Our Eco Zone gallery represents a single geographic area with several different types of habitats. From coral reefs to coastal marshes and beyond, this exhibit displays different types of “oceans’ nurseries,” as many of these habitats provide safe, shallow waters with plenty of hiding places. You will also find deep sea cave animals and colorful cichlids from Africa’s Lake Malawi.
With many animals you can touch or feed, the Eco Zone is one of our most interactive areas in the Oklahoma Aquarium. In the rocky coast, visitors may touch sea stars, abalone, and even shark eggs. Visitors can also touch grown sharks or juvenile stingrays in our Shark and Ray Touch Tank. If you don’t mind risking a little splash, you can also feed shrimp to the stingrays and black drum fish in the mangrove forest.
Rocky Coast and Kelp Forest
The rocky coast shows us life along the chilly north Pacific coast from Northern California to Alaska. Here, you can touch sea stars, abalone, and shark eggs. You’ll also witness a fluorescing swell shark whose fluorescence was discovered right here at the Oklahoma Aquarium! Fluorescing is a scientific word for “glowing.” To the human eye, these sharks and other sea life may not appear to glow, but it is only because we do not see the same wavelengths of light that marine life can see. If humans excite the fluorescent particles with a bright light and wear special glasses, we can see them glow the same way other animals see them! In addition to glowing sharks, the rocky coast is also home to many other interesting animals such as urchins, sea cucumbers, giant sea stars, and carnivorous anemones.
Adjacent to the rocky coast is our kelp forest. Home to a diverse array of marine life, kelp forests provide nutrients and safety to their inhabitants. The giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) that makes up these forests is actually a type of macro algae that can grow up to 18 inches per day. They not only provide food and shelter for fish and marine mammals, but they also act as an important resource for people. Giant kelp is a common household ingredient as it is used in some toothpastes and even ice cream.
Fish that live in the Oklahoma Aquarium’s kelp forest include:
- Striped perch
- Whitespotted greenling
- Cabezon sculpin
- Copper rockfish
- Kelp greenling
- Kelp perch
- Quillback rockfish
- Rainbow perch
- Señorita wrasse
- California sheephead
- Shiner perch
- Tree rockfish
- Red Irish lord
- Black rockfish
Some say the depths of our oceans are Earth’s last frontier—the deeper you go, the less we know. However, the deep sea creatures we do know about are unlike anything else you’ve ever seen. Our deep sea caves feature of two of the hardiest creatures alive: hagfish and giant isopods!
The hagfish (Eptatrestis stoutii) is even stranger than its name; they’re covered in slime and congregate by the hundreds to eat dead animals from the inside out. The protein-based slime covering their bodies is produced by specialized glands, which can easily produce five gallons of slime in only a few minutes. This slime, which expands in the water, suffocates predators that ingest it. These spineless, jawless creatures have also adapted to survive for months without eating.
Another deep sea cave dweller that has adapted to go long periods without food is the giant isopod (Bathynomus giganteus). These prehistoric crustaceans are found between 550 to 7,020 feet below the surface where food can be rather scarce. As a result, giant isopods have evolved to live up to five years without eating.
Coastal marshes, or grass flats, are wetlands with brackish (low salinity) waters dominated by plants called eelgrasses. They provide excellent protection for young fish and are bountiful food sources for seabirds such as pelicans. The coastal marsh of the Oklahoma Aquarium features red drum (Sciaenops ocellatus), an important game fish that brings in millions of dollars for coastal communities. Like its relative the black drum (which you can see in our mangrove forest), the males make a drumming sound by vibrating muscles against their swim bladder to attract females.
The vibrant cichlids of Africa’s enormous Lake Malawi reside in the only freshwater habitat of our Eco Zone. These cichlids tend to be territorial in the wild, but when they live in high densities, as they do in this exhibit, they cannot claim a territory and can coexist peacefully. Some scientists estimate that Lake Malawi is actually home to more than 1,000 different species of cichlid fish, 95% of which are found exclusively in Lake Malawi!
Mangrove trees are small trees with long thick roots. They grow in coastal zones where the waters are brackish, so each species of mangrove has some adaptation to deal with salt excretion. Animals that live amongst the mangroves must be equally adapted to these brackish waters, especially because these habitats experience frequent tidal fluctuations accompanied by great changes in water temperatures and salt content. Mangroves are essential to ocean habitats because they catch the smelly sediment runoff from land before it pollutes the ocean with heavy metals.
The animals in our mangrove forest include Southern, Atlantic, and cownose stingrays, as well as black drum fish. All of these fish really love when our visitors make a trip to the Stingray Feed Stand to get shrimp for them to snack on. The feed stand is open every day while food supplies last.
Shark and Ray Touch Tank
Our Shark and Ray Touch Tank is a safe and fun way to learn and interact with a few of our ocean’s most feared creatures. The tank houses young bat rays as well as spotted bamboo sharks and spotted catsharks. None of these animals are capable of harming humans. Similar to the painless clipping of fingernails, we have clipped the barbs from the rays so they are perfectly safe to touch. Additionally, the sharks pose no threat to humans as they only feast on tiny invertebrates and have miniscule teeth that are about the size of velcro hooks. The “teeth” you should really pay attention to are the ones in their skin. All cartilaginous fish, including sharks and rays, have a form of small, modified teeth on their skin. These tooth-like structures are called dermal denticles; their purpose is to help cartilaginous fish swim faster and quieter, but they also make sharks and rays feel extra nice to pet!
Designated Touch Times:
Everyday: 11-11:20 a.m., 1-1:20 p.m., 3-3:20 p.m, and 5-5:20 p.m
Open late Tuesdays: 7-7:20 p.m. and 8-8:20 p.m.
Written by Alyssa Rodriguez, February 2019.