Holiday fishes — and jellies

Christmas fish ornamentEvery Christmas season, Minnesota zoo volunteers design, craft and sell an animal ornament as a fundraiser, available for purchase at the zoo’s Minnesota Lodge desk and the penguin booth. Hanging on my tree right now are a flat wooden penguin, crocodile, snowy owl, ring-tailed lemur and seahorse from previous seasons. This year’s addition: a rounded white and yellow fish, casually described by some as a puffer. I haven’t tracked down anyone from the committee that makes these ornaments happen, but to me, the yellow squareness makes it look more like more like a boxfish such as the longhorned cowfish, my latest favorite in Discovery Bay. **

puffer fish

cowfish side view

Animal World points out that puffers (that’s our Tropical Reef puffer directly to the left) and boxfish are closely related, so I’m probably splitting hairs here. The website says the cowfish, Lactoria cornutus (that’s our D-Bay cowfish at lower left), has been getting quite popular: They’ll eat just about anything, and they look rather hilarious. With squared-off edges, a pouty mouth and pointy horns, they swim with a motion that alternates scooting with hovering, unlike the shimmying glide of most fish. The caudal (tail) fin is a collapsible fan — compressed into a stick until they want to execute a turn.

cowfish with jellycowfish tail fanThis website has more to say about cowfish locomotion, their comical looks and their (lack of) suitability for home aquariums, despite their increasing popularity. They’re not a good species to mingle with lots of faster-moving fish, partly because they release toxins when stressed, and their flesh is poisonous. In D-Bay, their primary tankmates don’t move much at all. You can see one such cohabitant clinging to the wall above — an upside-down jellyfish (or as purists call them, jellies, since they’re technically not fish).

upside-down jellyfish close-upIn the wild, and often in their D-Bay tank, these jellies (rarely more than 2 inches in diameter) rest with their bell (or head) on the sandy bottom, legs pointing upward to catch plankton and absorb light, which feeds the algae inside them. As aquarist Becky noted ruefully at a recent volunteer update, the jellies were supposed to be this small aquarium’s chief draw, until the cowfish took center stage. Still, once we remember to look for them, these translucent jellies should remind us that motionless, faceless life forms hold their own intrigue.

**Update!! As of today (Jan. 3), this D-Bay tank has neither cowfish nor jellies, since the former began eating the latter. Fortunately, we have more jellies waiting to be deployed into the tank, and after a quarantine period the cowfish will relocate into the Tropical Reef tank.

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Owl surprise

When I ducked into the Minnesota Trail’s black-bear viewing lodge Thursday morning, I expected to see only humans and bears, assuming the latter weren’t still asleep in their holding area. I did not expect to see a tiny owl, perched right there on the fingers of a Close Encounters team member, over by the lodge fireplace.

screech owl encounter

I knew the Close Encounters program (financed through Minnesota’s Legacy Amendment) was up and running and that zoo staffers would be hands-on with non-exhibit animals along the trails at designated times. But this tiny owl caught me off-guard, and I wanted to know his story. Ask a friendly zoo staffer, and you shall be told: He’s an Eastern screech owl named Rio, adopted first by a Texas facility after he fell far from his nest. He’s full-grown now and weighs only 7 or 8 ounces. Because he probably remembers his owl parents, his new blonde stand-in parent describes him as a “partial imprint” — he “knows he’s an owl” but still puts on an apparent mating display for her, tinged with aggression. You’d never know it to see him here, though; Rio maintained the same aura of motionless poise for the five or 10 minutes I spent admiring him.

Eastern screen owl close-upWe have Eastern screech owls in Minnesota, too, though they’re masters of daytime disguise — even when they’re not blending in against bear-lodge fireplace stone.  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology website cracks me up by describing the species as a “cosmopolitan owl,” meaning that these little guys thrive in suburban areas, which offer tree cover and minimal predators. They’re not endangered or rare, and despite their name, their range also covers the Plains states. Their call, which I’ve never heard in the wild, is described as a descending whinny or trill. At the zoo, Rio eats frozen mice and, for enrichment or extra fun, crickets and mealworms. When he’s had enough exposure to people, which happened sometime after I took my second photo of him, he hops off the hand and into his carrying crate, positioned next to the lodge fireplace for maximum warmth on a winter’s day. I hope he makes a return appearance sometime.

Diving for fish facts

My occasional new hourlong zoo gig is “dive show microphone” — announcing that an aquarist is about to start the daily 10:30 dive show at the Tropical Reef. I also tell people where it’s OK to stand or sit — on “the beach,” which is the tan floor up front by the glass. The blue floor-stripe winding behind the bench is “the river,” which needs to be kept clear for “stroller-boat” traffic. (Thanks to “tamarin whisperer” Michele, identified in my previous post, for helping me develop this second metaphor.) After the aquarist — usually Diver Dan, in my experience so far — finishes his underwater talk, I walk the microphone over to kids who’ve raised their hands so they can ask him questions.

Surrounded by fish, Dan (or the diver du jour) dispenses chunks of gel diet, which is ground-up seaweed, fish and vitamins, baked in zoo ovens and cubed. Through his own underwater microphone, he also shares facts about the aquatic diners. This tank contains six kinds of sharks; zebra, epaulette and brown-banded bamboo are the ones I recall off the top of my head. There are about 350 fish in the 80,000-gallon tank, spanning 80 species — all of them native to the Indo-Pacific ocean waters that hug the equator.

I’ve done the dive-show microphone gig three times in the past two months, and it looks like Diver Dan might be the world’s most patient human. When small children get the mike, they often ask him to repeat his original talking points, but he always finds a slightly different way to address the same point, and his voice never shows the least hint of exasperation — even that time he was still raspy-voiced from a cold. Sometimes the kids are school-aged and full of good questions; other times, they’re just adorable pre-schoolers who fall silent when presented with the microphone. Like everything else at the zoo, the dive show is an ever-fresh experience.