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The water temperature was 90 degrees Fahrenheit instead of the typical mid-to-upper 70s as we stepped into the river with our nets. Another interesting observation was the high abundance of baby largemouth and smallmouth basses and baby bluegills. These fishes have survived in this river for thousands of years, through high water and low water, in scorching droughts and bitter cold snaps.
With this essential tool, rookie and veteran visitors alike can navigate the aquarium with expert skill and ease. The aquarium, one of the major Chicago attractions, even offers visitors the opportunity to create a customized map…keep it for your own visit preferences or hand it to a friend for a Shedd Aquarium scavenger hunt. Foodseum has recently opened (in Chicago) its first exhibition, which is called ?The Hot Dog and Encased Meat of the World.
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If I had asked you to map the location of Shedd Aquarium, you would whip out your smart phone and Google would tell you where it is. I moved to the Philippines to work on conserving coral reef ecosystems and seahorses, but I could not find an accurate map of things as simple as where different villages were located.
But these habitats can be seriously degraded by overfishing, coastal development, pollution and climate change. Mapping things that are underwater is challenging, but I wanted to compare how useful two approaches were for conservation.
To make satellite-image-based maps, I did snorkeling surveys and took coordinates of the habitats I found.
The second approach involved making habitat maps by interviewing local fishers to map the habitats that are in their fishing grounds. When I compared these two approaches, both maps were fairly accurate, but each approach had different strengths for conservation programs.
The map I constructed with fishers was better at documenting habitats that were in murky waters (which the satellite-image map missed) and was informative about coarse habitat patterns. Because there are benefits to both techniques, at Project Seahorse we are planning to combine both maps to use in upcoming conservation projects. If you want to learn more about the Danajon Bank, you can check out the iCLP photo exhibition in the Wild Reef exhibit at Shedd. Because I’ve worked in the area for more than a decade, I know what fishes should be present, and there were plenty.

Normally, the closely related northern pike and grass pickerel live alongside vegetation in the Kankakee River. Pickerel and gizzard shad better tolerate the stresses associated with warm water and could continue living in these habitats. Normally these are found in shallow waters, like backwaters in the forests or side channels of the river. As long as there are a variety of habitats, the fishes will find places of refuge during the hard times and return to their usual homes for the good times. Shedd Aquarium of Chicago, once the largest indoor aquarium in the world, remains one of the most extensive, with a floor plan to match, rendering a quick fly-by visit a futile effort. But what if I had asked you to map the location of corals and other important habitats in the Danajon Bank, a coral reef ecosystem in the central Philippines and within the global center of marine biodiversity? I took a few trips to local government offices where friendly staff showed me the maps that they had on their walls. Seahorses are the most charming fishes in the sea, but a lot of seahorse populations are threatened. An important step in protecting seahorses — and other amazing marine wildlife — is to know where their habitats are and how healthy those habitats are. Those surveys helped identify color, texture and location patterns specific to each habitat in the satellite image. I interviewed approximately 250 fishers from 21 villages located in different regions of the Danajon Bank.
The remote-sensing map was slightly more accurate and did a better job of showing fine-scale details, such as indicating the amount of habitat edges present. But the fisher maps were blank in places where the fishers did not fish, such as local marine protected areas (MPAs). And if you want to get involved with mapping and help protect seahorses, check out iSeahorse. But this year, because of the low water levels, those habitats had dried up, forcing the fishes closer to the Kankakee’s main channel, where larger predators live.
It’s not “bad” to find different species this year, or to see the river level fluctuate, or to watch temperatures rise and fall. Fishes are resilient to natural disturbances—as long as we do not severely pollute the river or destroy the variety of habitats.
With the intention of creating a satisfying experience within the compounds of the aquarium, the Shedd Aquarium map was crafted, featuring the various levels and environments of the establishment.

With that information and a bit of computer time I made a digital map of the villages I was going to do research in.
This is cutting edge because, for a number of technical reasons, like the sections of the light spectrum that satellites photograph, it’s been hard see what was underwater from space. I made the remote-sensing maps in collaboration with Chris Roelfsema at the University of Queensland.
Then I combined the maps each fisher drew into one map representing local knowledge about habitats. This is important because some fishes, along with invertebrates such as scallops and lobsters, are strongly affected by habitat edges. We did not find any evidence of the “fish kills” rumored to be happening because of the warm weather. In this case, they probably swam to a cooler part of the river, such as a deeper channel or hole.
Right now, I think the baby basses and bluegills still have plenty of hiding places from predators, such as plants, rock piles and log jams.
Who knows how many fishes were originally in the bayou, but we found only two species that can tolerate low oxygen levels, bowfin and golden shiner. This is a lot less technical and expensive, and it can get fishers excited about protecting important habitats. Information you provide will help us make maps of where seahorses are located around the world and will help us improve seahorse conservation.
The river was at least a couple feet lower than normal for this time of year—but we expected that, and it was one reason why we, a team of Shedd Aquarium fish biologists, were at a point on the river an hour south of Chicago, near the Illinois-Indiana state line.
If the river level continues to drop, however, they will find it more and more difficult to avoid becoming someone else’s meal. But the next step was to make a map of coastal habitats (including the underwater ones), and that was going to more complicated. Conservation programs focusing on them do not necessarily require such finely detailed maps.

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