Summer of the seals

Even with the memory of the dolphins still fresh in our minds, everyone at the zoo was at least a little excited when the zoo’s Hawaiian monk seal exhibit opened a few months ago, bringing the old dolphin pool back to life. Sure, the seals could never live up to the dolphins — what could? — but especially for volunteers stationed an hour or two each week in Discovery Bay, any life in that pool was welcome when it finally reopened after months of renovation. My expectations honestly weren’t that high. At least the seals would be interesting to talk about, if not as interesting to watch.

Minnesota Zoo Hawaiian monk seal

But now that their summer honeymoon period is over, I know that the seals are, in fact, both things — factually and visually engaging enough to help me reboot this blog after six months of dormancy. No matter how distracting life gets, I always gravitate back to the zoo. And zoo visitors have gravitated to the seals, with their torpedo-shaped bodies, powerful flippers and heavily whiskered faces. In a typical response, one woman exclaimed last week: “It’s so cute! It looks like a little old man!”

Hawaiian monk seal and zoo visitors

All five monk seals, which came to us via a facility in Texas, are female, 400-500 pounds and about 20 years old. All but one have limited vision, all were originally rescued as starving pups off the coast of Hawaii, and none could survive in the wild today. Unlike dolphins, the seals like to “haul out” of the water and rest, and their redesigned zoo habitat has small stretches of “beach” for that purpose. When they wriggle awkwardly onto “land” to during public feedings, a soft “aww” or fond giggle often rises from the audience.

Hawaiian monk seal feeding

At first, I didn’t think I’d memorize the five names, which are all short, similar, Hawaiian and full of vowels. With limited brain-space, a docent learns to prioritize, and only the most basic or compelling information — usually about the species, not the individual — joins the long-term memory bank. The seals look identical at first glance, anyway, and don’t interact with each other, since the species (unlike harbor seals) is naturally solitary. But it quickly became clear, week after week, that guests wanted to know the names, and also that the seals weren’t identical at all.

Ola the seal twirling

So far there are only two seals in the show pool at once (again, because they’re not very social — which is fine!). On my Thursdays so far, those two usually seem to be Ola, who has good vision and swims laps with a playful, twirling motion (I think that’s her above), and Koa, below, who doesn’t see well and floats vertically next to the glass. Often she seems to be watching the big TV screen for seal-related images and information. This cracks me up. In reality, she may be listening more than watching — seals have very good hearing, although they have no external ear flaps as sea lions do. This makes even our sight-impaired seals very trainable; they listen for their names and other cues. (The other seal duo that rotates in and out of the show pool is Paki and Opua. The fifth seal, Nani, has been happily hanging out by herself in the “west pool” so far.)

Koa the monk seal

There’s so much more to say about Hawaiian monk seals, and in months to come, I plan to say it. For now, it’s enough to note that these whiskery marine mammals aren’t just a post-dolphin placeholder. They’re fascinating in their own right.


Obituary for an octopus

She lived in Discovery Bay for six months beginning in May. I didn’t see a lot of her in the summer, even when I made special trips to that end of the zoo to check out this new attraction. She was probably hiding in her cave, something wild octopuses often do in the shallow seas they call home. But by fall — because I was scheduled to volunteer in D-Bay more often, because the crowds had died down or because she had just settled into her tank — she became the entertaining sure thing in that part of the zoo. There were always a few people gathered round the tank, and most of them wanted to linger and talk about her for more than just a minute or two.

Minnesota Zoo octopus posingBefore the octopus arrived, we had a series of cuttlefish in here — just another type of cephalopod (Greek for “head-footed”). So a lot of their cool facts applied to her, too: their ability to change color and squirt ink, their three hearts and blue blood, their excellent vision and poignantly short one- or two-year life span. Where the cuttlefish’s eight arms and two tentacles are clustered near the front of its head, though, the octopus has its arms farther back and a mantle — the sac that holds all its organs — in front of its face. Every part of an octopus is squishy except for its beak, which it uses for cracking open shellfish; combined with their high intelligence, this makes them good escape artists able to squeeze through small gaps. Male octopuses have one differently shaped arm — the “business arm” of reproduction, if you will — that this one apparently didn’t, sealing her identity as female. For either gender, reproduction marks the end of a life that’s extremely short anyway.

common octopus swimmingOctopuses swim differently from cuttlefish, too; there’s a lot more arm involvement, and those arms are covered with suction cups that make walking on the tank-side possible. This girl was a graceful and entertaining swimmer (though I could never decide whether she was doing the crawl or the breast-stroke) and an accomplished tank-walker, too.

white octopus

So yes, I’m writing about her in the past tense. She’d been looking whiter in recent weeks, which worried a regular guest or two who’d been paying attention, though that may have been a coincidence. On Thursday, a week before Thanksgiving, the volunteers’ day began with a visit from aquarist Becky, who told us the octopus had died two days before, after “politely” refusing meals of shrimp for the previous week, and that the cause was definitely old age. The entertaining cephalopod came to us from the Mall of America’s aquarium, where she’d lived for four months. Wild-caught off the coast of Florida, she arrived full-grown in Minnesota and had to be at least 18 months old by now. Becky told us we’ll be getting a giant Pacific octopus by  late spring, in a new and larger tank, as part of a D-Bay makeover. That one will probably get twice as big as the common octopus we had (the Monterey Bay Aquarium says their Pacific is six feet across, “tentacle to tentacle”) and live twice as long, but I don’t think I could possibly enjoy it twice as much as I’ve enjoyed this dear departed one.




Teachable weekend

Every October, I’m reminded that the four-day MEA weekend provides my most intellectually rewarding volunteer Thursday of the year. MEA is an outdated term that lots of us can’t stop using, even after the Minnesota Educators Association  merged with other groups to become Education Minnesota. Whatever the state teachers union calls itself, its annual conference still means the zoo is filled with families, liberated from school but still looking to learn. Unlike other busy days when summer crowds and school groups are rushing from Point A to Point B, and I’m mainly telling guests where the bathrooms and the IMAX theater are, the MEA crowd is especially receptive to bench talks — a chance for volunteers to sit down with furry pelts, “bone-clone” skulls and other artifacts and have spontaneous, sometimes lengthy conversations about animals and their place in the world.

%22Coral Reefs%22 by Gail Gibbons

Ever since I discovered the “coral box” in Discovery Bay’s  Cove Booth last month, coral is my new favorite bench talk.  I pull out “Coral Reefs,” a colorful children’s book by Gail Gibbons explaining all about hard and soft corals, how they eat and spawn and how reefs grow, along with some bleached coral skeletons and photos that show their colors while still alive. I’ve learned that this can be a hard sell for small children, with their short attention spans and their tendency to focus on animals that move and have faces. Just explaining that corals are in fact animals, and not rocks or plants, might be as far as I get. But stereotypes exist to be broken, and on MEA Thursday I got a girl who couldn’t have been past kindergarten — barely tall enough to see the book and corals on the cove booth’s little table — who was fascinated and full of questions.

brain coral, brain worm coral

I got questions whose answers gave me pause, though I’ve since looked them up: How do corals eat? (Either via photosynthesis, thanks to algae that live on corals, or by sucking up the tiny plants and animals known as phytoplankton). When I took the shark and stingray jaw clones over by the shark reef (where, again, they attracted more interest than usual this week), I got the unexpected but obvious follow-up to my sound bite “Of the 400-plus shark species, only about one in 10 species are dangerous to humans.” — “Which ones?” (The sand tigers in our shark tank and the obvious great white were all that leaped to mind at first. Rounding out the top five are hammerhead, tiger, bull and white-tip sharks.)

brain coral and clownfish

When the coral book reminded me that anemones are a similarly structured relative, minus the chalky external skeleton, I downscaled my bench talk and took it on the move: With an anemone-like, tentacled koosh ball in one hand and a brain coral skeleton in the other, I hung out by the gorgeous live-coral tank and pointed out the living brain coral to the guests already basking in its color. (That’s a purple and green “closed brain” coral, nestled within a button polyp coral, just beneath the clownfish.) Then I pointed out all the individual polyps that built themselves into the larger structure, and how their shape mimicked the anemone’s.  At the zoo, or any place that’s part of a weekly routine, it’s easy to fall into rigid habits: the same talking points for the same few animals on any given trail. But something about the four-day weekend encouraged new connections: between volunteer and child, between child and animal, between facts and ways to express them. I’m not a teacher (although most of my relatives are), but I’m glad to piggy-back on their weekend of self-improvement and renewal.

From zoo to shining sea

If the zoo is doing its job, its visitors and volunteers don’t think about it only when we’re there.  Ideally, we go out into the world looking for more examples of what we find at the zoo. I did this last month on a trip to the northern Oregon coast, home to tidepools with the same two primary inhabitants as the Discovery Bay tidepool back home in Minnesota.

Haystack RockThis is Haystack Rock, a 235-foot-tall sea stack near the tourist village of Cannon Beach, Ore. (And that’s my husband in the yellow shirt, for perspective.) At low tide, beachwalkers head out to the base of the rock and inspect the sea life exposed by the retreating waves.

tidepool rock, Oregon mountainsSubmerged at high tide just a few hours earlier, sea stars and anemones clung to these barnacled rocks.

sea anemones on Oregon coast tidepool rock close-upSome differences from the Discovery Bay pool: All the Haystack Rock anemones had grass-green tentacles (one of the few tentacle hues I hadn’t seen at the zoo), and some were partly submerged in sand. These Oregon tidepools also contained tiny crabs, which fled the shadow of my husband’s arm each time he pointed one out to me. The other occupants can move, too, if they’re so inclined, but much more slowly: A crawling sea star averages six inches per minute.

Discovery Bay tidepoolsea star replicaThe D-Bay tidepool mimics a similar Pacific coastal environment (northern California instead of northern Oregon), but one shared feature of sea stars and anemones is that they’re found at all depths in most of the world’s oceans (although anemones favor the warmer ones). Both species are invertebrates whose bodies radiate symmetrically from a central mouth — the reason we sticklers don’t say “starfish,” since fish have a backbone.  Both species anchor themselves against the pounding waves with sticky feet: Sea stars have a series of tube feet along each arm, which they also use to pull apart clamshells, while a sea anemone stands upon a single “pedal disc.” Both animals are carnivores; anemones capture tiny fish and shrimp in their tentacles. For zoo volunteers, the sea star replica above is a handy tool for describing this hardy animal’s eating habits and other features. Our travels are a less visual tool, but having seen our animals in their natural habitat adds texture to our descriptions, too.

Seven dwarfs: a cephalopod story

Several months after I predicted his end was near in September, the big European cuttlefish in Discovery Bay went off exhibit after the holidays and completed his lifespan at the usual age of 18 months. I call him the big cuttlefish because, though less than a foot long, he was a giant compared with the seven dwarf cuttlefish that have since taken up residence in his tank. They’re about twice the size of my thumbnail now (here’s one next to a fellow volunteer’s finger for perspective), but they’re also less than four months old and eventually will stretch out to a full four inches.

dwarf cuttlefish and fingerThese tiny cephalopods (or cuttlets, as the Zooborns website cutely calls the babies of their species) are still growing into their final shape, but if you gaze at them long enough, the key features emerge — especially the eight arms and two tentacles sprouting from each tiny head. Their main difference from their European predecessor, size aside, is their habitat: the tropical Indian and Pacific oceans instead of the Atlantic. These seven came from the Monterey Bay Aquarium on the central California coast.

baby dwarf cuttlefishWhen the first four cuttlets entered the tank a few weeks ago, they were kept in a small transparent crate so that aquarist Becky could find them and feed them even tinier mysid shrimp. Last week, we volunteers were told they had the run of the place but that three new cuttlets had joined the crate. But when several of us went to take a look, we saw that the crate was gone and all seven had deployed themselves throughout their aquarium. And indeed, they were big enough to track down. Two or three anchored themselves in this treelike plant. My fellow volunteer Carol, in particular, kept wandering away and then wandering back to see how many had relocated. They were all too relaxed to squirt ink, as stressed cephalopods do, but one showed off his ability to change color, from a milky white to a deep brown. I can’t wait to see what they’re up to this week, and how much bigger they’ve grown.

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.

Goodbye, dolphins

My last volunteer day with dolphins was quiet and uneventful, except for one heart-stopping moment. I was sitting in the stadium Thursday with fellow volunteer (and much-appreciated frequent blog commenter) Marlene, just a couple of steps up from the bottom, when I realized that Allie, who almost never comes into the show pool unless lured by trainers with fish, was RIGHT THERE at the window, checking us out. I ripped my camera out of its zippered case, without a spare moment to switch my settings from landscape to portrait, and barely caught this image in the 10 or 15 seconds before she returned to the back pool she prefers.

As a child, I was a source of frustration to teachers and youth group leaders who found me way too reticent and shy. I resented their “Act like someone else!” edict, but thanks to Allie the dolphin, I kind of understand their frustration now. Allie’s reluctance to present herself voluntarily in the show pool always made me wonder why. If I could have talked to her, I would have said, “There’s nothing dangerous here, and you’re free to retreat from any stimulus that bothers you. Please just let us see you!” Trainers could have used gates to keep her out front, but they didn’t; the animal’s welfare, mental and physical, comes first here, which is part of what makes the zoo special. The dolphins won’t return after their yearlong pool renovation, and their welfare is driving that decision, too. They need more-varied social groups, and elderly Semo should not be moved from zoo to zoo any more than necessary.

Of course, Semo (above, in my last good look at him) is the dolphin I’ll miss most. He’s been there since my first volunteer day nearly nine years ago, and I devoted my second-ever blog post to Feeding Semo as my thousand-hour volunteer reward. To other volunteers and people who fully understand that I’m joking, I describe him as bionic and/or immortal; to some guests, I say this nearly 50-year-old dolphin is like a 95-year-old human who lives in a single-family home and still drives. In other words, he’s rare and amazing and makes you think he might go on forever, especially when he poses as charmingly as he’s doing below. Perhaps he will, but somewhere else.

I got my amazing glimpse of Allie shortly after noon, when she ordinarily would have been in the show pool for a training session. Because it was their last week on exhibit, sessions weren’t happening on their regular schedule — but Allie’s internal clock seemed to be telling her that she belonged in the show pool at that hour. After making her retreat, she swam around the back pool at top speed and did a couple of spontaneous jumps. I wonder if she knows she’ll soon be off to a new family and a new adventure. I hope she enjoys it. I bet she will.

Dolphin destination update: In early October, the dolphins arrived at their new homes: Allie returned to her previous Chicago residence, the Brookfield Zoo, and Semo now lives at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, Calif., between San Francisco and Sacramento. He’s joining 14 other dolphins, and there’s hope that this big daddy will become a daddy there once more. Even at his advanced age, the odds seem excellent.

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