Urchins, anemones and sea stars, oh my! Invertebrate care at the Seattle Aquarium

Invertebrates—animals without backbones—are found in every habitat at the Seattle Aquarium. And, like all animals that make their homes with us, they need expert care to thrive. “Our goal is to provide great quality of life in an enriching environment for the animal’s whole life,” says Director of Animal Health Caitlin Hadfield, Vet MB Dipl. ACZM Dipl. ECZM, “And that goes for all the animals under our care.”

“All the inverts get checked by Aquarium staff at least once every day,” she comments, “As well as their environmental conditions—testing the water and the systems that support it.” Although they may seem like fairly simple animals on the surface, managing their care, says Dr. Hadfield, presents some interesting challenges. One of them stems from tracking the number of animals of each species because some, like corals, can be colonial. “It gets tricky,” says Dr. Hadfield, “Is it one animal, or 100?”

Tropical coral reef

Regardless of how they’re counted, invertebrates—like all the animals at the Aquarium—are part of our preventative medicine program. Aquarium biologists are on the front lines of animal care, making careful observations of each animal at least once a day. “Our staff are experts at evaluating the animals they’re caring for and are able to identify subtle changes in their appearance or behavior,” says Dr. Hadfield. Because all animal care staff have the training and experience to make these evaluations, each animal at the Aquarium has the equivalent of a PCP, or primary care provider, who has the best understanding of its health history and needs.

Routine exams, in many cases, are also part of the Aquarium’s preventative medicine program (yes, even for invertebrates!). “The animal’s history is the most useful,” says Dr. Hadfield, “And the knowledge of our animal care specialists is essential.” Along with information from animal care specialists and the animal’s records, an invertebrate checkup might involve a physical exam, fluid collection or ultrasound, depending on the animal’s needs.

Sea cucumber

Another factor that’s particularly important for invertebrates is herd health, or group animal care. “If an animal isn’t eating well,” notes Dr. Hadfield, “It could be normal for that time of year or life stage, but it could also be because there’s something wrong with that animal or the system it’s living in.” In those cases, animals exhibiting symptoms first can become “canaries in the coalmine” for issues that might affect neighboring animals.

And, although some may wonder why so much care is provided to animals that are so prolific, Dr. Hadfield says, “It doesn’t matter if they’re abundant—it’s important to provide the same level of care for all animals entrusted to us.”

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