Buying, cleaning, chopping and preparing food for one is work enough – can you imagine prepping meals for thousands? That’s what we do every day here at the Texas State Aquarium.
Since 2011, Aquarist Emily has helped to prepare most of our animals’ daily food, called diets, comprising the daily caloric intake of the thousands of animals that are residents here at the Aquarium. There’s fish like capelin, herring, mackerel, and bonito, then krill, shrimp, clams, various vegetables, fruits, and even nutritional supplements given to the animals, which all have specific feeding schedules and very different nutritional needs.
Emily orders food from suppliers, and even goes to the grocery store weekly to ensure our animals have the freshest and healthiest fruits and veggies possible.
“I get some very weird looks sometimes when I’m in the checkout line,” she says with a laugh. “Over the years, a lot of the people at H-E-B have come to know me and they know my uniform, but every once in a while, someone will look at the 20 heads of lettuce I’m buying and ask; are you going to eat all of that?”
Emily is a true believer in the saying, “Variety is the spice of life.” Thus, the animals’ diets are changed up regularly and are also designed to mimic as closely as possible the same types of food the animal would be exposed to in the wild. For example, our sea turtles (which are all rescue animals) receive a mixed daily diet of either bell pepper, cucumber, or broccoli, and are sometimes treated with peas.
“Those veggies are as close, nutritionally, to sea grass and algae and what they would find in nature, as we can get. And I switch it up fairly often just to give them options,” says Emily. Talk about good eating!
To make sure everything stays good, there is a stringent labeling and rotating system Emily abides by, and a host of different color-coded cutting boards and food prep instruments designated specifically for meat, fruits, and so on.
And just how is an animal’s diet determined, you ask? A whole list of factors goes into divvying up diets, but the most prominent involve an animal’s body weight, size, and activity level. By and far, Atlantic bottlenose dolphins Shadow and Kai eat the most in the Aquarium. The energetic duo consumes around 30 pounds of herring and capelin a day!
Diets also change. As some animals – like snakes, spiders, seahorses, and more – grow, their food intake has to be adjusted accordingly. And just like people, some animals have discerning dietary tastes. Islands of Steel resident Sand Tiger Shark Hans used to salivate over salmon, but no more.
“He can be very picky,” says Emily, “Salmon used to be his favorite, but now it’s bonito or bust.”
Aquarist Rafael also has some picky eaters on his hands.
“Our Zebra Moray Eel will eat shrimp and only shrimp. And it has to be peeled,” he said of the finicky fish.
Not only do aquarists have to be aware of animals’ changing tastes for food, they also have to feed different animals in different ways. Some fish have their diets “broadcast,” or spread out by hand across the top of the exhibit, while others – like Hans – have to be “stick-fed,” i.e., have their food attached to a long pole, which they then swim directly to and gobble right off!
“It takes skill and good timing,” adds Rafael.
To ensure our animals receive the highest quality food, we order from AZA-approved (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) suppliers who also meet strict USDA standards.
Emily looks out over the 20+ Tupperware containers she has spread over the metal food prep table. She lines them up according to exhibit and aquarist and begins chopping tiny pieces of clam, explaining that certain stingrays have miniscule mouths and can only consume small bites of food. There’s a lot of time and work that goes into being the Aquarium’s designated dietary commissary but Emily says she enjoys it.
“I like making sure that everything is as good as possible for our animals and having a direct hand in that, and I mean, I’m pretty sure I could have a successful career at a sushi restaurant,” she says with a laugh.
As visitors, members and donors, your support allows us to care for and feed the many animals that call the Aquarium home. Please consider making a gift or visiting soon to help us provide the best food possible for our residents!