Breeding seahorses to conserve their wild cousins

The courtship of Pacific seahorses begins with an awkward dance.

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A close up of a Pacific seahorse (Hippocampus ingens) in the ¡Viva Baja! Life on the Edge special exhibit.

Over the course of several days, a female and a male seahorse will start to mimic each other’s movements. As their synchronization improves, the couple perfects a routine that involves circling each other, holding tails and swimming upward in unison.

“Their courtship dance involves going up the water column, so they need a few feet of vertical space,” says Jennifer O’Quin Anstey, senior aquarist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Her responsibilities include looking after a suitably tall holding tank, in a back room with soft light, behind the aquarium’s ¡Viva Baja! exhibit.

Nearby, smaller tanks are full of baby seahorses. They look like miniature versions of the adults—but begin their lives a dark hue. Their color alternates between black and yellow as they mature.

“People kept telling me how difficult it was to rear them, which only made me more determined to do it,” Jenn says.

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Re-writing the future for coral reefs

The Paris Agreement— the strongest global commitment to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases—became international law on November 4. Ratifying nations from both the developed and developing world have gathered in Marrakech, Morocco, for the 2016 U.N. Climate Change Conference, known as COP22. Nations are now focusing on detailed steps to meet reduction targets designed to keep Earth’s temperature from rising 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. 

Today’s guest post, focused on the important role of coral reefs, comes from Kristen Weiss of the Center for Ocean Solutions—a partnership between Stanford Woods Insititute for the Environment, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.


“It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.” -Miracle Max, The Princess Bride

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A toadstool leather coral (Sarcophyton sp.) on exhibit at Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Coral reefs have suffered from an intense global bleaching event that began in 2014, threatening more than 40% of the world’s corals and sparking environmental writer Rowan Jacobsen to write a controversial “Obituary for the Great Barrier Reef.” Global warming, plus last year’s El Niño event, are the key culprits in this mass bleaching.

Closer to home, reef habitats from Florida to the Gulf of Mexico have also been hard hit. Fortunately, despite this widespread devastation, there are still regions where at least some coral species have survived bleaching—in other words, where coral reefs are mostly dead, but still slightly alive. According to many coral biologists, that makes all the difference.

“In every bleaching event, there are survivors,” explains Professor Steve Palumbi of Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station. “Corals sitting right next to a bleached one that are not themselves bleached. Why? Do those corals just have the right genes? The right algal symbiont? The right micro-habitat? And do they give rise to the next generation of growing corals?”

Continue reading Re-writing the future for coral reefs

We’re taking action on climate change

The science could not be clearer: Earth’s climate and ocean chemistry are changing, and carbon dioxide emissions from human activity are the primary driver.

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Aquarium employees reduce their carbon emissions by using alternative transportation.

As an organization grounded in science, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is as committed now as it ever has been to our mission of inspiring conservation of the ocean.

It’s important to us to work in the wider world, to engage with folks like you, and to walk the talk in our own business operations. That’s why we’re making changes that reduce our carbon emissions—and that we hope will inspire others to help shrink humanity’s global carbon footprint.

What we continue to do

Here at the Aquarium, we’re upgrading our infrastructure and transforming our business practices to reduce the emissions of heat-trapping gases.

Continue reading We’re taking action on climate change

Food for thought: Exploring sustainable solutions

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M. Sanjayan kicks off the Sustainable Foods Institute with a riveting keynote.

When the first groups of early humans stood up and foraged on the plains of East Africa, they solved their food shortages by walking somewhere new. In other words, Dr. M. Sanjayan said, “Humans were never sustainable in one place.”

Sanjayan, a scientist and member of Conservation International’s senior leadership team—whom you may have seen on nature shows like Big Blue Live and Earth: A New Wild—proposed this concept in a keynote address that kicked off the Aquarium’s 11th annual Sustainable Foods Institute in Monterey.

Within a few days’ walk, Sanjayan said, our early ancestors were able to find new, unexploited resources, which they would deplete over time, then migrate again.

Today,  our planet has 7 billion human mouths to feed. And nearly every inch of inhabitable land is already spoken for. “To achieve sustainability, we have to innovate,” Sanjayan said. “And we only have a couple of generations to pull it off.”

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Sampling the snowy plover song

A snowy plover with a broken wing cheeped to her chicks at Monterey Bay Aquarium’s wild bird rehabilitation facility.

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A Western snowy plover (Charadrius nivosus nivosus) with summer plumage in the Aviary exhibit.

The tiny bird’s high-pitched, staccato trills gave Aimee Greenebaum, the Aquarium’s curator of aviculture, an idea. That night, her colleagues tiptoed into the plover’s room with a microphone and recorded her peeps.

“It was a total whim,” Aimee says.

Ten years later, her team is still playing those plover-mama calls from a boom box—to coax eggs into hatching, and to soothe orphaned chicks.

The Aquarium is a rehabilitation site for the Western snowy plover, a shorebird listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

During breeding season, Aimee’s team works with local parks and conservation groups to rescue and release injured snowy plovers and abandoned chicks. The collaboration has helped grow a healthy breeding population in Monterey Bay.

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Working together to save the vaquita

Update 7/21/16: Mexican authorities have adopted new rules making the gillnet ban permanent in the upper Gulf of California, and improving the ability for officials to enforce the ban. The changes—encouraged by advocates including the Association of Zoos and Aquariums—offer new hope for vaquitas’ recovery in the wild.


Pop quiz: What’s the world’s rarest marine mammal?

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A mural in San Felipe, Mexico, celebrates vaquitas. There is very little documentation of vaquitas in the wild; most images of live vaquitas are artist renderings. Photo by Sean Bogle

Answer: It’s a small, shy porpoise called the vaquita (va-KEE-tah). Vaquitas live only in a small part of the northern Gulf of California, bordering Baja California and the Mexican mainland. The dark markings around their mouths and eyes give them a unique look, and have led to their nickname, “panda of the sea.”

They’re also critically endangered. A May 2016 survey estimates fewer than 60 are left.

Populations of elephant seals and gray whales, which once faced extinction in this same region, have recovered thanks to transnational cooperation. There’s hope for vaquitas, too.

In observance of International Save the Vaquita Day, July 9, aquariums and zoos across the United States are raising their voices for strong and immediate conservation action on behalf of the vaquita. You can help when you join the Monterey Bay Aquarium and sign the petition to protect them from fishing practices that threaten their survival.

Continue reading Working together to save the vaquita