; Ziggy says that that particular animal has to trust you.

Husbandry sessions include normal health-related activities like teeth brushing, physical exams, and veterinary check-ups. They are one of the many ways Ziggy and Dolphin Bay staff ensure Shadow and Kai are healthy and happy. Ziggy says it’s important to train animals to be at ease during certain procedures in order for the optimum health of all involved.

In regards to health, Shadow and Kai receive only the best. That includes diets in a big way. The 450-pound, eight and a half feet long marine mammals eat quite a bit.

ziggy1 small“They eat about five percent of their body weight……..every day,” she says with a laugh.

Ziggy and the other Dolphin Bay staff feed the dolphins restaurant quality fish like herring and capelin around six times per day.

In addition to their regular dietary intake, Shadow and Kai also receive food and a variety of enrichment items. For birthdays and milestones, creative-minded trainers like Ziggy freeze up colorful Jell-o and fish cakes for the dolphins and otters to play with and enjoy.

In simple terms, enrichment is anything that changes an animal’s environment. Enrichment is a dynamic process for enhancing animal environments within the context of the animals’ behavioral biology and natural history. Environmental changes are made with the goal of increasing the animal’s behavioral choices by drawing out their species-appropriate behaviors and to improve their social, cognitive, and psychological well being. Enrichment items can be food or toys (environmental enrichment devices)  – and it’s not just fun for the animals.

“We love making toys for them! It’s so fun!” Ziggy exclaims.

For example, flexible pool noodles and colored duct tape became candy cane toys around Christmas for the dolphins to enjoy. They also have plenty of sports balls (Spurs-themed, of course), as well as water squirt toys, hoops, and more. One of the more unique and fun enrichment sessions includes trainers playing classroom instruments in the Underwater Viewing Room to produce some auditory enrichment for them! Ziggy4 small

Ziggy says interacting with the dolphins and otters in such ways is just as much fun as it is a privilege, and she also hopes to spread those lightbulb moments to others. 

“It’s enriching for me too, to further my education and knowledge of these animals while working alongside them. There are so many different things we can learn from them and others working with them around the world. Knowing more about them and teaching others about them will only help to protect their species and their environment in the future.”

MORE: 

Ziggy6 smallFor children or students interested in becoming marine mammal trainers:

Ziggy says this career is a lot of hard work and takes a lot of commitment, but it’s totally worth it! To swim along in her career path, she advises you to:

  • Get a good education concerning caring for all aspects of all animals. Prior to her internships with marine mammals, Ziggy actually worked as a care specialist at a boarding facility for dogs, and as a kennel technician and vet tech at a rescue shelter.
  • Get hands on! Dive right into hands-on experience, whether it’s volunteering at your local animal shelter, working at a well-reputed pet store, or caring for your neighbor’s cats – it all helps.
  • Work hard at everything you do. The marine mammal training field is a competitive one and it takes perseverance, commitment, drive, intelligence, and most of all, heart, to be successful, but you can do it!

The Mystique of Massif

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Student scientists explain how the technology onboard the Falkor helps us map parts of the ocean seafloor never mapped before

Student scientists explain how the technology on board the Falkor helps us map parts of the ocean seafloor never mapped before

Dr. William Sager said his recent 36-day journey to map the world’s single largest volcano, the same one he named TAMU Massif, was a scientific expedition of epic proportions. At the same time, he noted that it was punctuated by creature comforts such as gourmet food, a small gym, and even a berth featuring a plush queen-sized bed.

“There were issues with that bed, though. Don’t get me wrong, it was comfortable; but when you’re on a ship at sea, you want to huddle up in a corner to stabilize yourself,” Sager explained. “Normally, I’d be in a small bunk sticking life jackets and whatnot into the bed frame to make a barrier.”

The purpose of the voyage was to further explore and map TAMU Massif, an underwater volcano Sager has been studying for the past 20 years. The geological phenomenon lies nearly 1,000 miles east of Japan, in the middle of what is known as the Shatsky Rise, an oceanic mountain range.

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Nanez-James

Sager acted as chief scientist on board the research vessel Falkor, a specialized ship lent to him and a team of scientists and students via the Schmidt Ocean Institute to learn more about the mysteries behind TAMU Massif. Aquarium Manager of Distance Learning and Outreach Suraida Nanez-James was also part of the crew, documenting the team’s findings via blog posts and other correspondence, while connecting with children in classrooms all over the world and giving them an inside glimpse at the historic expedition and what “science at sea” looks like.

Nanez-James broadcast to students in real time – meaning 2:00 p.m. for them and 1:00 a.m. for her – via Internet connection and took them on a tour of the vessel, all the while introducing them to various scientists, explaining about data mapping, expedition equipment, and more.

She explained to students, while stepping over sleeping crew members in the dead of night, that TAMU Massif is somewhat of a geological anomaly.  

“It has this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality going on,” said Sager. He means that the magnetic striping of the volcano, produced by previous lava flows, run on some sides of the TAMU Massif, but not all sides. In addition, Sager says TAMU Massif looks like a single volcano built by lava flows going long distances, but that this behavior should not produce magnetic stripes like the team is finding.

“It’s definitely perplexing,” he said, “Seismic profiling is showing us that this may be a whole different kind of volcano.”

Other data collected from the expedition will help Sager and other scientists study more accurate magnetic soundings, topography and bathymetry maps of TAMU Massif and the Shatsky Rise.TamuMassifConeImage_PhotoCreditJohn Greene

“I was so excited to examine those soundings – all nearly 74 million of them – that I plugged the information into my computer when I got back, and it promptly crashed,” Sager said with a laugh.

Thankfully, there were no similar crashes while aboard the Falkor during the journey. Nanez-James said she had remarkably good Internet connections when she helped to show nearly 4,000 students what the middle of the Pacific Ocean looked like.

Nanez-James made 90 ship-to-shore connections to students from Corpus Christi and the Coastal Bend, as well as to those as far away as the Bahamas and Portugal.

“What was really cool and what I emphasized was that the information we shared with them and the data that they were seeing; they were the first in the world, in history, to see it,” Nanez-James said.

Being bilingual in Spanish and English gave Nanez-James a unique opportunity to reach more students.

“I was able to speak to a class at a field trip at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and they hardly spoke any English, so it was a very cool connection to make. They’d never been exposed to information or science like that before,” she said.

Another tidbit (or bite) Nanez-James shared with students featured “Maggie,” the ship’s magnetometer that the team used to collect magnetic field data, and how the area’s resident sharks tried to collect data about it.

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Maggie the Magnetometer with shark bite marks

“They really chomped on one (of the magnetometers),” said Nanez-James, “We actually had to stop using one of them because they bit the heck out of it.”

But for Nanez-James and Sager, the time spent away from family and friends, as well as visits from sharks and stormy weather and rocky sleeping situations, was all worth it.

“We have a fantastic new data set for future research and publications,” Sager said. “We’re talking years. It’ll take a while to work through all the data we have, but we’re very excited to see how it’ll help answer some of the questions we have about TAMU Massif and learn about how it was actually formed.”