When you think coral and saltwater fish, Nebraska would probably not come to mind immediately. Being triply landlocked, Nebraska is as far away from the sea as you could imagine. Somewhere within Omaha however is home to the Henry Doorly Zoo, the world’s best zoo, where it features a public aquarium with a pleasant surprise.
To be quite honest, i’m not a huge fan of public aquariums. While most public aquariums boast a commendable collection of large elasmobranch and other ray finned fish, invertebrates and reptiles, you’d be hard pressed to find one that truly shines in all aspects of their display. The reef displays in such aquariums are usually lacking in standard, and most home aquarists can easily out do such set ups in terms of aesthetics with ease.
We’re not dogging on public aquariums here, and there is a reason why large set ups are not usually as brilliant as you’d imagine it to be. Budgeting, huge water volume, and time allocation are just some of the contributing factors. You honestly don’t think these public aquariums get as much quality time as you would your own, do you? Yeah and they probably can’t go to the store and pick out that fancy Acropora or rare fish that you’ve been eyeing too.
By far the best reef display for a public set up i’ve ever come across has to be the Long Island Aquarium in New York. It is unparalleled and nothing even comes close. That being said, the aquarium at Omaha’s zoo is pretty darn good too, as far as public aquariums go. We spent a week in Omaha recently where I stayed with Tim Morrissey, coral aquarist and general well rounded bad ass who works at the aquarium.
Winter in Nebraska is a hoot, and seeing as how everything has taken on a nice shade of dread with an uncanny resemblance to the Siberian Tundra, we spent an inordinate amount of time at the aquarium, in the zoo. Needless to say we took tons of photographs and had a great time admiring, as well as appreciating the overall wellness that the place had to offer.
As with many public aquariums, the rundown of exhibits is pretty standard. There’s the quintessential shark and ray and big fish display which I spend very little time at, a cold water display for large spider crabs and other strange invertebrates, biotope displays such as a Caribbean reef set up and cold water rockfish, Penguins, Jellyfish and of course, an assortment of smaller reef style displays.
Really, before I even begin to go on talking about the various set ups, I have to give praise and credit to the wonderful assortment of reef fish present here. I’m a fish guy through and through, and while I mostly write about rare or exotic fish, I am an overall fish lover. Yeah there are some things that I don’t fancy (stop smirking, you know who you are), but overall I enjoy most all colourful reef species.
Observing fish in a public aquarium is tricky for me. Very few places i’ve been to can strike a balance in having some sort of captivating interesting fish. It is perfectly understandable and obvious that you won’t find anything like Cirrhilabrus claire, or a bandit angelfish in a public aquarium. Let’s not be ridiculous. Most however tend to stock their displays with incredibly mundane species like the Regal Tang, Foxface, Bannerfish, and a whole slew of other really run of the mill fish.
There is a buffer zone between banal and unobtainable rarities, and these are interesting aquarium species that are neither rare nor expensive, but are things that most public aquariums seldom bother with. Seeing them in a home reef or a LFS is very standard, but seeing this category of fish in a public aquarium is something very rare, and praise has to be given for the aquarium at Henry Doorly Zoo.
So it comes as a huge surprise to me when I see species like Macropharyngodon negrosensis, Wetmorella, Cirrhilabrus roseafascia, Bodianus frenchii and a whole slew of other interesting species on display here. It takes a “reefer” mindset and background that’s ingrained in the aquarium staff to even know what these are or that they would make for wonderful display pieces, something a “work for the sake of work” staff would never get.
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The black leopard wrasse (Macropharyngodon negrosensis) pictured above is a truly stunning individual. While i’ve seen this species numerous times both in aquaria and in the wild, I have never seen a male quite like this. The male is kept with three females, which it dominates in a shallow water Sulawesi style “beach tank”. M. negrosensis as its name suggests is uniformly black, sans some cryptic green markings on the face and body.
The nuptial coloration for this species is particularly stunning, with neon green meandering across the face and bleeding into a fish net design all across the scales on the body. The base of the unpaired fins take on a metallic gold that is quite reflective. I have never seen this before until that day, so this was pretty exciting for me as far as fish go. The mini gallery above shows a few other cool fish, in particular the Crested Morwong which I am impartial to.
Fish aside, praise yet again has to be given to the quality and appearance of the corals. Remember earlier on when we mentioned that it’s often not easy to find public aquariums with brilliant coral displays? Not here. The coral displays are fairly new and still look a little raw, but it’s obvious that with time we’re looking at something with great potential.
Again, it’s not easy to find public displays with live, healthy and colourful coral. Everyone can grow coral, but to grow it well and with finesse is not something anyone can achieve.
I for one particularly enjoy the Tubastrea display with shrimp fish, cardinals and morays. Tubastrea is fairly easy to maintain with regular feeding, and like Pocillopora, is very easy to spawn in captivity. Healthy colonies of Tubastrea regularly throw out planulae larvae which settle and then grow into miniature colonies.
While the bulk of the display is lit up by the brilliance of the matured Tubastrea colonies, its the little ones that are growing just about everywhere that is really a testament to the system’s overall health. Once again, the mini gallery below provides another sampling of these Tubastrea. I tried setting one of these photos as my desktop wallpaper but it just about blinded me, so now i’m wearing an eye patch and my computer screen is still an orange blur.
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We got a behind the scenes tour as well, and shark feedings and fish culture aside, as interesting as those were, we didn’t manage to get any good pictures. We did, however, manage to get some decent top-down photos from one of the coral displays.
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Corals certainly do look their best and are truest to colour when viewed from the top, and some of these corals were sensational to say the least. These were taken from a smaller reef display with a surge system, and most of the corals are grown near the surface where photography is simply not possible from the public’s perspective.
By far my favourite system and one which I spent the most time at has to be the large mixed reef display. Not only are the corals here beautifully grown and scaped, the fishes here are diverse, healthy, exciting and best of all, paired. Most of them anyway. Honestly if I had a home aquarium big enough, i’d like to keep everything to be best of my ability, paired up or in a natural group setting. Solitary species aside, keeping fishes in pairs or groups really bring out the best coloration and most natural of behaviours.
This particular section of the tank pictured above is my favourite. In the headlining photo of this article, a group of Pseudanthias huchtii can be seen swimming above this structure. The formation of this section is almost vertical, or rather steeply inclined such thing it mimics a reef wall. A large Heliopora grows along it and this provides one of the most natural habitats for Pseudanthias species, which in the wild, are incredibly fond of such sloping structures.
The entire wall is constantly buzzing with activity from two particular anthiines, and they are Pseudanthias huchtii and Pseudanthias hypselosoma. For some reason the two particularly favour this face, although a myriad of other Pseudanthias also call this tank their home.
Our most recent article features Pseudanthias pascalus as a spotlight topic, and in it we mentioned the individuals that are being housed in the Omaha zoo aquarium. These are unusual in possessing yellow caudal fins, which is uncommonly seen for the species. For more information, clicking on the link above will direct you to the full discussion.
One fantastic opportunity that arises from keeping multiple individuals of the same species is the benefit of seeing dominant males square off, as well as pairs forming for copulation. The photo above of two male Pseudanthias pascalus squaring off is a common sight, and exercises the male’s ability to secure females for mating rights. This helps to develop coloration, dominance and a whole slew of other psychological and physiological effects that comes with a social species and its haremic structure.
This pair of Hemitaurichthys polylepis are also frequently seen squaring off, and as with many butterflyfish, they do so by engaging in a head butt with their sharp dorsal spines.
With the wake of sparring males come spawning pairs, and this tank is no stranger to the dance of courtship. By dusk when the aquarium lights are just starting to go off, the tank suddenly comes alive again with numerous courtship displays and mating attempts.
Pseudanthias start displaying by swimming in tight U-shaped loops around prospective females, and often times multiple species engage in this activity at the same time. We’ve witnessed Pseudanthias squamipinnis courting females of P. huchtii, and males of P. pascalus with females of P. tuka.
Pair spawning occurred for P. huchtii, P. dispar and P. hypselosoma, with the culmination of gametes providing extra food for the other hungry opportunistic fishes. The aquarists at the zoo aquarium are however pretty adept at aquaculture and larval rearing, and have been experimenting with a few unknown larvae reared from eggs collected in these systems.
The Cirrhilabrus and Paracheilinus in this tank also start their ritualistic courtship during this time, flashing nuptial coloration and erecting their fins. C. lineopunctatus is especially virile, with multiple males engaging in high speed displays. The otherwise uniform maroon turns bright blue and lilac, with the filamentous extensions on the dorsal fin turning white. We’ve seen this species spawn in this set up as well.
Perhaps the most exciting courtship display in this tank has to be that of Bodianus sepiacaudus. Bodianus are notoriously aggressive to conspecifics and although in the wild they can be sometimes found in a haremic setting, replicating this in a home system is next to impossible. It is therefore pleasantly surprising to see a pair of B. sepiacaudus living harmoniously in this tank.
During the day, both individuals cruise around the tank by themselves, preferring to stay out of each other’s way. Come dusk however, a different story unfolds. The female becomes plump and gravid, which signals the male to start courting. He begins by swimming around the female and nudging her near her vent. The pair makes multiple rounds together with the male in close pursuit, and then slowly begin their spawning ascent.
A few unsuccessful attempts were made, and we didn’t see any actual spawning. However based on the appearance of the female and the behaviour of the pair, it is very likely that they did carry out their ritual to completion eventually.
I type with much restrain and hypocrisy, and with a foresight of things to come, I’ll say this anyway. It’s uncommon to find Scarus in a reef setting, as not many are truly reef safe. This S. rivulatus is a refreshing sight, and adds a lot of diversity and realism to this set up. Again, it’s not only about throwing in all your favourite fish. Often times things that may seem unorthodox to you may actually end up adding a more realistic touch to your display.
I take this idea home with me as well for my own reef tank. I like Cirrhilabrus but stocking my entire tank with ten different species is highly unnatural looking. Same goes for Scolymia hoarders that pepper their sand bed with rows of neatly arranged doughnut corals. Well, this theory applies to this reef.
The Scarus, though not everyone’s favourite as an individual, paints a bigger picture in making the overall concept look way more realistic and that on a whole, suddenly appears so much better. We’re talking big picture here people!
For what it’s worth, the aquarium in Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo is indeed a treat for the average joe tourist or the enthusiastic reef keeper. There’s something for everyone here, and although that sounds hyper cheesy and bill-boardish, it is true. Mitch Carl (Curator of Aquatics), Tim Morrissey and all the other aquarists have really done a fantastic job with this place, and if you’re reading this, it hasn’t gone unnoticed.
Apart from the aquarium, the zoo itself is really a fantastic place to spend your day. If for any reason you find yourself in Nebraska, do make an effort to drop by and take a short tour around the zoo and the aquarium. You’d be hard pressed to find a nicer way to spend your time.
I say that with a poker face and with utmost truth, because as corny (pun intended) as Nebraska is, I find myself wanting to come back here time and again. Enjoy the final mini gallery below.