Octopus Eggs and the Story of Senescence

If you’ve visited the GSC in the last couple of weeks, it’s likely you’ve heard from a staff member or volunteer that our Giant Pacific Octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini) recently laid eggs. While this is very exciting news, it also means that the end of our female’s life cycle is drawing near.

Our Giant Pacific Octopus (GPO) has been here for about one year, weighing 9 lbs. at the time of her arrival. As of May 2018, she weighed 30 lbs. and stretched 6 ft. from arm tip to opposite arm tip. We can estimate from these numbers that at the time of laying eggs, she weighed around 40 lbs. Though ours is slightly below the average weight (around 50 lbs.) for GPOs, she’s very healthy. It’s always difficult to determine the age of an octopus, but we estimate her to be roughly 2.5 years old.

The average lifespan for a GPO is about 3 years, near the end of which they enter a stage referred to as senescence. Senescence occurs at the end of a mature octopus’ natural life; this is a roughly month-long period in which they mate. GPOs are one of many octopus species that are “semelparous,” meaning they reproduce once and then die. Salmon are another example of a marine species that does this. Senescence is characterized by several things, including loss of appetite, retraction of the skin around the eyes, laying and brooding of eggs (in females), uncoordinated movement or undirected activity (in males), and the appearance of white lesions on the body.

The process of laying eggs can be taxing on the female octopus, unfolding over the course of approximately a week. Eggs resemble grains of rice on strings, woven together to create a holdfast that attaches to a hard surface. The female octopus will lay eggs in her den (in which she’ll spend a good portion of her time) and prefers to attach them to an overhang. Brooding of the eggs occurs for five months to a year, during which time the female will aerate and clean them until her body succumbs to the stress of this process. During the brooding process, an octopus will start to lose her appetite and refuse food – all due to hormonal changes in the body. This leads her to becoming anorexic during the egg-guarding period – losing between 50-71% of her body weight – eventually leading to her death.

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As all Giant Pacific Octopuses are wild-caught, it is unknown if the eggs are viable. Mating can occur early in life, with the female holding on to the spermatophores deposited by the male until she is mature and ready to use them. To date, only one successful rearing attempt has been recorded in captivity, occurring in 1986. This one male (who came from a population of 200 individuals from approximately 20,000 eggs) lived to 38 months. The process of keeping him alive was heavily labor intensive, requiring 6-8 hours per day for feeding and fastidious cleaning during the first 9 months of his care.

As for us, we’re excited for this opportunity to learn more about how Giant Pacific Octopus females behave while caring for their eggs and will be recording our observations extensively.  Though we are not likely to have viable eggs, we’re excited to share this unique stage with all of you as the Greensboro Science Center experiences our first female octopus’ life cycle completion. Please feel free to find a volunteer or staff member during your next visit to ask questions. We look forward to seeing you.

Source: AZA Aquatic Invertebrate Taxon Advisory Group (AITAG) (2014). Giant Pacific Octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini) Care Manual. Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Silver Spring, MD.

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Pond & Stream Research: Now, During Construction and Post Construction

The Greensboro Science Center has partnered with UNC Greensboro for a long-term study to assess the overall water quality of the stream and pond located in the woods behind our current zoo. The study began in the spring of 2018. We’ll be taking monthly water quality measurements continuously until the zoo expansion is complete (projected to happen by 2020) as well as after the expansion opens. We are interested in learning how water quality changes during construction and also post-construction. Our goal is to improve the overall water quality of the pond and stream.

While we are working with UNCG on data collection, this project is not assigned to a particular student. Kristina Morales, a doctoral student at UNCG is currently pursuing her PhD in Dr. Tsz-Ki Tsui’s lab. Dr. Tsui studies the effect of mercury on the environment. Kristina’s work is focused on the mercury cycle at the wetlands installed on UNCG’s campus in 2017. Specifically, she is studying how restored wetlands impact methylmercury production. She has been assisting the GSC with our water quality testing as part of her research.

Today, Lindsey Zarecky, the GSC’s VP of Conservation and Research, and Kristina are sampling water quality, macro-invertebrates and metals like mercury in the GSC’s stream and pond. Samples are collected via a YSI probe, which is placed into the water to provide a reading of the water’s dissolved oxygen, temperature and conductivity, the latter of which is a measure of the water’s ability to carry an electrical current. For our purposes, conductivity informs us of the mineralization in the water. Minerals leach into the water from the erosion of rocks and as result of urban runoff.

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We also measure the dissolved oxygen (DO) or the amount of oxygen (O2) dissolved in the water. DO is necessary for a healthy waterway. For Kristina’s work, she looks at DO because low DO allows microbes to convert mercury into methylmercury, a water toxin. Lastly, we measure temperature because some negative ecosystem organisms do better in higher temperatures. Collectively, these measurements inform us of the water’s overall quality.

DSC_1453We are also interested in learning what lives in our pond, so we use a dip net to collect macroinvertebrates. On this particular day, the air temperature was around 92°F, so the water was quite warm. Because of the temperature, organisms were most likely deep in the cooler sediment, beyond our reach. We did collect one crayfish and two dragonfly larvae.

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As mentioned above, we will continue to take samples each month and track the data to watch for trends. We may see seasonal shifts and annual shifts as we start construction on our zoo expansion. We’re excited to learn more about ways we can improve the quality of the water in our stream and pond as we continue to grow!

Our Keepers and Aquarists ROCK!

This week (July 15 – 21, 2018) is National Zookeeper and Aquarist Week, a time when we at the GSC like to show off our team of dedicated zoo and aquarium professionals to you – our members, guests and fans.

These individuals work 365 days a year, doing so much more than feeding animals and scooping poop. They take an active role in ensuring the health and wellbeing of their animals. They monitor water quality. They work with animals on training behaviors that will assist in providing them the best possible veterinary care. They work tirelessly to create stimulating experiences for our animals. They offer enrichment items, treats, belly rubs, head scratches, shell scrubs, and so much more. Most importantly, they care. These animals are their co-workers, and this truly amazing team treats them with the same love and respect they provide their human co-workers.

Their work isn’t all about animal care, as some may believe. It’s also about human interactions! Every day, our team educates guests about our animals as well as the species as a whole. They inspire us to think about how human actions affect wild spaces and wildlife – and offer suggestions about ways we can do a better job protecting our planet. They even help to dispel myths about animals people might have negative associations with.

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But don’t just take it from us… have a look at what our Board of Directors, senior management and members have shared this week:

“Our team of dedicated animal caretakers puts in countless hours doing some pretty difficult and dirty work. Though there are times of true amazement in our field, there are also moments that are very difficult and can take an emotional toll. That’s why teamwork is so important to us and creating a fun and enjoyable work environment is something we value greatly. Whether it is themed lunches, trivia nights, or even costume contests, these folks are always out to create some smiles. And when the going gets tough, each and every one of them is there for one another other to offer support. I know the GSC would not be the same place without them and I’d like to thank each and every one for all they do not just for the GSC, but also for each other.” – Jessica Hoffman-Balder, General Curator

“As a Board member and also a Docent for 10 years, I’ve had the special privilege to shadow keepers in all areas, as well as accompany many folks on some amazing Behind the Scenes tours.  From being able to put meat out for the tigers, hand feed the penguins, transfer fish from one tank to another, and overcome my life-long fear of snakes, I have learned SO MUCH and come to more fully appreciate and be awed by what this incredible group does every day to care for our amazing collection of living creatures. Their dedication, efficiency and teamwork are unsurpassed and invaluable in the success of the GSC.  Sending a big SHOUT OUT of “thanks” to each and every one!” – Betty Barry, GSC Board of Directors

“How can I thank the entire Keeper and Aquarist staff enough? They have been instrumental on every behind-the-scenes tour I give and go out of their way to make our guests’ experiences special. Not only are they informative, but their love for the animals radiates from them. Some of my favorite personal experiences were watching country artist Stephanie Quayle touch the octopus, Keeper Carolyn’s Discovery House tours for younger kids, and the gibbon talks with Keeper Amanda.But every tour has its own uniqueness! Thanks, Keepers and Aquarists!” – Kathy Neff, GSC Director of Development

“[I’m] always so impressed with staff and their sincere dedication to their jobs and to the GSC! We are lucky to have them take on such vital and important roles that definitely contribute to the overall success of the center and to the enjoyment of all who come to visit!” – Jeanne Blaisdell, GSC Board of Directors

We invite you to join us in thanking our keepers and aquarists, whether it be this week or anytime the inclination strikes. Without their hard work and heartfelt dedication, the GSC as we know it wouldn’t be here. And just the same, without your support and patronage, none of this would be possible… so we thank you, too!

Media Release: Shark Week Coasts into the Greensboro Science Center

GREENSBORO, NC — The Greensboro Science Center (GSC) is celebrating the 30th anniversary of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week from Monday, July 23 – Saturday, July 28 with crafts, education stations and games from 10:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. daily. In addition to ongoing activities, including coloring pages, temporary tattoos and photos with Finny (the GSC’s shark mascot), each day of the week will be themed around a unique educational opportunity. Daily themes are as follows:

Shark WeekMonday, July 23
Munch, Munch Monday
Learn what sharks like to eat and how they snag their snacks!

Tuesday, July 24
Toothful Tuesday
Test your shark smarts with a round of “Myth or Tooth” trivia!

Wednesday, July 25
Wonders Wednesday
Explore sharks’ super powers – like their ability to detect electricity!

Thursday, July 26
Thoughtful Thursday
Discover the importance of shark conservation: Why do we need sharks, and how can we help them?

Friday, July 27
Freaky Friday
Learn about the strangest and most unusual sharks in the sea!

Saturday, July 28
Supreme Saturday
Find out which sharks are the biggest, fastest, oldest, and more!

The GSC’s aquarium is home to four species of shark: sandbar sharks, blacktip sharks, bamboo sharks, and blacknose sharks. Sharks have been selected by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) as a signature species for SAFE (Saving Animals From Extinction). SAFE focuses the collective expertise of AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums to save signature species by increasing direct conservation spending as well as increasing work in the field and within zoos and aquariums, and through public engagement. Shark Week is one example of the GSC’s involvement in this vital conservation effort.

Shark Week activities are included with general admission to the Greensboro Science Center. General admission is $13.50 for adults ages 14 – 64, $12.50 for children ages 3 – 13, and $12.50 for seniors ages 65+. Children 2 and under and Greensboro Science Center Members are free.

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The Greensboro Science Center is a premier family attraction in North Carolina that offers the state’s first accredited inland aquarium, a hands-on science museum, an accredited Animal Discovery Zoological Park, a state-of-the-art OmniSphere Theater, and SKYWILD, an animal-inspired treetop adventure park. The GSC is also NC’s only dually accredited AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) and AAM (American Alliance of Museums) science attraction – an honor only 14 attractions in the nation can claim. The Greensboro Science Center is located at 4301 Lawndale Drive in Greensboro and is a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization. For more information, visit www.greensboroscience.org.

Where’s Angler?

Angler, the baby fishing cat born at the Greensboro Science Center in February, will be off exhibit for six to eight weeks as he recovers from a broken arm. Last week, keepers noticed the kitten limping, prompting two immediate actions: 1 – our veterinary team performed a physical exam in an attempt to identify the injury and 2 – our animal care team reviewed camera footage to see how the injury occurred.

Upon palpating the animal’s forearm, GSC veterinarian, Dr. Sam Young, found the broken bone and promptly scheduled a visit with the Veterinary Specialty Hospital in Cary, NC.

The forearm is made up of two bones – the radius and the ulna. Radiographs showed the kitten has a broken radius, but the ulna is still intact, which Dr. Sam tells us is good news as it acts like a splint for the fractured bone.

The orthopedic surgeon at VSH inserted a k-wire to align the bones, then plated the fracture, as you can see in the image below.

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Upon reviewing camera footage, our animal care team saw Angler stick his paw under the barrier between his holding space and his father, Mako’s holding space. Although the cats have been separated since birth by this barrier, on this occasion, Mako grabbed Angler’s paw. It appears the kitten broke his arm when he quickly pulled away. Our animal care team has now added an additional barrier – metal sheeting that fills the gap under the wall – to prevent future incidents.

Angler’s arm is being kept bandaged and in a splint to prevent him from licking or chewing on the injury, which could cause additional harm. Our animal care team is changing his bandage daily as well as providing him with pain medications and antibiotics. In order for our team to change his bandage, Angler must be sedated, brought from his behind-the-scenes exhibit space to the hospital, where his bandage is changed, then brought back to his exhibit – and his mom, Tallulah. He is currently being trained to go into a crate to make the transport process easier and less stressful for him.

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As he continues to heal, keepers are ensuring all toys and furniture in his space are kept small or low to ground, so as not to encourage climbing. Keeper Rachael tells us Anger is eating well and taking all of his medications, which will aid in a speedy recovery. We’ll be sure to share any changes in Angler’s condition on our Facebook page, so stay tuned for updates!

 

Armadillo Burrows: A Great Way to Beat the Heat

Notes from the Field – in cooperation with Dr. Arnaud Desbiez of the Giant Armadillo Project

You may be familiar with the nine-banded armadillo or even the screaming hairy armadillo at the GSC – but did you know there is a giant armadillo? These giants can weigh as much as 70 pounds! Little is known about giant armadillos, but Dr. Arnaud Desbiez’s pioneering work on the Giant Armadillo Project is bringing to light the ecology and biology of these prehistoric-looking creatures. Since 2011, Dr. Arnaud and his team have spent hours seeking out giant armadillos. These unique animals are native to South America, where they spend their days foraging on termites and other insects, worms and spiders.

The Greensboro Science Center is a proud supporter of Dr. Arnaud’s work. His research in Brazil’s Pantanal has proven that giant armadillos are true ecosystem engineers. In other words, they’re organisms who create or modify habitat for the benefit of other organisms. In the case of giant armadillos, they build burrows that provide shelter and cool temperature for other species. Dr. Arnaud’s team uses motion sensing cameras to film burrow entry points. In this way, the team has observed more than 25 other species making use of giant armadillo burrows. Check out these amazing photos from the field that Dr. Arnaud and his team recently shared with us:

From top left: Crab eating fox, agouti, lesser anteater, nine-banded armadillo, ocelot

What makes these burrows such appealing spaces? They hover around 75 degrees Fahrenheit, while air temperature outside of the burrows can reach highs into the 90’s. The stable environment the burrow provides is appealing to the many species looking to get out of the hot sun. Given the large sizes of giant armadillos and the fact they cannot roll into a ball like other armadillos can, the burrows are large and have gaping entry holes well suited to animals of varying sizes. Giant armadillos are nocturnal, so other animals can stay overnight while the armadillos are away. Also, armadillos don’t remain in the same burrow for long; therefore, other animals can make themselves at home in the abandoned burrows.

Saying Goodbye to Ara

Late last week, we said goodbye to Ara, our 33-year-old red ruffed lemur. Based on the information available to us, at the time of her death, she was believed to be the oldest female red ruffed lemur in captivity. During this sad time, we’d like to take a moment to tell you about the tireless efforts of our animal care team as they worked diligently to ensure Ara had the best possible quality of life, through to the end.

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Although Ara had been considered geriatric for the last 13 years of her life, her lead keeper, Lauren, tells us it wasn’t until the last seven months or so that she started to see a dramatic decline in the lemur’s health. In October, Ara began showing signs of neurological distress. She had what Lauren describes as “seizure-like episodes.” Due to the fall risk associated with these episodes, our team decided to retire her from the exhibit and moved her into her blockhouse with access to the side yard, where the heights are less extreme.

Ara began receiving an anti-seizure medication three times each day. She continued this medication for several months until she began to refuse it, at which time our team weaned her off the medication and watched her closely for any additional signs of neurological episodes. None were observed until Ara’s last week of life. In addition to this anti-seizure medication, Ara also received painkillers to keep her arthritic body comfortable.

Despite these medical challenges, Lauren says, “She always kept a perky, interested attitude – even as her body started to decline.”

In addition to arthritis and neurological symptoms, like all elderly animals, Ara began to lose weight as she became more fragile. Ara was weighed every other week so Lauren and our vet team could track exactly how much weight she was losing. In addition to her regular diet (where her veggies were steamed to make them easier to eat and the fruit was cut small enough so that her elderly teeth didn’t need to work so hard at chewing), our team blended up her favorite fruits into smoothies on a daily basis.

To help her gain (or at least maintain) her weight, our team also offered her every type of food imaginable, including pancakes, muffins, popsicles, whipped cream, gummy bears, power bars, and baby food. Lauren tells us Ara was initially interested in these new offerings, but stiffly refused them by the next day. Ara’s taste buds changed on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis, so food items had to be kept novel and exciting.

Lauren says, “I always joked that she liked her food by the colors: one week, she liked all things blue/black (blackberries, blueberries), and the next, it was everything orange (orange, cantaloupe, peaches). She kept us on our toes, and I frequently requested odd, unusual foods from our commissary to keep her happy.”

Lauren tells us Ara’s care took up the majority of her time during the day. “If I wasn’t preparing her food, I was hand feeding it to her or trying to convince her that her medications were necessary and would make her feel better. She always ate best if she was hand fed – me, a servant for the queen. As animals age, they require more time. I’ve always had a soft spot for the oldies, so it wasn’t a burden to me – more of an honor to be able to take care of such a sassy, friendly, old lady who had great demands.”

Throughout all of this special treatment, it’s important to note that our vet staff, keepers and curators evaluated Ara on a regular basis to ensure everything they did was in the lemur’s best interest. Late last week, after seeing Ara’s health continue to deteriorate, our dedicated team of animal professionals decided it was time to humanely euthanize Ara.

Lauren says, “In the end, her body definitely gave out before her spirit, which always makes a quality of life decision harder. We’re with these animals more than our pets at home sometimes. Blood, sweat and tears go into their care on a routine basis to make sure our animals always have the very best. The hardest decision will always be when to let them go, and it is not taken lightly. In the end, I am so grateful I was able to be there with her, to comfort her when the decision was made to humanely euthanize her.”

“Ara was legendary,” Lauren says. “Everyone will tell you she was full of spunk and personality. When she was on exhibit with the ring tailed lemurs, she could often be seen chasing them and keeping them in line. I hope people were awed by her beauty. Red ruffs are a very rare species of lemur, one of the most endangered in the wild. In captivity, the average life span is 25, but she made it all the way to 33 – that in itself is inspiring to me. Hopefully, she inspired people to care about lemurs and look into how they can help them escape extinction.“

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Ara leaves behind her fellow senior lemurs, Jethys, a 26-year-old female red ruffed lemur, and Che, our elderly male mongoose lemur. Lauren says Jethys is going through a mourning period and will be monitored closely. She tells us, “Ara might be gone, but I still have more elderly lemurs to spoil rotten.”