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The USGS St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center has partnered with the Pier Aquarium in downtown St. Petersburg, Florida, to create a distinctive aquatic display of a mangrove ecosystem with Caribbean corals.

by Matthew Cimitile 

A photo of an aquarium decked out with fish, rocks, anemones, urchins, and sponges.
A sergeant major fish (type of damselfish) swims by an assortment of live rock, sea anemones, sea urchins, and sponges within the mangrove-ecosystem aquarium at the USGS St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center.

Seeking to find new, creative ways to communicate and educate the public and our partners on U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) research, the USGS St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center has partnered with the Pier Aquarium in downtown St. Petersburg, Florida, to create a distinctive aquatic display of a mangrove ecosystem with Caribbean corals. Stocked and maintained by Pier Aquarium personnel and located at the USGS center, the display is designed to complement ongoing USGS research.

The goal is to create a setting that resembles the unique coral-mangrove environment found in an area of St. Johns Virgin Islands National Park called Hurricane Hole. At Hurricane Hole, a highly diverse, colorful array of corals was recently discovered living among mangrove roots in the shade of red mangrove trees.

The new partnership grew out of discussions between USGS Information Specialist Ann Tihansky and Pier Aquarium Curator of Exhibits Butch Ringelspaugh about producing and maintaining an aquatic display that would showcase the local marine life of south Florida and the greater Caribbean. Ringelspaugh was inspired by research on the unique environment at Hurricane Hole to expand on the local feel and replicate a coral-mangrove ecosystem at the USGS center.

Photo of mangrove roots growing in a small aquarium.
Red mangrove roots are firmly established in the thick sand bed, where they filter out nitrogen and phosphate. Corals will soon be introduced in the hope that they will settle among the mangrove roots.

"I had read about the research involving corals living among mangroves in Hurricane Hole in St. Johns in science journals and in Sound Waves, and I figured it would be perfect to try to replicate that environment as a great teaching tool to highlight what the USGS does," said Ringelspaugh. "Using a mangrove to display a coral-reef habitat is unheard of and would be a one-of-a-kind aquarium."

Ringelspaugh's first step was to establish a stable environment and good water quality before introducing fish and creating the coral-mangrove setting. To create a suitable environment, he applied the Pier Aquarium's natural filtration method of utilizing microorganisms that inhabit deep sand beds and porous rock (called "live rock" because of its tiny inhabitants) to filter out ammonia and nitrate from the water. The mangrove roots also filtered water by pulling out nitrogen and phosphate. The tank was then allowed to cycle the water for a few weeks, allowing bacteria and other parameters to reach equilibrium suitable for marine organisms to thrive. 

Currently, a red mangrove tree grows out of the center of the open tank. A vibrant marine ecosystem of damselfish, Spanish hogfish, sea urchins, starfish, hermit crabs, horseshoe crabs, sea anemones, feather duster worms, and several species of sponge make their homes below and among the mangrove roots, which are firmly established in the thick sand. The next step is to introduce coral species, such as those found at Hurricane Hole, hoping they will settle in among the mangrove roots. This gives the Pier Aquarium the opportunity to expand on skills in designing, establishing, and managing aquariums of unique marine environments.

An aquarium can be a useful communication and education tool to highlight the complexity and beauty of marine environments; it can fascinate viewers and stimulate discussion on current marine issues. "Seeing a sea cucumber or a hermit crab feed for the first time can spur interest and make people want to find out more about coastal and marine science," said Tihansky. "If you don't snorkel and put your head in the water, you have no idea of the complexity of the marine environment that's around you every day. This is a living laboratory, and as a scientific organization we are grateful we can provide a platform that communicates research and helps educate the public on marine issues."

As an exhibit curator, Ringelspaugh plans to create additional aquariums with an educational focus to teach the public about marine science and conservation. "Highlighting research, technology, and conservation-based issues within the exhibit is a great way to grab someone's attention and start them thinking about problems, issues, and solutions," said Ringelspaugh.

The coral-mangrove aquarium project began almost a year ago. Since then, Pier Aquarium personnel have been common fixtures at the USGS center as they maintain the tank and participate in our annual Open House. At this year's annual event, they spoke to visitors about the ecosystem within the aquarium and what it takes to establish a working community of fish, sponges, and other saltwater marine life.

"Projects like these strengthen relationships between the Pier Aquarium and the rest of the marine-science community in Tampa Bay," said E. Howard Rutherford, President and CEO of the Pier Aquarium. "Our vision is that this live exhibit will complement ongoing research. It's a wonderful example of what the USGS is doing, and a great visual display of the environment in which research is taking place."

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