Seattle Aquarium vet assists in sea otter surgery

Emergency surgery for Corky, a sea otter rescued by the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue Centre.
Photo provided by Vancouver Aquarium.

Dr. Lesanna Lahner, our staff veterinarian, recently traveled to Vancouver, B.C. to assist in emergency surgery on Corky, a sea otter at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue Centre. Corky was rescued near Tofino, a district on the west side of Vancouver Island, in August. He was diagnosed with a fractured rib, possibly due to being struck by a boat, which led to air being trapped under his skin and a condition called subcutaneous emphysema. Unable to dive or forage for food, he was transferred to the rescue center for treatment.

The emphysema subsided but follow-up tests revealed that one of Corky’s kidneys had ruptured, probably during the initial trauma. The rupture caused Corky to begin passing large amounts of blood and, by October 5, it became clear that he would need surgery. With the rescue center’s head veterinarian, Dr. Marin Haulena, out of the country at a conference, reinforcements were needed. Dr. Lahner and Dr. Alex Aguila, a veterinary surgeon from the Animal Surgical Clinic of Seattle, headed north to assist Dr. Karisa Tang, veterinary fellow at the Vancouver Aquarium.

For Dr. Lahner, the decision to make the trip to help was an easy one. “We’re part of a small community of specialized veterinarians who collaborate to ensure that these wonderful animals get the best care possible,” she says. The team performed a series of life-saving procedures: they removed one of Corky’s kidneys in a procedure called a nephrectomy; opened his urinary bladder (in a procedure called a cystotomy) to remove blood clots; and gave him a blood transfusion. While conducting these procedures, the group was making history as well: Corky was the first sea otter ever to have a kidney removed, and first known to receive a blood transfusion.

Corky will continue to receive critical care at the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre. Read our sea otter fact sheet to learn more about these amazing animals!

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The facts of (jellyfish) life

Jellyfish lifecycle
The medusa form of jellyfish (with its bell-shaped body and long tentacles) is just one of several stages in the jellyfish life cycle. Jellyfish progress through a number of other forms.

Thanks to a recent intern project, the lagoon jelly area in our Tropical Pacific exhibit now features a small ephyra bowl to give Aquarium visitors a glimpse of another phase of the jellyfish life cycle. Ephyra are the free-swimming jelly stage that comes before full-grown medusa.

Jellyfish reproduce both sexually and asexually. One generation (the medusa) reproduces sexually and the next generation (the polyp) reproduces asexually.

Moon jelly (Aurelia aurita) males in their medusa form, which can be seen in the Ring of Life exhibit, release sperm trails that are taken up orally by moon jelly females and fertilized internally. Lagoon jelly (Mastigias papua) medusas, on display in Ocean Oddities, spawn directly into the water. For both species, fertilized eggs develop into a multi-cellular planula and then into polyps that live on the sea floor.

At the polyp stage, jellies resemble tiny anemones and reproduce asexually by strobilation. When a polyp strobilates—segmenting its body to reproduce—it releases tiny ephyra into the water. Within a few weeks, a bell appears and the ephyra are considered medusa, starting the whole process over again!

How small are the ephyra? They’re tiny! About the size of this circle.

Go see them for yourself in the Tropical Pacific exhibit on your next trip to the Seattle Aquarium.

Please note: The ephyra bowl may periodically be empty as the population of ephyra fluctuates.

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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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