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Shedd Shares Triumphs for Wildlife Conservation Day

Aquarium’s Critical Wildlife Research Efforts Prevail in Face of COVID-19 Related Challenges

December 02, 2020

A diver ties dangling coral polyps to a tall propagation frame.

Despite pandemic-related challenges, Shedd Aquarium’s conservation researchers spent 250 days this year observing a range of species—from sharks and corals, to suckers and freshwater mussels. Just short of last year’s total, this number underscores Shedd's commitment to wildlife studies did not slow down in 2020, thanks to new, stringent COVID-19 safety measures and help from our community and partners.  

In celebration of Wildlife Conservation Day on Friday (Dec. 4), Shedd’s conservation scientists are sharing photos and videos of this year’s field research expeditions (see below) from the Caribbean to Chicago, all of which are part of the aquarium’s ongoing efforts to protect and preserve the aquatic animal world and establish a balance between humans and nature.

Having overcome setbacks and challenges from the pandemic, the research team has their sights set on another successful field season in 2021. While continuing with current research focuses, the team has plans to simultaneously explore how the lack of tourism in 2020 (because of the pandemic) impacted some species in the Caribbean, for better or worse.

HOW: For the aquarium’s marine research team, which relies on travel to and from The Bahamas to conduct their studies, increases in COVID-19 testing availability and strict quarantines enabled the team to form their own “bubble” aboard Shedd’s research vessel, the R/V Coral Reef II. In The Bahamas and Florida, the team:

  • Tested the heat tolerance of 230 fragments of critically endangered staghorn coral
  • Conducted 310 SCUBA dives to study spiny lobster, queen conch and critically endangered Nassau grouper
  • Counted and measured 1,643 queen conch, 214 spiny lobsters and 142 Nassau grouper during SCUBA dives
  • Documented the movement of 24 tagged Caribbean reef sharks as they “pinged” 591,624 times through ocean monitors

And for the freshwater research team—which studies Great Lakes tributaries, the Chicago River, creeks in Northeast Illinois and wetlands in the Forest Preserves of Cook County—the scientists were able to leverage the eyes and ears of community volunteers and the capabilities of high-tech, autonomous field gear when they were unable to travel to research sites. In the summer and fall, they took to local natural areas donning face masks and following other COVID-19 safety guidelines. This year, the team:

  • Documented 5,700 white and longnose suckers as they migrated from the main basin of Lake Michigan into tributaries in the Spring, with help from 34 community scientists making daily observations
  • Observed 52 species—including amphibians, aquatic insects, birds and mammals—using just two acres of newly restored wetland habitat in a local forest, which was previously overrun with invasive species but improved by Chicago-based volunteers
  • Collected and tagged 649 freshwater mussels from 16 species in creeks and rivers
  • Spent 38 nights—often between 10 p.m. and midnight—looking for larval fish in the Chicago River using underwater light traps

VISUALS: Shedd’s scientists can be seen conducting scientific research using many research methods, including SCUBA diving surveys. As pandemic-related precautions required Shedd’s team to stay home for a short period in the Spring, some studies this year were conducted in part with autonomous field gear, such as motion-censored cameras and listening devices for amphibian and bird calls, and tagged fish.

PHOTOS: Photos from the 2020 research season are available for download:
Photo credit: ©Shedd Aquarium

BACKGROUND: Shedd Aquarium conducts applied scientific research to preserve biodiversity and ensure a balance between humans and nature. Shedd’s portfolio of freshwater and marine research programs aims to understand and mitigate the impacts of the most serious threats to biodiversity, including overfishing, urban development, invasive species and climate change. The scientists work collaboratively with local and state governmental agencies, universities and environmental non-government organizations throughout the Great Lakes and Caribbean regions.

Shedd is not only committed to performing sound science but also to train the next generation of conservation ecologists. To further that commitment, Shedd's field research programs invite students, community scientists and local stakeholders to get involved and take action for animals.

Learn more about Shedd’s conservation research program on Shedd’s website here.