Dr. Lesanna Lahner answers your Mishka questions

Mishka swimming with other sea otters at the Seattle Aquarium

Many of you had questions after our recent blog post announcing sea otter Mishka’s asthma diagnosis—and our staff veterinarian kindly agreed to answer the most common queries. See below for Dr. Lahner’s responses to your questions, and thanks for your concern about Mishka. As you’ll read, she’s doing great!

Q: Has Mishka’s asthma affected her ability to dive?
A: Mishka is receiving medications to control the clinical signs of her asthma so that she acts and feels like a normal, healthy otter. Therefore, she is diving normally and the asthma has not affected her physical abilities.

Q: Have you noticed improvement in her breathing using the inhaler?
A: Mishka is still receiving a systemic medication to control the clinical signs of asthma so at this time we are not relying on the inhaler. Once she is weaned off the systemic medication, the inhaler will improve her ability to breathe and reduce or eliminate any signs of asthma just like it does for a human or a cat—or even a horse.

Q: What type of asthma do you think Mishka has?
A: There are many forms of asthma: exercise induced, cold induced, allergen induced and more… Mishka likely has asthma that is aggravated by poor air quality; she does not seem to have trouble breathing after bouts of exercise.

Q: How can you tell/make sure that Mishka is actually breathing in the medicine when she puts her face to the inhaler?
A: There’s a little tab that moves on the spacer to indicate when she is breathing that tells us she’s breathing in the medication. Without that it would be tough to know for sure how many breaths she took each time she put her face to the inhaler.

Q: Did Seattle Aquarium manufacture the device that is used with the inhaler?
A: No, we are using a device called an Aerokat that’s manufactured specially for cats with asthma.

Q: How often does Mishka use the inhaler?
A: The inhaler is a daily treatment for Mishka.

Q: Can this occur in the wild?
A: That’s a great question—yes, it is likely that free-ranging or wild animals could develop a reactive airway condition or asthma. Wild animals do not have the benefit of escaping poor air quality and are not able to get medical treatment for an asthma attack. This is just a reminder of how important it is to take care of our planet and keep our air clean because we all rely on it to stay healthy!

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Seattle Aquarium first winner of AZA volunteer engagement award

AZA volunteer engagement award - Seattle Aquarium Beach Naturalist program

The Seattle Aquarium is proud to announce that our Beach Naturalist program is the very first winner of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Innovation in Volunteer Engagement Award. The award was developed to recognize achievement in volunteer program development; programs were judged by their ability to engage volunteers in the overall mission and operation of the organization. Ten different AZA member organizations submitted applications for the award in the “operating budget of over $5 million” category.

Who were we competing with? Notable institutions including the Brevard Zoo, CZS Brookfield Zoo, Detroit Zoo, Friends of the National Zoo, John G. Shedd Aquarium, Maryland Zoo, Milwaukee County Zoo, San Diego Zoo Global and Seattle’s own Woodland Park Zoo. Congratulations to our neighbors—the Woodland Park Zoo received awards in several other categories, including the AZA’s highest award for professional excellence, the R. Marlin Perkins Award, which was bestowed upon former director David Towne; a top award for Acting President & CEO Bruce Bohmke; and an award for significant achievement in volunteer engagement.

Says Volunteer Engagement Manager Katrina Bettis (who also serves on the AZA Volunteer Management Committee but was not on the judging panel for the award), “This is the first year in the history of AZA that there has been an award category specifically for volunteer engagement. AZA has a long history of formally recognizing animal care, education, conservation and visitor engagement programs, among others. When the Volunteer Management Committee was formed just a few years ago, we as a group felt that since many of our facilities rely on the effective engagement of volunteers to fulfill our missions, we wanted to make sure that those programs were being recognized at the AZA level.”

Described at the awards ceremony as “an incredibly innovative program that engages over 300 people in conservation work,” the Beach Naturalist program brings volunteer naturalists to a dozen Puget Sound shorelines on low-tide days each summer to engage with the public and provide information about the beach, its inhabitants—and how to care for both. Says Aquarium President & CEO Robert W. Davidson, “The exceptional Beach Naturalist program leverages the opportunities presented by an outing to the beach, providing our highly trained volunteer naturalists with a chance to educate and inspire new audiences about the wonders of the marine environment, and the critical importance of caring for it. It’s a prime example of the Seattle Aquarium’s vision and mission in action.”

While the 2015 Beach Naturalist season has come to a close, the partner Cedar River Salmon Journey program is just about to begin! Click here for details, and plan to join naturalists along the Cedar River in October to learn about salmon and their habitat. Plus, check our website next spring for details about the Beach Naturalist program—including how to become a volunteer, as well as program dates, times and locations.

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All about poop!

What’s more entertaining than poop? Don’t answer that…instead, be delighted and enlightened by these marine animal elimination facts.

sea cucumberSea cucumbers: the pooping vacuums of the ocean
Interpreters at the Seattle Aquarium often describe the California sea cucumber as a living vacuum cleaner. A great analogy, but does it tell the whole story? Do sea cucumbers simply suck up waste from the ocean floor, never to be seen again? No, because sea cucumbers poop that waste out again. In fact, they serve an important role, redistributing dissolved nutrients on the sea floor.

Lootas - sea otter at Seattle Aquarium

The fascinating floating poop of sea otters
Have you been lucky (perhaps that’s not the right word) enough to spot floating feces in the sea otter exhibit during a visit to the Seattle Aquarium? There’s a reason their poop rises to the surface: sea otters have a rapid digestion time of less than two hours (compared to humans, which average a 24-hour digestion period). The quick flow of matter through their systems can cause undigested shells and air to be trapped in their waste—so much that it floats. That makes for easy cleanup for our animal care specialists, and also simplifies the scooping of poop for non-invasive hormone and health analysis. Hormone levels of estrogen, progesterone, testosterone and corticosterone can offer insight into the otters’ cycles and stress levels, important information that helps us provide the best possible care for them.

“I’m eating fish poop so I’ll grow big and strong!”
If corals could talk, perhaps that’s what they’d say. In 2014, researchers from the University of Georgia confirmed what many aquarists had already suspected: that fish poop supplies the ideal ratio of nutrients to support coral growth. Scientists compared four different Caribbean coral sites and inventoried all the fish species at each site: 158 species and 71,000 individual fish. They then used mathematical models to predict the nutrient load from all these fish pooping. Though the total amount of nutrients produced by these fish differed from site to site, the ratio of nitrogen to phosphorous (20:1) was consistent across the board. Is it a coincidence that this ratio has been experimentally proven as ideal for coral growth? Probably not.

Want to learn more about marine animal poop? Talk to an interpreter during your next visit to the Seattle Aquarium!

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Sea otter Mishka diagnosed with asthma

Mishka, sea otter at Seattle AquariumOne-year-old Mishka, who joined us just this past January, has asthma—and is the first sea otter to be diagnosed with the disease.

Asthma makes it difficult to breathe by causing spaces in the lungs to become narrower than usual, which allows less oxygen to enter the lungs. Many believe asthma is a condition that affects only humans, but any animal with lungs can have it—cats and horses are two land animals that commonly get asthma.

Mishka began having trouble breathing when smoke from the Eastern Washington wildfires moved into the Puget Sound area last month. Our staff veterinarian, Dr. Lesanna Lahner, made the diagnosis of asthma based on Mishka’s clinical signs of having difficulty breathing, blood work, radiographs, and actually listening to her chest just like an M.D. would listen a child’s lungs to help diagnose asthma.

Now Mishka is learning to use an inhaler, just like humans do, to receive medication that will help her breathe better. (In fact, even her medication is the same as that used by humans with asthma!) Aquarium biologist Sara Perry uses food to train Mishka to push her nose on the inhaler and take a breath. “We try to make it as fun as possible,” she says. “Anytime you’re training a medical behavior, you want to make it nice and positive.” Mishka is responding well to the training—she’s a quick study, especially when food is involved!

Why does Mishka have asthma? It’s difficult to say exactly… we know that humans develop asthma for many different reasons. Sometimes it’s a mixture of genetics and environmental exposure or sometimes it’s just exposure to an irritating substance such as smoke from wildfires. It could also be related to reduced genetic diversity in sea otters, which has the potential to impact their immune systems and make it harder to fight off disease. Washington sea otters became extinct in 1910 as a result of rampant hunting related to the maritime fur trade. (Fast fact: the pelt from the final native Washington sea otter was sold for $1,000, which at that time was enough to buy a house—otters were hunted to extinction because of their tremendous monetary value.)

Sea otters,along with other fur-bearing marine mammal species, were given protection from fur trade hunting under an international treaty in 1911 but, of course, that was too late for the animals that had made their homes in our state’s waters. Washington was without otters for 60 years—until in 1969 and 1970, 59 otters were moved from Alaska to areas along the Washington coast. It’s believed that most of these animals died; many were found washed ashore, dead, soon after. Because of that, it’s estimated that the sea otters on our state’s coast today are descended from as few as 10 animals.

Since 2001, the Seattle Aquarium has participated in an annual survey of Washington’s sea otter population; click here to read our recent blog post about it. Want to learn more about Mishka and the other sea otters at the Seattle Aquarium? Read our animal fact sheet! You can enjoy the antics of our otters anytime via our streaming otter cam.

Video update from September 22, 2015:
Mishka continues to progress with her asthma inhaler training!

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New in our Puget Sound Fish exhibit

We’ve got some cool new additions to our Puget Sound Fish exhibit—learn a bit about them here, then get to know them during your next visit to the Seattle Aquarium!

nudibranchHooded nudibranch or lion’s mane nudibranch, Melibe leonina

First of all, what’s a nudibranch? Put simply, a nudibranch is a sea mollusk without a shell. And what makes this animal a nudibranch? The name nudibranch means “naked gills,” and you can see the circular cerata (or dorsal and lateral outgrowths) on this animal’s back that it uses for gas exchange. (You can also see the darker branching digestive parts inside the cerata.)

Also in common with other nudibranchs, these critters are hermaphrodites, meaning that they have both male and female sex organs, and two animals will fertilize each other during reproduction. So look for egg ribbons in the exhibit!

What sets the hooded nudibranch apart from others of its kind? This species lacks a radula, the rasping tongue that other nudibranchs (and mollusks) use to feed. Instead, it has a spectacular oral veil, or hood, for trapping small animals and pulling them into its mouth. It feeds on copepods, amphipods and ostracods (small marine crustaceans), as well as small post-larval mollusks.

manacled sculpinManacled sculpin, Synchirus gilli

What makes this fish a sculpin? Like all sculpins, it lacks a swim bladder and so it spends most of its time perched on objects like rocks, kelp or buoy lines. Although little is known about their reproductive habits, sculpins as a group are brooding fish and it is typically the male’s responsibility to protect nests of eggs. What sets them apart from other sculpins? Their Latin name, synchirus, comes from Greek for “hands together.” The pectoral fins of the manacled sculpin come together in a round form that allows them to cling to kelp blades, piling undersides or exhibit windows. They were once thought to be rare in the wild, but have since been widely seen from Alaska to California, especially in healthy kelp forests.




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