Florida Reef Tract Rescue Project
Fun Fact: The Museum & Aquarium was the first facility outside of Florida to receive corals as part of the Florida Reef Tract Rescue Project (FRTRP).
When you think of the Florida coast and the Gulf of Mexico, do you picture its beautiful clear waters and fantastic beaches? Lying just under the surface of southern Florida's waters is an entire ecosystem called the Florida Reef Tract. A popular snorkeling destination, and the world's third largest barrier reef, the Florida Reef Tract is facing unprecedented disease outbreak.
In a few short years, the disease has effected 55% of coral species in the area and often results in 100% fatality of affected corals. Since first observed in 2014 in Miami-Dade County, the disease has spread to the northern areas of the Florida Reef Tract and in April of 2018, reached the Lower Keys. It is expected that in a very short time, one third of the coral species found in Florida will become ecologically extinct, leaving nothing more than a few relic corals dotting the Florida Reef Tract.
The loss of coral reefs in this area would have a massive impact on the diverse fish and invertebrates that call the Florida Reef Tract home, not to mention the potential economic impact.
For the first time AZA professionals and resources have been sought out by State and Federal agencies to help manage and respond to a marine environmental crisis. The Museum & Aquarium answered the call, and was the first institution outside of Florida to receive these imperiled corals when we accepted 33 coral colonies from unaffected areas of the Florida Reef Tract.
The plan will be to house and care for these animals for the next three years while the disease runs its course and then send them back to Florida for genetic testing, propagation, and reimplantation back onto the reef when conditions are again favorable. Our goals are to prevent ecological extinction along the Florida Reef Tract and help maintain as much genetic diversity as possible in preparation for restoration and future disturbances.
Working together, the FWC, NOAA Fisheries Service, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection are coordinating this rescue project. With their leadership, and the assistance of AZA facilities across North America, it is our hope the Florida Reef Tract will survive and eventually flourish for generations to come.
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Fun Fact: The Museum & Aquarium partners with local students on this program! From 2016-2017, 8,000 juvenile mussels were reared in SUPSY* buckets maintained by local students. These students took growth and water quality data for use by USFWS in future management planning.
Freshwater mussels are considered the most imperiled group of animals in North America, with over 70% of our ~300 species either threatened or endangered, or already extinct.
The Museum & Aquarium, in cooperation with the Genoa National Fish Hatchery, has been raising freshwater mussels for recovery projects since 2004. The mussels, which require the use of a fish to serve as a host for their parasitic larvae, are raised in floating culture cages placed in our nearby Ice Harbor in the spring and removed in the fall.
At the hatchery, mussel larvae are placed on their appropriate host fish and then transported to the Museum & Aquarium for placement in the cages floating in the Ice Harbor. Each cage is stocked with 20 to 30 host fish. The cages allow the mussels to develop and then drop off, concentrating them in that specific area for future recovery. The cage also acts to keep predators away from the growing juvenile mussels. The fish are released from the cages after about six weeks, in plenty of time for all the mussels to drop off. The cages are harvested in October, and the resulting sub-adult mussels are stocked in the Mississippi River and its tributaries ranging from the Quad Cities all the way up to the Twin Cities.
From 2010-2017, 60,000+ juvenile mussels were recovered from the culture cases in the Ice Harbor and released in local waters by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
*SUPSY is an air-driven upwelling system made by nesting two small plastic buckets together with screened bottoms to allow water flow. Gentle aeration from an air pump creates flow through the system, bringing the mussels oxygen and food.
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Fun Fact: Staff at the Museum & Aquarium bred this newt in 2011, 2012 and 2018! We are the only AZA institution to breed Laotian Newts in captivity.
Laotian Newts have seen continued declines in habitat quality and the number of mature specimens in the wild. Additionally the Laotian newts have an extremely limited population radius.
These newts are in high demand for the international pet trade and lesser demand for medicine and food. So while captive populations are higher, Laotian newts have become endangered in the wild.
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Fun Fact: Since joining this U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and AZA Species Survival Plan® Program partnership in 2008, the Museum & Aquarium has sent over 52,048 Wyoming Toad tadpoles for release in Wyoming. Additional progeny were held back for breeding or released at an older age.
The Wyoming Toad (Anaxyrus baxteri) is found only in Albany County, Wyoming. The toad was first described in 1946 by George T. Baxter, a graduate student at the University of Wyoming. The presence of amphibians are often a key indicator of an ecosystem’s health. The population of Wyoming Toads declined dramatically in the 1970s, and by the 1980s, the toads were extremely rare. The Wyoming Toad was listed on the Endangered Species Act on January 17, 1984. In December 1996, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) approved a Species Survival Plan® (SSP) for the Wyoming Toad.
Captive husbandry and reproduction of the Wyoming Toad at the Museum & Aquarium, as well as six other locations nationwide, is of paramount importance to the recovery of the species. With the wild population in extreme peril, it is the responsibility of the institutions housing the remaining captive population to explore all options in order to not only significantly increase the overall numbers of Wyoming Toads, but also to attempt to understand the unique and challenging physiological and environmental demands of this species.
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Russian Legless Lizard (Sheltopusik)
Fun Fact: While in human care, the River Museum maybe the first facility in the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) community to breed the Russian Legless Lizard (Sheltopusik), since the 1980s. The Sheltopusik's distinguishing features led to the River Museum's acquisition of an adult male and female. Ironically, they were acquired for an animal exhibit featuring snakes and were included for comparison purposes.
Following the exhibit in 2016, a herpetologist on staff developed an extensive plan to breed the species, a process that has had little success while in human care. The first phase involved cooling down, or brumating, the animals’ body temperatures. This task was done by allowing the Sheltopusiks to burrow in individual trash cans housed in a standard kitchen refrigerator. After a few months in this brumation phase, the Sheltopusiks’ body temperatures were gradually raised and were introduced to each other.
In 2017, success was hopeful when staff discovered eggs were laid; however, none were fertile. The cycle was repeated, and in 2019, eggs were laid for a second time. The River Museum’s veterinarian was able to confirm that one of the eggs contained a developing Sheltopusik. The egg reached maturity and a striped Sheltopusik hatchling emerged from its shell, marking a rare successful breeding and possibly the first successful breeding at an accredited zoo in decades.
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