Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Critter Tales: Sharks and Skates of the Bay

By Abbey Greene, Communications Intern

“Maybe if I just get up here.”

Bruce shimmied the best he could, and wiggled his smooth body up to the surface of the water.
“I just need to see, I’m so close!”

His strong tail swished hard under the water, propelling him higher. Finally, his face and eyes successfully poked out.

“Yes! I did it!” Bruce the smooth dogfish shark thought happily, bouncing up and down. He could see everything. He looked around his blue tank and saw it was rimmed with all kinds of people laughing at his super cool trick he worked so hard to perfect, reaching out to pet him. Bruce sank back beneath the water and swam up to his audience, hoping to be pet.

What Bruce was doing is called ‘spy hopping.’ Spy hopping is a common behavior for all dogfish and even other species of whales and sharks. “They look like they are dancing,” explains Adam Kovarsky, Save The Bay’s Exploration Center Manager. “They can stick their heads out of the water to get a better look at their surroundings.”

Bruce is one of the three smooth dogfish sharks currently at Save The Bay’s Exploration Center and Aquarium. These small sharks were donated to the aquarium by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services. They were found in the Rhode Island sound during regular survey trawls the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services conduct in the bay to track fish populations.

Dogfish can grow to be almost four feet long and live 15-17 years. Generally, the aquarium only keeps them for a short period of time. “The longest stay they ever have is about nine months. We let them grow, give them a bunch of good meals so they can put on some weight, and release them back into the bay better than we found them. That’s the goal,” Adam said.

Dogfish sharks are a top predator in the bay, keeping the food chain running smoothly. However, swimming with them in the Bay isn’t a problem.  “They’re not a danger to humans in any way. The smooth dogfish have no sharp tearing teeth at all… they want nothing to do with people in the wild so they just swim away, Adam said.”

Not only are dogfish a member of the shark family, they are also a part of a marine group called elasmobranchs, which means they have skeletons made entirely of cartilage, rather than bone.
Another elasmobranch in the aquarium is the Little Skate, and visitors can see and touch plenty of these in the Exploration Center as well.

“There are these little egg cases, called mermaids’ purses, because they’re a little funny,” Adam laughs. “The babies spend anywhere between 6-12 months developing and then they can hatch out. They can actually hold off hatching out of the egg if the conditions aren’t right. If it’s too cold, too turbulent, they can actually wait until the conditions are nice.”

The adult skates, baby skates and mermaids’ purses are on display in the aquarium, and if a member of the public is lucky, one might see a baby skate hatch out of the egg and begin it’s life.

Like dogfish sharks, little skates can live long lives. Males tend to live about 15 years, and females average around 17 years. They are common in Narragansett Bay, spending their time scavenging along the sand, cleaning up debris and old leftover food, and playing a vital role in keeping our Bay clean.

Want to know a fun fact about Skates? They are actually among the oldest surviving group of jawed vertebrates, first appearing 150 million years ago!

To visit and even pet the Smooth Dogfish and the Little Skates, the public is welcome to visit the Save The Bay Exploration Center and Aquarium in Newport daily from 10 a.m. - 4 p.m.

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