Today, I had a deep, self-revelation moment: I hate snakes. Maybe hate is too strong of a word, but they definitely terrify me. I had no idea that I was scared of snakes before this internship, but when I was asked to change a part in the snake tank a couple of weeks ago, I was shaking SO bad. It was pathetic. Today, they told me that I would be cleaning the snake tank, and my stomach instantly felt like it was in knots. Fortunately, they were going to take all the snakes out, babies and adults, and I wouldn’t have to worry about getting bit, or picking up any snakes. I got to watch them taking all the snakes out of the tank, and that was really cool. There were three pretty big ones, probably the length of my fingertips to my shoulder, and the two people who were taking the snakes out would just reach in, grab the snakes’ heads, and just pull them out. To store the snakes, they put the babies in gallon zip-lock bags, the medium sized ones in an ice chest, and the large ones were put in pillowcases. Also, none of the people in the freshwater department wanted to get the snakes out, so they called in someone from the Life Support Systems, which fixes plumbing or electrical problems, who LIKES picking up the snakes. After all the snakes were removed, they removed the small rocks and the wood platforms underneath the rocks, to clean them. Then, I got in the tank, and vacuumed up the snake skin, the algae, the dirt, and all the various debris in the tank. I got really close to being done, but then the light burned out, so we couldn’t put the rocks and wood platforms back in, or the snakes, so we got stuck. Eventually though, the light got fixed, and we were able to put everything back in.
Despite all the snakes, today was a great day, and I enjoyed watching the other workers wrangle the snakes, and even cleaning the tank wasn’t that bad. I only have two days left, but they’ve been giving me more interesting things to do, and I’ve learned so much during this internship.
Today I interviewed one of my supervisors/bosses, Lana, about what it’s like to work at an aquarium. We were a little rushed for time, so it’s not a very long interview, but I learned a lot and got some good advice from her.
Lana went to the University of South Carolina (USC), and has a degree in marine science with a concentration in biology. She has been working at the Oklahoma Aquarium for about two years, first working in the chemistry lab for nine months, before moving to the freshwater department, where she is now.
Her daily routine starts with checking all of the systems, to make sure all the animals are healthy, and that all the pumps and filters are clean and running properly. After that, she and the other workers will wipe down the windows, and start the daily feeds, which are the cichlids, the crappies, the paddlefish, and the iguanas, and consists of pellets and requires little to no food prep. After the daily feeds, her routine varies depending on the day. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, they feed all of the animals, change out the floss bags, and do feed shows for the piranhas and the electric eels. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, she backwashes and cleans tanks, and prepares the food for the Monday-Wednesday-Friday feeds. However, her daily routine can vary based on several factors: lack of water to refill tanks, moving animals, broken or damaged pumps/filters, etc.
I also asked Lana what her favorite part of working at the aquarium is, and she had two answers: diving, and interacting with the little kids who visit the aquarium. She loves diving because she never feels better than she does after diving, like she was sick, and after diving she’s better. She also likes seeing the awe and joy on little kids faces when they’re in the aquarium and seeing all the animals. She loves answering their questions, because the kids are so happy and eager to learn about the animals.
Next, I asked Lana if this job is where she wanted or thought she was going to be after college. This job isn’t exactly where she imagined herself, and although she loves it, she is using it as a stepping stone, and wants to go back to school eventually, either to go into research, rehabilitation, or veterinary medicine. I also asked if she had any advice for prospective marine science majors, and she had some great advice. First, don’t let anyone discourage you. Second, make friends with the people outside your department, because you may want to work in their department at some point. Third, pay attention in class. I really like this last one, because I think it’s something that all students struggle with, especially now with all the technology we have access to. I’ve seen so many kids checking Facebook or Twitter on their computers in class, instead of paying attention and taking notes. At the moment, you might not think what you’re learning is relevant, but someday, you might really need that information.
I’m glad that I was able to interview Lana, because she gave me even more insight into how an aquarium works. She also gave me a lot of good advice, and encouraged me to continue pursuing vet school. It’s sad to think that I only have a couple more days left in my internship, but I’m very thankful that I got this opportunity!
One detail about Friday that I forgot to mention in my last post: I got to observe a necropsy! A necropsy is basically an autopsy, and the biologists at the aquarium perform necropsies whenever a normally healthy animal, or an animal in a healthy tank, has died, to make sure that it doesn’t have diseases that could be passed on to the other fish. The necropsy I observed was done on a perch, which was about the size of my pinky finger. In this particular necropsy, they were looking for a monogenetic virus, which is essentially a worm with a very simple reproductive process. These worms will produce larvae, which will attach to the gills of other fish, causing suffocation, irritation, and other health problems. To see if the dead fish had monogenetic virus, the biologists will take a skin sample, a gill sample, and a fin sample. The virus is very visible under a microscope, and looks just like a big worm. Fortunately, the perch didn’t show any indication of having monogenetic virus, indicating that the entire system was safe. The necropsy was done on a really small animal, but I’m glad I got the chance to see the technique, and how to properly use all the scalpels and forceps and other tools.
Now on to Monday. I’ve talked before about the albino turtle, and how the biologists believed that it had unfertilized eggs because it wasn’t eating. It turns out that they were right, because when I went in today, there were four fairly large white eggs sitting in her tank. Interestingly, even though she laid her eggs, turtle eggs are fertilized internally, not externally. This makes the turtle somewhat similar to the human in that unfertilized eggs are dispelled from the body. It’s no wonder that the turtle didn’t want to eat, because the eggs are really big compared to the turtle’s body size. Each one is about the size of her head.
After I disposed of the turtle eggs, I did the usual duties, and got to go lay out the floss bags by myself, and I got to help with feeding again. I got to feed the turtle, who thankfully ate, and I also got to help feed the gar, which was pretty fun. After I helped with the feeding, I had to change all the floss bags, and then came the really fun part: rinsing the floss bags. Spoiler alert: by fun, I mean time-consuming and a little nasty. It wasn’t a horrible job, it just took a while, and it consisted of turning the bags inside out, so that all the food and waste particles are on the outside of the bag. Then, I laid the bag on the ground and rinsed it out with a hose, until most of the dirt and food was washed out. After that, the “clean” bags are loaded into a washing machine with bleach, and then dried. After that, they’re ready to be used again.
The reason I made the title “I’m a Big Kid Now” is because I feel like I’ve been given a lot of responsibilities and freedom over the past few days, and I almost feel like an actual employee there, instead of just an intern. I might have more responsibilities and freedom only because there’s been a staff shortage over the past few days, but like I’ve said before, it’s nice to be trusted with at least some aspect of care for the animals.
The Mudskipper is a completely amphibious fish, and is therefore capable of living on land and water. They are typically found in tropical regions, and are very social and active animals. The mudskipper also has many adaptations that allow it to avoid predators, and survive both in and out of the water.
Mudskippers live on the coast in West Africa, Japan, the Philippines, and the Polynesian Islands. Mudskippers are uniquely adapted to living on the coast, due to their amphibious nature, and ability to breathe and walk outside of the water. Mudskippers use their pectoral fins to “skip” along the ground, giving the mudskipper their name. These fins stick out like a sea lion’s, which allow it to push itself along the ground. Mudskippers can also use their fins to jump into the air. Mudskippers can breathe while out of water, but only while keeping their gills moist. This allows them to continue to be able to extract oxygen from the water. Also, mudskippers have a chamber behind their gills that stores air bubbles, also providing oxygen to the animal. Since mudskippers can only survive out of the water while their gills are moist, they can only live in humid climates, and must stay close to the water. Mudskippers make burrows in the sediments along the coast, where they lay eggs. The mudskippers air chamber can also function under water, specifically in the burrows, where oxygen concentration could be low.
Mudskippers typically eat insects, worms, mussels, small crabs, or other small crustaceans left behind after the tide. In Singapore, the mudskipper is threatened due to habitat loss. In other locations, the mudskipper is not endangered or threatened, but is facing habitat loss. Due to the location of their habitat, these animals are facing problems from pollution and land damage due to humans. During mating season, the male mudskipper’s coloring becomes more intense, and he performs leaps and tricks to impress the female. Male mudskippers will also fight others to show dominance. Once a female and male have chosen to mate, the female will lay her eggs in the male’s burrow, where the male will fertilize and guard the eggs.
Of the five people in the freshwater department, only two were at the aquarium today: the big boss and I. This was actually pretty nice, because I got to operate independently for most of the day. My boss was off doing his own thing for most of the morning, which meant that I got to do my daily duties without supervision, or without having to ask if they needed me to do something else first. My boss came back for feeding time, and let me go feed the bullfrogs, lungfish, bowfin, and albino turtle, completely by myself, with no supervision, which was awesome. It was really nice to be trusted with feeding the animals, even though it’s a small task. I also got to lay out the floss bags, which was a little trickier, because I had to remember which bags went to which systems. Not only that, but some systems need a specific kind of floss bag, For example, the turtle system has to have a floss bag with a long string, because the bag has to be tied around a pipe to secure it.
But back to the feeding. Much like on Wednesday, not many of the animals wanted to eat. The bullfrogs, however, were very eager to eat. So eager, in fact, that they either knocked the food off of their feeding stick, or jumped on the grass stalks in their tank and tried to eat them. They’re no the brightest bulbs in the box.
After feeding, I washed all the food containers, and changed the floss bags like I usually do. All in all, it was a pretty normal day, but it was really nice to be able to do my daily duties without supervision, and to be trusted enough to feed the animals, and change the floss bags by myself, both of which are pretty important jobs. I hope that I keep being given freedom, and keep being trusted to do things on my own. I can’t believe that I only have two weeks left in my internship, and I hope I keep learning!
The one day I get to feed animals, and of course, none of them want to eat. Today I got to feed almost every animal, except for the large snakes, the alligators, and the gar. It’s kind of sad how excited I was to do the feeding, but it seriously was so much fun….until nothing wanted to eat. The water snakes did a good job of eating, except for the few who were about to shed (Snakes don’t eat while shedding, because it’s harder for them to digest food during this time). The larger groups of fish, like the logperch and darters, ate really well, and so did some of the larger solitary fish, like the bass and bowfin. The albino turtle, which is one of my personal favorites, didn’t want to eat at all. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but since the turtle is albino, she is basically blind, so it’s easier to hover the food over her head so that she can see the shadow. However, this turtle has been pretty angsty the last couple of days, and the biologists think that she is so agitated because she has unfertilized eggs. Whatever the reason, the turtle wasn’t having it, and refused to eat anything. The bullfrogs ate a little better, but not much. Of the four of them, one rarely eats, and usually has to be force fed. The other three love to eat, even though it takes them a while, because they can’t aim very well when they jump for the food, which is suspended in front of them on a stick, and they usually miss it. This time however, only two of the bullfrogs ate, and the third didn’t even attempt to go for the food. The animal that is the strangest about eating is the large mouth bass, which hasn’t eaten since it has been on exhibit, which has been a couple of months. The biologists have started becoming more hopeful that it will eat, because it has been more active, but it still didn’t go for the food.
The bullfrogs, bass, and turtle were all given shrimp soaked in Zoe, which is the phytoplankton/vitamin mixture I mentioned in my last post, just to give variety in their diet. The snakes and some of the smaller fish were given Zoe soaked smelt, which is a small fish about the size of a minnow. The large school fish were given bloodworms, which are vitamin packed, to help with growth and health.
Feeding has been my favorite thing so far, because it’s the closest I’ve gotten to work with the animals. I hope I get the opportunity to do it more often, so that I can learn more about how these animals eat, and why they eat what they do.
For the past two days, my work has revolved around food and turtles. Yesterday, I got to stay for the archer fish, electric eel, and piranha feed shows; although I didn’t get to help feed, I got to observe how these animals ate, which was a lot of fun, because they eat in such different ways. For example, to feed the piranhas, they dangle pieces of fish from a rod, and the piranhas swarm the food and take small bites until it’s gone. The archer fish eat by shooting bursts of water at their prey to knock it into the water. Normally, they shoot small insects of off mangrove roots, but at the aquarium, they stick pieces of fish on the window, and the archer fish will knock the food into the water, and eat it. Also, in the wild, archer fish will take turns shooting and eating. One group will shoot the food into the water, and the other group will eat. They rotate until every fish has had an opportunity to eat, and they mimicked this behavior at the aquarium. They were constantly switching positions so that every fish had an opportunity to eat. My favorite, though, was the electric eel. The electric eel is basically blind, and emits small electric pulses to navigate through the tank, similar to a bat and echolocation. The aquarium set up a sensor to the tank that allows the electric pulses to be heard as a buzzing, zapping noise, and the stronger the electric pulse, the louder the noise. Since the eel is basically blind, the feeder could put the food right in front of the eel, and the eel won’t notice anything at all. However, if you put the food against the eel’s side, it will go berserk. The eel wants to make sure that what it’s about to eat is really dead, so it will discharge approximately 500 V of electricity to make sure that the food is dead, and safe to eat. Obviously, the food we give them is already dead, but it’s pretty spectacular to see (and hear) the electric eel discharge the electricity, and eat its prey. Although you can’t see the electricity from the eel, the eel will convulse a little bit due to the electricity.
Today, I had to prepare greens, which is the food for the iguanas, and consists of collard greens, mustard leaves, turnip greens, and green beans. I know, not very exciting, but I also got to observe some of the food prep for the larger fish. The larger fish eat a mixture of shrimp, krill, mackerel, and smelt, which is a small freshwater fish. I asked my supervisors how they know how much to give each animal, and they base it off of research and experimentation, which is what I thought. They research how much food the animal typically eats, and then adjust it based on how much the animal ate, increasing the amount if the animal was still hungry, and if it did not eat all of the food given to it, they would decrease the amount. I also learned that all the food is mixed with a small amount of Zoe, which is a solution of phytoplankton, and it serves as vitamins for the animals.
Yesterday, as I was cleaning the albino turtle tank, I noticed clumps of red on the rocks, and I thought it looked like blood. When my supervisor came by to feed the turtle, I asked them if it was, in fact, blood. It was, and it turns out that the turtle had torn a couple of its claws on the rocks, and the wound wasn’t able to heal because it kept climbing all over the rocks. My boss took the turtle out of the cage, wiped the blood off, and put it in a plastic bucket behind the scenes, where it wouldn’t be in danger of ripping its claws again. Within a day, it was back to normal, and they were able to put it on exhibit again. Today, another turtle, from the turtle pond, got bit on the tail, and had to be taken off exhibit. This turtle is going to be off of exhibit for a while, because there’s quite a bit of skin missing, and the wound smells pretty nasty. My boss, who was the one who found it, has been treating it with a topical medicine called Betadine, which will help with infection. I think it’s really cool that the workers are able to treat minor wounds, because that is the kind of work I want to do, and its nice to know that I can work with and treat animals without necessarily going to vet school first.
Today I finished up a project that my supervisors have had me working on for the past couple of days, which was building a mesh cage. The mesh cage is for one of tanks in the shark quarantine building. It’s going to be used to keep smaller fish in the same tank as some larger fish, but keep them separate. The cage also has some blue plastic encircling the top, so that the food pellets for the smaller fish won’t float through the mesh, and get into the larger tank. Building this cage was…very irritating, and pretty painful. First, I had to zip tie mesh to two circular pieces of PVC pipe, and cut off the excess. Then I had to zip tie mesh around one of the circular pieces of PVC, creating the body of the cylinder. As I was securing the mesh around the PVC circle, I also had to secure the blue plastic to the wall of the cylinder. That part took FOREVER. The plastic had to be secured right by the PVC, and had to be tied tight to the mesh so that the food pellets won’t leak out. I had to cut and re-secure most of the zip ties at least twice if not more. Then, when it came time to finish the body of the cylinder, I was trying to tie the two edges of the mesh together, and was getting cut and scratched by the edges of the mesh. When I was FINALLY able to tie the ends together, I then had to place the other circle of PVC on top of the cage, and secure it. Although we haven’t used the cage yet, I think I did a really good job of building it, and I think that the cage will work great.
After I finish my undergraduate degree, I want to go to vet school, and become a marine veterinarian and work in rehabilitation. Yesterday, when I was in the quarantine building working on the cage, I asked my supervisors if they have a veterinarian on staff, or if they took care of illnesses themselves. The aquarium doesn’t have their own vet on staff, but they share one with the zoo, and she comes in every day to check on the animals in the quarantine building, and make sure that they are doing fine. However, the other staff members at the aquarium are able to administer medicine and treat illnesses on their own, and usually only need a veterinarian in major emergencies. I though this was very interesting, because it let me know that if I work at an aquarium, I could potentially do most of what a veterinarian would do. This is something I want to keep researching, so that I can decide if I still want to pursue a career as a marine veterinarian, and what kind of opportunities are available for marine veterinarians.
The electric eel is an amazing fish that cannot only detect electric fields, like other fish, but it can also generate electric charges. The electric eel will discharge electricity whenever it feels threatened or angry, or to stun prey, and can generate up to 600V of electricity. Also, the electric eel is not actually an eel, but is actually a knifefish, and is more closely related to catfish than to other eels.
Electric eels live in the Amazon and Orinoco river basins in South America, and prefer to live in the muddy bottoms of rivers and swamps, where it hunts for prey. However, the electric eel must rise to the surface every 10 to 15 minutes to breathe air, because its habitats are often deficient in oxygen. Electric eels prey on anything from fish, shrimps, and crabs, to small mammals. The electric eel stuns its prey by generating electricity. It creates electricity in its electric organ, and can generate two types of voltages: high and low. Electrocytes are electrically charged cells located in the electric organ, and are stacked so that ions can flow through, and because they are stacked, the electric potential difference increases. The electric eel often uses its “low” voltage to hunt and stun prey, and its “high” voltage as a self-defense mechanism.
The electric eel is not endangered at the moment, but may be in the near future due to habitat destruction. Its habitat is most likely being destroyed along with other parts of the Amazon rainforest and Amazon River. Processes such as deforestation and acid rain could be causing dirt to run off into the basins where electric eels live, or could be adding toxic chemicals that are harmful for electric eels.
Their ability to generate electricity is a fascinating aspect of the electric eels anatomy, and is the reason why I find them so fascinating. This adaptation is extremely beneficial, and is unique among the animal kingdom. Also, research on the electric eel’s electric organ and electrocytes could lead to technological advances in generators, or as batteries for small chips or implants.
The alligator snapping turtle, also known as Macrochelys temminckii, is one of my favorite animals at the Oklahoma Aquarium. The alligator snapping turtle is a fascinating animal, and has developed adaptations to help it attract prey. Although these turtles can cause serious harm to humans, they are generally very peaceful, and are beginning to face many threats from humans.
The alligator snapping turtle lives all across the southeastern United States, from Texas to Florida. These turtles make their homes in rivers and lakes, and are essentially aquatic, but do need to surface occasionally to breathe. However, snapping turtles can go underwater for as long as three hours without taking a breath! Since they are essentially aquatic, algae can grow on their shells, and females only come on land to lay eggs. Interestingly, the temperature of incubation of the eggs determines the gender of the offspring. If the offspring are kept at warmer temperatures, then they will be female, and eggs kept at cooler temperatures will be male. Young snapping turtles are prey to many kinds of animals, such as birds and snakes, but adults have no natural predators.
Alligator snapping turtles are similar in appearance to other turtles, but are much larger. In fact, alligator snapping turtles are the largest freshwater turtle in terms of weight. According to the Oklahoma Aquarium, alligator snapping turtles gain about one pound every year, making it very easy to estimate a snapping turtle’s age from its weight. Alligator snapping turtles have a large head, and a wide shell lined with ridges. One interesting part of the snapping turtles anatomy is the worm-like appendage on its tongue. The snapping turtle camouflages itself in rocks, and uses this appendage to lure fish in. Once the fish is close enough, the turtle will lunge forward and bite down with extreme force. Alligator snapping turtles can bite down with so much force, that they can bite off entire fingers and toes, and do extreme damage to other limbs. Alligator snapping turtles have a very large, mainly carnivorous diet, and will eat anything from worms, fish, and other turtles to snakes and birds. Also, if these turtles cannot find live prey, they will scavenge for dead fish.
Although not officially an endangered species, the alligator snapping turtle is facing some threats to its population. The main reasons for its decrease in population are due to destruction of their habitats, and overhunting. Some fishermen target this animal for its meat, and others simply to eliminate competition for game fish. Even though the alligator snapping turtle is not close to being an endangered species at the moment, if people continue to overhunt and destroy their habitats, these animals could very quickly become endangered.