Monday, February 28, 2011

Aquarium Lecture: "Stalking the Flats in the Name of Science" with Karen Murchie, Ph.D.

Tonight (Monday, February 28) Dr. Karen Murchie shared her insight on bonefish. The video of the lecture will be available online soon.

Bonefish are a group of fishes that inhabit tropical and subtropical marine waters worldwide. Large gaps in our understanding of the biology of these fishes exist despite their economic importance as a sport fish and their potential role in the ecological functioning of coastal systems. Recent data collected on bonefish in Eleuthera, the Bahamas, revealed previously unknown information on bonefish movement patterns, temperature tolerances, energetics and reproductive behavior. Join Karen Murchie in learning about her doctoral research as well as the collective efforts of the Flats Ecology and Conservation Program.

Be sure to connect with the Aquarium on facebook, twitter and tumblr to get the latest on Aquarium stories and events.

The Aquarium has been providing free lectures and films by scientists, environmental writers, photographers and others since 1972. The Aquarium Lecture Series is presented free to the public through the generosity of the Lowell Institute, which has been providing funding for free public lectures at universities and museums since 1836. 

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Ice Seals: Cool Canadian Tourists

By this time of the winter, many New Englanders have fantasies of just lying on a beach for days on end. Well, there are some very large Canadian tourists that are doing just that on Massachusetts beaches. At seven feet long and weighing more than 300 pounds, adult harp and hooded seals have swum in from Canada for a mid-winter holiday in greater numbers than usual. Marine Animal Rescue staff with the Aquarium have been busy monitoring these super-sized seals from Salisbury to the South Shore over the past two weeks.

However, juvenile harp seals which normally make up the vast majority of the visiting Canadian seals are nearly absent. Canadian wildlife officials in the early winter reported a very significant die-off of young harp seals there from an unknown source. Surprisingly, that health problem does not seem to affect older animals as adult harp seals have been seen on Massachusetts beaches in significantly higher numbers than usual.

Over the Presidents' Day long weekend, a large harp seal spent 48 hours hauled out of the water on some pack ice in the King's Cove section of the Fore River in North Weymouth, Mass., about 10 miles south of Boston. (Click to enlarge image.) The robust 300 pound plus seal with a black face and a creamy white coat accented with a large black V on its back drew the attention of neighbors in the dense residential neighborhood. Even some of the longtime residents who occasionally have seen a harbor seal in the summertime were surprised by how long that it was out of the water. Harbor seals commonly spend just a tide cycle out of the water, but harp and hooded seals regularly spend two or three days resting.

This often poses a problem as passers-by assume that the seal can not move and is in distress. Actually, the vast majority of seals are fine. People frequently approach the animal too closely and disturb its rest. This can be unhealthy for both people and the seal. Some of these seals are larger than any bear in Massachusetts! Getting close to any 300 - 400 pound wild animal is not wise. Seals are not generally aggressive, but they will defend themselves if they feel threatened, and they do bite. Coming too close to a seal is actually illegal under federal law. The Marine Mammal Protection Act considers disturbing a seal harassment, and violators can be subject to large fine.

Instead, enjoy watching the seal from a safe distance of 150 feet. Good binoculars will give you a front row seat. Do not offer the seal food, do not pour water on it or try to cover it with a blanket. Watch it quietly and closely observe its location, size, coloring and behavior. Please call the Aquarium's Marine Animal Hotline at 617-973-5247 with your information. 

A common problem for resting seals are dogs running on beaches. Many beaches only allow dogs during the cool and cold months. If you see a seal or see your dog excitedly barking at something, please leash and quiet the dog as it is likely to create a high stress situation for all involved. Beyond the injuries from a possible fight, dogs and seals rarely encounter each other, and they each may carry innocuous pathogens that are not a problem for the host but might have dire disease consequences for the other. In the 1980's, a variation of canine distemper nearly wiped out the harbor seal population in the Baltic Sea off of Scandinavia.

Harp seals are by far the majority of the wintertime visitors, but another regular seal species visiting Massachusetts are hooded seals. This seal can weigh up to 700 pounds, but most of the young adults seen in New England are in the 300 pound range.

Around Valentine's Day, a 250 - 300 pound  male "hoodie" hauled out on a beach in Salisbury near the MA/NH border.

Hooded seals have a bluish tinge to the light base part of their coat while also featuring a swirly black camouflage pattern over it. They are called "hooded" as the males have very loose skin around their snout which can be blow up to the size of a volleyball, if they feel threatened.

The home range of both harp and hooded seals are on the ice floes off the Canadian Maritime Provinces. As the warm weather starts to arrive in late March and early April, these seals will not find the oncoming spring attractive and will swim back across the Gulf of Maine.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

"Tron: Legacy" now playing at the Aquarium!

Blazing fast disc battles and out-of-this-world vehicles now dominate the largest screen in New England with Disney's Tron: Legacy An IMAX 3D Experience. Viewers can zoom through the electrifying computer world from the original hit, now re-envisioned for the digital age in IMAX 3D!

Head to the Aquarium's Simons IMAX Theatre and join Kevin Flynn (Oscar® and Golden Globe® winner Jeff Bridges) and his son Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) on a thrilling adventure through the grid, complete with lightcycles and a captivating score by electronic music duo Daft Punk.

Fans of the classic film will be blown away by the updated computer graphics and evolving story line. Those new to the plot will be riveted by the good-versus-evil struggles from another dimension.

So get yourself to the Simons IMAX Theatre for Tron: Legacy! Here's a little taste of what awaits you:  

Click here for tickets and showtimes. This film is rated PG. Member passes cannot be accepted for this special presentation.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Penguin Love: Valentine's Day Profiles

On Valentine’s Day, the human world becomes obsessed with their love interests, or lack there of. While the actual date of February 14 might not mean anything to the New England Aquarium’s African penguins, they too spend a lot of time and energy on their relationships. These birds form generally monogamous relationships. Since people love penguins, we thought the public might be inspired by the profiles of some of Boston’s best penguin pairs.

So did the Boston Globe! Sunday's paper featured a fantastic article about our breeding penguin pairs. You can also get to know some of the notable penguin pairs in this charming video from the Globe. Take a look!

Penguin partnerships were even featured by! Ahh... love is in the water.

Because we know many folks (like us!) just can't learn enough about penguins, here's a little more information about those charming couples. You'll notice the Aquarium’s penguins often have unusual names reflecting some aspect of their natural history from the location a breeding site to the Latin genus name for penguins.


Mosselbaai and Jutten

Closing in on 20 years together are Mosselbaai (pronounced Moss-il-by) and Jutten! Now how many people can claim that? These two laid their first egg together in 1992 and were most likely a couple for a short time before. In penguin years, this probably qualifies as the "golden" or human equivalent 50th anniversary. Penguins in an aquarium setting live much longer than their wild counterparts, and life expectancy for them is in the mid to late 20s. A 20-year pair bonding that lasts more than 60-percent of a creature's average life span qualifies as a golden anniversary in any species book. Like many older couples, Mosselbai and Jutten are more reserved and spend a lot of time in their home territory. The happy pair has successfully raised four chicks.


Harlequin minding the chicks

Six chicks in three breeding seasons makes Durban and Harlequin the Aquarium’s most prolific penguin producers! Durban is a 16 year old male, and Harlequin is an 18 year old female. They are always together and make for a very strong couple. In 2006, both unexpectedly became single. They lived in the same neighborhood and according to Aquarium penguin biologist Caitlin Hume, "They just found each other." And what a discovery it has been.

If you think raising human children is stressful, a penguin chick grows from cuddly hatchling to a gawky, constantly demanding, full-sized adolescents in about 80 days. In the wild, the resources required to raise a chick are formidable and require the work of two capable adults such as Harlequin and Durban. This is probably one of the major contributing factors for penguin monogamy. For the first 15 days of life, a chick is dependent on one of its parents to sit over the hatchling to maintain its body temperature. In the wild, one of the parents needs to be present until 30 days to protect the chick from predators. As chicks grow, so do their food demands, and both parents commonly swim and hunt more than 20 miles round trip to regurgitate small schooling fish to their crying youngsters, who always want more. At the Aquarium, penguin parents are provided food, but raising chicks is still not easy. As chicks grow to the size of adults, penguins look like exhausted humans raising teenagers and appear to look forward to an empty nest.


Alfred and Treasure

African penguins normally reach breeding age at four years old. Treasure is a 9 year old female and her breeding partner is Alfred, who might discreetly be called, "a male of a certain age." Treasure was born in 2002, and Alfred was hatched in... ahem... 1975. To save you the math, that makes him 36, which makes him an ancient mariner in the penguin world. But Alfred not only has good genes, but he has very valuable ones for the species. African penguins in the wild are now endangered, and their populations continue to drop dramatically. In the zoo and aquarium world, penguin biologists work together to make sure that their African penguins are genetically diverse. Alfred’s bloodline is not common, so despite his advanced age, he was paired with a young adult female after his former partner had passed away. Ironically and coincidentally, the name "Alfred" does sound like that of a distinguished male from a by-gone era while Treasure has the ring of a vapid gold digger. The names might appear to be a cliché, but their attraction is real and enduring as they have raised three chicks since 2006! Given their birth dates, Treasure and Alfred might be more accurately reclassified as a May/December relationship.


Ichaboe and Spheniscus

Ichaboe (Itch-a-boo) and Spheniscus (Sfen-is-cus) are young adult penguins in a hurry. African penguins become sexually mature at the earliest at 3 years old. Spheniscus is a 4 year old female and Ichaboe is a 5 year old male. They became a bonded pair in early 2010 and right away raised a chick. Like many young lovers in the animal world, they generally can not keep their wings off of each other. Penguin biologist Caitlin Hume noted, "They do a lot of flirting and pair bonding, which is important for young couples as they do not always stay together." Ichaboe is a large male and can be quite aggressive, not only with other penguins but occasionally with Aquarium staff who regretfully have the bite marks to prove it.

After courtship and defending their territory on one of the Aquarium’s four penguin islands, Sfeniscus and Ichaboe honeymooned in the penguin breeding rooms in the basement of the Aquarium last summer. They soon laid eggs and contributed to the Aquarium’s record penguin baby boom of 11 chicks in 2010.


Penguins have the same problem as people – how do you know if he or she might be interested in you? It starts with, are they hanging out a lot and are they nice to you. Penguins are territorial. At the Aquarium, individuals and couples have their preferred perches on the islands. If you wander into someone else's space, and they don't chase you away, that is a positive start. If your prospect, turns its head to the side and then puffs up its cheeks, that is a slight signal.  If this escalates to head shaking, they are definitely interested. A little vocalization might follow, and it could be capped with the African penguin's signature donkey bray. That noise is how they also earned the name "jackass penguins.". If this behavior is done mutually and repeatedly, biologists call it an "ecstatic display." Now moving beyond flirting to dating, tapping each other's bills and much mutual grooming and obsessive preening are the undeniable behaviors of penguins in love.


The movie "March of the Penguins," which documented the unbelievable fidelity of emperor penguin pairs, inspired a nearly mythic but slightly inaccurate sense of how monogamous penguins are. Monogamy varies among penguin species as some are monogamous for a single season while others mate for life. The Aquarium’s African penguins prefer long term relationships, but the bottom line is that penguins are like people. Most are coupled for long periods of time. Some of those bonds loyally last a lifetime. Most engage in flirting outside of the relationship from time to time. Some mate with a penguin outside of the bonded pair but still remain in their primary relationship. This is not an uncommon behavior in the bird world. Some relationships break up, if there is a lack of breeding success or failures to defend territory or forage for food.

Penguins are not exceptional in the bird world as monogamy is the norm among most avian species, but humans are exceptional among mammals as only a small percentage  have both parents committed to raising their young.


Many penguin couples at the New England Aquarium are the product of well-intentioned but manipulative, matchmaking by Aquarium biologists. African penguins are an endangered species, and their populations continue to drop dramatically. The African penguin population in zoos and aquariums is a potential reservoir of birds, if there ever was a calamity in the wild. Maintaining the genetic diversity of such a relatively small and closed population is crucial and challenging. Once every two years, managers of penguin exhibits from throughout North America gather to review the genealogy of new adult penguins and decide on pairings that will maintain a diverse gene pool. Some animals might be moved between institutions. Some unproductive couples might be broken up and re-paired. It sounds cruel, but it is unusually effective. Penguins are very social animals both as couples and colony nesters. The desire to pair up is nearly imperative. A potential new couple is removed from the exhibit and placed in separate but close quarters. As mutual interest is displayed, the biologists create more access. Bonding is sometime instantaneous, and other times takes repeated short term exclusive exposures over months. Most of the time, it is successful.

Come by the Aquarium with your sweetheart and see if you can spot these notable pairs in the Penguin Exhibit! Check out the Visit Planning resources available on our website, like public transportation tips and nearby parking options.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Love is in the water!

There's plenty of romance throughout the Aquarium, whether you're watching gold-rimmed tangs spinning during a choreographed dance in the Sea of Cortez exhibit or penguins pairing off in the penguin exhibit. (Even the Boston Globe took note of these penguin romances! Check out their fantastic video of avian amour here at the Aquarium.)

In the penguin exhibit, many of our African penguins have bonded with that special someone and you can see them wing to wing in their favorite hangouts. This summer during breeding season, many of those pairs even took off for a romantic getaway!

Now the seals definitely have a sweet side. Ursula has been practicing her pucker during her training sessions. Those fur seals have even been known to plant a smooch on the cheek (or forehead) of a teen intern now and then. And how about this for a kissy face—Amelia getting ready for her birthday kiss!

Myrtle the green sea turtle in the Giant Ocean Tank is getting in touch with her romantic side (with the help of our marine animal trainers) with some hand-holding exercises. Several years ago, a pair of porcupinefish in the GOT also showed their affection in this classic Valentine's blog post.

Start planning your double date with the Aquarium's cutest couples today! Surf over to check the hours, look into public transportation (the Aquarium has its own stop on the Blue Line!) or investigate nearby parking options. Be sure to bring your camera, we welcome our facebook fans to share pictures of their visit! And save time for a flick with your honey at the Simons IMAX Theatre. Cap off your outing with the animals with a classic movie date. Happy Valentine's Day!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Sunday is Couple’s Day at the Aquarium!

Buy one adult Aquarium admission, get one free.

Kick off your Valentine’s Day celebrations right! Is there anything more romantic than watching penguin pairs preen? What date would be complete without a glimpse of delicate sea horses and leafy seadragons? Bring your special someone to the Aquarium. It’s the perfect afternoon trip before an evening in the heart of Boston, surrounded by city lights and fine dining.

Print out this offer and bring it to the Box Office on Sunday, February 13.
(Not valid with online ticket purchases.)

Quick links:
Directions to the Aquarium and local parking tips
Nearby restaurants

Monday, February 7, 2011

In the news: Searching for right whales wintering in Maine

Aquarium researchers have established that the North Atlantic right whale calving grounds are off the Florida/Georgia border and their summer nursery and feeding area is in the Bay of Fundy. Those solid facts are actually relatively new knowledge, and the Aquarium’s right whale research team has been instrumental in filling in the habitat map for the most endangered large whale in the Atlantic. However, a few questions still remain, in particular where do the adult male and non-pregnant females go in the winter.

(Photo taken under National Marine Fisheries Service scientific research permit 14233. Credit Barry Gutradt, via Boston Globe.)

When reports over the last couple of winters identified large aggregations of right whales in waters 60 miles south of Bar Harbor, this was clearly an opportunity to learn more about that mystery. The only downside means trying to do field work in the Atlantic in the frigid weather and rough seas of a New England winter.

Learn more about the researchers' current scientific pursuits in Maine in today’s article in the Globe, and check out the Right Whale Blog to get a real feel for a these chilly expeditions!

Live Webcast Aquarium Lecture: Fernando Manzano - Papa Tortuga: One Man's Crusade to Save the Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtle

Welcome to the live webcast of tonight's free Aquarium Lecture!

Papa Tortuga: One Man’s Crusade to Save the Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle
Fernando Manzano, Founder, Tecolutla Turtle Preservation Project
(For background on this lecturer, check out this video.)

The lecture is over, but please bookmark this post and comeback later. A video of the lecture will be embedded in place of the webcast. Be sure to connect with the Aquarium on facebook and twitter for notification when the video is up and when the next lecture is taking place.

If you like this Aquarium lecture, please come to the next one. Here's the Spring lecture schedule. You can also visit the Aquarium's rescue blog to find out more about how the Aquarium's Marine Animal Rescue Team is helping rescue endangered sea turtles.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Best Snow Day Ever: Kids get in free with paid adult admission

Here's a fresh new way to spend yet another snow day: Head to the Aquarium where kids get in free with a paid adult admission!

There's no reason to stay cooped up during this recent smothering snow storm. Get out, stretch your legs and your mind. The Aquarium is open today starting at 9 a.m. to give you a tropical respite from winter. Dodge the snowy roads by hopping on the T and spend the day with the sea turtles, moray eels and sharks.

Print out this offer and bring it with you to show the box office. Valid today only!

Please note: Due to extreme weather conditions, the IMAX Theatre will not be open today. Please plan accordingly.