Interning at the Aquarium: animal husbandry, mentorship and more

What do a day octopus, frogfish and dwarf cuttlefish have in common? At the Seattle Aquarium, they were all subjects of a study by one of our Warm-Water Fish and Invertebrate team interns. Below, she shares her study findings and thoughts on interning for the Seattle Aquarium.

Warm-Water Fish and Invertebrate team intern, Alex Laiblin

Alex Laiblin, who hails from Oak Harbor, Washington, conducted research on what the day octopus, frogfish and dwarf cuttlefish prefer to eat here at the Aquarium as part of her fall internship. When asked what her favorite part of the internship was, she said it was the full-time work experience in her chosen field (marine animal husbandry). While volunteering and shadowing can provide wonderful experience, an internship is different because, she explains, “When you’re working a full 40-hour week with a consistent daily role with the animals and your coworkers, you get solid perspective on what your long-term job is going to entail.”

Alex found it invaluable to experience the high physical demands of caring for marine animals eight hours a day for 10 weeks (“Good thing I’m an active person who likes to be up and about!”) and connecting with the biologist staff at the Aquarium (“a great group of adventurous, fun and just happy people”) for career advice and mentorship. It only reinforced her belief that marine animal husbandry is the right path for her, and she credits the Aquarium’s internship program for that reassurance.

For her research project, the day octopus, frogfish and dwarf cuttlefish were presented with a schedule of different foods, both frozen and not frozen. Alex’s goal was to create a feeding regimen that provided dietary variety, ensured consistent eating and created less reliance on live food as the main source of nutrition (to help with cost and limited resources).

Dwarf cuttlefish, day octopus and frogfish

The three species have similar diets in the wild:

  • The day octopus—so called because it hunts during the day, as opposed to other varieties of octopus—uses toxins in its beak to paralyze captured prey, such as small fish, crustaceans and mollusks.
  • The frogfish lures small fish and crustaceans toward its massive mouth (which can widen up to 12 times its original size!) using a tempting-looking, waving appendage called an illicium.
  • The dwarf cuttlefish starts out eating small crustaceans and shrimp, and as it grows, it moves to small fish, crabs and other types of mollusks. Camouflage aids its hunting, with two feeding tentacles pulling prey in for consumption.

Alex kept track of how often each species was fed and how, such as by hand, feeding stick, baster or net. There were even differences in preference discovered between “shy” and “charismatic” octopuses and large and small frogfish. Octopuses, for example, showed they didn’t like frozen clams or filets, but they were fans of new frozen food choices, like silversides. The “charismatic” one, so named because it interacted with Alex and the aquarists, would sometimes take food directly from Alex’s hand. The “shy” octopus, however, would hide or try to squirt the aquarists and was more keen on anchovies.

Large frogfish ate about half the silversides offered them, but the small frogfish ate none; both sizes ate all the live feeder fish they were offered and none of the frozen squid. The young cuttlefish were an interesting dilemma, and it wasn’t until Alex tried a new technique that they started eating the krill off a stick consistently for multiple feeds per day.

So what comes next for Alex? “My goal now is to pursue a career in marine animal husbandry at facilities like AZA [Association of Zoos and Aquariums]-accredited aquariums, marine research centers or even rehabilitation centers. I would love the opportunity to take care of animals and also participate in field research for their wild counterparts, like how Seattle Aquarium does the rockfish surveys or [previously] the broadnose [sixgill] shark research. A long-term career that inspires conservation with people and animals at a facility, and also allows me to have an active role in those conservation efforts, would be a life well-lived,” she says.

If you or someone you know is considering a career in the zoo/aquarium field, check out the Aquarium's internships page for more information.

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