Newport This Week

NATURE in the NEIGHBORHOOD

Learn About Spy-Hopping and Mermaid’s Purses

Smooth trunkfish. (Photo by Lauren Parmelee)

Smooth trunkfish. (Photo by Lauren Parmelee)

There have been some dank and dreary days lately, which can put a damper on outdoor exploration. Fortunately, there is one place on the island to enjoy nature in any weather. I recently spent a wonderful morning at Save The Bay’s Exploration Center, located on the first floor of the rotunda at Easton’s Beach.

The aquarium is chock full of fresh and saltwater wildlife to observe up close. As you walk in, you are greeted by a strange, box-like fish with big blue eyes and pursed lips, who seems to be quite interested in who is coming through the door. This is the smooth trunkfish, which found its way to Rhode Island from the Caribbean by catching a ride on the Gulf Stream.

Jess Bornstein, the center’s outreach coordinator, showed me quite a few tropical travelers, including a spotfin butterflyfish, a band-tailed puffer, a lumpfish and a plane file fish. Like the trunkfish, they were carried by the Gulf Stream and found off our coast by fishermen and scuba divers. Since these species are not strong swimmers, they would never make it home if released, so they spend their lives being well-cared for by the center’s staff and interns.

Anemone, above and comb jellies, below. (Photos courtesy Save The Bay)

Anemone, above and comb jellies, below. (Photos courtesy Save The Bay)

After checking out the tropical species, Bornstein led me to a large saltwater tank that houses the dominant fish of our local waters, including the state fish of Rhode Island, the striped sea bass. Sharing his space are black sea bass, summer flounder, scup, pollock and a conger eel. These fish were donated by fishermen or caught by Save the Bay educators when they did trawls in Narragansett Bay with school groups. Generally, all the native fish in the aquarium are released after a year of educational service as exhibit animals.

One of the busiest spots is the rocky shore touch tank, where volunteers guide visitors in gently handling sea stars, whelks, spider crabs and snails. Do you know how to tell a female spider crab from a male? Here at the touch tank, you can turn the crab over and see that the shape of the tail is wide on a female crab and narrow on a male crab. And if you didn’t know crabs have tails, you will learn that, too!

 

 

If you enjoy the touch tank, you will want to check out the back room, where sharks swim and the horseshoe crabs crawl. When you stand on the platform next to the shark pool, smooth dogfish swim by and poke their heads out of the water to see what’s going on. This behavior is called “spy-hopping” and is done by whales and sharks alike to get a better look at what is happening at the water’s surface. In contrast to many shark species, dogfish have small blunt teeth, so you are welcome to feel the skin on their backs as they swim by.

Near the shark pool, in low tanks easy for kids to access, chain-link cat sharks, little skates and horseshoe crabs can be found. You have to look closely for the skates, as they can change their color to blend in with the background, but the cat sharks are quite striking with their bold markings. Bornstein told me that each cat shark has a unique pattern that can only be seen under blue light; basically, it’s a biofluorescent fingerprint.

Nature lover Lauren Parmelee of Newport is senior director of education at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.

Nature lover Lauren Parmelee of Newport is senior director of education at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.

In addition to educating thousands of people every year and rescuing Gulf Stream orphans, the staff at the center raise baby skates and cat sharks to be released back into the wild. Each egg of these two related species is contained in a thick leathery pouch that has a long tendril at each corner. These sturdy egg cases often wash up on the beach after the young hatch and are commonly referred to as “mermaids’ purses.”

The building that houses all the exhibits is really quite small, so there is no special nursery to raise the skates and sharks. Instead, the eggs hang in saltwater containers that are back-lit so visitors can see the developing organisms. Remarkably, skates can take longer to hatch than a human does to develop, although the time frame of the fish can vary, depending upon habitat conditions. Little skates take six to 12 months to hatch, while cat sharks take six to nine months. If you got a membership to the center, you could easily come back every month to watch the process.

There is a small dark room that is a must see for visitors. Glowing in one tank are beautiful, white moon jellyfish. Save the Bay’s aquarist, Jessi Sullivan, has to feed these transparent creatures brine shrimp three times per day, and when she does, you can see the pink shrimp inside the jellies’ bodies.

Adam Kovarsky, the center’s manager, has a knack for rescuing turtles. I am not sure if it started with Jerry, the diamondback terrapin, who is missing his upper beak and needed a good home, or Bowser, the gentle giant of a snapping turtle, but he has taken in a lot of these cool reptiles over the years. When you visit the center, go on a scavenger hunt to see how many different turtle species you can find.

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