Trainers ready fish to live together in facility addition

Wednesday, October 16, 2002

The AssociatedPress

CHICAGO -- Some fish at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium are going to school.

Several species of sharks and other fish are enrolled in an underwater academy where trainers are getting them ready to live together in a new $47 million addition that is set to open in April.

Shedd trainers want the fish to learn to eat on command, so they are teaching the fish to gather at a designated area of their pools to make feeding time as orderly as possible.

Among the first students enrolled are groups of sharks, including the black tip, white tip, sand bar, zebra and wobbegong.

Keepers decided they needed to train the sharks so all of them would get proper nutrition because so many species are sharing the same space and some are more aggressive than others at seeking out food, said Bert Vescolani, vice president for the Shedd's aquarium collections.

"What we're trying is probably the most complex training effort ever attempted with fish," he said.

Trainers are teaching the fish in a series of temporary tanks.

The sharks share class time with a 4-foot, 150-pound Queensland grouper named Bubba and a 4-foot, 50-pound blue Napoleon wrasse, an exotic species that has blue blood and the ability to change its sex.

Tasks and rewards

Rachel Wilborn, a Shedd worker, recently worked with some of her pupils, three zebra sharks -- named Freckles, Blondie and Seymour.

Wilborn used a mechanical clicker under water to get their attention.

"They come right up to the side and ask for food, but to get it," they have to touch a target -- a rubber bulb on the end of a pole -- with their snouts, Wilborn said.

The three bumped the bulb and got tuna steaks as their reward.

The Shedd has been assembling collections of sharks, mostly from other zoos and aquariums.

When the Wild Reef addition opens, the sharks will live in a 400,000 gallon pool that is a reproduction of a coral reef off of Apo Island in the Philippines.

Vescolani said it will be one of the biggest and most diverse shark exhibits in North America.

While it has taken the sharks a while to catch on, Vescolani said Bubba, the grouper, caught on right away.

"You can put three shapes in a row on the edge of the pool, and he comes right to his every time. He is a quick learner," Vescolani said.

The Shedd doesn't know how much its fish can learn because the idea of training them is relatively new.

"It's new to our field," Wilborn said. "We're learning with them."

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