A leader in the aquarium and marine research communities, Mystic Aquarium has produced significant advances in the marine sciences. Learn more about our laboratory and field research that’s working to promote healthy oceans of biodiversity and sustainable resources for current and future generations.
Laboratory Research Projects
Although much progress has made, there is still much information to be gained on the marine mammal immune system. Many of the reagents that are available to study the immune system of terrestrial mammals cannot be used to investigate the marine mammal immune system. Our research team has focused on studying the bottlenose dolphin and beluga whale immune systems and have developed dolphin and whale-specific tools and reagents to characterize the cetacean immune system. These include molecular probes, functional assays, and cell markers. Mystic Aquarium scientists are also cloning genes of interest from marine mammals. Cloning genes enable the comparison of immune sequences between marine mammals and humans and/or other terrestrial mammals to gain insight into the evolution of these important proteins and the immune system. By studying the immune system of marine mammals we may also gain important information on the human immune system.
Mystic Aquarium scientists are studying hormones or chemical messengers in the blood that play major roles in metabolism, reproduction and adrenal response in beluga whales. Feces, saliva, and more recently exhaled breath have been used in many species to monitor hormonal activity and Mystic Aquarium scientists are investigating the feasibility of measuring hormones in saliva, blow and feces of belugas as an alternative to blood collection. The goal is to transition the techniques to sample free-ranging whales such as obtaining breath samples from endangered whales to determine reproductive and health status.
Mystic Aquarium scientists determined whether circulating levels of total thyroxine (tT4), total triiodothyronine (tT3), and thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) are subject to biological and environmental influences as a function of age, sex, or season in aquarium belugas and if these hormones reveal any significant metabolic adaptation in wild beluga whales.
To date, because no accurate ranges exist for reference, thyroid hormones in beluga whales have been poorly explored and under-utilized. The data gained from this project is an important first step in our understanding of thyroid hormones in this species. This research provides baseline T3, T4, and TSH levels for thyroid health monitoring and comprehensive health assessments in both aquarium-maintained and wild belugas.
Mystic Aquarium scientists are developing molecular tests to identify genes that play a critical role in marine mammal health. Investigations of these markers in both blood and skin can reveal important information such as health consequences of exposure to environmental stressors e.g. chemical or noise pollution. Mystic Aquarium scientists are also investigating the feasibility of skin as a health assessment tool through this study, since for free ranging marine mammals skin can be obtained through remote biopsy.
Brucella, a bacterial pathogen known for centuries for its devastating reproductive and general health effects in humans and livestock, is now recognized in marine mammals. Limited knowledge is available on its full physiologic effects in marine mammals. Though similar to terrestrial origin brucellosis, marine origin Brucella infection will likely act as a significant factor in low conception rates and increased spontaneous abortion and stillbirth rates in marine mammal populations. Marine origin Brucella is also zoonotic, thus poses a threat to humans who come into close contact with marine mammal body fluids and tissues, such as researchers, veterinarians, and animal care specialists.
To appreciate the potential for health problems associated with marine origin Brucella, we must understand the magnitude of the problem in marine mammal populations. Past studies involving marine mammal brucellosis have used traditional livestock diagnosis methods, and the results are frequently inconsistent. Thus this disease has likely been under-diagnosed in marine mammals, and the true impact of infection has not been properly accounted for in studies that seek to document significant causes of population decline in marine mammal populations. The diagnosis of marine Brucella exposure in humans uses techniques similar to those in veterinary medicine, likely repeating the problem of under-diagnosis.
Scientists at Mystic Aquarium use multiple diagnostic tools, including culture, PCR, and newly developed serological studies to improve our knowledge of the past and present prevalence of marine origin Brucella exposure/infection and its effects in both wild and marine mammals in professional care.
In recent decades there have been increasing reports of marine mammal strandings and disease leading to questions over whether human activities are negatively impacting marine mammal health. There is concern that human activities may serve as stressors, interrupting adaptations to diving in marine mammals and leaving them more susceptible to injury and disease. This has highlighted the need to further understand the relationship between marine mammal health, environmental challenges, and human activities.
Mystic Aquarium scientists are studying how marine mammal immune cells function during diving and how additional stressors may alter this function, thus impacting marine mammal health. Blood samples are exposed to simulated dives using a small pressure chamber, and the response of immune cells to changes in pressure are measured. Blood samples are also being obtained from Aquarium whales after diving with activity and without to determine the impact on the immune system and health.
Beluga whales are important ambassador residents of public aquaria throughout the world, holding the torch for the conservation of Arctic ecosystems in the face of climate change. To ensure that public aquaria can share that conservation message with visitors for decades to come, public aquaria cooperate to encourage breeding of resident whales to develop aquarium populations in an environmentally sustainable way. However, there are many unknowns to the mating systems of beluga whales, especially behaviorally: The repertoire and sequence of courtship behavior and vocalizations are unknown; it is unknown how animals signal interest, receptiveness, or readiness to mate to potential partners; it is unknown how courtship behaviors influence hormonal staging for reproduction and pregnancy or how hormonal state influences courtship and reproduction behavior; and it is unknown how mate choice is expressed or exerted behaviorally. Mystic Aquarium scientists and collaborators are addressing these knowledge gaps by observing behavior and recording vocalizations of courting and breeding whales in aquaria; and by tying those behaviors to known reproductive stages as measured by reproductive hormonal cycles. Uncovering the secrets of the beluga mating system will be useful to wildlife managers in making management decisions to support breeding behaviors among wild populations of belugas.
The marine aquarium industry is bustling: 1.5 to 2 million people worldwide keep marine aquaria, trading up to 57 million individuals and 2,100 species of fish, invertebrates, and corals annually, and supporting a trade that has an annual worldwide economic impact of up to $330 million. However, 98 – 99% of marine species for the aquarium trade are wild-caught, posing potential threats to overfishing of wild populations and capture-related damage to marine habitats. Mystic Aquarium scientists are contributing to the research and development of aquaculture techniques of marine ornamental species working in partnership with the Marine Science Magnet High School, Groton, CT. These approaches will empower the industry to aquaculture a broader range of species, thus working toward a more sustainable hobby and industry.
Pacific walruses live in the Bering and Chuckchi Seas. Like many Arctic species, their lives depend on sea ice, and is where the walruses rest, give birth, and nurse their calves. However, sea ice is disappearing as a direct result of global climate change – threatening the survival of this unique species. Less sea ice means that the walruses have to perform many of these activities on land where human disturbance can trigger deadly stampedes, trampling over each other as they flee into the Arctic waters. The impact of these changes is unknown. At the Mystic Aquarium research laboratory we are validating tests to measure the response to chronic stressors by using fecal samples collected noninvasively from walruses housed at other U.S. zoos and aquariums. Studying walruses under human care will allow us to collect baseline hormone data that will contribute to our knowledge of walrus physiology with the ultimate goal to monitor stress levels in wild walrus and contribute to their conservation and management.
Chytridiomycosis is an infectious disease of amphibians caused by the fungal zoospore Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd). This disease occurs worldwide and has been responsible for dramatic declines in amphibian populations, with some populations suffering complete loss. Connecticut DEEP has confirmed the presence of Bd in frog and toad populations throughout the state; however, there has been limited sampling of the newly emerging Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans (Bsal) in local species.
This project employs Citizen Scientist volunteers to conduct amphibian surveys in a variety of wetland habitats throughout Northeast Connecticut. During these surveys, project participants will assist staff in the collection of samples to be tested for the presence of Bd and Bsal to further conservation of amphibian species in the region. Samples will be collected from the diverse amphibian species found in the region, including the eastern red-backed salamander, spotted salamander, American bullfrog, and wood frogs. Assessing the prevalence of chytrid in the area will help in early identification of threats to amphibian biodiversity and to minimize potentially disastrous population loss.
While chytridiomycosis can be devastating to many amphibian populations, some species seem to be more resistant to infection. What makes these amphibians more protected than others remains unknown. One possibility may be the bacteria that live on their skin, which collectively make up the skin microbiome. By utilizing the same swabbing technique for chytrid monitoring, we can analyze these bacterial populations to determine if certain groups of bacteria may be responsible for resistance to this disease.
With this combined approach, we can further conservation of amphibian species in the region and beyond.
African penguins are found in South Africa, Namibibia, and a handful of small islands off the southern coast of the continent. African penguins are critically endangered with less than 22,000 breeding pairs left in the wild. Initial declines were caused by harvesting their nests which are made of guano and can be used for fertilizer. Today, African penguins are threatened by multiple stressors, such as food shortages, oil spills, and climate change. When an animal (or penguin) encounters a stressor they respond by releasing hormones known as glucocorticoids into the blood stream. This stress response results in various behavioral and physiological changes that allow the animal to focus its energy on escaping the “stressor”. This is both beneficial and necessary for survival, however chronic release of these hormones can have negative effects, including reduced immune function, reproductive activity, and survival. These circulating hormones are eventually broken down and their metabolites are are excreted in the feces as fecal glucocorticoid metabolites (FGM), making ideal biomarker for measuring the response to stressors. Chronic stress has also been shown to disrupt the bacteria that live in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and make up the GI microbiome. In some animals, a decrease in the types of different bacteria that inhabit the GI tract have been linked to poor health
Fecal sampling is a noninvasive technique that can be applied to a variety of situations where traditional blood sampling is not possible, and FGM analysis has been used to measure chronic stress in many wildlife populations. By using fecal samples collected from the African penguins at Mystic Aquarium, we are learning how these hormones change throughout the year as the penguins transition through their natural lifecycle (breeding and molt). We are also investigating the relationship between FGM levels and what types of bacteria live in the gut of African penguins, as well as determining is certain types of bacteria are necessary for penguin health.
The ultimate goal of this research is to apply this combined approach of monitoring elevated GC levels and disruptions in the GI microbiome in wild penguin colonies under different stressors, thus targeting and playing a key role in conservation strategies.
Research in the Field
Mystic Aquarium has partnered with Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge on Cunningham Inlet in Nunavut, Canada, to help protect the wild beluga whale population through research and education. A world-class beluga observation site located 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle, late Mystic Aquarium Scientist and Research Director Dr. David St. Aubin conducted research studies on belugas in Cunningham Inlet for many years and this is the first time people are studying this whale population since 1999. Since that time, the climate has changed dramatically, allowing increased ship traffic in the Northwest Passage. No one knows how this affects the belugas and if the beluga population is growing, shrinking or stabilizing.
In July 2012 and 2013 Mystic Aquarium’s scientists conducted research at Cunningham Inlet to look at the feasibility for long term beluga studies in this area, initiate observations and collect data on the hundreds of wild belugas that make Cunningham Inlet their home for six weeks each year.
Mystic Aquarium scientists have also conducted research on wild belugas in Point Lay and Bristol Bay, Alaska, in order to determine the environment’s effect on beluga health and compare health information with endangered beluga populations worldwide.
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. In the fall of 2008, beluga whales in Cook Inlet were listed as critically endangered. This project aims to establish baseline health measurements of wild belugas with studies of live capture-released belugas in Point Lay and Bristol Bay, AK via satellite tracking, blood sampling, and sample collection. Moreover, samples and natural history data are collected from whales taken during native subsistence hunts. Establishing baseline health measures of belugas in the wild before further oil and gas exploration and development, impact of climate change, etc. is critical. Usually it is too late e.g. after an oil spill to understand impacts since baseline levels of contaminants, pathogens, etc. were not available. This study enables us to gather information on belugas over time and reveal health status of belugas under different environmental pressures. Data can eventually be compared with information on the endangered Cook Inlet beluga population. Human health impacts are also studied given that native peoples consume the beluga for food. For the first time ever, in collaboration with National Geographic, a critter cam (camera placed on a beluga) was placed on a wild beluga to get footage of beluga behavior.
Through this project an educational exchange program was established in which high school students from Point Lay, AK and Mashantucket tribal students from southeastern CT assist the scientists in the field with collection of data and then travel to Mystic Aquarium to participate hands-on with the analysis, participate in the Aquarium’s other educational programs and spend time on the Mashantucket Reservation.
This project seeks to further investigate current health status in Chukchi Sea and Bristol Bay belugas and initiates steps to study how stressors impact beluga health; furthermore, the project develops baseline data for future studies, and broadens public awareness of current threats for belugas in the wild.
Snapping Turtle Health Assessments: Partnering with National Geographic, the Tributary Mill Conservancy in Old Lyme, CT and Dr. Tobias Landberg, Acadia University, Mystic Aquarium scientists are studying the behavior of snapping turtles in different types of habitats by deploying crittercams or small cameras on their backs. Before release, measurements are taken on each turtle and the blood sampled for health assessment. Immune function and contaminant levels are being investigated. The research is to help protect the snapping turtle and their habitat as well as provide information that may impact human health.
Influenza is a globally important pathogen leading to significant morbidity and mortality which has implications for both wildlife and human health. The coastal environment provides an interface between marine and terrestrial habitats where avian reservoirs of influenza collide (sea ducks, gulls, and shorebirds) and overlap spatio-temporally with marine mammals, providing an opportunity for interspecies transmission of influenza virus. The repeated infections in marine mammals during the last 30-40 years in New England and the associated sampling and laboratory studies have been the foundation of our understanding of influenza in marine mammals. However, the infection and/or exposure to influenza viruses in marine mammal populations outside of these mass mortalities and in other parts of the world remain limited. Therefore, this project seeks to develop collaborations with researchers and rehabilitation networks in order to collaborate in sample collection and laboratory analysis that will work on a continuous, multiyear, and long-term (5-10 year plus) project to assess the role of influenza exposure to marine mammal health.
Understanding the role that marine protected areas can play in both conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity is a key element for managing fisheries and other human uses of the ocean. While much information is available for tropical coral reefs, kelp forests and similar shallow water habitats around the globe, fewer studies have been conducted in deep water outer continental shelf environments, where most commercial fishing activities take place. Mystic Aquarium scientists and collaborators carried out a 12 year study of the recovery of seafloor communities and patterns of habitat use by fishes at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Maine. Interestingly, rocky habitats have to yet to fully recover from fishing disturbance, even after 12 years. While some species of economic interest and ecological importance depend on rocky habitat for survival, especially when young, the need to conserve such places remains steeped in controversy. The results of this work and related studies provide critical pieces of information to make decisions regarding habitat protection.
The behavioral ecology of piscivores (fish-eating fish) is being studied at Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary to better understand the interactions that link predators and prey. Previous studies from Mystic Aquarium scientists and colleagues found that foraging by fish predators in the water column actually enhanced feeding opportunities for fish predators that hunt on or near reefs. For example, groups of greater amberjack, Spanish mackerel, and great barracuda were observed using coordinated hunting behaviors, both within and among species, when preying upon mixed schools of juvenile tomtate (a small bottom fish) and round scad (locally known as “cigar minnows”). These hunting behaviors drove schools of small fish closer to reef habitats on the bottom and created feeding opportunities for bottom-dwelling scamp and gag grouper. The scientists reasoned that rather than competing for food resources, the behaviors of these fishes may result in more feeding opportunities for all. The current project expands on these initial observations and combines several methods of observing fish behavior and distribution to get an improved “picture” of the interactions between species and to understand if such interactions are different inside and outside a protected area. The primary goal of this work is to determine the importance that these types of behavioral interactions have in local food webs.
Management and effective policy making for deep-sea corals in both national and international waters is hindered by fragmented knowledge of patterns in the distribution and abundance. To date, most deep-sea coral presence data has been from research and exploration programs directed at other target species. In the past decade plus, occupied submersibles and remotely operated vehicles have been directed to investigate locations chosen specifically for the high probability of finding deep sea corals. Despite this work, we still don’t know the extent of corals, or most deep-sea species, around seamounts, throughout canyons, and in other precipitous features found on outer continental shelves and in the deep ocean. This knowledge is critical for considering how to balance human activities such as fishing and minerals exploration with conservation. Research projects have assessed the utility of AUV technology to conduct coarse-grained surveys for management, have focused on mapping the distribution of deep-sea corals in the northern Gulf of Maine, an area that probably is the last refugia for such animals in the region after a century of fishing with mobile gear such as trawls, and submarine canyons and seamounts here off the northeast US which led to the first National Monument in the Atlantic Ocean in 2016.
Understanding how natural resources are distributed is critical for sound management. The State of Connecticut, the State of New York, and the U.S. Environmental Protection (USEPA) agency have multiple mandates to preserve and protect coastal and estuarine environments and water quality of Long Island Sound while balancing competing human and energy needs with protection and restoration of essential ecological function and habitats. Maps of the ecological resources in the Sound will greatly aid in addressing management needs. A multi-year ecological mapping program has been implemented to produce such maps. A pilot project focused on the Stratford Shoals region, to develop field and analytical approaches to produce maps that are both user-friendly and user-useful.