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

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!

Amazing Animal Adaptations

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Amazing Animal Adaptations

From feathers to fur, camouflage to resource conservation, human or animal – we all must adapt to survive.  It just so happens that animals have a multitude of amazing ways to do so.  

Adaptations are genetic mutations that help organisms survive in the wild. Due to the helpful nature of the mutation, it gets passed down from one generation to the next. As more and more organisms inherit the mutation, the mutation becomes just a normal aspect of the species. At that point, the mutation has evolved into an adaptation.

An adaptation can be structural, meaning it’s a physical part of the organism, or an adaptation can also be behavioral, affecting the way an organism acts.

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Being cute is actually NOT an adaptation for the porcupinefish.

In the freckled porcupinefish’s case, being cute is not an actual adaptation – but its impressive inflating sure is. 

 

The defense mechanism is a physical adaptation cultivated in order to deter predators from attacking. If threatened, porcupinefish (similar to puffer fish and burr fish) will gulp water or air and  then inflate their extremely flexible stomachs, in many cases doubling their size, thus reducing the range of potential predators to those with much bigger mouths.

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Note the spikes on its body.

The process of puffing, however, is extremely stressful to the animal. If this ever occurs to one of our fish here at the Aquarium, we take note and monitor the animal until it returns to its normal size. 

A second defense mechanism is provided by the fish’s sharp spines, which radiate outward when the fish is inflated. Other marine creatures that have adapted inflation as a means of defense include the swell shark, a carpet shark that dwells in Pacific waters off the coast of California.

Another amazing animal adaptation you can see in action at the Aquarium is the hair on our North American River Otters.

If you’ve come to see them lately, you might’ve wondered how Merlin and his new female companion could possibly swim when the degrees are dipping into the 40s – it’s all thanks to that thick, sleek coat of fur.

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Merlin’s fur makes him look pretty majestic and also keeps him warm in chilly temps.

The river otter is almost impervious to cold because of an outer coat of coarse guard hairs, plus a dense undercoat that helps to waterproof the animal by trapping a layer of air against the otter’s skin. 

So, we have great defensive deterrents, an environmental adaptation – what about nutritional necessities? Enter: birds.  

Just as in the case of sharp teeth, large, strong beaks are often an adaptation used to help an animal eat. However, big – often sharp – beaks can be a feature of both carnivores and herbivores.

 If you’ve visited our Eagle Pass exhibit, you’ve gotten a glimpse of Mortimer, our Turkey Vulture. Morty’s sharp, hooked beak is ideally designed for tearing flesh from the carrion she feeds on.

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You’ve never seen a parrot enjoy a walnut as much as Zeppo does.

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Zeppo shows just how easily his strong beak can break into a walnut’s hard shell.

 Similarly, the sizeable beak of the macaw has been adapted to help it crack open large, tough-shelled nuts. Our Green-Winged Macaw Zeppo and Military Macaw Kogi excel at (and thoroughly enjoy) cracking open the thick shells of Brazil nuts and walnuts and chowing down on the meaty insides. 
 

 Defensive mechanisms, insulating fur, enhanced beaks – and we’re barely even scratching the surface of animal adaptations!  Delve deeper into the world of adaptations – not to mention exaptations, speciation, coadaptation, mimicry, and more here: http://education.nationalgeographic.com/education/encyclopedia/adaptation/?ar_a=1

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The remnants of Zeppo’s easily cracked walnut shell.

 Come visit our Aquarium’s amazing, adaptive animals to learn more about them firsthand! 

 

River Otter

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This is Merlin, a River Otter!

River otters are aquatic mammals. They generally live along rivers, as their name implies, but they’re also found near streams and lakes. Otters prefer water bordered by woods and with wetlands, such as marshes, nearby. Flexing their long bodies up and down, paddling with their webbed hind feet, and using their feet and strong tails to steer.

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This is Merlin, a River Otter!

Although River Otters look cute and cuddly, they are wild and do not make good pets. They have sharp claws which can tear up carpets and furniture, and very sharp teeth, which can be dangerous. River Otters also mark their territory with “scat,” another name for waste.

River Otters are perfectly adapted to the places they live – around rivers of all sizes, canals, lakes, marshes, and bays. At one time the number of River Otters was quite low. However, due to reintroduction programs, their success in the wild is growing.

Texas State Aquarium Saddened by Loss of North American River Otter

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The Texas State Aquarium is saddened to report the passing one of our North American river otters, Dusty. Dusty arrived at TSA in June of 1996 as a pup and enjoyed a long life at the Aquarium. She was 17 years old at the time of her passing, well past the median life expectancy (MLE) for her species, which is a testament to the exceptional care she received throughout her life here at the Aquarium.

A preliminary pathology report from blood samples collected on Wednesday indicated that Dusty had leukemia. A necropsy has been performed, and the Aquarium is awaiting the pathology report to confirm the diagnosis. 

The MLE for North American river otters in professional care is 12.3 years. According to National Geographic, the life expectancy for a river otter in its natural habitat is between eight and nine years. Both veterinary attention and the lack of predators are primary reasons for the longer life expectancy when in professional care.

Dusty was one of many geriatric animals living at the Aquarium. With advances in veterinary medicine, nutrition, and husbandry techniques, animals are living longer in zoos and aquariums around the nation. As a result, managers and care takers develop new ways to address the unique needs of geriatric animals.

The Texas State Aquarium family is saddened by her loss.