Friday, October 30, 2015

Taking Halloween Underwater

It's beginning to look a lot like Halloween around here. The divers just placed a couple jolly Jack-o-lanterns into the Giant Ocean Tank in preparation for our popular members-only Halloween party this evening. But all day today and tomorrow, visitors can enjoy seeing these festive gourds, nestled amid the corals throughout the 200,000-thousand gallon tank. 

If fish went trick-or-treating... 

Here's how it all went down.

Each pumpkin is weighted so it doesn't bob to the surface. These Halloween decorations will stay put through Halloween tomorrow—that is, unless the angelfish snack too much. You'll notice many of our herbivores like to snack on the pumpkin's flesh (mwah-hahahah).

A French angelfish eyes the pumpkin's goofy grin for a snack

In addition to the pumpkins, educators are dressed in costumes and ready to answer all your questions about the creepiest animals at the Aquarium. So plan to visit this weekend! Buy your tickets online right now—no online service charge—and Happy Halloween from your friends at the New England Aquarium! 

Loggerheads are mostly carnivores, no interest in these happy fruits.  

Volunteer of the Month: November

Every month our Volunteer Office sorts through piles of nominations from supervisors and honors one of our volunteers for their truly stupendous efforts. Meet our latest Volunteer of the Month.

For the month of November we are pleased to award Ming Xu with the recognition of Volunteer of the Month! Above and beyond Ming’s dedication to the Penguin Department as volunteer, he is also a Service Leader with the live blue™ Service Initiative. Ming’s passion for the Aquarium is noticed by so many and we are grateful to have his leadership and dedication on our teams each and every week.

Ming Xu is November's Volunteer of the Month!
Here is what his Penguin Colony supervisor Andrea Newman had to say:
Ming has an enthusiastic energy that is infectious. He is willing to do any task that we ask him to do, and does it with a smile on his face. In fact, I feel like Ming is always smiling. He always has a positive attitude and is quick to laugh and make a joke, even at himself. Someone with this sort of attitude makes whatever job you are doing more enjoyable, and I feel it is an asset to our team. Ming also has an efficiency in which he does these tasks that is unparalleled to any other volunteer I have worked with. Not only does he get things done quickly, but with the attention to detail that we require, ensuring the penguins and their exhibit are taken care of properly.      
Time definitely flies when you are having fun as Ming has been a volunteer for almost a year now, but it feels like it was yesterday when he first joined our team. He has been a dependable volunteer and keeps the team positive and motivated with his positive attitude (and chocolate) that he brings each week.
Additionally, here is what our live blue™ Service Coordinator Brad Pillen had to say about Ming:
Ming leading a service trip
Ming completed his Service Leader training just this past year, but has already been an active leader and advocate for the live blue™ Service Initiative. He has found a strong connection with the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, and has led three live blue projects with them already over the past few months, all the while continuing to pursue new service projects and opportunities on his own. His attitude, enthusiasm, and unyielding energy have made his service events a popular choice amongst service corps volunteers this summer and fall!

Please join us in congratulating Ming!

Volunteer of the Month: October

Every month our Volunteer Office sorts through piles of nominations from supervisors and honors one of our volunteers for their truly stupendous efforts. Meet our latest Volunteer of the Month.

As the aquarium is busy gearing up for the fast approaching sea turtle stranding season, we are excited to award the October Volunteer of the Month to a dedicated Rescue Rehab volunteer, Kristina Williams! Kristina’s limits to volunteering truly have no boundaries as her supervisor explains below in great detail. We are grateful for her service and wish her the best of luck as she applies to vet schools!

Kristina meets a live penguin at the Long Island Aquarium & Rehab Center

Here’s what Senior Biologist, Katie Pugliares had to say:

I would like to nominate the one and only Kristina Williams!
Kristina Williams
Kristina Williams began as my very first necropsy volunteer for the rescue and rehab department in early 2012. Since then, she has donated well over 1100 hours of service. Over the past four years Kristina has taken on many odd tasks that go along with being a necropsy volunteer. There is the obvious: assisting in post-mortem exams for loggerhead sea turtles, shark-bitten seals or parasite-infested dolphins. Then there is the less obvious and less glorious: creating a searchable inventory of the ancient archives of thousands (literally) of frozen samples of itty bitty pieces of who knows what sort of tissue that have been in our collection since before she was born; or there is also the cleaning of the goo left behind when the carcass freezer breaks and everything inside thaws. Whatever task I ask Kristina to do, she always tackles it with patience and enthusiasm and a big contagious smile. During our busy turtle seasons she jumps right in and fills any role that is asked of her quite seamlessly.  
Kristina quickly became my right-hand woman during post-mortem exams as her attention to detail and organizational skills are incredible. I rely greatly on Kristina to train new volunteers in proper techniques for tissue sample collection. Most recently, she has filled the role of primary prosector in fresh pinniped necropsy exams when I am not available to conduct them myself. She confidently leads a team of less experienced volunteers and interns to assist her in sample collection and data recording. Upon my return to the lab, I am always pleased to see that all of the samples are collected and stored appropriately, quality images of gross lesions are taken and the lab is spotless. I believe in Kristina’s necropsy skills so much that I invited her to travel with me to other partner organizations in New York and Virginia to help process large volumes of dead stranded bottlenose dolphins during an Unusual Mortality Event in 2013. Kristina was beyond helpful and always maintained a professional demeanor when interacting with other staff and volunteers of other organizations. 
Swimming cold-stunned sea turtles
One thing that stands out to everyone in our department is how thoughtful Kristina is. During our busiest turtle season, Kristina offered to come in extra hours in the morning before going to her full time job to help us swim and feed turtles. Her day started very early with us and when she left here at 1PM it wasn’t the end of her day. She was headed to fill the second shift at the vet clinic she works at. Before she hit the road, she ordered and delivered two hot pizzas for the turtle team that was still busily working through their lunch breaks. I think she knew that we could only sustain on a strict diet of Munchkins for so long. Kristina is one of the busiest and most hard-working people I know. In addition to working full time at an emergency vet hospital she is also studying very hard to get into vet school. Yet she still makes volunteering with us a priority. And this effort and dedication to our mission should not go unnoticed. She is a great representation of an NEAQ volunteer. For these reasons, and many many more, I gladly nominate Kristina Williams as volunteer of the month for October.

Congratulations to Kristina!

Monday, October 26, 2015

New Video of a Nearly Unknown Whale Species

First Ever Confirmed Sightings of Omura’s Whales in the Wild

Whales are among the largest animals to have ever lived on Earth, so how could a whale species go undetected until recently, much less have never been seen alive in photos or video. Dr. Salvatore Cerchio of the New England Aquarium and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and an international team of whale biologists have just released images and detailed descriptions on the first  scientific observations in the wild ever of Omura’s whales, one of the least known species of whales in the world. So little is known about the Omura’s that scientists are unsure of how many exist or how rare the species is.

Adapted from Cerchio et 2015

In a recently published paper in the prestigious Royal Society Open Science journal, the researchers describe the Omura’s foraging techniques, vocalizations and habitat preferences in the shallow coastal waters of Madagascar. This description of the live behavior of Omura’s whales is a first as there had been no confirmed records of sightings in the wild, and little else had been known about this elusive species until now.

Omura’s whales (Balaenoptera omurai) are a relatively small baleen whale ranging in length from 33 to 38 feet. They are from the from whale family called rorquals, which all have long, deep grooves along their throats that can expand when they feed. Omura’s whales are the smaller cousin in this group that includes the giant blue whales and the acrobatic humpbacks.

This species was only first identified as a distinct species in 2003 from the DNA of dead specimens from old Japanese whaling expeditions and strandings in the tropical western Pacific and Indian Oceans. These rare whales had long been misidentified as a dwarf version of Bryde’s whales, which are another rorqual whale averaging in the mid-40 foot range for length.

"Over the years, there have been a small handful of possible sightings of Omura's whales, but nothing that was confirmed," says lead author Cerchio, who led the research while at the Wildlife Conservation Society. “They appear to occur in remote regions and are difficult to find at sea, because they are small and do not put up a prominent blow."

Cerchio and his colleagues had been conducting field research on marine mammals off the northwest coast of Madagascar since 2007. In 2013, they began to make frequent observations of unusually-marked whales that piqued their curiosity. Cerchio said, “At first, we thought they were Bryde’s whales, an understandable mistake because of the similar size and habitat, but then with good photographs and underwater video, we noticed they more closely resembled the description of Omura’s whales.”

The key clue to the mysterious whales was an uneven coloring on the head, a rare characteristic found in only one other whale species – fin whales, which are much larger. “When we clearly saw that the right jaw was white, and the left jaw was black, we knew that we were on to something very special,” said Cerchio. “The only problem was that Omura’s whales were not supposed to be in this part of the Indian Ocean. Rather, they should be in the west Pacific, near Thailand and the Philippines.”

Cerchio and his Malagasy team excitedly suspected that they were observing and documenting the first sighting of Omura’s whales in the wild. To irrefutably confirm their hypothesis, they needed to collect skin biopsies and confirm the DNA signature of the species. They submitted  samples to the lab of Dr. Alec Lindsay at Northern Michigan University (NMU). Sequencing mitochondrial DNA, the NMU team confirmed the field observations. “The DNA evidence was conclusive,” added Lindsay. “The 23 samples collected by Sal’s field team were from Omura’s whales. His field team’s detailed behavioral and ecological observations constitute the very first descriptions of these whales in the wild.”

The research team also observed four mothers with young calves. Using hydrophones, they recorded song-like vocalizations that may indicate reproductive behavior.

Cerchio will return to the field in November to do further study on the whales' vocalizations, behavior and population characteristics. He also hopes to expand the research area in future studies of Omura's whales, working with colleagues at WHOI to deploy Digital Acoustic Recording Tags (DTAGS) and to study the species in other parts of its range.

Cerchio hopes to produce the first estimate of abundance for any population of Omura’s whales with the work off Madagascar. So far, the team has catalogued approximately 25 individuals through photographic identifications.

Additional coauthors of the paper include Melinda Rekdahl of the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Boris Andrianantenaina, Norbert Andrianarivelo, and Tahina Rasoloarijao of the Institut Halieutique et des Sciences Marines, Universite de Toliara, Madagascar.

The work was supported by the International Whaling Commission Small Cetacean Conservation Fund, the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission and the Prince Albert II Conservation Fund.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Happy Lobster Day!

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker declared that October 8 is Lobster Day in the Commonwealth. Huzzah, this our kind of holiday! Gatherings are planned at the State House with lobstermen and their legislators. Members from the Division of Marine Fisheries as well as our own live American lobster (traveling with its informative minders, of course) will be there, too. Let's take this opportunity to touch on some of the fascinating facts about New England's favorite crustacean.

Colorful lobster shell mutations

Lobster Shell Colors
While most lobster shells are a mottled dark greenish brown, genetic mutations can turn up some wonderfully colorful varieties. Many of our colorful lobsters were hauled up from the depths by local lobstermen, who called us with their amazing finds. In recent years we've exhibited blue, orange, calico and bi-colored lobsters (who can forget the Halloween lobster!)

Pinchy's stark bi-color shell always draws attention during live animal presentations

Lobster Research
Lobster shell color is one of the topics that our researchers know a lot about here in our American lobster research facility. As Michael Tlusty explains in a video by the American Chemical Society, lobster shell color can be manipulated in the lab through diet. So many of the teensy crustaceans in our lobster nursery have bluish shells.

A youngster in the Blue Planet Action Center

Our researchers are also taking a careful look at lobster shell disease, which is caused by a bacteria that settles on the shells and causes unsightly blotches. The lobsters are otherwise healthy, but their disfigured shells make them difficult for lobster fishermen to sell. In order to study these topics, our researchers have become experts at rearing young lobsters—which means lots of tiny lobsters in the lab! [They even found a conjoined lobster larvae once!]

Michael Tlusty, Ph.D. holds a lobster in the research lab
Talk about tiny!

Lobster Fun Facts
And like all animals from our blue planet, lobsters are completely fascinating. Did you know lobsters communicate by peeing in each other's faces? Or that lobsters molt as frequently as every two weeks when they're young (less frequently when they get older)? Or that it takes about seven years for lobsters to grow large enough to land on your dinner plate?

Learn about lobster life cycles at our Lobster Nursery

Plan a visit to see lobsters large and small at the Aquarium. Buy a ticket online—no service charge. You might be surprised to find these bottom dwellers to be quite endearing!

Then head up to the Boulder Reef exhibit in the Gulf of Maine exhibits to meet this behemoth.