Meet the Aquarist: Lyssa Torres

Although it’s National Zoo Keeper Week, we can’t forget about our team of aquarists! Without these dedicated professionals, the Carolina SciQuarium wouldn’t be the fascinating place our visitors know and love.

Lyssa Torres gave us the inside scoop about what it’s like to be an aquarist. She’s been in the profession for about three years and has been at the Greensboro Science Center for a little over one year. She has always loved the ocean and sea life, but what pushed her over the edge and made her decide to become an aquarist was a documentary on jellyfish.

Although there are no jellyfish in the SciQuarium (yet; who knows what the future holds?), Lyssa has plenty of other critters and chores to keep her busy. On a typical day in the SciQuarium, aquarists start the morning by checking all of the tanks. They take water samples, clean windows, test the water quality, prepare diets, feed the animals, clean filters, perform water changes, make salt water… it’s a pretty intense list!

And aquarists must know much more than just information about the animals they care for. They have to be proficient in things like plumbing, chemistry and animal medications as well.

Lyssa says the reward is worth it. She loves seeing an animal do well on exhibit, especially when it’s one she hasn’t taken care of before. She also enjoys watching the visitors’ reactions as they interact with animals.

Her favorite part of the job, though, as you might imagine, is getting wet. Whether she’s participating in dives or training the eagle ray, she loves being in the water.

Lyssa with Eagle Ray

Lyssa feeding the SciQuarium’s spotted eagle ray.

So, what’s the worst part of the job?

“Sometimes the cleaning can get kind of repetitive,” she said.

However, the rather mundane task of cleaning is all part of the job… A job which led to a pretty cool story to tell at parties…

“I was head-butted by a whale shark,” Lyssa said. She was feeding them from an inflatable boat as in intern at the Georgia Aquarium. Apparently, she wasn’t feeding them fast enough and one let her know in a rather intrusive manner!

As you have hopefully learned from this week’s blog series, our zoo keepers and aquarists are incredible individuals. They work hard – and play hard – and have some amazing stories to tell. Although National Zoo Keeper Week is coming to a close for 2014, please remember these folks any time you visit and thank them for the work they do to ensure the health, happiness and well-being of our animals.

We’re not sick, we’re molting!

All birds molt, or lose feathers, on a yearly basis. Some birds molt a few feathers at a time, while other birds, such as penguins, molt all of their feathers at once. The total process generally lasts between 4-6 weeks.

Molting Vs. Not Molting

Comparative view: The penguin on the right is in the process of molting.

Imagine having the same sweater on for one whole year…during this time, it might become worn out and need to be replaced. This is essentially how penguins’ feathers work. Their feathers become worn out and broken over the course of the year and it is necessary for a new set of feathers to replace the old set.

There are 3 stages to molt:

  1. Pre-molt
  2. Dropping feathers
  3. Gaining weight back

1. For several weeks leading up to molt, penguins begin gorging themselves with fish. Generally, a penguin will eat approximately 1lb of fish each day. Leading up to their molt, a penguin can eat up to 40% of their body weight daily. These extra calories allow new feathers to be produced under their skin. A penguin usually weighs 7-8lbs, but after bulking up pre-molt, they can weigh up to 11lbs.

2. Once the penguin has reached their maximum weight, they begin to drop feathers. This process generally lasts 1-2 weeks. During this time, the animal is fasting (not eating) and allowing all the feathers to drop off its body while the new feathers come through. They must remain on land during this process due to their lack of waterproofing. They live off their body fat stored from the previous weeks.

Molting Penguin

Molting Penguin

3. The last part of the process, which entails the penguin’s body recovering, lasts another 1-2 weeks. During this time, they gain waterproofing once again on their feathers and begin hunting fish to regain all the weight lost.

Molting generally happens once a year at approximately the same time for each bird (typically between April-Aug). So the next time you see one of us looking a little puffy and uncomfortable, don’t worry, we are just updating our wardrobe. Soon we will be ready to show off our new sleek, shiny new coat of feathers.

See That Puffer Fish Puff!

Shark Reef is home to two porcupine puffer fish: Lindsey and Beth. These creatures are generally quite shy and typically retreat if faced with something they deem dangerous. They are fairly clumsy swimmers, however, and can’t always get away in time. Luckily, puffer fish also have a rather unique “fight” at the ready when they can’t take “flight” from potential predators fast enough.

By ingesting huge amounts of water, a porcupine puffer fish can quickly turn itself into a giant, spiky ball virtually impossible to swallow. If that’s not enough of a deterrent for a particularly persistent predator, these fish also secrete a toxic skin substance that tastes terrible and is potentially lethal to other fish.

Amphibian Lab

For the last year or so, the “Sea Lab” located on the lower level of the museum has been closed off from view. In the months leading up to the opening of the Carolina SciQuarium, this room was used to house fish before their exhibits were finished. Now that these animals have moved to their permanent homes in the SciQuarium, the old Sea Lab has been transformed into an Amphibian Lab.

Greensboro Science Center visitors can now take a peek into the lab to view the slimy residents therein. Currently, the Amphibian Lab is home to a young Hellbender, White’s Tree Frogs, and Yellow & Black Dart Frogs. All of these animals are displayed in the window for visitors to see. The remainder of the lab will be used as quarantine and holding areas as new animals arrive.

Yellow and Black Dart Frog

Yellow & Black Dart Frog

The class Amphibia is made up of frogs, toads, salamanders, newts, and caecilians. But what on Earth is a caecilian? These are amphibians who appear to be superficially similar to earthworms or snakes.

During Phase II of the GSC’s Master Plan, the Amphibian Lab will continue to metamorphose. The current plan is to convert this area into an educational wing featuring underground animals. In this “wUNDERWORLD,” visitors will encounter mysterious inhabitants of the dark, such as spiders, scorpions, leeches, and snakes.


Candles In The Dark – GSC Podcast

Do you listen to talk radio; have a long commute to work; or simply enjoy learning new things? Subscribe to the GSC’s brand new podcast, “Candles In The Dark”! With each episode, we hope to engage the public with science-related stories, research, and interviews.

In our first episode, “Fire In The Sky”, we touch on topics ranging from Bruce Willis to global extinction events. The episode also contains a special interview with resident paleontologist, Dr. Indiana Bones, in which he reveals inside details on our newest traveling exhibit, A T-Rex Named Sue!

Creature Feature: Golden Lion Tamarin



A pair of Golden Lion Tamarins has moved into the Carolina SciQuarium’s Amazon Edge. Baldwin and Sophia were released onto their exhibit on August 14, 2013. These small primates got their name from their striking manes. They are native to the rainforests of Brazil and spend the majority of their time in the trees, often remaining about 15 to 20 feet off the ground.

Golden Lion Tamarins are social animals, living in family groups. Troops are often made up of one breeding pair and a few other members – typically the adults’ offspring. As the offspring age, they often leave the group to find a mate, leaving an opening for another individual. They tend to form monogamous pairs and each member of the troop helps care for the young.

They are omnivores, feeding on fruits, insects, bird eggs, nectar and small animals. When full grown, Golden Lion Tamarins weigh around a pound and a half. Their bodies average between seven and nine inches in length, with an additional twelve inches or so of tail.

You can visit Baldwin and Sophia in the SciQuarium daily from 9:00am – 5:00pm. They can be seen in the tree canopy portion of the Amazon exhibit.

Golden Lion Tamarins are currently listed as an endangered species on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species.