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Announcing the Rare Births of Weedy Sea Dragons

Greater Cleveland Aquarium is proud to announce the arrival of newborn weedy sea dragons, a species that has proven to be exceedingly difficult to rear. Since the first successful weedy sea dragon hatching in 2001 at the Aquarium of the Pacific, fewer than 20 facilities worldwide have had any level of success with mating and only an estimated dozen of those have had fry survive.

A delicate species whose survival has been tested by habitat degradation, weedy sea dragons are native to the cold coastal waters of south and west Australia.
“Weedy sea dragon births are exceedingly rare, and this would be a point of pride for any animal care facility, but it’s a particularly exciting for an aquarium of our size and age,” says General Manager Stephanie White, who has been with the downtown Cleveland destination since it opened a decade ago in January of 2012.

Greater Cleveland Aquarium is housed in a brick building dating back to 1892, and Curator Ray Popik believes the creativity required to reimagine the historic space contributed to his team’s success breeding sea dragons. “We were able to home the sea dragons in a very deep exhibit built into a structure that likely served as an air duct or a coal chute when this building was an operational powerhouse,” says Popik, explaining, “Its depth provided an optimal habitat for the seahorse relatives who court with an elaborate vertical dance.”

After a female weedy lays her eggs, they are transferred to the male who, similar to its pipefish cousins, is then responsible for fertilizing and carrying them until they hatch. “This was actually the second time one of the female sea dragons in our care deposited eggs on a male’s tail,” says Popik.

While the initial egg transfer in January of 2020 was likely too early in the Aquarium residents’ development to result in viable offspring, the initial mating and successful deposit was an indication that the sea dragons—who came to the Aquarium in March 2018—were thriving. “Animals need to be healthy, have good nutrition and be acclimated to mate,” explains Popik. “We felt the odds they would try again were good.”

A second mating attempt in September of 2021 resulted in another clutch of eggs and fry popping out between late-October and the beginning of November. The hatchlings were moved behind-the-scenes. “There’s no parental involvement after birth and it’s incredible that any of these tiny offspring survive when they’re left to fend for themselves in the ocean,” says Mallory Haskell, the primary aquarist responsible for their monitoring and delicate care. Not particularly strong swimmers, weedy sea dragons’ leaf-like appendages blend in with kelp and seagrass help hide them from predators.

Greater Cleveland Aquarium plans to put some of the young on public view soon in a temporary exhibit just down the corridor from the adult weedy sea dragons. “It’s been amazing to watch these animals develop and we want to give that opportunity to others if we’re able,” says White.

The process has been full of ups and downs, but Haskell is optimistic. “If raising weedy sea dragons was easy, everyone would do it,” she says. “We know there are challenges ahead, but we hope we will see a number of these sea dragons reach full size in a year or so.”

5 Things I Learned about the Green Tree Python (Morelia viridis)

When mature, green tree pythons spend a lot of time in trees, often resting their diamond-shaped heads over one or two coils they’ve looped over branches to create a saddle. Here are five other facts about these arboreal snakes:

  1. Green tree pythons start life bright yellow, red or reddish-brown, and don’t become the vibrant green color you see here until they are 6-12 months old.
  2. Their prehensile tail is helpful for climbing and anchoring them in trees. They’ll also drop it down and wiggle the tip, using it as a lure to attract curious prey.
  3. Speaking of hunting, in addition to good eyesight, green tree pythons have thermoreceptive pits in their upper lip area that let them sense the body heat of their prey.
  4. Green tree pythons can wrap themselves around their prey and squeeze them to suffocation. They can then swallow that prey hole.
  5. Green tree pythons are solitary except during mating. A female can produce a clutch of 5-35 eggs, coiling around them and using “muscular shivers” to regulate their temperature.

There’s a lot more to learn about this nonvenomous snake that can be found in Indonesia, New Guinea and Cape York in Australia.  You can see this one in the Asia & Indonesia Gallery at the Greater Cleveland Aquarium. Nature. It’s a curious thing.

–  Samantha F.

5 Things I Learned about the Red-Bellied Piranha (Pygocentrus nattereri)

While they do have sharp teeth and very powerful jaws, contrary to popular belief the red-bellied piranha is quite docile. Here are 5 other facts about this misunderstood fish.

  1. These misunderstood fish can reach lengths of 8 inches long and weigh around 4 pounds.
  2. Red-bellied piranhas travel in groups for protection rather than to take down larger prey.
  3. Piranhas can make different vocalizations that sound like barking, grunting, croaking or the thudding of a drum. They use their swimbladder to make these sounds.
  4. Red-bellied piranha feed on whole small fish, insects and aquatic invertebrates and occasionally plant material and ripe fruit. At the Greater Cleveland Aquarium they eat an omnivorous diet, composed of a variety of items mixed in throughout the week. Things like prepared gel foods, pellets, occasional fresh fruit or veggies, krill and other shell fish and chopped up freshwater fish like minnows, smelt and trout, all make up a well-balanced diet.
  5. The red-bellied piranha is rarely seen in a frenzy unless they are extremely hungry and deprived. These fish get a vicious 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. While the widely circulated story from the President’s trip might have made them legendary, it was a 1970s’ horror movie that confirmed people’s suspicions the piranha was a man-eating terror.

You can take a closer look at the red-bellied piranha along with other curious creatures in the Tropical Forest Gallery at the Greater Cleveland Aquarium. Nature. It’s a curious thing.

– Tyler H.

Flipping the Script to Save Sharks

Think about spiders, piranhas, or snakes. Simply the sound of some animals’ names causes fear and panic. Whether it stems from tall tales or a few chance encounters, unfortunately for the animals involved, bad reputations developed over time tend to stick. Sharks might be the ultimate example of this situation. There have been many movies about sharks made over the years. A recent study from the University of Australia asserted that “almost all of these films (96%) overtly portrayed shark-human interactions as being potentially threatening to humans.” How factual and accurate have these movies been to sharks? Let’s take a closer look at a few of them.

In Jaws, Amity Island was terrorized by a Great White shark that ruined quite a few people’s vacations and the blockbuster film’s protagonists indeed ended up needing a bigger boat to catch this predator. Jaws had such an impact on our collective psyche that the reputations of Great Whites and other shark species remain affected by the movie to this day—46 years after the motion picture came out. The big myth in Jaws is that sharks specifically target humans. In truth, we simply are not on a shark’s menu. Rarely do humans and sharks come in contact, but IF they do, sharks mistaking a person for a seal or another one of their actual prey items might take an exploratory bite before quickly realizing the mistake and swimming off. A vengeful, human-seeking shark like the Great White in Jaws doesn’t occur in our oceans.

Many shark movies since Jaws have leaned into a more fictional sci-fi component, such as Deep Blue Sea, The Meg and, of course, all the Sharknado films. (They apparently made six so far?!). I hope I don’t need to let you know that no one needs to fear long extinct predators, DNA-altered sharks or waterspouts causing sharks to attack humans in the sky and on land.

But there are some movies that could seem very realistic to the average movie fan, such as The Shallows. This film finds an injured young surfer fighting for her survival in the open water while the Great White shark that bit her circles and zeroes in on its compromised target. Similarly, to Jaws, this movie portrays the shark to be following a prolonged plan of attack on our species, although on a smaller scale. Sharks don’t spend extended periods of time playing this cat-and-mouse game with prey. Many sharks like the Great White must be swimming constantly to breathe, and sharks are too smart to waste time and energy for very long before moving on to the next area or potential meal.

It’s important to know that we are not telling you to never watch another shark movie ever again. I love all kinds of movies and I know these thrillers can be fun to sit down and enjoy. We just ask to do your best in not letting television and movies fully form your opinion of animals like sharks. As apex predators, sharks are extremely important to the health of the oceans on which humans rely heavily. It’s vital that we are constantly trying to improve the public opinion of sharks for their overall conservation. A third of all shark species are threatened or endangered, and movies have done their part in contributing to the decline. Going forward, we need to try and continue to flip the narrative on sharks, talking about them in a positive way and focusing on the facts to protect them as a species and ultimately protect our oceans.

-Matt D., Education Coordinator

A Spin on the Laundromat: Moon Jellyfish

You may wonder as you walk through the Greater Cleveland Aquarium’s Coastal Boardwalk Gallery why there is a giant washing machine. As you get closer, you will see what is gently swirling in the fanciful exhibit—moon jellyfish. The decision to showcase these animals in such a way came from Director of Artistic Production and Operations, Bruce Orendorf.

Bruce had a few ideas about how to fit the new exhibit in with the gallery’s deliberately kitschy boardwalk theme. The jellyfish exhibit uses a circular kreisel tank that causes the water to flow in a circular motion and enables the animals to rise and fall, but moves slow enough so that they are allowed to move freely as well. In thinking about the exhibit’s relationship to a boardwalk Bruce thought, “Cotton candy machine?”, but ruled that out as that kind of machine operates horizontally, not vertically. Then he thought, “You know what that looks like? A washing machine.”

The moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita), which gets its name from four internal gonads that have a moon shape, cannot swim, so their movement in the water relies on currents. They use currents to move through the water to find their prey, which consist of zooplankton, fish eggs, larval crabs and shrimp. Here at the Aquarium, their diet consists of artemia nauplii, a form of brine shrimp.

“I want people to find them as interesting as I do,” said Aquarist Bethany Hickey, who is in charge of the exhibit, and who has a particular interest in invertebrates. Hickey says that ensuring that the temperature, as well as the water currents, mirror that of the environment these animals live in, is crucial to their survival. “They are very susceptible to any environmental changes, and that necessary stability is somewhat challenging to maintain in the exhibit,” she said.

After landing on a name, Bruce built the façade in-house and had signs made that were similar to what you would see in a real laundromat, but would also work within the Coastal Boardwalk theme.

Now you know some of the thought and planning that goes into creating a new exhibit. Next time you visit, check out the jellyfish in the Blue Moon Laundromat.

– Neda Spears

Species Highlight: Poison Dart Frog

Poison dart frogs got their moniker from indigenous Central and South Americans using the toxins the animals secrete through their skin on hunting arrows. We talked to aquarist Connor Craig to learn more about some of the Greater Cleveland Aquarium’s newest (and deadliest) residents.

Poison dart frogs can be found in nature in the humid rainforests of Central and South America. Their vivid coloring is a form of protection from would-be predators. “A poison dart frog’s bright color advertises the fact that it’s poisonous, so they don’t get eaten,” says Craig adding that although darts frog come in a variety of hues, their color doesn’t correlate to how poisonous they are.

Their deadly poison comes from the frog’s diet of different small insects like ants, small flies and beetles. In the Aquarium, the poison dart frogs eat fruit flies, pinhead crickets and a vitamin supplement to ensure proper nutrition. “The controlled diet doesn’t allow for the development of the poison for which these animals are known,” says Craig.

The only natural predator of the poison dart frog is the fire-bellied snake (Leimadophis epinephelus), which has developed a resistance to the frog’s poison. However, the biggest problems facing poison dart frogs are related to human activity. “One of the first signs that something is wrong in an ecosystem is if indicator species, such as amphibians, start to decline,” Craig says. “Many species of amphibians are threatened from human activities like deforestation, the pet trade and deteriorating water quality.”

While deadly, imagine if their poison could be used to make someone feel better. Scientists are using the toxins blue poison dart frogs secrete to study how nerves conduct electricity to help them create new human painkillers.

Get an up-close look at green and black, Patricia dyeing and ‘Azureus’ blue dart frogs on your next visit to the Greater Cleveland Aquarium. Nature. It’s a curious thing.

– Hannah

5 Things I Learned: Cleaner Shrimp

Take a stroll down our Coastal Boardwalk Gallery and you’ll find all sorts of creatures. One of the most interesting that you’ll find in our invertebrate Touch Pool is the decapod crustacean, commonly known as a cleaner shrimp. These shrimp exhibit a cleaning symbiotic relationship with the fish they rid of parasites. Here are 5 facts that I have learned about cleaner shrimp.

You can come see a cleaner shrimp up close and even get a “mini-manicure” when they clean the dead skin from your fingers at the Greater Cleveland Aquarium’s Invertebrate Touch Pool. Nature. It’s a curious thing.

– Payton Burkhammer, Intern

Coral Reefs and Sunscreen

What can I do, here in Ohio to help protect the coral reefs thousands of miles away? The answer may surprise you. There are numerous ways YOUR individual actions can either hurt or help coral reefs around the world. One such action is the selection of your sunscreen! The sunscreen you have at home may contain chemicals that are extremely dangerous for coral reefs.

Image source: http://rethinkcleveland.org/home.aspx

Sunscreens are important to us they help prevent skin damage from the harsh ultraviolet rays of the sun. But, the protection of our skin comes at a cost, a few of the chemicals used in sunscreens have been found to have negative effects on coral reefs.  The ingredient oxybenzone is found in 65% of non-mineral sunscreens and it has recently been discovered to damage coral DNA. Oxybenzone, while thought to be an important ingredient for sunscreen has been found to negatively impact coral reefs across the globe.

Image Source: Halle Minshall

In 2005 Dr. Craig Downes and the United States National Park Service were working in collaboration to uncover the cause of coral losses in the U.S. Virgin Islands when they stumbled upon the role sunscreen played in coral death. The tourists, sunbathers, snorkelers and divers lathered in sunscreen and to enjoy turquoise blue waters were introducing chemicals that kill the very corals and damage the ecosystem they are trying to enjoy.

Image Source: https://slideplayer.com/slide/4629733/

It is estimated that every year swimmers, snorkelers and divers introduce 14,000 tons of sunscreen to coral reefs. This introduction of the harsh chemical components in sunscreen, sea temperature rising and ocean acidification have worked together to create the perfect storm for coral reef destruction. Corals are living animals, not plants, these tiny animals build the foundations of the reef out of limestone. The tiny coral polyps live in large communities and play host to a special alga called zooxanthellae.  The zooxanthellae live inside the coral and share food they produce from photosynthesis in return for their safe housing.

Image Souce: Halle Minshall

So, what can you do to help the coral reefs?

Consider looking into some of the many “reef safe” sunscreen options and/or avoiding the need for sunscreen by wearing a hat or UV-safe long sleeved shirt and pants to protect your skin.  Alternatively, stay indoors instead of in the sun entirely.  We need to be more aware of the impact of our actions even though they may seem inconsequential.  Some states have begun to regulate the chemical components in sunscreen to help keep their coral reefs healthy.

Do your part and think about what you put on your body and into the ocean and coral reef ecosystem!

5 Things I Learned: Weedy Seadragon

Is that seaweed or a weedy seadragon? Seaweed-like appendages camouflage the weedy seadragon, helping it blend in to its costal Australian habitat. Want to know more? Here are 5 things I learned, but beware, their laidback surfer vibe is relaxing enough to put you to sleep:

Weedy seadragons are a Near Threatened species found along the southern coastline of Australia. You can see weedy seadragons and learn more about conservation during your next visit to the Greater Cleveland Aquarium. Nature. It’s a curious thing.

– Hannah Moskowitz, Intern