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Exploring Similarities, Celebrating Differences: Amphibians and Reptiles

Once upon a time, reptiles and amphibians were classified together as one family. Scientists believe that reptiles evolved from their relative amphibians about 50 million years ago.Frilled Lizard

Today it still can be difficult to identify all of the differences between reptiles and amphibians. They definitely have traits they share. For example, they are both ectothermic, or cold-blooded animals, meaning their body temperature relies on the temperature of their habitat. Reptiles and amphibians also are both vertebrate animals, meaning they have backbones. Reptiles and amphibians also both have excellent eyesight that helps them hunt prey.

Reptiles and amphibians use many common defense mechanisms. Some species of both reptiles and amphibians have the ability to change the color of their skin in order to camouflage in their habitat. Another major defense tactic used by reptiles and amphibians is what scientists call mimicry. Copycat species, some reptiles and amphibians, mimic the bright colors of venomous or poisonous species to ward off predators.

While they clearly have a lot in common, there are some major differences.

All reptiles breathe through their lungs. Turtles are reptiles and some turtles have the additional ability to absorb and dispel gas when underwater during their brumation, or hibernation state. Reptiles also typically have dry, scaly and water-tight skin that offers protection. Reptiles with softer skin are usually equipped with another defense – like the hard shell of a turtle or the spines of a lizard. Reptiles do not live solely in water but normally need to live close to a constant water source.

In addition to breathing through lungs, amphibians can breathe through gills, or through their smooth, moist skin. This is what scientists call cutaneous respiration and amphibians are some of the only animals on the planet that have this ability! This allows for amphibians to live in water for extended periods of time. Some amphibians begin their lives in water and then move to land. Frogs are amphibians that start as tadpoles, completely submerged in water and breathing through their gills, and then move to land as adults once their lungs are fully developed.

While reptiles and amphibians share similarities they have distinct points of differentiation that make them unique. Scientists estimate there are about 8,000 species of reptiles and around 6,000 species of amphibians, and we will continue to learn more about what sets them apart as we continue to study these species.

– Elise

Mistaken Monsters

Many of the aquatic species we know and love today were once believed to be sea monsters. Stories were told and retold through many generations about “sea monsters” that threatened sailors who dared to enter the dangerous, unknown waters. While the tales still live on as spooky stories, today we know these animals are not monsters at all… Let’s take a closer look at some of these “monster-ous” and intriguing animals!

A Multi-Armed, Transparent Monster AKA a Jellyfish

Jellyfish have some decidedly un-human traits. For example, they function without a heart or brain. They also have the ability to clone themselves. And, in a zombie-like twist, it’s even been discovered that the Turritpsis dohrnii jellyfish are biologically immortal. Luckily we know now that jellyfish do not intend to hurt humans and their uniqueness is more intriguing than frightening. (Pictured: an upside-down jellyfish)

A Creature unlike Any Other AKA a Giant Pacific Octopus

A Giant Pacific Octopus’s eight large arms made them easy targets for folklore and scary tales. It is well known today that octopus have DNA unlike any other species on this planet. We also know that octopuses have three hearts, blue blood, a keratin beak and the ability to squeeze into extremely small spaces. It’s pretty easy to imagine how an octopus’s alien appearance could have scared sailors who had never seen one before. Now these highly intelligent creatures are much better understood and appreciated.

A Scaleless Fish AKA an Oyster Toadfish

It seems silly that a moderately sized fish would seem scary, but people generally become frightened by the unusual or unknown, not what is actually threatening and the oyster toadfish is different. For example, it can survive out of water for a lengthy period of time. If that wasn’t startling enough, oyster toadfish flattened heads are scaleless and they have fleshy flaps on their cheeks and jaws.

Sharp Toothed Creatures AKA Sharks

Sharks’ size and sharp teeth earned them the nickname “man-eaters” and made them the basis of many horror stories. In truth, sharks are not interested in preying on humans. People are a bigger threat to sharks than sharks are to us by a long shot. In fact, while people kill an estimated 100 million sharks every year there were only 5 shark-related human deaths in 2017. From their sandpaper-like dermal denticle skin (designed to protect and reduce friction) to their flouride-coated teeth, there’s a lot more to revere than fear when it comes to sharks.

Named Like a Fire-Breathing Fairy Tale Monster AKA Seadragons

While old legends of dragons swimming across the Mediterranean to countries like Italy and Greece might have sent chills down a few spines, clearly these seadragons are not dangerous monsters. The weedy seadragons pictured below are well camouflaged because they are poor swimmers that lack stomachs or teeth.

We’ve come a long way from believing that every unfamiliar underwater animal is a monster ready to cause harm. While so much of the ocean is still to be explored, any discoveries we will make promise to be more fascinating than frightening. Discover these and other curious creatures on your next visit to the Greater Cleveland Aquarium.

Shark Teeth

Did you know that some shark species lose upwards of 30,000 teeth in their lifetime? Due to a strong bite and lack of a hard jawbone anchor, sharks’ teeth constantly break off or fall out. But do not worry! Sharks can have 5 to 15 rows of teeth. When a shark loses a tooth, a new one moves forward to fill in the empty spot. A shark’s first, or working, teeth are the largest. As you go back in its mouth, these teeth get smaller.

Like human teeth, shark teeth are made out of dentin. However, unlike ours, shark teeth are coated with a layer of cavity-preventing fluoride . . . so pass the candy!

Shark teeth come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Often the teeth their upper jaw are shaped differently than those in their lower jaw. The actual shape and structure of a shark’s teeth is related to the diet and hunting style of the species. For example, tiger sharks are known to eat sea turtles, seals and more or less anything that fits in their mouths, so they have large wide serrated teeth well suited to that varied diet. Meanwhile lemon sharks are primarily piscivores, or fish eaters, so their pointed rather than serrated teeth make it easier for them to grab fish and swallow them whole.

As a diver at the Greater Cleveland Aquarium, there are days when I find dozens of sandtiger, sandbar and nurse shark teeth. These three shark species have different types of teeth. The most visible of those belong to the sandtiger sharks. They have large, imposing and very sharp pointed teeth that jut out in all directions. Sandtigers can only eat things that fit within their mouths and swallow whole. Perfect for grabbing and holding prey, sandtigers use their teeth like the tines on a fork.

The smaller sandbar sharks have triangular teeth with serrated edges. They have teeth similar to a great white shark. These teeth allow sandbars to rip and cut food into bite-sized pieces.

Meanwhile, nurse sharks’ powerful jaws allow them to create suction and pull prey from hiding places in rocks and coral. Nurse sharks then use their dense and flattened teeth to crush their prey before swallowing, similar to the way humans use our molars to crunch and grind food. Their teeth are relatively small when compared to their body size.

The next time you visit the Aquarium and look up at that shark in the seatube you will know there is a lot more to a shark’s smile!

– Stephanie Q., Diver 

Shark Spotlight: Sandtiger Sharks

It’s that time of year again—Fin Fest! Sharks are already on our minds 24/7, but this week-long celebration of sharks (July 22 – 29, 2018) gives us an excuse to really show how much we appreciate these jaw-some animals.

Of the three shark species in the Shark Gallery, sandtiger sharks are often the first ones you notice and the ones you remember long after you visit for a number of reasons. They tend to cruise around near the water’s surface, positioning themselves above the nurse and sandbar sharks at the top of the gallery’s vertical hierarchy. The aesthetics, too, are enough to drop a few jaws. Row upon row of ragged, razor-sharp teeth reveal themselves even while the shark’s mouth is at rest, lending an aggressive edge to an already imposing body that can grow to 10½ feet and more than 350 pounds.

However, the voracious behavior implied by these fearsome features couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, sandtiger sharks are a very docile species known to attack humans only when bothered first. They’d much rather spend their time swimming at depths of about 60 to 100 feet, coasting around obstacles and looking for their next meal of small fish, crustaceans or squid. “You’ll find them around a lot of shipwrecks on the Carolina coast,” says aquarist Ray Popik. “They hang out around the top of the wreck … they don’t like to get down low and navigate between things.”

The sandtiger’s docility, though, develops only after it’s born. The pre-birth behavior of the species is just about the most brutal example of natural selection in the entire ocean. Along with several other shark species, the sandtiger has been known to practice intrauterine cannibalism — during pregnancy, the first pup to hatch uses the other eggs and embryos in the mother’s uterus as a food source. “The first egg that hatches wins,” says Popik. “It’s a pretty gnarly process, but in the end it allows them to provide the most amount of nutrition to put out the largest, most well-developed shark possible as a newborn.”

The sandtiger shark is also the only shark species that exhibits a certain hunting behavior: They are known to swim to the surface and gulp air into their stomachs, giving their bodies more buoyancy. This enables them to hover in the water with ease and stalk their prey by remaining completely motionless until the right time to strike. So, while they may not be the most aggressive swimmers or the most ravenous eaters, but when the time comes to feed they can put all those teeth to good use.

It doesn’t take long to find a sandtiger shark on a typical visit to the Aquarium. Their awe-inspiring stature and protruding rows of teeth catch the eyes of guests almost immediately as they enter the shark gallery. Popik agrees that their appearance combined with their behavior gives them an air of quiet dignity. “They have a presence in the exhibit,” he says. “The way they just cruise around; you can tell nothing bothers them.” Indeed, simply watching a sandtiger glide by or even overhead in the sea tube inspires a sense of respect for ocean life few other creatures can match.

Shark Spotlight: Sandbar Sharks

It’s that time of year again—Fin Fest! Sharks are already on our minds 24/7, but this week-long celebration of sharks (July 22 – 29, 2018) gives us an excuse to really show how much we appreciate these jaw-some animals.

Also known as the “brown shark” due to their muddy-gray appearance, the sandbar shark is most commonly found in shallow coastal waters with a population distribution that touches every continent except Antarctica. Despite being prevalent on an international scale, some of the largest groups of sandbars can be found relatively close to Northeast Ohio. In fact, they’re the most common species of shark in the western Atlantic Ocean. Large nursery grounds in the Chesapeake Bay, Delaware Bay and in parts of the Carolina coast make them a very common shark species around popular beach vacation spots for Clevelanders. Their population in these areas takes a huge hit in the winter, however, as their migration patterns take them as far south as the Gulf of Mexico in search of warmer water.

At the Aquarium, sandbar sharks are a perennial favorite due to their more active, agile swimming habits. Their tendency to traverse a lot of vertical space in the exhibit and make sharp, sudden turns shows off their distinctive body shape and makes them exciting to watch. Their shape in particular is what aquarist Ray Popik describes as a “classic shark look.” Their uncommonly tall dorsal fins, short snouts and wide pectoral fins give them a sleek profile that draws a lot of attention. “Sandbars are very stereotypical and jet fighter-looking,” says Popik. “They’ve got that nice, tall dorsal fin which gives them the look you picture when you think about a shark.”

Showing off their athletic swimming ability and undeniably cool appearance, sandbar sharks don’t just bridge the gap between the nurse and sandtiger — they’re proof that even the most common shark species are something truly extraordinary.

Shark Spotlight: Nurse Sharks

It’s that time of year again! Fin Fest is only a few weeks away, and we can’t wait to welcome shark lovers of all ages to the Aquarium to celebrate with us. Sharks are already on our minds 24/7, but Fin Fest gives us an excuse to really show how much we appreciate these jaw-some animals.

This week we’re covering the nurse shark, the sedentary bottom-dweller that can be found hanging around the lower, more secluded areas of the shark gallery. There are a few theories on how nurse sharks got their unusual common name. Most agree that it comes from the old English word “hurse,” meaning “seafloor shark,” but others argue the name was inspired by the sound they make while hunting which is often compared to a nursing baby.

The unique noise comes from their feeding technique, which involves sucking their prey up from the seafloor like a vacuum. Their mouths are just big enough to eat things that live near the bottom, like snails, crustaceans and mollusks, but too small to hunt for larger fish like their fellow sharks do. Being nocturnal hunters, they’ll begin to prowl the seafloor for food at night using the the whisker-like barbels that extend from their face to feel around for things to eat. “Here in Ohio, we think ‘Oh, that looks like a catfish,’” says aquarist Ray Popik of the nurse shark’s appearance, “and they actually do fill a bit of the same ecological niche.”

According to Popik, all of these characteristics go hand-in-hand. “During the daytime you’ll see them underneath ledges and in crevices hiding out. Then at night they’ll cruise the bottom scavenging for food,” he says. “Typically the more bottom-oriented the shark is, the more nocturnal it is. The opposite is true for sharks that are more active hunters, and nurse sharks are usually scavengers in the wild.”

Contrary to the popular belief that all sharks have to remain constantly swimming in order to breathe, nurse sharks and their seafloor-inhabiting peers can push water over their gills themselves without having to move much. They can circulate water through their systems by opening and closing their mouths, which allows them to stay put. The nurse shark’s bottom-dwelling habits usually catch the eye of Aquarium guests, as their behavior differs from the constant cruising of their “gallery mates” the sandtiger and sandbar sharks. However, Popik says their behavior is relatively common for seafloor shark species. “[Their behavior] is unique out of our three species,” he explains, “but it’s not terribly unique in the wild.”

Hanging out in the lower regions of their exhibit, the calm-and-collected nurse shark shows us how varied shark behavior can be in nature. Next week we’ll be talking about the sandbar shark, whose agile swimming and striking silhouette make it one of the most fun to watch animals here at the Aquarium — and don’t forget, Fin Fest is happening right here every day from July 22nd through the 29th. If you love sharks as much as we do, it’s the place to be, so don’t miss out.

Father’s Day Heroes: Seahorses vs. Seadragons

We’re gearing up for Father’s Day, which made me think about the many different kinds of “wild” dads there are here at the Aquarium. While they’re all deserving of our appreciation, none go above and beyond quite like seahorses and weedy seadragons. When these species reproduce, it’s the male who nurtures the developing embryos and carries them to term. In short, pregnant dads! Really makes you rethink gender roles, doesn’t it?

This unique reproductive method is exclusive to the family Syngnathidae, which also includes pipefish and pipehorses. Some other things all syngnathids have in common are fused jaws, the absence of pelvic fins and thick, bony armor covering their bodies — but male pregnancy, in terms of pure “wow” factor, is their main calling card as a group of species. The female deposits the unfertilized eggs with the male, who then cares for the growing embryos until they’re born. However, no two syngnathids share the exact same reproductive process. This includes our seahorses and seadragons, who differ in a couple of interesting ways.

First of all, the seadragon and the seahorse carry fertilized eggs in different locations. A pregnant seahorse looks pretty familiar to us humans, as they carry their young (who often number in the thousands, by the way) in a pouch located in their abdominal area. This gives them a sort of potbelly appearance. Seadragons, on the other hand, carry their eggs on a specialized patch of skin at the base of their tails.

The hatching processes of the two species are also completely different. Seahorses’ brood pouches begin to expand right before they give birth. This happens as the fully-grown seahorse embryos begin to hatch from their egg membranes and move freely around the pouch. Once the pouch is at capacity, the seahorse finally gives birth, releasing the entire brood at once in dramatic fashion.

Meanwhile, seadragons give birth to their brood more slowly over a period of several days. The baby seadragons hatch one by one rather than all at the same time, decreasing the competition for food by dispersing the brood over a larger area of ocean. You could say seadragon dads go the extra mile to set their kids up for survival in the wild, however, it doesn’t look as impressive in captivity.

If you want to see these amazing aquatic parents up close, come visit us at the Greater Cleveland Aquarium in the First Energy Powerhouse on the West Bank of the Flats. Bring your own dry-land dad on Father’s Day, June 17th, and he’ll get in free with the price of a general admission ticket — find out more here.





Putting it to the Test: Cuyahoga River’s Water Quality

Cuyahoga means “crooked river,” for good reason; it kind of looks like a backwards letter “U.” The river begins with two separate branches in Geauga County which join and flow south through the city of Akron.  The river then comes back north to Cleveland and empties out in Lake Erie.

Throughout the 1800s, Ohio grew. The Ohio and Erie Canal gave local businesses and farms access to resources. That connectivity meant Ohio’s farmers could sell their goods for higher prices in a more competitive market.

But as industry and population grew there were some consequences. The Cuyahoga River suffered. Minimal laws for waste regulation combined with chemical and steel materials dumped into the river – the Cuyahoga caught on fire not once or twice, but thirteen times. The most famous fire, in 1969, gained national attention and began an environmental movement that sparked initiatives such as the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency. The Cuyahoga began to clear.

Through its Rivers & Lakes: Keeping the Great Lakes and our Water Quality Scientist programs, the Aquarium brings students to the River’s banks to test its water quality the day of their visit. Using the scientific method, students determine if the water is excellent, good, fair or poor.

These tests take temperature as well as pH and nitrate levels into account. Students then discuss why it is important to test for these particular things and what variables can change the result. For example, oxygen levels can drop if the water is stagnant, phosphate levels will spike if farm fertilizer runoff enters the water and nitrate levels rise whenever human sewage is dumped in the river from sewer overflow points.  According to our Erin Bauer, Greater Cleveland Aquarium’s Education Coordinator, most days the Cuyahoga’s health comes out “fairly good,” but says there’s always room for improvement.

Students tend to have a range of reactions to being out by the river. Bauer states, “Getting to throw a water sample collection bucket into the river is always a highlight. Hearing kids make observations about what they see is always great. There are always a few ‘Eww, the brown water is nasty!’ and ‘Look at those plastic bottles out there.’  But there are also observations like ‘Cool! Look at those sea gulls!’ or ‘Wow, it’s bigger than I thought!’” Bauer is particularly happy when a barge passes by and the students can see how the river contributes to the region’s transportation needs.

The program has help from Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD) which provides the tubes and tablets needed to test water quality.  They also gifted us an enviroscape model that illustrates waste water treatment, drinking water treatment, runoff in the watershed and combined sewers.

Facilitating connections between students and our natural resources is important and Bauer says, “NEORSD and the Aquarium share a desire to educate youth about the urban water cycle.”

Visiting students are asked to brainstorm ways they can make a positive environmental difference for the Cuyahoga River.  For example, buying organic produce can reduce phosphate levels, planting trees can decrease turbidity, and reducing water volume while showering or brushing teeth ultimately leads to a decrease in sewer overflow.

– Morgan Wright




How a President Propagated a Piranha Myth

Blockbuster thrillers like Jaws have given sharks an undeserved reputation as aggressive, man-eating killers. Similarly, stories about piranhas have portrayed this fairly calm species as bloodthirsty animals to be feared.

So where did this myth begin?

In 1913, Theodore Roosevelt made a trip to Brazil. To impress the adventurous former American President, locals took him deep into rainforest and allowed him to “discover” a river there but warned him not to venture in. What he did not know was that they had stocked the waters with unfed piranhas. To illustrate the dangers for the former President and accompanying journalists they threw a cow into water filled with starving piranhas. (Was it a dead cow? Bloody bits of diced meat? A sick cow? This detail seems to change from story to story.)  Within moments there was a massive feeding frenzy.

Roosevelt went on to record his amazement of these seemingly perfect killing machines in his travel memoirs, which the American population devoured and became weary of the species. In 1914’s “Through the Brazilian Wilderness”, Roosevelt noted the following:

They are the most ferocious fish in the world. Even the most formidable fish, the sharks or the barracudas, usually attack things smaller than themselves. But the piranhas habitually attack things much larger than themselves . . . the piranha is a short, deep-bodied fish, with a blunt face and a heavily undershot or projecting lower jaw which gapes widely. The razor-edged teeth are wedge-shaped like a shark’s, and the jaw muscles possess great power. The rabid, furious snaps drive the teeth through flesh and bone. The head with its short muzzle, staring malignant eyes, and gaping, cruelly armed jaws, is the embodiment of evil ferocity; and the actions of the fish exactly match its looks.”

Although not based on real-world circumstances, Roosevelt’s vivid account the experience has only gained momentum over the years. Once Hollywood latched onto the myth and created the 1987 film “Piranha,” the unfortunate characteristic stuck.

In truth, piranhas are relatively calm until spooked. This animal can be skittish, especially if there are a larger number of them in one exhibit. The Red-Bellied Piranha, native to South America, feed on fish, snails, insects and aquatic plants, only occasionally eating larger mammals and birds.

We caught up with Connor while he was feeding our red-bellied piranha and asked him for the real story behind these beautiful fish.

Curious to learn more? Check out:

– Morgan Wright