A towering projection of gently swaying fronds frames the stunning Kelp Forest exhibit in Shedd's Oceans gallery. This diverse and light-filled habitat, alive with leopard sharks, jack mackerels and garibaldis, is an example of the kelp forests that grow along the Pacific coast from southern Alaska to Baja California, Mexico.
This floor-to-title-panel exhibit, holding 12,000 gallons of salt water, is home to about 20 species of fishes and invertebrates. In the wild, many animals in a kelp forest are transient — they come to mate, breed or hunt, then leave. But in Shedd’s Kelp Forest, you can see the following species and more on every visit:
Kelp are brown macroalgae, rather than plants, and grow to about 100 feet tall in shallow, rocky coastal waters where the light can stream down to support them. Kelp forests are among the most productive ecosystems on Earth, supporting a wide variety of species.
Leopard sharks are one of those transient hunters. They are skittish, but harmless to humans. They feed along the bottom, picking up mollusks and other shelled invertebrates. You can recognize them by their saddle-like spots, which is how Shedd’s aquarists tell individuals apart — no two skin patterns are alike.
The Kelp Forest is also home to horn sharks. They’re easy to recognize by their short, blunt heads and the spines in front of each dorsal fin, which look a little like horns. These bottom-feeders have powerful jaws for crushing prey like sea urchins and crabs.
Bright orange garibaldis get their common name from Italian politician Giuseppe Garibaldi, whose followers wore striking red shirts, similar to the shocking orange of these damselfish. Most damselfish species are tropical, but garibaldis live in slightly cooler waters. Like many damsels, they energetically defend their territories. Watch the action!
Copper rockfish tend to stay close to home, never traveling far from their immediate kelp habitat. They vary greatly in color, ranging from red-brown to pink-yellow. They tend to hover in unusual positions, including upside down, but that’s normal! You’ll also see jack mackerels swimming in groups, adding an unmistakable shine to the habitat. These schooling fish can be seen inshore in kelp forests and many miles offshore.
Though not in this exhibit, sea otters are a critical part of kelp forests in the wild. Whole stands of kelp can be decimated by sea urchins, which chow down on the fronds. Sea otters, of course, eat sea urchins, and a lot of them, so they keep kelp habitats healthy by keeping urchin populations in check. And that ensures that kelp forests stay healthy for all the species that rely on them.
Be sure to stop by the Kelp Forest exhibit the next time you’re visiting Shedd!