Published in Bioflux

Pygmy Paper

The lifecycle of the pygmy seahorse explored by richard_ross_48


By , KQED Science (some footage by Rich Ross)

Alternate copy of video:

Over the summer, biologists from the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco returned from an expedition to the Philippines with some very rare and diminutive guests, a mating pair of pygmy seahorses. The two tiny fish, each shorter than an inch and bright orange, were collected as part of a larger study of the stunning biodiversity found in the “Twilight Zone” of the ocean. It’s a relatively unexplored environment located at depths where the bright tropical sunlight barely penetrates.

Pygmy seahorses live their entire adult lives attached to a type of coral called a Gorgonian sea fan. The seahorses use their long tails to grab on to the delicately branched sea fans. But what’s really amazing is their ability to match the coral’s bright color and knobby texture. They blend in so perfectly that they are barely visible, even to a trained eye.

More people have walked on the moon than have seen a juvenile land on a sea fan.

Pygmy seahorses are nearly impossible to raise in captivity. More people have walked on the moon than have seen a juvenile land on a sea fan. Until recently, there was no record of the seahorses ever living long enough to breed in an aquarium. As a result, very little is known about them, making them extremely attractive to researchers eager to learn about the mysterious species.

One of the biggest hurdles is keeping the host sea fans alive, since the pygmy sea horses cannot live without them. Biologists Matt Wandell and Rich Ross knew this would be tough, but they had been preparing since 2011 when Bart Shepherd, Director of the Steinhart Aquarium, issued them a challenge. They were tasked with keeping the sea fans alive for three years before they could even attempt bring back the seahorses.  More »

From Ultramarine

Originally from Science Today at the California Academy of Sciences

Academy researchers are among the first to study tiny, fascinating pygmy seahorses that live exclusively on coral in the Philippines.


Rich Ross talking to Frank Reece talk about field work, science and big tanks. Click here to listen.

y Matt Pedersen

Adult Pygmy Seahorse, Hippocampus bargibati,  on pink coral, Muricella- it was unknown if they would venture onto the pink coral. Image by Richard Ross

Adult Pygmy Seahorse, Hippocampus bargibati, on pink coral, Muricella – it was unknown if they would venture onto the pink coral. Image by Richard Ross

Opinion by Matt Pedersen

We just shared the news of the first successful captive-breeding of Hippocampus bargibanti at the wet hands of Steinhart aquarists Matt Wandell and Richard Ross. Marine breeders, and more specifically seahorse propagators, are no doubt ecstatic (Dare I borrow a line from from Ross: “Their heads are falling off”).

Of course, why didn’t this happen until now, and why can’t we all rush out to buy a captive-bredBargibant’s Seahorse? More »

Published on May 9, 2013

Rich Ross discusses his work at the Academy with cephalopods– octopus, squid and cuttlefish.
Rich discusses his ‘home-lab” and his exploration with the little-known Larger Pacific Striped Octopus – now in our Animal Attraction exhibit. Check out this video for a close up look

Link to Part 1

Making a 213,000 gallon reef tank look great requires a lot of t.l.c., but also a lot of equipment. In part 2 of my Steinhart Aquarium tour, Richard Ross shows me the equipment needed to make the Philippine reef tank at the California Academy of Sciences look great. And there’s of course lots more shots of the tank. – by Mark Callahan

The Myth of Giant Squids! – Fact or Fictional w Veronica Belmont from Richard Ross on Vimeo.

Mar 1, 2013

This week Veronica visits the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco to learn about gigantic cephalopods. How big is the squid?! Special thanks to Richard and the guys over at the Academy for letting us come play with the sea creatures!

If the youtube version bonks, click here for Vimeo version.

Link to Part 2


Tank dabbler, reef enthusiast or reef junkie…they all love the same thing: really big saltwater aquariums.  I’m a die-hard reef junkie and I’ve seen some big reef tanks in my live, but nothing compares to the Philippine reef tank at the California Academy of Sciences.  And who better to give me a tour, but Richard Ross, a.k.a “Mr. Cuttlefish” himself. – by Mark Callahan

From Animal Movers

Animal movers moved coral from Birch to CAS. You get to see me in a wet suit.

From ReefsMagazine

Collecting, Getting Stuff Home and New Discoveries

Link to Part 1

This video from the 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition give you a good idea why the Verde Island Passage has been called ‘the center of the center of marine biodiversity’.

Researchers from the California Academy of Sciences have been visiting the Verde Island Passage area off the coast of Batangas Province on Luzon Island, Philippines for almost 20 years. Research by scientists during this period has suggested that this area may be the “center of the center” of marine biodiversity, and perhaps home to more documented species than any other marine habitat on Earth; there can be more species of soft corals at just one dive site than in all of the Caribbean.

Funded by a generous gift from Margaret and Will Hearst, the 2011 expedition was not only the most comprehensive scientific survey effort ever conducted in the Philippines, but also the largest expedition in the history of the California Academy of Sciences.  Over eighty scientists from the Academy, the University of the Philippines, De La Salle University, the Philippines National Museum,  and the Philippines Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources came with a mission to survey and document various aspects of the various ecosystems in the area.  A further team of Academy educators attended with a mission to share the expedition’s findings with local community and conservation groups as the Expedition was happening. As part of the expedition’s shallow water team based at the renowned Club Ocellaris, Bart Shepherd, Matt Wandell and I focused upon the underwater sites that served as the inspiration for the Steinhart Aquarium in the California Academy of Sciences 212,000 gallon Philippine Coral Reef exhibit.

In part one of this series, we covered getting the the Philippines, the realities of being on an expedition and our lucky observation of hard coral spawning. In part two we’ll look at how we collected octopus and corals, how we shipped those animals back home, and more.

More »


Last December when Koji Wada of the renowned Blue Harbor visited the Steinhart Aquarium he was kind enough to bring us two stunning Halcuriascarlgreni anemones. From Japans deeper, cooler waters, these anemones are jaw droppingly bright and colorful. Currently, they are being kept at 66 degrees in our Nautilus exhibit and both animals seem to be getting along just fine with each other. The Halcurias are being fed thawed frozen mysis via ‘Julians Thing’ every other day, and we hope they will be so happy and full of food that we will have more of them in the near future.

From various

Children watch as aquarium biologist Rich Ross, dressed as Scuba Santa Claus, swims away after hand feeding fish mysis shrimp and fish food at the 212,000 gallon Philippine coral reef at the California Academy of Sciences’ Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco.


Hybrid Ornate Ghost Pipefish (Solenostomus paradoxus) and the Robust Ghostpipefish (Solenostomus cyanopterus) larvae at day 1

From Advanced Aquarist

On 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition, biologists from the Steinhart Aquarium in the California Academy of Sciences collected two species of Ghost pipefish, the Ornate Ghost Pipefish (Solenostomus paradoxus) and the Robust Ghostpipefish (Solenostomus cyanopterus). In June 2011 we reportedon the spawning and rearing attempts of the Ornate Ghostpipefish and were proud to get the larvae to day 7, after which we unfortunately lost the female due to the end of these fishes short lifespan. However, we did have a female Robust Ghost pipefish and decided to display her in the same tank as the male Ornate Ghost Pipefish, and though we thought spawning between the two was possible we were surprised that courtship began on the very first day of co-habitation. It is unknown if these fish hybridize in the wild, and we are excited to present video of the first documentation of the hybridization.

We watched excitedly as the eggs that were held in the females fins began to develop eyes, and were even more excited to hatch the eggs and get the hybrid larvae to day 22 using different methodology than was used on the Ornate Ghostpipefish larvae.   Currently, the female Robust is carrying more eggs fertilized by the male Ornate Ghost Pipefish, and Steinhart Staff is looking forward to another oppurtunity to raise another batch of hybrid larvae.


Larval damselfish from eggs laid in the Steinhart Aquarium's Philippine Coral Reef exhibit. These will be sent to the University of Florida's Tropical Aquaculture Lab as part of the Rising Tide Conservation project. The lines in the top left are millimeters.

This week Amblyglyphidodon ternatensis eggs and larvae collected at the Steinhart Aquarium in the California Academy of Sciences were shipped to Florida as part of the Rising Tide Conservation project.

Rising Tide Conservation was started by SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment to make breeding and rearing of marine tropical fish economically viable so that there are alternatives to collection. It quickly expanded from a program focused on breeding and rearing fish in display facilities to one focused on integrating efforts of display aquaria, the hobbyist industry, and academia to create a platform for the promotion and dissemination of information related to marine tropical fish aquaculture. Large scale tropical marine fish aquaculture has been held back by four specific hurdles: difficulty in egg production, difficulty in larval rearing, use and production of an appropriate live feed, and most importantly, the difficulty in clearing these hurdles in an economically viable manner. Transfer of capabilities identified in this program to commercial producers is critical for the success of this initiative.

Rising Tide Conservation is an effort to reduce commercial collecting of reef fish by promoting captive breeding. This program provides a lifeline for reef populations by providing source alternatives. Many attempts to raise marine tropical fish have resulted in small successes. Rising Tide is an effort to move these advances to more widespread use.

For more images of the eggs and larvae please scroll down.


Amblyglyphidodon ternatensis eggs on Acropora. The adult fish lay their eggs on areas of Acropora skeleton that they strip of flesh. This fragment and eggs were collected in California and shipped to Florida as part of the Rising Tide Initiative.

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Planning, Science and Surreality

From Reefs Magazine

by Richard Ross

Researchers from the California Academy of Sciences have been visiting an area called the Verde Island Passage off the coast of Batangas Province on Luzon Island, Philippines for almost 20 years. Research by scientists during that period suggested that this area is the “center of the center” of marine biodiversity, and perhaps home to more documented species than any other marine habitat on Earth; there can be more species of soft corals at just one dive site in this area than in all of the Caribbean. Thus it was only natural that when the Steinhart’s 212,000 gallon reef tank was designed, the Academy decided to represent the reefs of Luzon. Ever since, Steinhart biologists have traveled to this area in small groups with the objective of acquiring first hand knowledge of the environments they hope to recreate in San Francisco.

The 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition, however, was a trip of a completely different magnitude: the largest expedition in the Academy’s history covering both land and sea. Consisting of a Shallow Water team, Deep Water team and a Terrestrial/Fresh Water team, the 2011 Philippine Biodiversity expedition, funded by by a generous gift from Margaret and Will Hearst, was the most comprehensive scientific survey effort ever conducted in the Philippines. Joining the expedition were over eighty scientists from the Academy, the University of the Philippines, De La Salle University, the Philippines National Museum and the Philippines Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, as well as a team of Academy educators whose mission was to share the expedition’s findings with local community and conservation groups as the Expedition was happening.

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This video by Bart Shepherd show some of the reefscapes we encountered on the 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition

As part of the Shallow Water team Bart Shepherd, Matt Wandell and I surveyed and further documented the underwater sites that served as the inspiration for the Steinhart’s Philippine Coral Reef exhibit. We also responsibly collected coral, cephalopods and other invertebrates for captive propagation, research and display at our Golden Gate Park facility. As the only public aquarium permitted to collect stony corals in the Philippines, we were to obtain these unique species for study, captive culture research, distribution to other institutions as well for display at the aquarium.


On previous trips to the Philippines, Steinhart biologists had been given special permission to collect and export small numbers of small coral fragments, most of them collected as ‘found frags’. The 2011 Expedition would continue this tradition, albeit with some modifications. In order to reduce stress on the organisms, we planned to adopt Ken Nedimyer’s work with the Coral Restoration Foundation ( to create a system for holding our coral fragments offshore until transport. We mocked up the system using materials that we could travel easily with, or that we could find in the field – silicone airline tubing, zip ties, dive weights and empty plastic water bottles as floats (after all, you can sadly find empty plastic water bottles on just about any beach in the world). The mock up went into our big reef tank for testing and was immediately dubbed ‘the coral clothesline’ by the aquariums docents.

The 'Coral Clothesline', inspired by the Coral Restoration Foundation, in action about 50 meters offshore

In addition to our clothesline supplies, we packed everything else we could think that we might possibly need. Some highlights: six large, low style plastic tanks that could be weighted and sunk offshore for holding larger fish and other inverts, as well as smaller plastic tanks that could be hung from the Clothesline to hold small fish and other inverts. A backpack kit for harvesting jelly gonads (as removing the gonads doesn’t impact the jellies long term and the gonads ship better than adult jellies). Fiberglass window screen to make lids for impromptu holding containers, as well as the rubber bands to hold those lids on. Dozens of tubes of super glue and rolls of duct tape. LCD microscope just in case we needed to look at something close up. Sharpies for note taking. Scissors for cutting everything. Needle nose pliers for coral fragmenting. Plastic rulers for scale in photographs. Deli cups for transport, collection and shipping or animals. All this stuff and more went into one fish shipping box and filled every empty space in our luggage.

After flying all night to Manila, all this gear, along with some very tired biologists, hit the ground running at 5am, finding our checked items, finding our ride and driving 3 hours to Club Ocellaris, a world renowned SCUBA resort, which would be the base of operations for the shallow water team.

Science was everywhere

Rich Mooi and Bob Bob Van Syoc stand surrounded by the science that took over Club Ocellaris

When we arrived at Club Ocellaris, we found it had already been completely taken over by the Expedition. Science was everywhere. Across the resort, any flat space had already become some sort of makeshift lab, with equipment and apparatus piled all over the place.  Every electrical outlet had a computer, camera, light or batteries charging. Containers of every conceivable kind from plastic bags, to lidded jars, to 5 gallon buckets waited everywhere to be filled with hunks of science. While all of that was exciting, we really wanted to get in the water. Within an hour of arriving our Diving Safety Officer, Elliott Jessup, got us suited up and on a boat for our first dive of the trip –  we saw sea snake, corals and fish galore. After our afternoon dive, we assembled our offshore holding about 50 meters offshore so we would be ready for whatever collecting we would do the next day. When we were done, we were treated to the most spectacular sunset I have seen in a long time. Not a bad way to start off the expedition.

Sunset our first night a Club Ocellaris

The overall dive plan for the Steinhart Biologists was to dive and collect for 6 days, then drive the animals we had obtained back to Manila for ship out on our ‘dry day’ (to give our bodies a chance to off gas Nitrogen in our tissues from diving), drive right back to Club Ocellaris for another 6 days of diving and collecting, then back to Manila for packing and shipping then fly home the next day. The daily schedule of activities would be a grueling marathon, but we couldn’t wait to get started.

Life in the expedition

Every morning, we woke at around 6 am for coffee and Skype video calls to home and work where it was 2 pm the previous day. Breakfast (ummm, mango shakes) and our dive briefing started at 7 am. With up to five dive boats going out each day, coming to agreement on where we would be diving was no small act of coordination. After breakfast we would collect and test our NITROX tanks for the day, get our cameras and collecting gear ready, and assemble & check our dive gear and load it onto the boats. Then we would suit up and zoom out to a good place to get under the wanter.

On each dive, we not only collected animals, but also completed multiple steps designed to track each specimen – every coral fragment was photographed and assigned a number that provided information on when it was collected, from what dive site and depth it was harvested, as well as the name of the biologist who collected it. Each coral got at tag attached to it so we would, in theory, be able to ID it later. The tagging was a learning experience and morphed over time, so much so, that next year we will most likely use heat stamped numbered zip ties as tracking id’s, but attach those zip ties to the coral with 20 gauge coated wire the tips of which are sealed with a rubberized plastic dip because the wire will be easier to manipulate and create less waste than other methods we tried.

A red Juncella sp, tagged and ready to be placed on the Coral Clothsline

A red Juncella sp, tagged and ready to be placed on the Coral Clothsline. This coral is now on display in the Steinhart's Philippine Coral Reef Exhibit

After the second dive, we would head back to land and offload our animals.  From the dock, we would change our scuba equipment for snorkels, and then swim our new specimens to the off shore holding facility, often making multiple trips. Then we would eat ravenously, then turn around and repeat the same process for the afternoon dives.

We would finally climb out of the water at 6pm for dinner… unless we were doing a night dive.   On night dive days, dinner and dry-off  was often as late as 10 pm.

Matt Wandell swimming a plastic tank filled with collected animals out to our offshore holding site

After dinner, there was more sciencing to be done.  The spreadsheet detailing what we had collected needed to be brought up to date, the Coral ID software needed to be consulted to identify each SPS coral to species.  Paperwork for permits for export, and shipment/arrival details needed to be initiated and updated. When that was done, we were often drafted to help the researchers on other teams process specimens they had collected, take pictures, be all around helpful, and tend to whatever animals we were keeping onshore. Sometimes we even had a moment to geek out with Philippine scientists, or have a drink of the local rum (which I still think also contained Formalin). We were lucky if we fell into bed by 11:30.

Even when bad weather kept us from diving, instead of relaxing, we were still science geeky. This is a time lapse shot of lightning and Matt Wandell writing CAS (California Academy of Sciences) in the air with a dive light

The second night

Our first night dive was something special. The moon was full and the dive site wascalled Dead Palm. We hit the water just after the sun set to swim over stands of Acropora of all different kinds and Turbinaria colonies as large as a car. It was an SPS lover’s dream dive. About halfway through the dive the particulate in the water started to gradually become noticeably thicker, and virtually at the same time the three of us looked at each other and yelled SPAWN through our regulators.

Many corals reproduce in coordinated mass orgies where they release millions of gametes into the water. None of us had ever seen a coral spawn in the wild, and it really is as cool as it looks in the documentaries.  We traced the spawn to a huge thicket of Acropora nobilis, and watched in amazement as each egg/sperm bundle emerged from the branches and floated towards the surface where fertilization takes place. Within a few days the fertilized eggs change into a coral planula, coral larvae, which swim around (yes, swim!), until they find a suitable place to settle and develop into a mature coral.

Coral spawning is one of the new frontiers in captive coral reproduction, because collecting spawn instead of coral fragments can yield many more corals in captivity in an incredibly sustainable collection method. A group of public aquarists and coral scientists formed SECORE (SExual COral REproduction – and they have been holding workshops in the Caribbean for the last several years to perfect spawning, fertilization and settling procedures. Building on the success of the Caribbean workshops the Steinhart Aquarium hopes to hold a SECORE workshop in the Philippines in the next few years. The most important part of such a workshop is of course timing it with the coral spawn. There is not much information on the timing of Philippine coral spawns, and none of the previous trips to the area had ever come across one, so actually observing coral spawning in the Philippines is a good and necessary start to bringing SECORE to the area.

We, along with some of the other California Academy of Sciences researchers and a Philippine television crew, returned to Dead Palm the next night where the coral spawn was in full swing yet again.  We were able to find a colony of Acropora willisae when it was beginning to release gametes and set up around the coral to both collect some of the spawn and to document the event. I’ll never forget filming Matt collecting gametes in a plastic bag  while the television crew was filming me film him. We were able to collect several hundred sperm and egg bundles, and though completely unprepared for the labor intensive process of fertilization and settlement, were gave it a go.


Embedly Powered

via Vimeo

My video of the coral spawn and the gamete collection

A surreal night

After years of having the privilege of diving around the world practicing no impact diving, after collecting for the trade practicing and teaching having as little impact as possible, and after planning to take ‘found frags’ when possible, watching a scientific survey on the move takes a bit of getting used to.  The researchers were collecting everything – worms,  urchins, fish, nudibranchs – and just about every dive on the Expedition yielded at least one animal that seemed to be undescribed by science. The animals were being collected and preserved for scientific description, genetic analysis and as a way to be comprehensive in the survey, and being in the midst of a full on scientific survey lead to the Steinhart biologists to try to take advantage of the situation, and alter our plan regarding what we would try to bring back to San Francisco for our living collection.

On the third evening of our diving, Dr. Healy Hamilton showed us some ghost pipefish, Solenostomus cyanopterus, and some pygmy seahorses, Hippocampus bargibanti, that had been collected that day. These animals were going to be sacrificed for their genetic material. I know some people have a visceral reaction to that idea, but as Dr. Gerald Allen once said during a MACNA talk “It’s a necessary part of science”. Of course when we saw the ghost pipefish, a species that we had always wanted to work with but hadn’t because of their dismal record of surviving collection and shipping through the trade, we immediately suggested that we try to keep them alive and that we try to ship them home and put them on display – if they didn’t make it, we would still have their genetic material available for science. Though we weren’t prepared for holding these kinds of animals, Bart, Matt and I had been trained in the ultimate McGyver proving ground – the reefkeeping hobby. We got to work setting up buckets aerated by scuba tanks, faux gargonian hitching posts for the seahorses made from zip ties, and prepared ourselves to do water changes as often as needed by slogging 5 gallon buckets up and down 2 flights of stairs.

Of course, the third night of diving was also the night we collected coral spawn, so while we were preparing to try to keep these amazing fish alive, we were also preparing to attempt to keep the coral spawn healthy and fertilized which included ‘stirring’ the gametes every hour or two. This led to the most surreal night of the trip. We had coral out on the clothesline, ghost pipefish in the offshore holding tanks, trays of coral eggs and sperm, and a bucket with two pygmy seahorses next to our beds. Throughout the night we kept waking up and tending to these animals –  a strange, wonderful and exhausting time.

In the end, we were successful keeping the ghost pipefish alive, and getting them home to the aquarium in Golden Gate Park. Sometime in the night we noticed that the pygmy seahorses were no longer living, and we preserved them. The coral spawn failed to thrive, and it seems that we were simply too unprepared and understaffed to have succeeded in that labor intensive realm. We learned a lot and helped move science forward. Of course, we plan that for next year’s trip, we will be much more prepared for new surprises and opportunities.

In the next installment – coral collecting, octopus wrangling, shipping & packing for the trip home, and 300-500 new species discovered.

Special thanks to Bart Shepherd, Matt Wandell and Elizabeth Palomeque




PHILIPPINES (KGO) — At the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, the staff tries to create exhibits that are both beautiful and educational, but do no harm to the environment. That was part of the mission on a recent trip to the Philippines; ABC7 was the only television station to go along.

The Philippines is believed to have the most diverse coral reefs on Earth with 10 times more species than even the Caribbean Islands. A photographer for the California Academy of Sciences took some video of their dive team finding and documenting life on the coral reefs. The team includes a wide variety of experts.

“You’ll go down and you’ll see something and you take a photo of it, you don’t know what it is, you come up, there’s an expert here that can tell you exactly what it is,” said Bart Shepherd, a Steinhart Aquarium curator.

Most of the scientists on the trip are researchers, but three are from the academy’s Steinhart Aquarium. They come armed with buckets and baggies to bring home their treasures. The team goes through an elaborate permit process to make sure there’s no damage to the reefs.

They collected an asthenosoma, also known as a fire urchin, which is pretty and poisonous. And now everyone can see it too safely behind glass at the Steinhart Aquarium. One of the main exhibit areas here is modeled on a Philippine coral reef. That’s one reason the academy chose to go to the Philippines for the biggest expedition in its history.

“We were able to bring back a lot of animals that really aren’t available through any other means,” said Shepherd.

They also brought back animals known as “sexy shrimp” because of the way they seem to dance around and ghost pipefish which are relatives of the seahorse that are camouflaged to look like pieces of coral or blades of sea grass.

They also found a coconut octopus on the ocean floor in the Philippines. It got its name because it often curls up in coconut shells for protection. The one at the aquarium like to curl up in a glass jar instead.

“We are the first public aquarium ever to display that species in the United States,” said Shepherd referring to the coconut octopus.

While they were in the Philippines, biologists Rich Ross and Matt Wandell set up a holding area for the collection about 50 yards off shore. It’s sort of like a clothes line with containers full of creatures hanging in the water. They rigged it with whatever they could find.

“We were thinking for a while of what kind of float we could use, and then we realized there are bottles all over the place,” said Ross.

A lot of the work is focused on coral. The reefs are protected by law and the academy is one of the only institutions allowed to take coral from the Philippines. They try to find little fragments that broke off naturally or they take finger size clippings that won’t damage the animal. Back at the Steinhart Aquarium, the coral is put in a carefully-controlled growing area.

“Some of the larger colonies that are over here are from prior trips to the Philippines. And you can see by comparison how a small fragment that we take. A size like this, can grow into a colony that’s about this big around in a period of a year or two,” said Shepherd.

The academy will use the coral in its own exhibits and trade it to other aquariums — all part of their mission to show visitors why the delicate Philippines reef habitat is worth saving.

ABC7 spent two weeks with in the Philippines with the academy’s researchers and will be bringing you more reports this summer.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney

Text by Matt Wandell, Video by Rich Ross – Posted Jun 20, 2011 04:00 PM on Advanced Aquarist’s blog
Since our last update we’ve been able to observe mating several times, and Academy biologist Rich Ross has captured it on video.

Ornate Ghost Pipefish spawning and ‘birthing’ at the California Academy of Sciences, June 2011.

As reported earlier on Advanced Aquarist, the California Academy of Sciences’ Steinhart Aquarium has a pair of Ornate Ghost Pipefish (Solenostomus paradoxus) on display which have released larvae in captivity. Since our last update we’ve been able to observe mating several times, and Academy biologist Rich Ross has captured it on video.

Check out the video below to see the entire process of ghost pipefish reproduction–from mating, to a close up look inside the female’s pelvic fins where she holds the developing eggs, to larval release. So far we have seen the female release between 20-50 larvae every morning for the last 8 days, followed by mating with the male as soon as we place them back together. Is this typical behavior for the species, or an artifact of captivity? Does she hold eggs and larvae of different age in her pelvic fins at the same time in the wild?

Before you go rushing out to obtain a ghost pipefish or two, you should be aware that the vast majority of these amazing animals collected for the aquarium trade die before ever reaching their intended destination. Those that do make it are often extremely weak from the journey. The individuals described here were carefully collected and shipped by Steinhart Aquarium staff from a shallow seagrass bed in a small Philippine bay to a display tank in San Francisco within less than 36 hours. Along the journey, they received several water changes and were always held in enormous containers. It is our firm belief that this extraordinary level of care during shipping is necessary for these fishes to arrive alive and in good health.

From TONMO far as we can tell, on June 1st the Steinhart Aquarium became the first aquarium to display Amphioctopus marginatus, the Coconut Octopus or Veined Octopus. This small robust octopus has gotten a lot of attention over the past few yeas first as one of the documented octopuses capable of bipedal locomotion and as an octopus possibly capable of tool use…/2011/jan/20/1.

The animal on display was collected by Steinhart Biologists in Anilao, Philippines, as part of the 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition, just a week before going on display.

Needless to say, I am very excited to have the opportunity not only to have seen these animals in the wild, but also to be able to work with them in captivity. So much so that I am posting the above video shot on my iphone. In the video you can see the octopus flashing colors, a bit of a limb that is re growing, hunting and catching a ghost shrimp, and returning to its glass jar den.

From Advanced Aquarist blog

A team from California Academy of Sciences’ Steinhart Aquarium (including Advanced Aquarist writers/biologists Richard Ross and Matt Wandell) is currently at work in the Philippines. Thus far, they’ve managed to observe (and capture on video) many corals spawning. Today, Richard Ross posted their latest video of a Cespitularia soft coral spawning event taking place right now.

Biologists from Steinhart Aquarium collect coral gametes

On May 8, Richard Ross announced in Advanced Aquarist that Steinhart biologists were heading out into the field for “the most comprehensive scientific survey effort ever conducted in the Philippines.”

On their very first day of their expedition, Steinhart aquarists chance upon an Acropora spawning event and reported back two wonderful videos from their night dive (read Matt Wandell’s blog to watch the videos and to learn more about the SECORE (SExual COral REproduction) gamete-collecting initiative).

We now get word the team has produced yet another video, this time of soft coral spawning.  The video shows biologists collecting soft coral gametes.  These gametes will be carefully held until they are fertilized and ready to settle in captivity.  Watch the video below.

We eagerly await reports from the Steinhart team when they return.  Great work, guys!

From the California Academy of Sciences

First sunset after the first day in the Philippines

After a 14 hour plane flight and a 3 hour drive, Steinhart Aquarium biologists Bart Shepherd, Rich Ross and Matt Wandell arrived at Club Ocellaris and were treated to a breakfast of garlic rice, eggs and French toast. After filling our bellies, we suited up, went diving and have been on the move ever since. The first night, after a spectacular sunset,we dove on a stony coral dominated site called “Dead Palm” (apparently there used to be a dead palm tree under water). At the end of the dive we encountered something that we never imagined we would run into, never mind on the first night – Acropora sp. corals spawning. Thousands of egg/sperm bundles released into the water by branching corals filled the ocean with a peach colored ‘snowstorm’ rising towards the surface. Many screams of excitement could be heard under water. We collected some of the spawn, and after email discussions with friends from project SECORE (SExual COral REproduction – ), we tried to mix the gametes to harvest and settle ‘baby’ corals.  The effort was not completely successful because Acropora corals cannot self-fertilize and we couldn’t collect material from multiple corals. Regardless, the experience was worth the effort, and sets the stage for future work.

The collection of coral fragments has been moving along well, and we are getting ready to pack up the first shipment back to the Academy. We have been collecting fragments that have naturally detached from mother colonies, or harvesting small fragments from the growing edge of large colonies.  The parent colony should quickly heal and show no sign of disturbance within a week or so.

Traditionally coral fragments are collected and either glued to something (rock, a concrete disk, or a plastic plug) or left loose and stored in some kind of rack land in a holding tank. This presents a a couple of problems with water flow and water quality.  It also can cause shipping problems, as the coral either sits unsupported in the shipping bag, or is rubber banded to some Styrofoam (both of which can stress the coral and involve additional handling). Inspired by the work Ken Nedimyer is doing in Florida at the CRF (Coral Restoration Foundation – ), and after prototyping the system in the Philippine Coral Reef at the aquarium, we placed our coral strings about 50 meters off shore.

Coral fragments waiting for shipment to CAS

This system keep the fragments up in the water column with good water, flow and light until we are ready to ship them. For shipping, we simply snip the middle of the zip tie chain ( leaving the rest in place for future use) and attach the coral to another zip tie looped through some Styrofoam. This way the fragment is suspended in the shipping bag, and it will be hard for it to bump the sides or bottom, which can cause damage. The lines themselves are silicone airline tubing strung between repurposed plastic water bottles (floats) and dive weights (sinkers). Additional lines can be added to an existing float to quickly and simply extend the system. It seems to be working well and we are anxious to hear how the corals arrive at their new home in San Francisco.

Last night we spent two hours muck diving collecting cephalopods and seeing amazing and bizarre creatures, but we are out of time so that will have to be covered in a future blog as we are off to Manila for meetings and shipping.

Richard Ross, Bart Shepherd and Matt Wandell.

Steinhart Aquarium staff are currently in the Philippines surveying the reefs that serve as inspiration for the 212,000 gallon Philippine Coral Reef exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. The most surprising part of the expedition so far–a coral spawning event on the first night dive.

Many corals reproduce by releasing millions of eggs and sperm into the water in coordinated events. What better way to ensure you’ll find a mate than triggering a mass orgy? The coral gametes are positively buoyant and collect at the water surface, where fertilization takes place. Within a few days the fertilized eggs develop into what are called planula larvae, a small sausage shaped stage of the coral which has the sole task of finding and settling on a suitable location where the coral colony will spend the rest of its life.

For public aquariums interested in displaying corals in captivity, spawning events are a big deal. The collection of millions of potential coral fragments can be accomplished in a sustainable way with no damage to the existing coral colonies. An initiative of public aquariums and coral reef scientists called SECORE (SExual COral REproduction) collects gametes from spawning events and carefully holds them until they are fertilized and ready to settle in captivity. SECORE’s tireless work in the Caribbean has resulted in thousands of captively grown fragments of the critically endangered stony coral Acropora palmata.

On the second day of the Philippine expedition Steinhart staff collected several hundred egg and sperm bundles from two yet-to-be-identified spawning Acropora spp. Tending to the fertilized eggs is a delicate task, but we hope to have fantastic news of settlement in the next few days.


During the Hearst Expedition, biologist from the California Academy of Sciences witnessed Acropora spspawning (video below). They collected the spawn and are attempting to get it to settle while in the field.



From TONMO and The California Academy of Sciences

The stargazer, Uranoscopus sulphureus, eyes a potential meal passing over the muck

In stark contrast to the beautiful many-colored coral reefs of the Philippines, muck diving is a lot like being on the moon. You float over seemingly endless plains of desolate grey substrate. The major difference is the life; here in the ‘center of the center of marine biodiversity’ the silty muck is packed with animals. Tube anemones with commensal shrimp using their tentacles for protection dot the landscape. As you swim over the silty substrate, flatfish that were perfectly camouflaged in plain sight become visible only when spurred into motion by your passing. Feather Stars move their arms in slow motion, revealing commensal shrimp and squat lobsters hiding amongst the ‘feathers’. Venomous predators like Lionfish, Stonefish and Seagoblins hide in the muck looking for an easy meal. Ambush predators like the Stargazer lie mostly buried in the silt, just their skeletal face showing as they wait for an unlucky fish to swim by.

One of the animals that we have been looking forward to collecting for display at the Steinhart Aquarium during the Expedition is Amphioctopus marginatus, the Coconut Octopus. This is a little octopus, with a maximum 3 inch mantle and 12 inch arm span. It is plentiful in the Philippines, personable, tenacious, and has a habit of using found objects as temporary homes. Clay pots, bottles, tin cans and clam shells are all used as mobile homes for these octopus, complete with doors to close themselves in tightly and safely. They also will defend their homes, batting away anything that comes too close; even pushing a probing finger away with surprising strength. Sometimes they extend their arms and crawl around in the muck with their temporary home on their back, as if they are transforming into snails. All of this behavior should add up to a fantastic exhibit in the Steinhart Aquarium. Two Coconut Octopus have already arrived safely back at the Academy, and we look forward to putting them, and other animals collected on the trip, on display in the near future.

The eyes of this flatfish look like two different animals as they protrude from the substrate while the rest of the fish remains perfectly hidden

Tiny shrimp and squat lobsters live mostly unseen amongst the arms of a Feather Star


The 212,000 gallon reeftank will soon be getting new additions - photo by Tim Wong

Scientists from the California Academy of Sciences have launched the most comprehensive scientific survey effort ever conducted in the Philippines, documenting both terrestrial and marine life forms from the tops of the highest mountains to the depths of the sea. They will be joined by colleagues from the University of the Philippines, De La Salle University, the Philippines National Museum and the Philippines Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, as well as by a team of Academy educators who will work to share the expedition’s findings with local community and conservation groups. The expedition, which will conclude with a symposium at the University of the Philippines on June 8, is funded by a generous gift from Margaret and Will Hearst.

“The Philippines is one of the hottest of the hotspots for diverse and threatened life on Earth,” says Dr. Terrence Gosliner, Dean of Science and Research Collections at the California Academy of Sciences and leader of the 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition. “Despite this designation, however, the biodiversity here is still relatively unknown, and we expect to find dozens of new species as we survey the country’s reefs, rainforests, and even the ocean floor. The species lists and distribution maps that we create during this expedition will help to inform future conservation decisions and ensure that this remarkable biodiversity is afforded the best possible chance of survival.”

The expedition’s shallow water team will conduct most of their research off the coast of Batangas Province on Luzon Island, in an area called the Verde Island Passage. Past research by scientists from the California Academy of Sciences and other institutions has suggested that this area is the “center of the center of marine biodiversity,” home to more documented species than any other marine habitat on Earth. However, many new species remain to be discovered—Academy scientists regularly find at least one new species on every dive in this area. During the expedition, the participating scientists will conduct side-by-side surveys of marine protected areas and non-protected areas to help the government determine how successful their current conservation plans are at fostering biodiversity.

“The expedition’s results will help our government better promote integrated coastal resource management,” said Malcom Sarmiento, Director of the Philippines Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources. “The data they collect will also help us decide if and where to establish new sanctuaries.”

Of particular interest to the reefkeeping community will be the Steinhart Aquariums additions to the expedition. From May 10 through May 26 2011 Bart Shepherd, Richard Ross and Matt Wandell will survey and document the dive sites that served as the inspiration for the Steinhart Aquarium’s 212,000 gallon Philippine Coral Reef exhibit. They will also will responsibly collect coral, cephalopods and other invertebrates for captive propagation, research and display at our Golden Gate Park facility. As the the only public aquarium permitted to collect stony corals in the Philippines, the three are excited to obtain these unique species for study, captive culture research, and to display for visitors. California Academy of Sciences staff and our Filipino colleagues are able to support aquarium trade needs with minimal impact. Look for new additions to the Coral Reef and Rainforest exhibits.

For more information, please see

Coral fragments collected in PI by Steinhart biologists in 2009 have grown to more than twice what is pictured here. In 2011, more coral will be collected for culture, display and sharing with other institutions.


Is been 10 days since the O. vulgaris eggs have hatched. The paralarvae were divided into three tanks, 2 pseudo kreisels (one with a light barrier, one without) and into the octopus display tank with just air bubbles for water motion. The female is still alive and tending several stalks of eggs that failed to hatch. Interestingly, the best paralarve surrival has been in the display tank – the complete opposite of what I expected. It could be that since this tank was long established that the paralarvae had better food choices, or it could be that the flow in the pseudo kreisel made the paralarvae work very hard, or it could be something else entirely. The hatchlings in the pseudo kriesel that were exposed to 24 hours of light are doing much better over all than the ones kept in the dark.

Hatchling S. latimanus - check out it unhatched sibling in the egg

On the cuttle front, Sepia latimanus are keeping most of my attention. These are a large cuttlefish (reported to get to 50cm and 10kg!) and working with them is a huge perk that comes with working at a public aquarium. I have seen these cuttles in Indo, Oz and PNG and they are amazing, generally interactive and interested in your hand if you point your fingers down making your hand resemble the head of a cuttlefish. Whey they are small, it appears they mimic mangrove leaves to avoid predation. They are often referred to as the ‘broadclub cuttlefish’ because of an interesting behavior. I have my own video of it buried somewhere, but here is a great clip from NOVA’s ‘Kings of Camouflage’

What I didn’t know was that they did the same behavior, minus the lightshow, right out of the egg. Here is the video from a previous blog showing what I mean.

The 20 eggs we have have almost all hatched and I have started to see the color changing abilities start to ramp up. I hope to have more video next week as the little cuttles get bigger and I am less scared of losing them.

From TONMO and Advanced Aquarist Online blog and a bunch of other outlets

About a month ago, we got a Caribbean Octopus ‘vulgaris’ in at work, and put it right on show on the public floor. It quickly took up residence inside a glass bottle, which is exactly what I wanted it to do so it would always be visible to the public. Just as quickly, it moved back under some rock and started denning, and my heart sank because I knew it was a she, and the she had laid eggs. While eggs being laid in captivity is generally an exciting event, this particular species, like many but not all octopus, stops eating after it lays eggs and dies soon after they hatch which tends to put a damper on joyous hooplah. Even worse, this species is ‘small egged’ meaning it produces large numbers of very small planktonic ‘paralarvae’ which are notoriously difficult to feed and raise. So, I tilted the rock where the eggs were laid to make them visible to the public (but in a high flow area so they would continue to develop), and the adult octopus moved back into the bottle making for an all round cool and educational display of something most people don’t get to see. The unexpected icing on the cake was catching the hatching of the eggs from start to finish, and also being able to get much of it on video. Sure these tiny hatchlings probably won’t survive long, but we are trying, and the image of a waterfall of tiny octopus paralarve flowing up from the egg mass to the surface of the water is something I don’t think I will ever forget. and bolts

  • Caribbean Octopus ‘vulgaris’ (there are several Octopus that use the species name vulgaris which is why its in quotes)
  • Roughly 3 weeks between eggs being laid and eggs hatching.
  • Hatching occurred at 9 am.
  • When I turned off the flow to better witness the hatching, the female octopus quickly left her bottle den, agitated the eggs presumably to help the hatch, and is now sadly protecting the space where the eggs were.
  • The female many hatchlings will be on display at the Steinhart Aquarium in the California Academy of Sciences until they can no longer be displayed.
  • The hatchlings are 1-2 mm in length.
  • There are 1000’s of them.
  • The hatchings are in a Kreisel tank and being offered 24 hour Artemia, which the literature suggests is the correct size to be eaten by the little octos, along with rotifers which are smaller to cover all the bases we can reasonably cover.
  • A previous batch of hatchlings from my home had individual paralarvae survive until day 9
  • The Caribbean Octopus ‘vulgaris’ seems to be a smaller species than its larger Mediterranean Octopus vulgaris cousins

Some pics –

A very posed photo in a drop of water

The lines in the upper corner are millimeters.

The female in her bottle. Note she has plugged the opening with rubble. After I disturbed her den and eggs, she moved into the bottle and laid 4 or 5 additional strands of eggs in the bottle.

by Jake Adams, video by Richard Ross

From Reefbuilders

There’s truly no better way to start the week than by transporting yourself to an imaginary place by watching an awesome reef video. Last week we had the Cozumel Dive video on an actual Caribbean reef and this week we have another great clip, this time by Richard Ross of the Steinhart Aquarium. Having seen and visited this exhibit many times, this video taken from the other side of the glass is by far the clearest view of the awesome fish population of this large reef exhibit. It’s particularly fascinating to see how the whole population of reef fish schooling together, regardless of species. Rich’s choice of music helps to set the tone for this super chill look at Steinhart’s awesome collection of reef fish, we’re really loving that one male Lamarck’s angelfish which appears multiple times in plain view.

From Reefbuilders

Metasepia pfefferi is an amazing species of flamboyant cuttlefish and I have recently had the opportunity to obtain multiple specimens of this species for the first time in 8 years. These flamboyant cuttlefish wasted little time getting on with mating, and with a little luck we’ll get to observe egg laying – and with a lot of luck egg hatching. I am incredibly excited about this video – you can see the males hectocotylus near the end of the vid! Currently, the Steinhart Aquarium has one Flamboyant on display and several more ‘off show’ for a breeding attempt. Before people rush out and try to obtain these guys, please remember that like all adult cuttles, they ship poorly. What does that actually mean? 80-100% DOA or DAA for animals that retail in the 300 to 600 dollar range. Furthermore, since they have a short lifespan (12 months or so) getting adults means that your time with them is going to be to short.

Metasepia are astonishing little animals found primarily in muck habitats. These vast, rolling underwater plains of settled silt and mud appear desolate at first glance, but are in fact populated by an unexpectedly large number of strange animals including frogfish, ghost pipefish and a stunning array of nudibranchs. Fitting right in with these odd neighbors, the Flamboyant Cuttle  is normally a master of camouflage blending in completely while walking along the grey substrate. When startled, however, those previously subdued colors change to bright purples, reds, yellows and whites. The colors shine out in coruscating patterns along the animal’s body probably to indicate the animals toxicity. The idea of keeping the more exotic cephs has generated much discussion in cephalopod circles, mostly because the size and health of their wild populations is unknown (and, at least in areas collected the populations seem to suffer). Even the sharing of information, photos or video of these animals in captivity can be controversial as some fear that detailed information and attractive photos and video may encourage inexperienced saltwater aquarists to obtain specimens and encourage over-collection, perhaps impacting the ability of wild populations to recover.

Personally, I believe that the admiration of a species can be of benefit to its preservation in the wild rather than its detriment.  My hope is that the open sharing of information empowers aquarists to make sound, rational decisions regarding the advisability of keeping and not keeping these animals. In other words, keeping Metasepia is not something that should be entered into on a whim and even experienced cephalopod keepers with mature tanks should think long and hard before trying to obtain this species. Their needs are resource intensive, expensive, and not yet fully understood, so at this point in our understanding of these animals getting one just because ’its cool’ seems to be a disservice to these incredible creatures. Hopefully, captive bred Flamboyants will be available, but until then enjoy the video.

From Reebfuilders


Cuttles cuttles cuttles. You probobly know the drill, but there is some great footage in this KQED Quest piece.






From Reefbuilders

This deep reef tanks rock wall is on the left side of the tank, making it feel like the wall extends upwards and like there is more water space than there actually is

Reef Aquarium ‘Rock walls’ have gotten a bad rap over the past , as Adam Blundell recently pointed out. This reputation is not necessarily undeserved as there are plenty of rock walls that are unappealing, flow stopping, detritus collecting piles of ugh. Quickly stacking rock against the back wall of a tank is not something we advocate or enjoy looking at. However, with a tiny bit of thought and effort, its not all that hard to make unique and interesting looking rock wall reef aquarium. Continue reading to learn more about two creative reef rock walls on display at the California Academy of Sciences.


The reef rock walls were constructed the same way in both tanks – a bottom plate and back wall of fiber grate onto which rock is affixed with underwater epoxy and cable ties. The fiber grate armature prevents the rock structure from touching the walls of the aquarium, allowing water to move around and under the wall. Instead of filling up the back wall of the tank, these tanks use the empty space on the back wall to create a feeling of depth and openness. In the case of Matt Wandell’s ‘Deep Reef’ tank pictured above, the rock wall is on the left side of the tank, instead of the back wall. This allows for good, fast vertical flow against the rock wall that not only brings food the non photosynthetic corals, but gets the anthias all swimming in a very natural vertical orientation.

The Rhinopias exhibit is one of mine, and the rock wall is in one of the back corners of the tank. This tank has intermittent high flow to help the SPS thrive, but also has ‘eddy’ spots to allow the display fish spots to hang out. The point is that rock walls are not bad things in and of themselves. If you are willing to spend a little time planning the build instead of just stacking rock, you can make a rock wall, well, rock.


This rock wall is in the back left corner of the tank giving a visual focal point.


From Reefbuilders

One of the advantages of working at the the Steinhart Aquarium in the California Academy of Sciences has is being able to care for, and observe so many different animals that we might not be exposed to anywhere but a public aquarium. For instance, we display not one, but two Rhinopias Scorpion fish. These venomous fish are not overly abundant in the industry or the wild, and they don’t have the best track record in captivity, often living for less than two years and then dying mysteriously. We thought very hard before committing to putting them on display, and decided we would give it a go when two of them, a Rhinopias eschmeyeri and a Rhinopias frondosa (though there is some debate as to their being different species), became available last November. Since going on display they have been eating well, shedding regularly (normal behavior) and challenging guests to spot them among the corals.Even though we have been thrilled at our success with these fish so far, we never expected to find what we found in the tank a week and a half ago – an egg raft. The eggs were hard to spot, being almost completely clear, and they may mimic a comb jelly to prevent predation. Apparently these are the first Rhinopias eggs that have been laid in captivity. We assumed the eggs were infertile, but were surprised to see development on the day after discovery, and even more surprised when they hatched. At the time of writing, we have collected two batches of eggs and larvae are still alive after 8 days. It has been amazing to watch the larvae develop through the microscope, growing fins, a mouth and a gut where none existed before.Raising larval marine fish is tough, so every day they survive we are thrilled, and, though we aren’t done with this batch yet, we hope that we can build on this experience so that if more eggs are produced we have a better chance of getting them through the larval stage. Special thanks to Matt Wandell, Matt Pederson, Frank Marini, Andrew Berry, Gresham Hendee and Reef Nutrition for their support and advice through this ongoing process.

By Ryan Gripp
From Reefbuilders

The California Academy of Sciences which Reef Builders’ own Richard Ross works for has been getting busy in the maternity ward. A local TV station (ABC7) interviewed the different programs that have had success, those of Asian horned frogs and cuttlefish (cuttlefish starts at around 1:48). In regards to the cuttlefish breeding project Rich said “Oh, they are just the coolest animals in the world, aren’t they? They are like little humming birds in the sea who look at you.” Yes Rich, we agree.  It is interesting to point out that the work Rich is doing is the only cuttlefish breeding program in the United States, “about 350 cuttlefish have hatched so far. Both this and the frog breeding program have been so successful and the academy is now shipping babies to other aquariums and researchers around the country.” Way to go Rich!

From Mercury News


By Laurie Bouck

Aquatic biologist Richard Ross spent years learning to breed unusual sea creatures called dwarf cuttlefish for fun in his Alameda home. Now Bay Area — and the rest of the country — is benefiting from his expertise.

The 2- to 4-inch dwarf cuttlefish, native to the Philippines and the Indo-Pacific region, are biologically related to octopuses, squid, and even snails. Dwarf cuttlefish are “masters of camouflage,” said Ross. “They can change the color and texture of their skin at will,” even creating moving patterns on their skin. They are also excellent hunters, with eight arms, two feeding tentacles, a beak to eat and “a tongue like a cheese grater” that helps them break up food, Ross said. More »

ScienceDaily (Nov. 12, 2009) — Anchored to an algae-covered rock in a 120-gallon tank at the California Academy of Sciences’ Steinhart Aquarium, a cluster of inky-colored cuttlefish eggs is beginning to swell — evidence of success for the Academy’s new captive breeding program for dwarf cuttlefish, Sepia bandensis. The program, pioneered by Academy biologist Richard Ross, is the first of its kind in a U.S. aquarium, and offers the Academy and other institutions the opportunity to study and display a species that is both captivating and — at 2-4 inches in length — less resource-intensive to keep than its larger relatives.

“By establishing a stable breeding population,” Ross explains, “our hope is to make it easier for aquariums to showcase cuttlefish and their remarkable characteristics without impacting wild populations.”

They may look like a cluster of purple grapes, but these inky balls are actually eggs from a dwarf cuttlefish, Sepia bandensis. As the eggs continue to develop, they become translucent, at which point the babies can be seen swimming inside their egg casings. To date, more than 350 dwarf cuttlefish have hatched at the California Academy of Sciences, most of which have been sent to other aquariums and research institutions. The academy is the first institution in the country to successfully breed these animals. (Credit: Richard Ross, California Academy of Sciences)

While called “cuttlefish,” these animals are actually not fish at all — they are members of the class Cephalopoda, which also includes octopus, squid, and the chambered nautilus. Perhaps best known for their highly developed brains, nervous systems, and eyes, cephalopods are a fascinating group of animals to both researchers and aquarium visitors. For scientists, cephalopods’ advanced capabilities pose a host of unanswered questions about the nature of intelligence in invertebrates and vertebrates. For everyday observers, the dwarf cuttlefish is a captivating ambassador to its Cephalopoda class, and its native Indo-Pacific region. Able to rapidly change its skin color, Sepia bandensis frequently flashes moving patterns across its skin, and can quickly blend into its surroundings — phenomena that can be seen regularly in the Steinhart Aquarium display. Beneath that ever-changing skin, the dwarf cuttlefish’s physiology is equally remarkable, with three hearts, and an esophagus that passes through its brain.

Behind the scenes at the Academy, hundreds of tiny hatchlings — exact replicas of their adult counterparts — are being hand-fed at least twice a day. In developing the breeding program, one of the most significant challenges Ross faced was identifying a successful feeding strategy for young hatchlings in the absence of existing literature. The key, he has discovered, is that young cuttlefish require live meals beginning with mysis shrimp, and increasing in size with age. Hunting with a pair of feeding tentacles, dwarf cuttlefish can devour prey the length of their own bodies.

As the eggs on display at the Academy continue to expand, they transition from an inky purple to translucent, at which point the babies can be seen swimming inside their egg casings. To date, more than 350 dwarf cuttlefish have hatched at the Academy, most of which have been sent to other aquariums and research institutions. Since North American waters do not house any native cuttlefish, only a handful of species are currently seen in zoos and aquariums in the United States. Now that these small animals are available from a sustainable captive source, Academy biologists hope that other zoos and aquariums will take advantage of the opportunity to share these intriguing animals with their visitors as well. This new captive breeding program joins several others that the Academy participates in, including those for African penguins, and golden mantella frogs, all of which are aimed at protecting populations in the wild.