Mystic Aquarium is committed to saving endangered species. “Endangered” and “threatened” are terms used to describe the conservation status of species that are at risk of extinction. If a species goes extinct, there are no more living organisms of that kind anywhere in the world.
Species can become threatened or endangered for many reasons. These reasons include habitat loss, pollution, disease, competition from invasive species, climate change, and over-hunting or harvesting. If a species is listed as threatened or endangered, protections are put in place to protect them. Some of these protections include activities to help their populations grow (for example, breeding programs), development of recovery plans (for example, restoring lost habitat), and research to learn more about the species. The loss of even a single species can be felt throughout the food chain and may have a disastrous impact on the ecosystem.
Worldwide, more than 42,100 species are threatened with extinction. In the United States, over 1,300 species are listed as threatened or endangered.
Mystic Aquarium, like other zoos and aquariums, is committed to protecting threatened and endangered species. We participate in conservation efforts such as the establishment of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and sustainable fisheries management. We also conduct research on endangered, threatened, and non-threatened marine animals. The goals of this research are to learn how to protect these animals, develop ways to diagnose and treat disease, and create new technologies to promote species survival.
Mystic Aquarium partners with multiple organizations that share a commitment to saving endangered species. One of these partnerships is with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Saving Animals From Extinction (SAFE) program. SAFE brings together different AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums to spread the message about why these species are at risk and work together to save them. SAFE is engaged in the preservation of dozens of species, and Mystic Aquarium is an active participant in four of these Species Survival Plans.
- African Penguins
- Coral Reefs
- Sea Turtles
- Sharks and Rays
Click here to learn more about these SAFE programs and Mystic Aquarium’s participation in the efforts.
Mystic Aquarium Endangered Species Research
Mystic Aquarium’s research team conducts other studies with marine mammals at the aquarium and in the wild. Although not all the animals we study are threatened or endangered, the lessons we learn from studying these species and developing novel sampling techniques and methods to detect illness, stress, or other conditions can be used to protect animals that are in danger.
How Marine Mammals Fight off Infection and Disease
The immune system protects the body from harmful substances, bacteria, viruses, and other things that might cause illness. Little is known about how the immune system in marine mammals works, and many of the methods to study the immune system in land animals do not work in the marine environment. Mystic Aquarium researchers are developing and testing new tools and reagents to study the marine mammal immune system.
Important Chemical Messengers
Hormones are chemical messengers that send signals to the body’s bloodstream and tissues to regulate body processes. Mystic Aquarium scientists are developing novel ways to non-invasively measure hormone levels in beluga whales. These methods involve measuring hormones excreted in feces, saliva, and blow hole exhalations as an alternative to blood collections. Once fully tested, these methods can be used to determine health and reproductive status in wild animals without the need to handle them.
Genes and Health
Among the tens of thousands of genes that mammals have in their DNA, only a small percentage of these are expressed, or turned on, at any given time. When and why certain genes are turned on or off can provide information about health. Mystic researchers are developing tests to identify genes that play an important role in marine mammal health, and are testing the feasibility of using skin samples to measure gene expression, since skin samples can be obtained via remote biopsy on wild whales.
Diving and the Immune System
When humans scuba dive, they must come back to the surface slowly to avoid decompression sickness, or the bends. Marine mammals can dive deep and come quickly back to the surface without seeming to have an issue with decompression. The Mystic research team is studying how marine mammal immune cells respond to changes in pressure, and how these changes are related to health.
Non-Invasive Measurement of Stressors in Walruses
Pacific walruses live in the Arctic, and their lives depend on sea ice for rest, mating, and giving birth. As sea ice disappears due to climate change, walruses must perform these activities closer to humans, which may cause stress and disrupt their normal behavior. Mystic Aquarium researchers are developing non-invasive tests to measure the response of walruses to chronic stressors.
Health Assessment of Wild Beluga Whales in Alaska
Climate change, pollution, offshore oil and gas exploration, and other human factors are challenges for whales in the wild and pose potential threats to Alaska’s beluga populations. Through collaborations, the Mystic Aquarium research team is establishing baseline health measurements of wild belugas with studies of live capture-released belugas via satellite tracking, blood sampling, and other biological sample collection.
The microbiome is the collection of microorganisms that live in and on a host organism. These largely bacterial communities are normal, and help protect the host from harmful pathogens. Researchers at Mystic Aquarium are characterizing the microbiome in beluga whales residing at the Aquarium, and using this information to learn how the microbiome is related to beluga whale health.
Photogrammetry in Beluga Whales
Photogrammetry is a technique that uses quantitative information from photographs (such as length, width, growth, body condition) to collect measurement on animals in the wild to infer health or population status. Mystic Aquarium is participating in a study to provide standardized photographs and measurements on healthy robust belugas under their care for comparison with wild whales and photogrammetry data obtained from them.
Telemetry and Cameras on Beluga Whales
The Mystic Aquarium research team is testing cameras and telemetry devices on resident belugas. This project will allow us to learn the best size of devices to use, how to attach them, and if the animal’s behavior changes in response to the device. Once fully tested in the Aquarium environment, these devices can be used to track and monitor beluga whales and other cetaceans in the wild.
Influenza in the Ocean
There is evidence that influenza viruses are widespread in the marine environment and infection in marine mammals is probably common. Mystic Aquarium is partnering with researchers from Tufts University in a multi-year project to better understand the role of influenza exposure to marine mammal health.
Brucella, a bacterial pathogen known for centuries for its devastating reproductive and general health effects in humans and livestock, has now been detected in marine mammals. Mystic Aquarium scientists are studying this pathogen to understand how it affects marine mammal health and have developed new methods for detecting it in marine mammals in the wild and in aquariums.
Measuring Stress in African Penguins
Multiple stressors threaten the critically endangered African penguin. When these penguins (and other animals) encounter a stressor, they respond by releasing hormones known as glucocorticoids into their blood. Although this is a beneficial response to manage stress, chronic release of these hormones can negatively affect health. Mystic Aquarium scientists are studying levels of glucocorticoids in fecal samples to non-invasively measure levels of these hormones and determine if they are related to behavioral or health changes. The team is currently working with resident penguins to develop a tested method that can be used in wild populations.
Deadly Fungal Infections
Amphibian populations are rapidly declining worldwide. Over 30% of all amphibian species are considered threatened. A significant threat to amphibians is a pathogen called Bd. Bd, caused by the fungal zoospore Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis. For this project, our citizen scientists are trained to conduct amphibian surveys throughout the state and help collect samples that are tested for Bd.