Lise Watson, collection manager of Wild Reef, regularly dives with the sharks—fishes she knows expertly. Erica Hornbrook, collection manager of Amazon Rising, is widely respected for her knowledge of freshwater rays. Lisa Takaki is senior director of marine mammals, a job that involves training not just the belugas and dolphins, but also Shedd’s octopuses, turtles and monkeys.
The three present a portrait of the diversity of expertise at Shedd. But they share this: All are Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) studbook keepers. Put another way, they are animal matchmakers, charged with making the best decisions to maintain sustainable populations of animals living among AZA-accredited institutions. They look at this exacting and time-intensive responsibility as a labor of love for the species they oversee.
Lisa Takaki became the first studbook keeper for Pacific white-sided dolphins in 2008, but her experience with them goes back 24 years. “I was brought on at Shedd as the lead for the Pacific whites-sided dolphins when the Oceanarium was being built,” the trainer says.
“I’ve worked with many cetaceans in my career, but Pacific white-sided dolphins are my favorite so far. They have such a wonderful, joyous and truly friendly way about them. I feel a huge responsibility for this species and its future.”
She has compiled the genetic and demographic history for each of about 20 dolphins in the North American aquarium population. The information figures in the all-around care of the animals, but by knowing who is—and isn’t—related to whom, Lisa can recommend breeding decisions that will enhance the population’s genetic diversity.
Lise Watson, who has been at Shedd since 1995, began working with zebra sharks about 14 years ago. “I immediately loved how easy they were to train and that they tend to be gentle and even playful at times.” She often calls them the “Labrador retrievers of the shark world.” The zebras also became favorites of hers because they were seldom seen at aquariums, making them a unique species that no one knew much about.
That changed quickly at Shedd. To date, the zebras have produced a record 89 pups. Except for one still at Shedd, offspring have been distributed among 17 other AZA facilities.
“At the same time that we were successful in breeding them, AZA designated zebra sharks as a species of concern that should be managed,” Lise says. “Like many other shark species, zebra sharks’ numbers in the wild are dwindling, making them vulnerable to extinction. By establishing the AZA studbook and Species Survival Plan for zebra sharks, I could make a contribution to the aquarium community as well as to the species.”
Lise has intriguing insights into zebra shark reproduction. “We recently discovered that females have the ability to reproduce without any involvement with a male, called parthenogenesis. It doesn’t happen often, but we’ve helped do genetic testing to confirm one parthenogenesis case, and there have been others in California and Dubai as well.”
Erica Hornbrook’s introduction to freshwater rays coincided with her arrival at Shedd in 1997, but she began working intensively with them after the 2000 opening of Amazon Rising.
“I really love the freshwater rays,” she says. “When I started there wasn’t much known about them in the wild or in aquariums, so it was a great chance to learn. And I love that most people don’t even know that there are rays in freshwater!”
Her studbook, which she established in 2007, is Shedd’s thickest. She is tracking the entire taxonomic family of South American freshwater rays. “I have 20 species logged, so I’m really keeping 20 studbooks in the same database. But right now I’m concentrating on managing four priority species.”
She points out that a species’ shaky status in the wild is not always the reason for a management plan. “We only have so much space for freshwater rays in zoos and aquariums, so informed decisions need to be made about which species are kept. With the studbook, we look at total available space and try to balance it among the four priority species. Current population sizes of these rays vary, so managing them means breeding some species less and breeding some more to gradually balance the populations.”
Erica is fascinated by the fact that freshwater rays, which bear live young, “nurse” their pups—not in the mammalian way, but through the uterine lining, which secretes a milky fluid. “We’ve seen pups nursing in utero—pretty cool!”
What could make a matchmaker happier? How about 112 ray pups born at Shedd.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
—Karen Furnweger, web editor