sturgeonIf you filled your coffee pot or tea kettle with tap water from Lake Michigan this morning, you’re among the 36 million people in the United States and Canada who depend on the Great Lakes for this most basic resource.

You are at home on the Great Lakes. And Shedd’s lighter, brighter revamped gallery of the same name wants to help you explore, learn more about and get downright excited about this ecosystem that you are a part of.

Ecosystem? Yes! Lake Michigan, one-fifth of the Great Lakes, is more than a reservoir of drinking water, or the surf lapping at your favorite beach, or the view from the windows of the 147 or Jackson Park express bus on the workday commute.

As if being the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem (10,000 miles of coastline, 20 percent of the surface freshwater on Earth) isn’t enough, the Great Lakes region is home to more than 3,500 species of plants and animals, 200 of them globally rare—and another 180 of them invaders from elsewhere on the planet.

So come to Shedd, come home to the Great Lakes, and meet the neighbors!

Have a hands-on encounter with a fish species that outlived the dinosaurs. At the new Sturgeon Touch pool, shown above, you’ll get an idea of how lake sturgeons have survived for more than 200 million years as you feel the protective hard bony plates encasing these 4-foot bottom-dwelling fish.

SalamanderMeet the largest salamander in North America. Also the one with the coolest name. The wrinkly hellbender can grow to 30 inches. You’re unlikely to see one in the wild because these nocturnal amphibians keep a low profile hidden among rocks in clean, cool, fast-running streams and rivers. So enjoy an up-close view of Shedd’s resident hellbender in one of the new focus habitats.

Check out the colorful sunfishes. Who says all Great Lakes fishes are brown or silver? Don’t miss the rainbow darter, either.

Asain carpSee three species of Asian carp. In a habitat that reflects the diversity desolation along stretches of the Illinois River, see silver, bighead and grass carp. Three bighead carp were discovered in a Humboldt Park lagoon by Illinois Department of Natural Resources biologists during routine monitoring for invasive species. You’ll also see the much smaller, and quite attractive, native redspotted sunfish and white bass.

sea lampreysRate the EEEUUUWWW factor. New to the gallery are a passel of sea lampreys, which, despite their common name, do just fine—in fact, all too well—in fresh water. Canals built to give Eastern ship traffic access to all five Great Lakes also allowed these invaders to get a mouth in the door. With their ghastly, but exquisitely efficient, tooth-ringed maws, these parasitic fish literally sucked the life out of ecologically and economically important lake trout populations. We acknowledge sea lampreys’ devastating effect throughout the lakes with the gallery’s invasive species icon.

Rate the EEEUUUWWW factor 2. Look for the inch-long giant water bug—a new focus animal—attached to vegetation in the water or at the surface, where it must return periodically to breathe. It ambushes prey—insects, tadpoles, small fishes—with its powerful front legs. Then it pierces the animal with its sharp beak, secretes digestive enzymes to dissolve its prey’s insides and sucks out the juice, leaving behind an empty skin or exoskeleton.

RioVisit your favorites, including river otter Rio and alligator snapper Guinness. Rio’s relatives frolic in clean rivers throughout the Great Lakes basin—and have even been sighted offshore on our lakefront. While alligator snapping turtles have a more southern range, 100-pound Guinness feels at home in the Great Lakes gallery, and we aren’t about to unsettle him.

Tap into breaking news about the Great Lakes. Check out the new monitor with continually updated information about Great Lakes conservation news and events that you can follow on Facebook and Twitter.

Tell us your story about the Great Lakes. You know how we feel about this remarkable region—we want to hear from you. Tell us what you love about the Great Lakes, what you think the lakes will be like in the future, or why we all should protect the Great Lakes. It’s easy to record your video, and you can also view what other guests had to say.

At Home on the Great Lakes is how we hope you’ll feel after mingling with some of your aquatic neighbors. We also hope you’ll be inspired to partner with Shedd in keeping the Great Lakes great. Join us on a Great Lakes Action Day, which combines local habitat restoration with a fun day outdoors. What better way to make yourself at home?

Shedd Aquarium is dedicated to preserving and protecting Great Lakes wildlife and habitats through conservation science, education and awareness programs generously supported by the following Conservator Partners: ArcelorMittal and Coca-Cola.

Karen Furnweger, web editor