Live Animals

Horseshoe Crab – Limulus polyphemus – (Touch Tank Animal!)

HorseshoeHorseshoe crabs are not crabs at all but are actually arthropods – close relatives of scorpions and spiders.  This not-crab has 12 legs with a mouth in the center, 10 eyes, and blue blood.  Horseshoe crabs have been on this planet longer than dinosaurs – 300 million years, and they are an invaluable link in the Chesapeake Bay food web.  Horseshoe crabs crawl on shore from May-June in order to reproduce, and their eggs and larvae are important food for fishes, sea turtles, and migrating sea birds.

Chesapeake Blue Crab – Callinectes sapidus


The blue crab is a commercially important crustacean in the Chesapeake Bay.  The blue crab fishery in the Bay nearly collapsed in the ‘90s and early 2000s, but is recovering thanks to new legislation.  New laws included setting restrictions on what time of day fishers could collect crabs, restricting fishers to only taking crabs that are above a certain size, and requiring that fishers only take male crabs. How do you tell a male crab from a female crab, you ask?  Female crabs, called “Sallys,” have red tips on their claws like nail polish, and the underside of their shell is dome shaped like the Capital Building.  Male crabs, called “Jimmys,” lack the red claw tips, and the underside of their shell is shaped like the Washington Monument.   Blue crabs are an important link in the Chesapeake Bay food web, so it is crucial that their populations remain robust.  Blue crabs eat marsh periwinkle snails.  These tiny snails can devastate marshes by devouring grasses, and blue crabs keep their population in check.

Mummichog – Fundulus heteroclitus

MummichogMummichogs live in the shallow waters of marshes and tidal creeks. Their name comes from the Native American word for “going in crowds” because this fish is often founds in large schools of as many as 100 individuals. Mummichogs are hardy fish, surviving in a wide range of salinities and temperatures, and they are even resilient to low oxygen and pollution. It’s a good thing these little fish are so tough! One mummichog can eat as many as 2,000 mosquito larvae in a single day, so they are crucial to keeping mosquito populations small.

Channel Catfish – Ictalurus punctatus

Channel catfish are soniferous, meaning they produce sound. This species can make a drumming sound with its swim bladder and a buzzing noise using its pectoral fins. Both of these noises are used to deter predators and possibly to warn other catfish of nearby IMG_0046adanger, but sound isn’t the only way that channel catfish can communicate.
The entire body of this species is covered in cells that sense pheromones, chemicals used for communication. A channel catfish can identify another catfish’s species, sex, size, reproductive state, and social status (yes, catfish have social hierarchies) using just pheromones.

Yellow-Bellied Slider – Trachemys scripta scripta


The yellow-bellied slider (Trachemys scripta scripta) is a land and water turtle belonging to the family Emydidae. This subspecies of pond slider is native to the southeastern United States, specifically from Florida to southeastern Virginia, and is the most common turtle species in its range. It is found in a wide variety of habitats, including slow-moving rivers, floodplain swamps, marshes, seasonal wetlands, and permanent ponds. Yellow-bellied sliders are popular as pets.

Knobbed Whelk – Busycon carica (Touch Tank Animal!)

whelkWhelks are giant sea snails. They have a soft body protected by a hard shell that they make and remain in their entire lives. A knobbed whelk uses its shell to break off pieces of clam shells, and then sticks its tongue inside to scoop out the clam meat. The “tongue” of a whelk is called a radula, and it is rough like a cat’s tongue because it is covered in tiny teeth.

Rapa Whelk – Rapana venosa (Touch Tank Animal!)

IMG_1669Rapa whelks are a non-native species in the Chesapeake that rode into U.S. waters from Japan in the ballast water of ships. This species competes with indigenous whelk species for food, can survive in nearly freezing waters, and has no predators once it is full grown. It important that you notify the Virginia Institute of Marine Science using their Rapa Whelk Reporting Line if you think you have found a rapa whelk, so scientists can track the distribution of this invasive species.

American Eel – Anguilla rostrate

americaneelOur American eel may look like a snake, but it is really a fish. The life of an American eel is always changing. This eel is catadromous, meaning it lives most of its life in freshwater, but migrates into salt water to reproduce. During this migration, they slide over rocks, find their way over dams, and even manage to slither through wet grass. American eels begin their lives as tiny, transparent “glass eels” at the mercy of the ocean currents. When they finally wash into the Bay, the eels turn brown and are renamed “elvers”. Only after several months living their new freshwater home do the eels take on the yellow pigmentation of adults. American eels usually live for 5 years, but they can live for as long as 15-20.

Atlantic Stingray – Dasyatis sabina

IMG_0001 Stingrays get their name because of the venomous barb on their tail that they use to protect themselves from predators. When a stingray stabs a predator with its barb, the barn often breaks off, and the stingray sloughs toxic tissue into the wound, creating an excruciating burning sensation. Don’t worry, though. Stingrays don’t want to waste their barbs on humans, and the best way to avoid being stung at the beach is to shuffle your feet – not stomp – through the water.

Oyster Toadfish – Opsanus Tau

The oyster toadfish is a bottom-dwelling ambush predator that can often be found hiding oystertoadfishin oyster reefs. This fish will eat anything that fits in its mouth – small crustaceans, mollusks, and even other fish if it can catch them. Don’t judge this “ugly” fish by its appearance – toadfish are actually quite romantic. Male toadfish court females by “singing” to them, though the sound is more reminiscent of a foghorn than Justin Bieber.

Summer Flounder – Paralichthys dentatus 

You probably think of summerflounderlv-1flounders as flat, but the summer flounder, like all flounder species, begins its life looking like any other not-flat fish. As it matures, its right eye slowly migrates to the left side of its head. Once this metamorphosis is complete, the young flounder settles on the bottom of the Bay floor, but this isn’t the last time this fish will change. Summer flounder can change color to match the substrate in which they are buried, making it easier for them to sneak up on prey and camouflaging themselves from predators.