Although the holidays are still a few more weeks away, the excitement and anticipation of Christmas morning came early when the museum received some presents of its own! These were not the latest toys or electronic devices, but instead a shipment of live creatures from the Pacific Ocean! This is the first time since the grand re-opening of the museum in 2010 that new animals have been added to the Pacific aquarium, located at the entrance of the RBC Blue Water Gallery.

An aquarium containing many animals.
A close-up of the museum’s reserve tank containing all of our full-grown Pacific creatures, including adult sea stars, anemones and rockfish. The museum hopes to send these animals to a nearby aquarium park so they will have more space in which to move. Image: Sarah McPherson © Canadian Museum of Nature

For those familiar with the museum, this gallery features a beautiful display of Pacific tidal creatures. However, many of the animals that live in this tank are getting too big and have outgrown the space. Stuart Baatnes, one of the museum’s animal-care technicians, hopes that these fully grown adults will be transferred to nearby aquarium parks, which will have the space to accommodate them. In the meantime, they will reside “off the floor” in the museum’s reserve tank.

A stack of boxes and buckets.
Our shipment of new juvenile Pacific coast creatures still in their boxes! Image: Sarah McPherson © Canadian Museum of Nature

As you can imagine, the new live animals that we received were packed in large boxes filled with salt water and ice packs to keep the water chilled. Although many of these species are very colourful and remind us the exotic animals that can be found on tropical coral reefs, these Pacific tidal creatures are used to water around 9–10°C. Therefore, time was of the essence to get them from their shipping boxes to their new homes. As many of us are after a long journey, they were all stressed to the max!

Stuart and his team usually work in the very early hours of the morning, before the museum is open, tending to our live critters, and refilling and cleaning the tanks and terrariums.

A spiny sun star (Crossaster papposus).
A spiny sun star (Crossaster papposus). Image: Sarah McPherson © Canadian Museum of Nature

However, because the shipment didn’t arrive until later in the day, it meant the transition from the boxes to the aquarium had to be done during our regular opening hours while visitors were in the gallery. I was delighted when I was asked to assist and document this rare event, while also answering any visitor questions.

Because these are wild animals, there is an element of the unknown in terms of what creatures actually get shipped to the museum. A list of all the desired specimens is approved by the Animal Care Committee at the museum, and is then sent to a licensed diver in British Columbia. However, as you can imagine, he can’t always find everything on the list.

An aquarium containing many animals. Arrows point to the strawberry anemones (Corynactis californica) and gumboot chiton (Crytochiton stelleri).
The Pacific aquarium contains many strawberry anemones (Corynactis californica) (left-hand arrow) and a gumboot chiton (Crytochiton stelleri) (right-hand arrow). Images: Sarah McPherson © Canadian Museum of Nature

Stuart and I were very excited though when we spotted a few of the requested specimens on the list that the museum hasn’t had on display for a very long time. These included the beautifully coloured strawberry anemones (Corynactis californica), a gumboot chiton (Crytochiton stelleri), some penpoint gunnels (Stichaeidae sp.) and a spiny sun star (Crossaster papposus).

While visitors can see all these creatures and more in the tank at the moment, they won’t have the chance to see the beautifully coloured giant chiton: he was simply too big for the tank and is now being housed in our larger reserve tank.

A basket floats and an arm reaches into an aquarium, as seen from below the surface.
After a long journey, some of these decorator crabs (Oregonia gracilis) are eager to explore their new home. Image: Sarah McPherson © Canadian Museum of Nature

As Stuart released all the creatures into their new home, he explained that the aquarium may look different the next morning. As many of us also are after a long trip, these creatures were all probably quite hungry! And although Stuart was going to feed them shortly, many just simply couldn’t wait.

In fact, we became privy to a show within minutes of the initial release! It seems one of the feather stars (Florometra sp.), a species that the museum has never had on display before, felt instantly comfortable in his new home and ventured a little too closely to a (hungry) green surf anemone (Anthopleura xanthogrammica). Luckily, he managed to escape with his life, but did so with much shorter limbs!

In fact, the same green surf anemone didn’t seem to be making friends fast, as he also challenged a longhorn decorator crab (Chorilia longipes). Between the anemone’s sticky and stinging tentacles, or nematocysts, and the crab’s sharp pincer claws, I was amazed both escaped with minimal damage!

Two animals interact amid other animals in the aquarium.
A battle ensues between the green surf anemone and a longhorn decorator crab (Chorilia longipes). This is just one of the many tiffs that occurred after the newly arrived creatures were released into their tank. Image: Sarah McPherson © Canadian Museum of Nature

This is yet just another example of why I love my job. Being able to see and handle these creatures up close is definitely not part of my everyday responsibilities!

It was a great experience working alongside Stuart and interacting with visitors, who really got quite the unique opportunity to see some of the “behind the scenes” work at the museum. Hopefully this won’t be my last experience handling (and blogging about) some of the museum’s live animals!