Earning our stripes with zebra sharks
Shedd’s prolific zebra sharks have produced a record-setting 89 pups—cause for celebration but also an incredible opportunity to identify normal blood values and physical measurements to create baseline data on the young of this protected species. With the experience gained—and backed by a deep institutional concern for the welfare of this species—a Shedd shark expert manages the zebra shark studbook and Species Survival Plan of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and oversees the breeding program for this species at AZA-accredited facilities across the United States.
A window on Pacific white-sided dolphins
With fewer than 20 Pacific white-sided dolphins in North American aquariums and zoos, the animals in Shedd’s care offer a rare window into the biology and behavior of this little-studied species. For more than two decades, Shedd has partnered on research efforts with universities, government agencies and colleagues at other aquariums. This includes collaborative studies on the species’ reproductive biology, including ovulation cycles, gestation length, prenatal development and mother-calf interactions—knowledge that not only guides our care of the animals in the North American zoological population but also informs the timing and methods of our field research on this species. Nearly all of the information we’ve gained through regular veterinary exams and long-term observations would be difficult, if not impossible, to collect by studying animals in the wild.
Belugas help test field equipment
Since 1991, Shedd has led or taken part in dozens of published studies focusing on beluga whales. The Abbott Oceanarium, with unobstructed underwater views of the animals, is the perfect setting for observational studies. Shedd’s scientists have also worked with Canadian researchers in the field, and Shedd’s beluga population has made invaluable contributions here, too. As stand-ins for their counterparts in the wild, they’ve helped test and refine equipment and techniques for use in the field. Different-sized whales tried out expandable flipper identification bands. They helped test EKG monitoring techniques so that rescue teams can provide the best care to stranded and entangled whales. And by blowing “chuff”—the misty fluid expelled from the blowhole—onto a Petri dish on cue, they are providing Shedd’s scientists with a potential tool for assessing the health of wild belugas without having to handle them.
Shedd’s researchers are studying naturally occurring beneficial microbes in water. What happens to them when the temperature fluctuates? How might a change in those microbial populations affect the immune systems of aquatic animals? The “water vaccination” that apparently goes on all the time in the wild could be affected by climate change or another manmade disruption. While evaluating individual animals’ immune functions over a period of time is impossible in the wild, it’s easy to do within Shedd’s systems. Both the fishes and the marine mammals participate in this study: The fishes station to allow mucus collection from their skin, and the marine mammals voluntarily allow blood samples to be taken. These samples reveal each animal’s immune status and allow our researchers to monitor for changes.
Aquariums’ unique contributions
Shedd and its sister organizations accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums offer unique access to thousands of species in our quest for the most accurate scientific understanding of the animals in our care. Our on-site research complements our fieldwork, and the combined results enable us to provide the best care to animals—wherever they live.