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The Secret Lives of Sea Stars

Where is their mouth? How do they move? Why does the animal care team call them sea stars and not starfish? Learn a few basics and discover how different sea stars can be with aquarist Bethany H. #cleaquarium #natureiscurious

Today we’re going to talk about sea stars. The reason we call them sea stars and not starfish most of the time is because they’re not actually fish. They’re in a group called echinoderms, which means spiny skin. Other echinoderms include sea urchins and sea cucumbers, so it’s a big group of invertebrate animals.

We have several different species here at the Aquarium. We will start by looking at the Bahama sea stars that live in the Aquarium’s Invertebrate Pool.  They have a bottom surface where you can see their mouths are right there in the middle. They also have rows of tube feet coming out in every direction. Those tube feet end in little suction cups, so that’s how this particular sea star is sticking to the acrylic.  Sea stars also have a back surface with little spikes all over it.

The way sea stars move and breathe are really pretty interesting. Both of those work a lot on what is called a water vascular system. You might think of vascular blood vessels. While these guys do have a couple of blood vessels, most of their circulatory system is done with just sea water. That sea water can move their tube feet in and out.

Because we disturbed him, this sea star might decide that this is no longer where he wants to be and start moving very slowly across the acrylic. He’s going to do that by sticking out each tube foot and pulling himself along. Sea stars tend to look like they’re just gliding because their arms aren’t actually moving, just their tube feet. They’re really slow. Their average speed is about six inches a minute. The fastest sea star there is can move about nine feet a minute, which is still quite a bit slower than your walking speed.

Sea stars also use that water vascular system to breathe by sticking little papulae or little hair-like projections out of their backs. All those little white specks in between the big bumps are papulae that are all pulled in right now. Again, sea stars can use hydrostatic pressure inside to move those in and out. When those papulae are sticking out they create a lot of surface area for gas exchange with the water. Then that will circulate through the sea water inside their body to move it all throughout all of their tissues.

This central little dot or light area you can see here is called the madreporite. That’s a big word for something sea stars can open or close to determine how much water is inside of them.

The leather and the pink star in our Coastal Arch exhibit look a lot furrier with all of the papulae out. These are some cold water species. Sea stars do live in different climates all over the world. There are many different species. Most of them have five arms, although there are a few exceptions. 

All sea stars can move their arms independently a little bit, but how much they do so is very much dependent on the species. These are all mottled sea stars and as sea stars go, they are probably some of the most flexible.

Author: Bethany H.

It’s #GivingTuesday

Founded in 2006 by Denise and Dr. Gary Riggs, Ohio-based Wild4Ever is an entirely volunteer 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to the protection of animals in need and to the preservation of wild animals and habitats. While the wildlife conservation foundation has supported efforts with South American and Cambodian waterfowls, the Bornean Sun Bear and jaguars in Costa Rica and the Southwestern United States, Wild4Ever remains firmly committed to the protection and care of animals here in the Buckeye State. “You don’t have to go around the world to find charismatic endangered animals to help and you don’t have to sit back and wait for them to disappear,” says Dr. Riggs.

“You don’t have to go around the world to find charismatic endangered animals to help and you don’t have to sit back and wait for them to disappear,” says Dr. Riggs.

Dr. Riggs and the foundation have been known to donate more than $100,000 in in-kind services to the diagnosis and treatment of injured birds and other local wildlife. Wild4Ever is also a critical partner in SPOTD, a multi-organization project to study and grow spotted turtle populations here. Native to Northeast Ohio, the distinctive little turtle’s numbers are diminishing due to habitat loss, predation, declining water quality, poaching and other factors. “Our group has been able to increase the threatened population in our study area and we finished a multi-year genetic study that will aid in future planning,” says Riggs.

The Splash Fund of the Greater Cleveland Aquarium also has played a significant role in the SPOTD headstarting and habitat project. Not only has that involvement allowed for a number of spotted turtle hatchlings to be reared under the watchful eyes of a trained animal care team to a size more advantageous for their survival, but it has enabled interns to microchip and monitor spotted turtles in the wild post-release. “Underscoring the importance of the natural world and providing ways our community can make a positive impact on it is at the heart of the Splash Fund,” says Stephanie White.

The small nonprofit is dedicated to promoting and encouraging passion about aquatic life and participation in the conservation of fresh and saltwater habitats through sustainable human practices. Every summer the Splash Fund—in partnership with the Alliance for the Great Lakes, Cleveland Metroparks and Drink Local. Drink Tap.—invites the community to participate in a series of Adopt-A-Beach Cleanups. Over the years, its more than 40 events have attracted 1,491 volunteers who collected nearly 3,532 pounds of trash and recyclables. The Splash Fund also provides schools with demonstrated need access to life science-based education programs.

This has been a difficult year, and we fully realize that not everyone is in a position to give. But if you are and you’re passionate about wildlife education and conservation, we hope you’ll consider a #GivingTuesday donation to the Wild4Ever Foundation or the Splash Fund.

If you donate $10 or more to Wild4Ever Foundation or the Splash Fund between now and December 6, we’ll give you access to a virtual Zoom turtle program hosted by Greater Cleveland Aquarium on Tuesday December 22 at 6pm.**A Zoom link will be emailed to you closer to the program.

Author: Samantha F.

How & Why Do the Stingrays Paint?

The Greater Cleveland Aquarium has some unusual artists-in-residence . . . stingrays! Aquarist Laura B. shows you how the cownose #stingrays can create one-of-a-kind artwork and explains how activities like this allow the animals to exercise control over their environment and keep things interesting. #cleaquarium #natureiscurious

Hi! I’m Laura, an aquarist here at the Greater Cleveland Aquarium. I’m here at our Stingray Touchpool to talk about stingray enrichment.  Enrichment is something we do to encourage natural behaviors. This enrichment can be simple like a touch stimulus in the touch tank, offering a new food item or allowing the animals to swim through hula hoops or air bubbles. Enrichment can also be something more complex, like a stingray art program or giving them an opportunity to work harder to obtain a reward.

Stingray art is something we do fairly often. It encourages the stingrays to work differently for their food and to use their natural foraging instincts. Enrichment allows the animals to exercise control and choice in their environment, which enhances their overall well-being. Animals with good mental health are more engaged with their surroundings and more at ease.

You can see that in this exhibit there are three types of stingrays. The most recognizable of those is the cownose stingray with its indented rostrum that kind of resembles a cow. The cownose rays stay higher in the water column and engage actively with the art program.  There are also Southern stingrays, which are the larger ones, as well as a little, spade-shaped Atlantic ray who stays mainly on the bottom, buried in the sand. 

You can see black shells in the exhibit. These are whole mussels. Stingrays can use their row of teeth to crush shells with their strong jaws. The cownose rays use the mandibles above their mouths to sift through the sand bed to find shells and food items. They’ll eventually get to those mussels, but they prefer the easier, handfed food options because it’s less work. That’s what makes mussels a good enrichment item.

Personally I really enjoy giving the stingrays enrichment because they interact with it readily and they always seem ready to participate. Before this stingray art session even began, the stingrays were gathering around, ready to paint their masterpiece.

Author: Laura B.

The Truth about the Red-Bellied Piranha

Are piranhas as fierce as they’re often made out to be in pop culture? Maggie H. dispels some of the myths and tells you how a President was responsible for their frightening reputation while feeding the red-bellied piranhas at the Greater Cleveland Aquarium.

Some people think is the red-bellied piranha is the scariest fish here at the Aquarium. Piranhas have gained a bad reputation for viciously devouring anything in their path within mere seconds, but are they actually as scary as everyone thinks they are? The short answer is no. These fish get a bad reputation in part because of some exaggerated claims made about them following one of Teddy Roosevelt’s expeditions to the Amazon. His guides showed him starving piranhas taking down a large animal in a short period of time. The widely circulated story from the President’s trip inspired a 1970s’ horror movie that only confirmed people’s suspicions that the piranha was a man-eating terror.

This is a gross misrepresentation of a beautiful and usually quite docile fish.

Piranhas are native to the Amazon River Basin where they struggle to survive changes to their habitat during the dry season. This land can go for months without rain at certain times of the year, reducing the piranhas’ normally large swimming areas to small, stagnant pools that are little bigger than puddles. These conditions make competition for food and resources fierce as the fish can go for a long time without a meal. So, if something falls in the water, the hungry fish will use their strong jaws and razor-sharp interlocking teeth to rip it apart as quickly as possible to get their fill.

They tend to travel in groups more for protection than to take down larger prey, but then end up stuck in these ever-shrinking pools together trying to fend off starvation.

So, while people tend to think of these fish as fearsome predators, they are actually very valuable to their ecosystem as scavengers. They are opportunistic feeders with a very varied diet. Although they might hunt for small fish insects and invertebrates, they also consume carrion and even plant matter. Piranhas have also been known to nip at the fins of some larger fish for sustenance. The red-bellied piranha at the Greater Cleveland Aquarium, eat a mix of fish shellfish and a special very nutritious gel diet.

While stories in the media have portrayed these fish as ferocious killers that should be feared, they are actually quite docile when well fed and will avoid conflict if possible. I hope I’ve debunked some of the myths surrounding these widely misunderstood creatures.

Make sure to check them out on your next visit to the Greater Cleveland Aquarium. We look forward to seeing you soon!  

Where to find @CLEaquarium: Tropical Forest Gallery

Author: Maggie H. 

An Underwater Twist On Pumpkin Carving with @CLEAquarium

If you think carving a prize-winning pumpkin is difficult, try doing it underwater. Greater Cleveland Aquarium Dive Safety Coordinator Halle M. explains what makes carving underwater such a challenge and why it’s still so much fun. (Special thanks to Professional Diving Resources, who hosted the competition!)

The underwater pumpkin carving event you see here was held in Ohio at a local quarry called White Star Quarry. It’s a place where local divers often go for training and to freshen up their recreational SCUBA skills. It has a platform, which makes it really convenient for doing pumpkin carving underwater.

So, how does underwater carving work? Our divers are allowed to scoop out their pumpkins and open their tops before they enter the water. Once they’ve entered the water though, if they or their pumpkins surface they have to get out. Divers have a maximum of 2 hours to complete their carving. When everyone is finished, the jack-o-lanterns are displayed, judged and winners are selected.  

In this video, we’re on an underwater platform at a depth of 15 feet. We’re sitting/kneeling/lying on that platform to carve. We don’t want to sit or kneel on the bottom of the quarry because it would stir up the silt and make it difficult to see anything.  

Carving underwater is a challenge. Just imagine you’re one of us. You’re diving. You have your wetsuit, your mask, all of your equipment, weights and a SCUBA cylinder. You also have a pumpkin that’s constantly trying to float away from you and you’re using a big dive knife to try to to cut small details into a gourd. It definitely takes a lot of patience and attention to detail to do a good job.

I’ve been doing this for the last 5 or 6 years and I’ve learned a few things. My first tip is to bring a lot of extra weights and lot of warm wetsuit layers because it gets quite cold when you’re sitting still underwater. (This year was particularly cold. The air was 35 degrees when we arrived, but luckily the water was much warmer . . . 65 degrees.) It’s also really important to go in with a plan, to not stay to long and to pay close attention to what you’re doing. That all makes underwater carving with all its challenges a bit easier.

There were around 30 pumpkin carvers at the Quarry and 15 of those were associated with the Greater Cleveland Aquarium in some way. We brought along a few new participants to competing this year. Jamil and Damon had never done anything like this before but I think they enjoyed the challenge. Some of the pumpkins that our team created included traditional jack-o-lanterns, a walrus, a battery charge sign, a turtle, a ship and some goofy faces. The winner of the entire event had carved a SCUBA diver carved into their pumpkin, which clearly is an audience pleaser with this group. Two people who came from the Aquarium group placed 2nd and 3rd with their pumpkins. Crystal carved a ship being attacked by a squid and Taylor carved tortoise or a turtle. They were really awesome pumpkin designs and they worked very hard to bring them designs to life.

Events like this really do help to create camaraderie and to bring new divers into the fold. It’s a lot of good, old-fashioned fun and way to engage with diving and your friends that’s a little atypical. Here at the Aquarium we have divers in the water every day. A number of them got their start at White Star Quarry. If you’re interested learning to dive, check out Professional Diving Resources. Maybe next year you can carve pumpkins with us!

Author: Halle M.

5 Things I Learned about the Sea Lamprey

It’s October and we thought we’d learn a little about a blood-sucking invasive species you can find in the Great Lakes . . . sea lampreys! Here are 5 facts about this distinctive-looking animal. #cleaquarium #natureiscurious

Some people say it looks like an eel, others think it looks like the stuff of nightmares. In truth, this cartilaginous, jawless fish with smooth, scaleless skin is a parasite, meaning that it gets its nourishment from another host organism.

As you can clearly see, a sea lamprey has a suction cup mouth ringed with sharp teeth. It will latch on to a fish and use its rough, file-like tongue to rasp away at scales and skin in order to feed on the host’s blood and bodily fluids.  Not many—maybe 1 in 7—of the fish that a sea lamprey attaches to and feeds on will survive the ordeal, and it’s estimated that a single lamprey will kill more than 40 or more pounds of fish in its lifetime.

Sea lampreys are native to the northern and western Atlantic Ocean, but thanks to manmade locks and shipping canals, they found their way into the Great Lakes in the 1800s where, because they prey on whitefish, lake trout and salmon, they’ve disrupted the freshwater ecosystem.

Not all lampreys are invasive to the Great Lakes. There are actually a number of native lampreys including the silver, the American brook and the Northern brook, but the sea lamprey is a significantly bigger predator.  

A sea lamprey has a very well-developed sense of smell and uses odors to navigate and communicate. That’s why researchers have tried using both pheromones and the scent of decaying sea lampreys to help with trapping efforts.

So, while you (understandably) might have no desire to see a sea lamprey up-close, you can learn about Ohio’s native and invasive species on your next visit to the Greater Cleveland Aquarium. Nature. It’s a curious thing.

Where to Find @CLEAquarium: Ohio Lakes & Rivers Gallery

Author: Samantha F.

Meet Your New Favorite Animals, the Surinam Toads @CLEAquarium

Aquarist Maggie H. feeds the Surinam toads (who shovel the meals in their mouths most adorably) and explains why she’s such a big fan of these unusual animals.

Hey guys! My name is Maggie and I’m an aquarist here at the Greater Cleveland Aquarium. Today I’m going to tell you a little bit about Surinam toads . Surinam toads are native to northern South America where they spend most of their time lying in wait in the bottoms of rivers, streams and ponds disguised as leaves. They are very still most of the day, blending in exceptionally well with their surroundings.

Even though their name implies they are toads, they’re actually frogs. They get that name due to their exceptionally bumpy and textured skin.

In the wild, these animals would eat a varied diet of small fish, crustaceans and worms. Here at the Greater Cleveland Aquarium they get a similar diet of earthworms, squid tentacles and fillets of freshwater fish. Their eyes are quite small, so to help them find food they have small, star-shaped sensory organs on each digit of their forelegs. Their strong, muscular back legs are used for swimming.

In addition to their odd appearance, reproduction for this species is also very unique. The toads locate each other using a loud, metallic-sounding clicking noise. Once a male and female find each other,  amplexus, or a spawning ritual, will begin. The toads will do a series of movements in the water column that culminates with the female laying anywhere from 60 to 100 eggs which the male then fertilizes and presses into a thick pad of skin on her back. There they will develop for several months before her babies swim out fully formed and able to provide for themselves.

The toads and I are looking forward to seeing you at the Greater Cleveland Aquarium soon.

Where to Find @CLEAquarium: Tropical Forest Gallery

Author: Maggie H.

Get to Know the Longnose Gar @CLEAquarium

The Greater Cleveland Aquarium’s Ohio Lakes & Rivers Gallery highlights animals native to this region and it’s where you’ll find several longnose gar. Watch aquarist Laura B. feed them whole, small trout while she tells you more about these distinctive fish. #natureiscurious

Hi! I’m Laura and I’m an aquarist here at the Greater Cleveland Aquarium and today I’m feeding some of our native species in the gamefish exhibit. In fact, right now I’m going to feed the longnose gar .

Longnose gar get their name from their elongated jaws, which have needle-like snouts. They have rows of cone-shaped teeth on the top and bottom of those jaws that help them trap small fish, insects and crustaceans. Today they’ll be eating whole, small trout.

The longnose gar have a very wide distribution. They’re found all throughout the Midwest and Eastern United States. They’re found in areas with vegetation and downed trees. They have gills, but they’re also able to breathe air which makes them able to adapt to low oxygen environments. They’ve been found in brackish water in coastal areas.

Gar are pretty special because they don’t have typical scales like normal fish. They have what are known as ganoid scales, which have serrated edges and don’t overlap like an average fish you might see. Full-grown adult gar are what are known as apex predators. That means that there are very few species that will prey on them. The only two predators really are alligators and humans. They will live to be about 15 to 25 years old. Typically they’ll be 2- to 3-feet long but they have been known to grow up to be 6 feet long and 55 pounds.

Personally, I think the gar are very interesting. Their fossils go back 100 million years, which is absolutely fascinating. I think they’re underrated. They’re very pretty. They have those dark patches that kind of help them blend in with their surroundings and that long body shape, which is pretty unique of all the species found in this region.

Where to Find @CLEAquarium: Ohio Lakes & Rivers Gallery

Author: Laura B.

5 Things I Learned about Horseshoe Crabs

Horseshoe crabs get their name from a rounded carapace, or exoskeleton, that’s u-shaped like a horse’s shoe. They have jointed legs, a hard shell, an exoskeleton and a segmented body, but they don’t have antennae or a jaw. These arthropods are more closely related to spiders or scorpions than they are to what we think of as true crabs, and they are really fascinating (and important) creatures. Here are just a few reasons why:

  1. Tracing the ancestry of these invertebrates would result in a massive family tree. Horseshoe crabs have been around for hundreds of millions of years, even longer than the dinosaurs!
  2. It might not be fine dining, but it gets the job done. A horseshoe crab’s diet consists of sea worms, mollusks and crustaceans. Because horseshoe crabs don’t have jaws or teeth, they’ll break up food between their legs before pushing it into their mouths. Like birds, a gizzard further grinds that food down. Any undigested bone or shell particles are regurgitated.
  3. Their spiky telsons are nothing to fear. They look like barbs or stingers, but those tails are actually pretty fragile. Horseshoe crabs use them to dig, to steer and to right themselves after swimming upside down or being flipped by a wave.
  4. Horseshoe crabs are slow growers. And because that hard exoskeleton doesn’t grow with them, they regularly develop new, slightly larger shells and shed their old ones. It’s a process called molting.  They’ll do this 16 to 17 times before they reach full adult size.
  5. They’re very important animals. Not only do horseshoe crabs play a big role in their ecosystems—providing a source of food for migratory seabirds, sea turtles, alligators and even sharks—but they are also important to human health. Because their blue, copper-based blood quickly clumps up in the presence of bacterial toxins, it can be used to test for contamination in things like injectable drugs, surgical implants and medical equipment.

While there are synthetic alternatives in development, today pharmaceutical companies developing COVID-19 vaccines are using horseshoe crab blood to test for potential bacterial contamination. Pretty amazing, right? Don’t miss these little lifesavers in the Coastal Boardwalk Gallery the next time you visit the Greater Cleveland Aquarium.

Author: Samantha F.