There be dragons … and lions

Way back on Halloween, when my parents were visiting from southern Wisconsin, we stopped by my volunteer stomping grounds to check out the newer stuff: Faces of Africa in Tropics and the newly visible baby dolphin (she got her name this week, by the way: Taijah, pronounced Tay-sha). But the star attraction of this particular visit — along with all the small trick-or-treaters in animal costumes — had to be the weedy and leafy sea dragons in Discovery Bay.

Here we see one little weedy between two leafies — note his slimmer snout and less spectacular camouflage. Both varieties of dragon live in Australian waters and feed on tiny mysid shrimp, which they slurp through their strawlike mouths. Cousins of the seahorse, these dragons have fins but no skeletons; they control their buoyancy via a large swim bladder and change direction by nodding their heads. In the past year or so, they moved into the newest, bluest tank in D-Bay¬† — a roomier, more visually striking showcase than the smaller tank where a few weedies used to live. That tank is now home to this fearsome creature:

These impressively toxic spines make lionfish one of the most venomous fish in the ocean. Our old weedy-dragon tank contains two types: a spotfin (this guy, I’m pretty sure) and a dwarf fuzzy. The spines are used for defense, not offense, and the fish comes at you upside-down. Such an attack will rarely kill you, but its effects include nausea, extreme pain and even convulsions. Like sea dragons, lionfish come from Indo-Pacific waters. But they’ve made their way into the Atlantic and Caribbean, where a lack of predators has transformed them into an invasive species. Release by a fed-up home aquarist, or from Florida aquariums shattered by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, explains their presence. I’m just happy to be on the opposite side of the glass. Underwater, lions are far more terrifying than dragons.

The Detroit boys

Tigers are solitary by nature, but for long or short periods of their lives — estrus, youth — they may share a space contentedly with mates or siblings. A little more than six years ago, I was still a zoo-volunteer newbie when sisters Nika and Lana — then chubby kittens –went enchantingly on view in the Northern Trail’s Tiger Lair. (The Tiger Base Camp, our other striped-cat exhibit over by Russia’s Grizzly Coast, tends to be a one-tiger acreage.) The sisters have since gone elsewhere for breeding purposes, as part of the Species Survival Program in which the zoo participates. Now a pair of brothers, known fondly as the Detroit boys (after the zoo whence they came to us), are holding down the lair. Here they lounge, in poses both serious and silly.

At 10 years old, Molniy (Russian for lightning) and Vaska are technically no longer boys, although Amur (Siberian) tigers often live into their late teens in captivity. Nor are they new to the zoo, having arrived more than a year ahead of me in 2002. According to the zoo, Vaska is “more outgoing” than his brother and has a “C-shaped stripe” under one eye. As far as I can tell from these photos, that makes him the yawner on the left, while Molniy is the slurper on the right. Napping or pacing, yawning or slurping, they never fail to fascinate.