Birch Aquarium at Scripps, UC San Diego, La Jolla, CA
This month’s feature article comes from the Birch Aquarium at Scripps! It’s an amazing article accompanied by stunning photography courtesy of the Birch Aquarium at Scripps along with a few talented visiting photographers. I deeply appreciate all the work that went into this piece. For that, I thank Jessica Crawford and her team at the aquarium for taking the time to create such a spectacular piece! It was a pleasure working with you and look forward to working again soon!
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Q: Birch Aquarium at Scripps is extremely dedicated to the research and breeding of seahorse species. Could you tell us a little about the history that Birch has with seahorses?
A: Seahorses have always been popular at Birch Aquarium at Scripps. We’ve had a display of Pacific seahorses (Hippocampus ingens) onsite since 1992. Not a lot of visitors realize this seahorse can be found in San Diego waters—the northernmost range for this species— although they are rarely spotted. We initially acquired the seahorses as donations and quickly realized how much our visitors loved them. We also realized how little husbandry knowledge existed about these animals.
In 1994, Birch Aquarium at Scripps initiated a propagation program for the Pacific seahorse in order to learn more about the animals and reduce the need to collect from the wild. The first birth of babies took place in November of that year. We quickly realized that more space was needed for the animals to thrive. In May 1995, a gift from Dorothy Monro enabled us to build a special facility dedicated to seahorse propagation.
Our goal was to raise a sufficient number of Pacific seahorses to maintain our seahorse display, but we’ve far surpassed this vision. Through this facility, we’ve helped improve husbandry techniques for this species worldwide.
A major discovery was the benefit of raising baby seahorses in kreisel tanks, originally designed for jellies. These round tanks keep baby seahorses from getting trapped on the water’s surface. Also, there is less water surface area in the kreisel tanks. By using an airline bubbler, water can be circulated evenly, which also keeps the seahorses and their food evenly distributed. We saw significantly higher survival rates of our baby seahorses raised in the kreisel tanks.
Our propagation efforts grew more successful, and over the years we expanded the program to include an additional 12 species of seahorses. Right now, we are raising eight species of seahorses on site.
Since the program began, we’ve provided more than 2,700 seahorses to 70 aquariums, zoos, and private research facilities worldwide. With seahorses now considered threatened and endangered, it has become critical for their conservation to raise these animals in captivity.
The program’s success also allowed us to develop and produce “Secrets of the Seahorse,” an exhibit dedicated to educating our visitors about seahorses and their relatives. Opened in 2001, this exhibit featured 10 seahorse species born and raised at the aquarium. The use of interpretive exhibits, hands on activities, and live exhibits showed the diversity of seahorses and their relatives, their unique adaptations and lifestyle, along with the current threats to their survival. We closed this very popular exhibit in 2005 to open another exhibit in this changing exhibition space.
It was clear by 2008 that we should open another seahorse exhibit, due to popular demand. “There’s Something About Seahorses,” which opened in November 2009, features seven seahorse species, as well as seadragons, pipefish, shrimpfish, and seamoths. Because Birch Aquarium is the public outreach center for Scripps Institution of Oceanography, this exhibit also showcases our scientists and their work with genetics and the syngnathid family tree. Their findings have already shown the ribbon seadragon is more closely related to pipehorses and is not closely related to weedy and leafy seadragons. Our collaborative work with these scientists will help in our efforts to breed seadragons beginning this summer.
Q: What inspired Birch Aquarium at Scripps to create the exhibit There’s Something About Seahorses?
A: Four factors inspired development of the exhibit: (1) seahorses are among the most iconic, fascinating, and beloved marine species; (2) Birch Aquarium is a world leader in the captive breeding of seahorses, which contributes to seahorse conservation by reducing collecting from the wild, (3) we were excited to share new discoveries about several seahorse relatives being made by Scripps Oceanography scientists, and (4) we wanted to raise awareness of threats to seahorse populations and the nearshore marine habitats on which they rely.
Birch Aquarium had showcased seahorses in “Secrets of the Seahorse” five years earlier, and guests continually asked us to bring them back. They asked, and we listened!
Q: How long did the design and installation process take for There’s Something About Seahorses?
A: The exhibit was created and designed in-house over a period of 9 months. It was fabricated and installed by an excellent outside contractor, K2 Fabrication.
Q: What was the most challenging aspect of the exhibit to install or create?
A: Since the most attractive thing about this exhibit are the animals themselves, it was a challenge to inform our visitors in some way that would engage them to learn about the amazing adaptations these seahorses have and the current threats to these fishes due to overfishing and habitat destruction. These animals are so captivating that sometimes our visitors don’t pay attention to the take-home message we want to present to them.
Designing interpretive graphics that were attractive to our visitors was a challenge. Some of the interpretive graphics work well and others aren’t as successful.
Q: When designing the exhibit, what was a must-have feature?
– To feature many species of live seahorses in order to show how intriguing they are
– To teach that a seahorse is a fish but does not look like a typical fish and show how adapted this fish is to its habitat
– The fact that the male seahorse broods the babies in a pouch and then gives birth to the babies
– Live seahorse relatives, such as the leafy and weedy seadragon, which are just as fascinating as the seahorses themselves
– A seahorse nursery to inform our visitors about the successful seahorse propagation program here at the aquarium
Q: How many different species of seahorse are in the exhibit? Do all the different species eat the same thing or different? What is it that they eat?
A: There are six species of seahorses in this exhibit. As adults, they all eat the same thing: frozen or live mysis shrimp. Juvenile seahorses eat live larval brine shrimp and, as they get larger, frozen amphipods—at least until they can eat smaller pieces of frozen mysis shrimp
Q: Since seahorses spend much of their time resting with their tails wrapped around an object, what types of plant life or structures needed to be included in the exhibit to accommodate their lifestyle?
A: We use different types of algae, sponges, corals, seafans, mangrove roots, seagrass, and rocky substrate.
Q: What is most unique thing about the There’s Something About Seahorses exhibit?
A: The exhibit is unique in presenting the opportunity for visitors to see such a variety seahorses, from the tiny Cape seahorse to the giant Pacific seahorse, as well as babies born to specimens on display. Another unique element of all Birch Aquarium exhibits is that they make cutting-edge scientific research accessible to the public.
Q: I know education is extremely important to you in the exhibits. What information was absolutely crucial to get across in this exhibit?
A: We definitely want people to leave the exhibit understanding what they can do to help keep seahorse populations and the coastal habitats on which they rely healthy. For example, through an interactive game, visitors learn about 15 ways they can help seahorses, including reducing the chemical load in runoff from their yard, picking up trash, scooping up their pet’s poop, and not buying souvenirs or decorative items made from dead seahorses, corals, or shells.
Q: What are visitors most surprised to learn at this exhibit?
A: People are blown away when they learn that seahorse males give birth. Watching a video of a male seahorse undergoing contractions and giving birth to hundreds of babies from his pouch is a highlight of the exhibit!
Q: How has Birch Aquarium helped in the efforts of conservation of seahorses and their habitats?
A: Our exhibit explains and educates visitors about seahorses and the habitats in which they thrive. These are mainly coastal habitats that can easily be impacted by human activities including run off, pollution, overfishing, and coastal development. We hope our visitors change their behavior to help save these habitats.
In addition, Birch Aquarium at Scripps’s successful Seahorse Propagation Program has enabled us to provide more than 2,800 seahorses to more than 70 aquariums, zoos, and private research facilities worldwide, greatly reducing the need to collect from the wild. We also share our knowledge on seahorse husbandry with these institutions to help their specimens thrive.
Q: What is your personal favorite aspect of the exhibit?
A: Watching the quirky behaviors of our seahorses and the graceful movements of our seadragons, as well as hearing the excited exclamations of our visitors as they explore the exhibit and discover each new species.
Q: Birch Aquarium recently received a large grant for an exciting new project! Could you tell us about that project and what inspired it?
A: We recently received a generous grant from the Lowe Family Foundation to fund planning and construction of a seadragon breeding lab. Seadragons are captivating fishes found only in shallow waters off the southern coast of Australia. Although protected by Australian law, they are easy to catch and are in high demand for display in home and public aquariums, which makes them vulnerable to overcollection. They are certainly a highlight of our current exhibit of seahorses and their relatives! Birch Aquarium is a world leader in the captive breeding of seahorses, and we are thrilled to be able to expand this expertise to develop a new seadragon captive-breeding program to help conserve these amazing animals in the wild.
Q: How long will the process of designing and installing of this new project take?
A: The planning process took about 9 months, including field research in conjunction with Scripps scientist Greg Rouse on seadragon behavior and population genetics, learning from other groups engaged in captive breeding of seadragons, designing our own custom lab, and obtaining UC San Diego approvals. Construction began in January 2013 and is scheduled to be completed May 1.
Q: When creating something such as this in an aquarium, how many different types of expertise is required or involved?
A: The seadragon breeding lab project required a wide variety of expertise. The team was comprised of Birch Aquarium’s project scientist, exhibit designer, carpenter, facility maintenance staff, and husbandry experts, plus a UC San Diego construction manager to oversee outside contractors. Remodeling an existing space to accommodate an entirely new function can be tricky, and we are very pleased with how the lab is coming together!