Sea Turtle at The Living Planet Aquarium

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The Living Planet Aquarium inspires people to explore, discover and learn about Earth’s diverse ecosystems. We are dedicated to cultivating public interest in the environment, conservation, and the enhancement of our planet and its creatures through adoption, education, research and recreation.

Join us while on our blog where we explore the Earth’s many inhabitants- some of which reside at The Living Planet Aquarium and some that don’t- but all of which are important to our ecosystem.

The Living Planet Aquarium is a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, dedicated to inspiring people to explore, discover and learn about Earth’s diverse ecosystems.

Breeding Boreal Toads

 

 

Like the canary in the coal mine, there are certain species that can tell you a lot about the health of an area. These species are called “keystone species,” and scientists look at them to determine how an ecosystem is faring. The Boreal Toad, a keystone species native to Utah's higher elevations, is not doing so well. As recently as 10 years ago, they were plentiful. Recently, populations have begun to decline, and experts are not sure why. Possible reasons include habitat degradation; poor water quality; climate change, forcing them to higher and higher elevations until they have nowhere to go; or chytrid, a certain type of fungus which some scientists suspect is responsible for amphibian declines on several continents.

 

Boreal toads in their enclosure at The Living Planet

 

Whatever the reasons for their disappearance, organizations such as The Living Planet Aquarium are stepping up to help. Under the direction of the Colorado Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR), efforts are underway to breed Boreal toads and repopulate the species. As part of these efforts, boreal toads were carefully collected from the wild and distributed to zoos, aquariums, and DWR facilities. Karl Lye, a herpetologist and member of the husbandry staff at The Living Planet, headed up the care of the aquarium's toads and was assisted by other members of the husbandry team. Over the last five years, they have raised their toads from a semi-tadpole stage into adults.

 

A few of the Boreal toads being raised at the aquarium

 

At this point, the process becomes a little trickier. Boreal toads will not breed unless they go through a process called brumation. Brumation is a hibernation-like state and is how the toads would survive the cold of winter in the wild. In order to simulate winter conditions and induce brumation, Karl converted a small fridge into a brumation chamber for the toads. Using a thermostat and remote sensing equipment, the chamber was designed so that the weather inside could remain stable at a balmy 34-42 degrees Fahrenheit with as little intrusion as possible. Extensive records are kept of the temperature and humidity, as monitored from the remote sensor. Every two weeks, staff check on the toads and rinse their substrate to keep them clean and healthy.

 

Brumation chamber,

created using a small fridge

Brumation chamber open,

revealing boreal toad enclosure

 

During brumation, the toads do not eat and are mostly inactive, conserving their energy. This process can be hard on them, and in the wild, some do not survive. Because of this, only the healthiest of the aquarium's toads were chosen for the brumation chamber: two males and two females. The toads went into the chamber in February and just recently came back out. They spent a couple of days adjusting to the new warmer temperatures before being introduced into their breeding tank. With any luck, the aquarium will soon be proud caretakers of brand new baby toads (eggs at first and then tadpoles)! Any offspring will be given to the Colorado DWR, who will reintroduce them into the wild, being careful to chose locations where they are naturally occurring and likely to thrive.

 

Boreal toads in a state of brumation

 

How you can help:

All of us play an important role in keeping Utah's ecosystems healthy. Here are a few ways that you can help the toads and other critters that inhabit our local landscape.

 
  • Be careful what you put down the drain or into the gutters; it can all end up downstream in a Boreal toad's habitat.
  • If you see a Boreal toad (or any wildlife, for that matter) please leave it be; take pictures, but leave the critter and its habitat as you found it.
  • In some places, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has put up signs asking people to report any Boreal toads they see. Reporting sightings can help further Boreal toad research and efforts to understand more about what is happening to them and help stop their disappearance.

 

Volunteering with The Living Planet Aquairum

Aquarium volunteers removed invasive

weeds and planted native vegetation.

 

Volunteers of all ages helped out on Earth Day.

 

The Living Planet Aquarium offers a variety of volunteer opportunities for all ages, including behind-the-scenes support, assisting with special events, and interacting with visitors. Volunteers also work in the great outdoors helping to conserve Utah's natural areas. Each Earth Day (April 22nd), the aquarium offers opportunities for individuals and groups to get involved in caring for our beautiful planet. This year, the aquarium organized cleanup and restoration events at four different locations: Hidden Hollow, Wasatch Hollow, Jordan River Migratory Bird Reserve, and the aquarium itself.

 

Volunteers removed trash from the waterways to

prevent it from doing damage to wildlife downstream.

 

 

At the Jordan River Migratory Bird Reserve, volunteers weeded out invasive thistle and planted native willows. Willows help purify the water, prevent erosion, and provide habitat for Neotropical migratory songbirds. These birds, such as Western Tanagers and Lazuli Buntings, live in Mexico, Central America, and South America during the winter and breed in the United States and Canada during the summer. The reserve, located between 9800 and 111000 South, is one of the last remaining habitats along the Jordan River for these birds. Great Salt Lake Audubon has been working to restore the 120 acres of riparian habitat that make up the reserve. They helped coordinate the efforts of the aquarium volunteers.

 

Volunteers at Hidden Hollow and Wasatch Hollow cleaned up debris from the land and streams and removed invasive weeds. These non-native plants tend to grow out of control, choking out native species and displacing the animals that depend on native vegetation. At the aquarium, volunteers removed trash from the parking lot and the canal that runs alongside the property. This not only got rid of the unsightly refuse, but prevented these items from causing damage to wildlife further down the waterway. Over the course of three days, 168 aquarium volunteers devoted over 500 hours of service. They planted 230 trees and removed 761 pounds of trash, including a paint can, shoes, and a picnic table!

 

Volunteers cleaned up the parking area at the aquarium.

 

Volunteers collected over 700 pounds of trash!

 

The aquarium welcomes new volunteers year-round. If you are interested in animals, the environment, working with people, getting outside, or making a difference, check out the opportunities on our website.

The Rainforest Van

Mickey waves to his audience.

 

With the multitudes of critters you can see at The Living Planet Aquarium, it's hard to believe that there are even more animals being cared for behind the scenes. Those who participate in the aquarium's Penguin Encounter program are brought into a quiet back area and introduced to a group of birds with a special mission. Dusty the African Gray Parrot, Mickey the Eclectus Parrot, and Mingo the Blue and Gold Macaw are trained specifically to take part in the aquarium's Rainforest Van program. 

 

 

 
 

Mingo shows off his wingspan.

Education staff and a selection of birds travel in the Rainforest Van three times per week to second and third grade classes in the Wasatch area. Using rainforests as the theme, the programs cover elements of the required curriculum for each grade. For second graders, the subjects of the lesson are weather and food chains, while third graders learn about the layers of the rainforest and the difference between living and nonliving things.

 

For both, the program begins with a map lesson to show the students where rainforests are located. Hands-on, interactive activities engage them in learning about the main concepts. At the end, the birds make their appearance, to the delight of the students. The birds are trained to display natural behaviors, such as extending their wings, hanging upside down, and cracking open nuts. Dusty is particularly good at demonstrating a bird's ability to mimic. The students especially love it when he makes sounds like a UFO.

 

Last year, the Rainforest Van introduced 9,745 students from 106 different schools to the wonder of the rainforest and some of its most charismatic inhabitants. And the birds? They enjoy the program almost as much as the students, being lavished with attention and having a chance to show off their abilities to an adoring audience.

 

Dusty hangs upside down.

 

 

The Rainforest Van program is free to schools. Funding and support is generously provided by Salt Lake County's Zoos, Arts, and Parks, the Utah State Office of Education, and Informal Science Education Enhancement.

 

 

Behind the scenes with Husbandry: Bucket Training for the Octopus

Behind the scenes at the Living Planet Aquarium, the husbandry staff have been hard at work “bucket training” the Giant Pacific Octopus. Bucket training is the process by which they teach the octopus to enter a special bucket for transport between her holding tank, where she lives while she's not on display, and her exhibit tank. The purpose of this training is to make the transition less stressful. Once the training is complete, the octopus will choose to enter the bucket and is accustomed to being inside of it while it is moved. This makes transport a lot smoother and does not produce responses such as inking, which indicate the octopus is stressed.

 

 

Bucket training is done slowly in stages, allowing the animal to become comfortable with each step before progressing to the next. Each step can take days, weeks, or longer.

Read more: Behind the scenes with Husbandry: Bucket Training for the Octopus

Diving with Sharks

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Husbandry staff at The Living Planet Aquarium dive in with the sharks once each month. The purpose of the dive is to give the tank a thorough cleaning. The diver scrubs the sides and uses a special gravel vacuum, which is basically a larger version of the plastic tube you would use to clean out your fish tank at home. Because of the tank's resident damsel fish, who like to build burrows, the gravel must be redistributed evenly along the bottom. This causes some upset feelings on the part of the fish, but they quickly get over it and build new burrows.

 

The 75-degree water feels colder than it sounds. Because of this, the diver will wear a wetsuit. Divers sometimes use SCUBA gear, but more often use a hookah system because it is less cumbersome. A hookah is a surface air supply system, which consists of an air compressor that sits outside of the tank and a long air hose with a regulator (mouth piece) on the end that the diver takes down into the water. There are always two people involved in the process: one diver and one spotter. The spotter keeps an eye on the air supply, hands tools to the diver, and ensures the diver's safety. All staff who dive must first have an open water diver certification. They must also learn the proper protocol for tank dives, go through a skills training program, and learn how to maintain the equipment, a duty of every diver.

 

 

But wait, there are sharks in that water! Although many fear sharks, that fear seems to come mainly from fiction rather than fact. In reality, there are fewer humans attacked by sharks than people struck by lightning. Many of these incidents would have been avoidable given a little education. Sharks, like any other animal, can become scared and aggressive if they sense they are in danger. To prevent this, the divers are very careful to avoid bumping into the sharks. They keep track of where all of the sharks are and avoid swimming, as the movement of their arms and legs could easily result in accidental contact with a shark. Instead, they walk along the bottom, held down by weights on their belt and ankles. No diver at the aquarium has ever been bit by the sharks. In fact, the sharks don't seem to care much when the divers are in the tank. If a shark gets in the way of a diver's cleaning efforts, the diver gently pokes its tail, and it swims away. It's the turtle they have to watch out for. The sea turtle who lives with the sharks is very curious and has been known to nibble on the air hose, which the spotter must watch out for.

 

The divers can see out of the viewing window into the aquarium, although being underwater, they cannot hear anything. If you happen to be at the aquarium when a diver is in the tank, go ahead and wave. The divers enjoy this unique opportunity to communicate with visitors from behind the glass.

 

Shark Tank sponsor

 

The Green Sea turtle is proudly sponsored by Tracy and Haydn McBride in memory of Kendall J. McBride.

The "Otterly" Adorable Otters

 

The newest addition to The Living Planet Aquarium is the North American River Otter exhibit. These playful and curious creatures are so captivating that you may not pay much attention to their carefully-designed habitat. Two months and much thought and creativity went into building the perfect home for the otters.

 

Aquarium staff used many resources of information to help them with this huge task. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums sets standards for animal welfare and management, including very specific and detailed information about how exhibits should be designed for different animal species. Utilizing these guidelines along with examples from other aquariums and organizations that have river otters, the staff designed a safe, appealing, and engaging habitat.

 

To make sure the otters felt at home, the exhibit was designed with natural otter habitat and behavior, as well as their safety, in mind. The exhibit has about a three-to-one ratio of land to water, a good mixture for otters.  Since otters love to swim, a variety of water areas were provided, including a stream, two pools of different sizes, and a log slide. To prevent standing water, which can harbor bacteria, all water areas are filtered and the entire exhibit slopes downward toward a floor drain. Rocks, made of Styrofoam and concrete, provide places for the otters to climb. Real logs, leaves, bark, and river rocks are plentiful in the exhibit, natural touches that help make this truly a home for the otters.

 

A major consideration when designing the exhibit was how to make it guest-friendly. The largest pool and the stream were placed next to the viewing windows in the hopes that the otters would show off their water play to visitors. A pop-up window provides visitors with an up-close-and-personal experience, and the otters don't seem to mind. In fact, they've claimed that area as a favorite place to snooze.

 

The otters are settling in to their new home very well.  They've explored every area, climbing all over the rocks and swimming in every pool. They love to sleep in the piles of bark and leaves. The only thing they have not yet mastered is the log slide. The otters will walk up and down the log, but haven't quite figured out what it's designed for. The staff is hopeful that one day they will. In the meantime, the otters have found many other ways to entertain themselves and visitors in their new home at the aquarium.

 

 

Photo courtesy of Long Island Aquarium & Exhibit Center, Riverhead, NY



The river otter exhibit is made possible by