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Baby Dinosaurs Arrive at Maymont!

OK, maybe that headline is an exaggeration, but not by much. Last week, we introduced two young sturgeon – a primitive ancient fish species – into an aquarium in the Nature Center. The fish are approximately two to three years old, but they look like little babies compared to their adult counterparts which can grow up to 14 feet long.

They were donated by Albert Spells of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). These two particular specimens came from Canada and were used in research on culture, nutrition and marking trials in Maryland. Normally once trials are over, some animals are given to approved institutions for research or education, and that’s how we were able to obtain them. Local populations, including those of the Chesapeake Bay and Carolina, are listed on the Federal Endangered Species list.

Atlantic Sturgeon (Acipencer oxyrhincus) were once abundant from Labrador in northern Canada to Florida. In fact, they are credited with helping the Jamestown settlers survive when food supplies were low, thus helping to shape our nation’s history. Sturgeon are anadromous, which means they live in saltwater, but migrate to rivers to spawn. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) believes they are “now absent from at least 14 rivers they historically used.”

Why the population decline? In the 1800s, increasing demand for sturgeon caviar led to heavy commercial fishing. Atlantic sturgeon are slow growing and slow maturing (~15 years), so the unregulated harvesting of the eggs and adults decimated the population. Now, other factors are impeding a comeback. In the James River, the river bottom is often dredged for freight ships to pass, leading to destruction of the natural reef systems where they lay eggs. Dams can prohibit the fish from migrating upstream to spawn. The fish also are unintentionally killed by boats since they spend a significant amount of time at the surface of the water, and they can die from stress and fatigue when caught in nets.

-Joe Neel, Manager of Zoology