Saturday, December 29, 2012

Meet Our Staff: Aquarists

Trevor Erdmann and Danielle Guest are two of the aquarists for The Living Planet Aquarium. Aquarists are part of the husbandry team. Their duties include cleaning tanks, monitoring water quality, feeding the animals, monitoring animal health, and taking care of the filtration and plumbing systems. They are also involved in the design of new exhibits. Aquarists work mainly behind the scenes, but they do have a public role. The animal feedings that visitors can watch, such as the shark feeding and the octopus feeding, are done by aquarists.

Trevor feeds brine shrimp to the sea jellies
Trevor has been working at the aquarium for two months, but his first experience with the aquarium was as a husbandry intern when he was in high school. Trevor also has experience working as a volunteer aquarist at a salmon hatchery. He went to school in Alaska and has a degree in Marine Biology. Working as an aquarist is a busy gig. Trevor says that one of the biggest challenges of the job is “getting everything done in time.” Trevor's favorite job duties are food preparation and animal monitoring. “I love to watch the animals,” says Trevor. “It's so relaxing and rewarding.” For those aspiring to work as an aquarist, Trevor suggests interning and volunteering in high school. He also recommends a degree in a related field. “This might lead you to the coast for your education,” says Trevor. Trevor emphasizes the importance of having a flexible schedule. “These animals don't take a day off,” says Trevor. “They need care every day. Everyone here is all about making sure these animals are healthy and happy.” Trevor's favorite animal at the aquarium is the white-tip reef shark. “It was a baby back when I was an intern,” he says.

Danielle checks on Toukee the aracari in his
behind the scenes enclosure
Danielle started at the aquarium about a year ago. Before that, she interned at a zoo and two wildlife rehabilitation centers. She also worked in a seasonal position as a snowy plover monitor. She attended college in California and has her bachelor's degree in Animal Science with a minor in Biology. There are many parts of the job that Danielle enjoys. “I love feeding,” says Danielle, “and enrichment.” Enrichment is when a new object or element is introduced into an enclosure that the animals can interact with. This helps the animals stay active – physically and mentally. Danielle says that the most challenging part of the job is when she must say goodbye to one of the animals. Although animals in captivity have much longer lifespans than those in the wild, they don’t live forever. “This is something that everyone who works with animals has to learn to deal with,” says Danielle. If you are up to the challenge and wish to pursue a career as an aquarist, Danielle has some advice. “Start getting as much experience with animals as you can,” she says. “Also, a degree helps. It sets you apart from many others who want a job in this field.” Among the animals at the aquarium, Danielle has “lots of favorites,” but she especially loves the penguins, the boreal toads, and Toukee the aracari.

For more information about employment opportunities at The Living Planet Aquarium contact Tannen Ellis at or visit our website at

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Designing a World Class Aquarium

The Living Planet Aquarium is in the process of building a new 136,000 square foot aquarium, located in Draper, Utah, just off 12300 S. and I-15. Along with many more animals, the facility will include themed galleries, interactive exhibits, spaces for educational programs and events, and more. The construction team broke ground on October 24, 2012, but that was by no means the beginning.

It had always been a goal of CEO Brent Andersen to create a world class aquarium for Utah. Early in the process, Brent and the designers had to determine what the new building and its exhibits would look like. Senior Digital Media Specialist Ari Robinson and Art Director Chris Barela began developing concept art to bring some of the design ideas to life several years ago. The inspiring images you now see started out as nothing more than sketches in notebooks or on white boards. Some images could not be fully realized on paper and were made into physical 3D models. Some were transformed into computer graphics. Ari and Chris collaborated with and gathered feedback from staff, designers, architects, donors, and visitors. The ideas went through many iterations before the team made final renderings to share with the public and blueprints for construction.

Sketch of Discover Utah exhibits

Slot canyon cross section 
Sketch of cave exhibit

The exterior of the building is designed for both visibility and to convey a theme. “We wanted the building to be easy to spot, to become a recognizable landmark for visitors,” Ari said. “We designed a flowing shape and curved structure to give a fluid and aquatic feel without being literal. We wanted to avoid using specific ocean-related objects. Instead, the curve could evoke the fin of a shark, a crescent moon, or something else, leaving much to the visitor's imagination.”

Once the size of the aquarium was determined, the shape of the exhibits and the exterior evolved together. The designers have created a plan to best utilize the space. There will be several exhibit galleries, including Journey to South America, Discover Utah, Ocean Explorer, Deep Sea Gallery, and a Changing Exhibits Gallery that will host new exhibits every year. “Each gallery focuses on telling a story, and each exhibit within that gallery helps to tell it,” said Chris. All of the animals from the current aquarium will all be moving to the new aquarium, and part of the designers' work involved re-using much of what is in the current building. The current penguin tank will become the new caiman tank, while the caimans' old tank will become the new anaconda tank, each animal getting an upgrade in the process. For the penguins, sharks, and otters, new larger tanks have been designed as the centerpieces of their galleries.

Model of bridge in Discover Utah gallery

Discover Utah gallery

According to Ari and Chris, the biggest challenge in the design process is scope. “The project is almost overwhelmingly large,” said Ari. “The space is huge, and for each design element, we have to consider all of the details.” Chris shared an example. “The Discover Utah gallery will contain a slot canyon that visitors can travel through. Where exactly in the gallery will it be located? What will its twists and turns look like? All of this must be mapped out beforehand.” The process of imagining these elements continues behind the scenes, while digging begins on-site. The physical building has just begun, but the plans needed to realize it are well on their way to completion.

Ari and model of South America gallery

Rendering of South America gallery

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Penguin Encounter

How would you like to meet The Living Planet Aquarium's coolest animals in person? The Penguin Encounter invites guests to go behind the scenes for an educational experience with the Gentoo penguins. Here's a taste of what to expect during an Encounter.

Penguin Encounter participants meet their guide under the tree in the Journey to South America exhibit. Our group had five people, though as many as eight can attend. The guide led us on a short tour through South America, ending at the penguin exhibit. There, he explained some penguin basics, including the banding system used to identify the penguins. Through the “employees only” doors, our behind-the-scenes journey began.

Aviculturist Deana Walz met us near the two huge tanks that provide all the water for the South America exhibits. She introduced the group to the aquarium's South American birds: macaws, parrots, and an aracari.* These birds are scheduled to become part of exhibits in the aquarium's new building. We saw the penguin cam, which allows aquarium staff to keep an eye on the penguins at all times. Then, we were led into the encounter room adjacent to the penguin exhibit.

The door between the encounter room and the penguin exhibit opened...

...and many penguins decided to come in and visit!

We all wore closed-toe shoes, as a precaution against inquisitive penguin nips and jackets because the encounter room is kept at a chilly 40-46 degrees Fahrenheit. We were asked not to touch the penguins. Gentoo penguins do not engage in social touching, so they do not like to be touched by people, and because the penguins are trained to eat from keepers' hands, they could accidentally bite if touched by a participant. Cameras are fine, even with a flash. However, we kept our cameras above our knees, as the penguins have been known to peck curiously at lenses. We were asked to remain seated throughout the encounter and to remain calm and quiet, which keeps the penguins safe, comfortable, and inclined to spend more time in the encounter room.

A penguin attempted to hop up on the bench.

Deana opened the door between the encounter room and the penguin exhibit. Without hesitation, six penguins waddled in. They regarded us curiously. A flurry of activity followed. One penguin attempted to hop up on the bench between two people while another hid underneath. Two penguins shared a mating bow. A couple of particularly mischievous penguins named Roto and Ghost Rider took an interest in the youngest guest's shoes and managed to untie one of them. After awhile, Deana brought out some balls for the penguins to play with. A few of the penguins pecked at the balls and chased them around. Roto and Ghost Rider bickered over a tennis ball, attempting to adopt it as their egg. The individual personalities of the penguins became clear as they interacted with objects, each other, and us. Some are shy while others are bold. Some are more playful, and some act almost regal. One may be a problem-solver, who attempts to retrieve the ball that's stuck under the door, while another is more of a problem-maker, who put the ball there in the first place.

A penguin was interested in a guest's shoe...

...and untied it.

Once they lost interest in the toys, the penguins became excited and began chasing one another. With much squawking, splashing, and slapping of webbed feet on wet ground, they dashed out of the room, into the pool in their exhibit, back into the encounter room, and around again. All the while, Deana shared fascinating facts about the penguins including behavior, training, health, molting, mating and egg raising. With Deana's extensive knowledge, everyone's questions were answered in detail. We ended the Encounter full of new knowledge, thoroughly chilled, and with an amazing experience to remember.

Balls were brought out for
the penguins to play with.

Because the penguins are free to act as they wish, every Penguin Encounter is different. Participants can expect to have a unique experience. Everyone is invited; guests who are 16 or younger must be accompanied by a parent or guardian. The Penguin Encounter is held at 1pm every day except Thursday and lasts 45 minutes. The cost is $20 per person for members and $25 per person for non-members. Advanced reservations are required. For more information, visit

A penguin tried to retrieve a
ball from under the door.

*Some of these birds were introduced in a previous post on this blog titled Birds of the Rainforest Van. Because of changes in the school programs, reptiles and amphibians now visit the schools instead, and these birds no longer travel in the Rainforest Van.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Touch Pool Transformation

One day the touch pool at The Living Planet Aquarium held the stingrays. The next, it held horn sharks. Magical though this may seem, it took seven people about three-and-a-half hours after closing to make this transformation possible.

Stingrays have been replaced by sharks
and other critters in the touch pool.

The staff began by transferring the stingrays from the touch pool to the shark tank, a multistage process. They first had to match the salinity, pH, and temperature of the two systems as closely as possible. Then, they filled a transport bin with half touch pool water and half shark tank water. This allowed the stingrays to begin to acclimate to the new water while they were being transferred. The stingrays were moved into the transfer bins and wheeled into the back. The staff took this opportunity to weigh and measure each animal before using special nets to move them into the shark tank. The stingrays will reside in the shark tank from now on. They seem delighted by their new accommodations and get along with the sharks just fine.

The stingrays enjoy their new home in the shark tank.

Next, the staff drained the water from the touch pool using a submersible sump pump and the pool's main pump. Using dust pans, they scooped the sand out – 4,000 lbs. worth – and bagged it. Fine sand, purchased from an aquarium wholesaler, was put back into the pool. This sand is smoother, which is better for the species that will now be inhabiting the pool. Because the pool will now host species from colder coastal waters, rather than the stingrays which hail from tropical waters, the pool was refilled with 10 degrees cooler water.

4,000 lbs of sand removed from touch pool

The new animals were added to the touch pool a few at a time, giving them the opportunity to adjust to their new surroundings and tank-mates. While they waited their turn to enter the touch pool, they stayed in holding tanks in the back.

The horn sharks and round rays were the first to enter the pool.

Horn shark next to touch pool fish

Round rays blending in well with the sand

Next, a leopard shark was introduced.

Leopard shark, the largest touch pool animal

Recently, bat rays were added to the mix.

Bat ray exploring its new touch pool home

Eventually, the touch pool will also contain a variety of invertebrates, including sea stars, urchins, and anemones. All of these can be safely touched by visitors of all ages, following a few simple rules: use two fingers, touch gently and only where staff say is okay (usually along the back of the animal), and assist your children to ensure they follow these rules. The aquarium is excited to be able to offer this opportunity to get up close and personal with some of the ocean's most beautiful and fascinating animals.

A guest reaches to touch the leopard shark.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Introducing Baby Sharks

Look what the stork dropped off at The Living Planet Aquarium! In this case the stork is actually an Australian cargo plane, and the babies are five shark pups that arrived on July 11th from northeast Australia. The pups were flown to Los Angeles in self-contained, water-tight tanks complete with battery-powered aerators. After water tests, health inspections, and water changes, the new arrivals were loaded into a truck for the trip to their new home in Utah. A temperature-controlled truck drove through the night to avoid the daytime desert heat.

Three of the new additions are Gray Reef Sharks, and the other two are Blacktip Reef Sharks. They are on display in the shark tank located in the Ocean Explorer gallery. Each measures approximately 3 feet long with the potential to reach up to 8 feet in length. The older sharks were temporarily moved to a behind-the-scenes holding tank to give the pups a chance to settle in. “We wanted to get small sharks that will grow and mature before we open our new facility, which will include an 80 foot long, 300,000 gallon shark habitat,” said Andy Allison, Curator of Animals. “They arrived just in time for Shark Week which will allow us to partner with Discovery Channel to maximize the impact of our education programs,” said Allison. A new Giant Shovelnose Ray and a White Spotted Guitarfish will also accompany the sharks in their new habitat.

The arrival of the sharks marks the beginning of an exciting period for the Aquarium, which will culminate with the opening of a brand new aquarium in late 2013. The pups will remain on exhibit in the Sandy location until they are ready for transfer next year to the new aquarium in Draper.

Visit the aquarium during Shark Week (August 12-18) to participate in shark activities, learn all about these fascinating predators of the ocean, and of course, visit the new baby sharks!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Meet Our Staff: Public Educators

One of the questions most frequently asked by our young visitors is how they can get a job working with aquarium animals.  This is a difficult question to answer for a couple of reasons.  One is that there are many different jobs working with the animals.  The other is that everyone takes their own path to get into this type of career.  To explore these paths, we'll look at some of The Living Planet's staff who work with the animals and how they came to be where they are today.

Rebecca Loughridge and Brent Beardsley are two of our public educators.  Public educators work at the aquarium (as opposed to offsite in a classroom) teaching our guests through presentations, animal encounters, feedings, and the Bio Facts station (a place to go with any question you might have about the aquarium's animals).  Public educators work directly with the animals, including presenting them to the public and helping to train them for this role.

Rebecca with Dusty

Rebecca at the Bio Facts station
Rebecca became a public educator just over a year ago, but she began working at the aquarium over four years ago in guest services.  Rebecca is in college working on a degree in Media Arts, although she started out as a Psychology major.  According to Rebecca, good degrees for someone pursuing a career as a public educator include Biology, Education, and Psychology.  Rebecca believes one of the best things aspiring young people can do is to volunteer or otherwise work with animals in every way they can.  She interned for the position she now holds in order to gain experience.  What Rebecca enjoys most about her job is “seeing ocean animals every day.”  There are some challenges to the job.  Rebecca says that her biggest challenge is keeping the information fresh and engaging when many of the questions that visitors have are the same from day to day.  “They've never been here before, and we have,” says Rebecca.  “We need to remember that and make sure they have a great experience.”  Rebecca's favorite animal at the aquarium is Dusty the African Gray Parrot.

Brent presenting during an anaconda feeding
Brent has been a public educator at the aquarium for one-and-a-half years.  Before this, he worked at zoos and aquariums for many years, most recently at the Bean Life Science Museum at BYU.  He has a degree in Biology with an emphasis in Marine Biology.  Brent also emphasizes the importance of volunteering and working with animals to gain experience.  “The more you want to work directly with the animals, the further you should go with science,” suggests Brent.  What Brent enjoys most, aside from working with the animals, is sharing his passion for the animals with kids and inspiring them to want to learn more.  Brent says that the biggest challenge of the job is remaining energetic and engaging throughout the day.  On the busiest days, this can be a bit draining.  “You can't go halfway,” says Brent, explaining that public educators must make sure they give their all to each visitor, even those that come at the end of the day.  Brent's favorite aquarium animal is the Giant Pacific Octopus.

Brent doing an
animal encounter

For more information about employment opportunities at The Living Planet Aquarium contact Tannen Ellis at or visit our website.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

A Future for Utah's Toads

Like the canary in the coal mine, there are certain species that can tell you a lot about the health of an area. These species are called “keystone species,” and scientists look at them to determine how an ecosystem is faring. The Boreal Toad, a keystone species native to Utah's higher elevations, is not doing so well. As recently as 10 years ago, they were plentiful. Recently, populations have begun to decline, and experts are not sure why. Possible reasons include habitat degradation; poor water quality; climate change, forcing them to higher and higher elevations until they have nowhere to go; or chytrid, a certain type of fungus which some scientists suspect is responsible for amphibian declines on several continents.

Boreal toads in their enclosure at The Living Planet

Whatever the reasons for their disappearance, organizations such as The Living Planet Aquarium are stepping up to help. Under the direction of the Colorado Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR), efforts are underway to breed boreal toads and repopulate the species. As part of these efforts, boreal toads were carefully collected from the wild and distributed to zoos, aquariums, and DWR facilities. Karl Lye, a herpetologist and member of the husbandry staff at The Living Planet, headed up the care of the aquarium's toads and was assisted by other members of the husbandry team. Over the last five years, they have raised their toads from a semi-tadpole stage into adults.

A few of the boreal toads being raised at the aquarium

At this point, the process becomes a little trickier. Boreal toads will not breed unless they go through a process called brumation. Brumation is a hibernation-like state and is how the toads would survive the cold of winter in the wild. In order to simulate winter conditions and induce brumation, Karl converted a small fridge into a brumation chamber for the toads. Using a thermostat and remote sensing equipment, the chamber was designed so that the weather inside could remain stable at a balmy 34-42 degrees Fahrenheit with as little intrusion as possible. Extensive records are kept of the temperature and humidity, as monitored from the remote sensor. Every two weeks, staff check on the toads and rinse their substrate to keep them clean and healthy.

Brumation chamber,
created using a small fridge
Brumation chamber open,
revealing boreal toad enclosure

During brumation, the toads do not eat and are mostly inactive, conserving their energy. This process can be hard on them, and in the wild, some do not survive. Because of this, only the healthiest of the aquarium's toads were chosen for the brumation chamber: two males and two females. The toads went into the chamber in February and just recently came back out. They spent a couple of days adjusting to the new warmer temperatures before being introduced into their breeding tank. With any luck, the aquarium will soon be proud caretakers of brand new baby toads (eggs at first and then tadpoles)! Any offspring will be given to the Colorado DWR, who will reintroduce them into the wild, being careful to chose locations where they are naturally occurring and likely to thrive.

Boreal toads in a state of brumation

How you can help:
All of us play an important role in keeping Utah's ecosystems healthy. Here are a few ways that you can help the toads and other critters that inhabit our local landscape.
  • Be careful what you put down the drain or into the gutters; it can all end up downstream in a boreal toad's habitat.
  • If you see a boreal toad (or any wildlife, for that matter) please leave it be; take pictures, but leave the critter and its habitat as you found it.
  • In some places, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has put up signs asking people to report any boreal toads they see. Reporting sightings can help further boreal toad research and efforts to understand more about what is happening to them and help stop their disappearance.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Earth Day Volunteers

Aquarium volunteers removed invasive
weeds and planted native vegetation.

Volunteers of all ages helped out on Earth Day.

The Living Planet Aquarium offers a variety of volunteer opportunities for all ages, including behind-the-scenes support, assisting with special events, and interacting with visitors. Volunteers also work in the great outdoors helping to conserve Utah's natural areas. Each Earth Day (April 22nd), the aquarium offers opportunities for individuals and groups to get involved in caring for our beautiful planet. This year, the aquarium organized cleanup and restoration events at four different locations: Hidden Hollow, Wasatch Hollow, Jordan River Migratory Bird Reserve, and the aquarium itself.

Volunteers removed trash from the waterways to
prevent it from doing damage to wildlife downstream.

At the Jordan River Migratory Bird Reserve, volunteers weeded out invasive thistle and planted native willows. Willows help purify the water, prevent erosion, and provide habitat for Neotropical migratory songbirds. These birds, such as Western Tanagers and Lazuli Buntings, live in Mexico, Central America, and South America during the winter and breed in the United States and Canada during the summer. The reserve, located between 9800 and 111000 South, is one of the last remaining habitats along the Jordan River for these birds. Great Salt Lake Audubon has been working to restore the 120 acres of riparian habitat that make up the reserve. They helped coordinate the efforts of the aquarium volunteers.

Volunteers at Hidden Hollow and Wasatch Hollow cleaned up debris from the land and streams and removed invasive weeds. These non-native plants tend to grow out of control, choking out native species and displacing the animals that depend on native vegetation. At the aquarium, volunteers removed trash from the parking lot and the canal that runs alongside the property. This not only got rid of the unsightly refuse, but prevented these items from causing damage to wildlife further down the waterway. Over the course of three days, 168 aquarium volunteers devoted over 500 hours of service. They planted 230 trees and removed 761 pounds of trash, including a paint can, shoes, and a picnic table!

Volunteers cleaned up the parking area at the aquarium.

Volunteers collected over 700 pounds of trash!

The aquarium welcomes new volunteers year-round. If you are interested in animals, the environment, working with people, getting outside, or making a difference, check out the opportunities on our website.