Thursday, April 19, 2018

Critter Tale: Fish or a porcupine?

by Erica Meier, communications intern

Hi there! I am a striped burrfish at Save The Bay’s Exploration Center and Aquarium. A middle school student rescued me from Narragansett Bay, and Save The Bay staff took me in and cared for me. Now I live in the tropical travelers tank with three other striped burrfish and a few other species of fish that have also traveled here from far away. Although my species can be found off the east coast of North America in waters from Nova Scotia to the Bahamas, we are much more concentrated in the warm southern waters. All of the fish in this tank are called “gulf stream orphans” because we drifted from our southern habitats in the warm waters of the gulf stream and ended up here in Narragansett Bay. Often, gulf stream orphans can’t survive New England's cold winter waters, so we are lucky to have found a home at the Exploration Center, where many visitors see and learn about us.

Visitors to the Exploration Center are always drawn to me because of my unique look and interesting features. My relatively small, light tan body is covered with black wavy lines, short thick spines and bright yellow underside that make me easy to spot. What really catches visitors' attention are the big spines that cover my body and are always visible, meant to scare away anything that might want to mess with me.

While I most likely won’t grow to more than 10 inches long, when I feel threatened, I can puff up to twice my body size by taking in water and enhancing my pointy spines. Many other species of puffer fish also take in water when they are threatened, but unlike me, their spines aren’t visible unless they puff up. In the wild, I typically live in seagrass beds or near shallow coral reefs and use my strong beak-like mouth to eat small fish, crabs, crustaceans, snails, barnacles and clams. Here at the Exploration Center, I live in an exhibit that’s just right for me and am fed lots of yummy food every day, including my favorite thing to eat, periwinkles.

People could be seeing more striped burrfish and other gulf stream orphans in Narragansett Bay in the future, because climate change is causing the oceans to warm. Once I arrived in the Bay from my warm gulf stream current, I was okay for a little while in the summer, but would not have survived very long at all in the cold winter water. As water temperatures gradually rise, however, striped burrfish and other gulf stream orphans are surviving here longer and longer. A rise in non-native species like me may change the balance of biodiversity in the Bay and affect other native species of fish and marine life, because new species may not have any natural predators here or have traits and defense mechanisms that are uncommon in this part of the ocean.

I have learned about all of this from the aquarists at Save The Bay who teach visitors about me and other fish in the tropical travelers tank, the effects of climate change and what they can do to help. The Exploration Center is a great place to learn and explore, and I hope you’ll come by and see me and the over 40 other species from Narragansett Bay that are here too!

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