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The New England Aquarium
The ethereal terrors of our beaches are now one of the biggest attractions at the New England Aquarium in the Amazing Jellies exhibit. While interning at the New England Aquarium this summer I learned that these animals are just as strange when raised from culture behind the scenes as they are in the open ocean. What the jellies lack in physical complexity they make up for in mystery. Their unexpected responses to chemical and physical triggers seem like a substitute for the brain, heart, liver, or kidney. In the jellies department of the New England Aquarium I came to expect the unexpected, as every day was in fact active research into the habits of these strange animals.
For a polyp culture to produce adult jellies, an event known as strobilation, usually all we can do is wait. Some cultures we keep in the refrigerator to mimic winter; for others we mimicked a monsoon season by lowering the salinity. One species of jelly, the pacific sea nettle (C. quinquecirrah), reacted so favorably to a decrease in salinity, we had trouble keeping up with its strobilation. Eventually running out of tanks, we shipped out over a hundred of these nettles to other aquariums and raised the salinity back up to 30 ppb, forcing the culture back into dormancy. Still other cultures would strobilate suddenly with no apparent trigger, perhaps the result of an unknown temporal response.
Because some species we are unable to culture, jellies aquarists take frequent trips to coastal Rhode Island to collect jellies in the field. I joined some of these collecting trips where I was able to witness another strange behavior of jellies. When we arrived at the docks in Jamestown, RI the water was thick with comb jellies, (C. mnemiopsis). The water became so thick with jellies in the first five minutes we could have spent the whole afternoon collecting jellies without exhausting the swarm. Within fifteen minutes the jellies had almost disappeared. The presence and absence of jellies in the field is so dependent on tides, we never knew when we would be lucky or when we would strike out completely. We could only predict it to be hit or miss.
While jellies can respond favorably to the stress of poor water quality, I witnessed the dangers of poor water quality to other aquatic species while interning in the water quality department. We tested water samples from every water system in the aquarium for concentrations of everything from ammonia to ozone. While sometimes we can expect high concentrations such as calcium in a coral tank or nitrite in a bioseeding tank, some numbers signal big problems. Some microbiology tests yield dangerous levels of total coliform bacteria in our giant ocean tank, prompting suspension of dives for the day for the safety of the divers. Moreover, while treatments of copper sulfate can cure a parasitic infection in most fish species, there is a fine line between treatment and detriment, because concentrations too low are ineffective and concentrations too high can suppress the appetite in the fish. We would monitor the copper levels in treated tanks daily to be sure the copper was indeed therapeutic.
The integrated internship gave me the opportunity to explore positions in two very different areas – the fish and animal health departments. While the jellies position was very physical, requiring lots of lifting and climbing, the water quality position demanded constant concentration. The combination of the two gave me a well rounded experience of work at the aquarium. I learned in depth about several species of jellies and also learned the breadth of information of every animal at the aquarium based on their environmental needs in the water quality department. My work at the New England Aquarium was a fantastic complement to my Colby coursework, and a great exploration into possible careers in the environmental sciences.