Jazzin’ Instrumentals: Guitarfish
To celebrate the 18th season of Jazzin’ at the Shedd—which kicks off tonight at 5 p.m.—we’re turning the spotlight on some of our most instrumental animals. No fish at Shedd represents blues-tinged jazz better than our whitespotted guitarfish, Lucille.
It’s definitely worth lingering at Wild Reef’s 400,000-gallon shark habitat to see this 9-foot relative of rays (and more distantly, sharks) cruise by. Viewed from above or below, Lucille’s silhouette, including pointed pectoral fins and long, slender body, is strongly suggestive of a Fender Stratocaster. (We know, the Lucille for whom she’s named, B.B.King’s famed guitar, is a Gibson. Actually, informality reigns at Shedd, and the Wild Reef husbandry staffers call the fish Lucy.)
If you do happen to see Lucy swim overhead, look for the characteristics that put guitarfish closer to the ray section than the sharks on the taxonomic bandstand. Among guitarfish and rays, gill slits are located on the underside of the body, not thrumming on either side of the head as in sharks. Similarly, instead of facing the world with a tooth-rimmed gaping maw, rays and guitarfish have a low-profile mouth, visible only from the underside and consisting of bony plates that do an excellent job of crushing crab and clam shells. Whitespotted guitarfish also dine on lobsters and assorted smaller fish species.
Feeding time—around 10 every morning—is somewhat musical as senior aquarist Heather Thomas “plays” a cylindrical wood block noisemaker just below the water’s surface, giving Lucy an audible signal that it’s time to eat. Heather also uses a visual cue, a large circle, half yellow, half red, that she dips into the water long enough for Lucy to see it and swim over to her designated feeding station. This day, however, Lucy is already in place at the edge of the pool.
“The Napoleon wrasse was being fed over here, so she smells the food,” says Heather. “She knows if something smells good over here, she’s usually getting fed.”
Lucy breaches, lifting her large, flat triangular head and pectoral fins out of the water. Then she drops down with a splash that showers water onto the service deck that is the second floor of Wild Reef.
“Sometimes she almost completely jumps out of the water. She has her whole body out of the water up to her pelvic fins,” says Heather. “No other animal in Wild Reef does that, or, I think, even has the ability to do that. Lucy is one of the strongest animals in the entire Shedd collection.”
But that doesn’t faze Heather, an elasmobranch (sharks, rays and skates) specialist who has been at Shedd for 10 years and who has worked with Lucy since the fish took up residence in Wild Reef in 2005. Heather has Lucy’s meal—one slab each of herring, Spanish mackerel and squid, totaling about 1½ pounds—in a plastic container. She pokes three inch-long, mustard-colored supplements into the pink flesh of the Spanish mackerel.
“Lucy gets vitamins every day just like everybody else,” Heather explains. “The vitamins are specially formulated for sharks and rays to make sure they get all of the necessary nutrients that they might not get from their diet alone. The vitamins have a lot of the same things in them that a human multivitamin would have, but also extra iodine because elasmobranchs sometimes get goiters.”
With everything ready, Heather removes a panel of the mesh barrier that rims the pool, grips the first chunk of fish—the half mackerel—with grabber tongs, and fits the food into Lucy’s mouth, like sliding a button through a buttonhole albeit on a very large scale. Heather feeds her the second piece of food.
“Want more?” she coos to the massive head bobbing in front of her. “There you go,” and the final chunk goes down the buttonhole.
“Sometimes she’s hard to get the food to because she’s so flat,” Heather says.
Guitarfish are naturally bottom feeders. They do not naturally swim vertically to the surface. “So it was a little bit of a challenge when we first got her to figure out how we were going to get her to the surface to eat,” Heather recalls. It was essential that Lucy be fed that way to ensure that she, and not one of the other reef fishes, got her daily, carefully measured portion of food and supplements.
Together, the aquarists and the guitarfish figured it out.
“We had divers go in the habitat to swim her up to the surface, using food in the tongs to lead her. We had to do that for a couple of weeks, but she figured out that she needed to come up here to eat.
“Now,” Heather says, “she wants to eat from everywhere up here.”
But mainly, Lucy wants to eat. “She probably eats the most food of any animal we have in Wild Reef because we do feed her every day.” Lucy is not the most mild-mannered fish in the shark habitat—in fact, the sharks steer clear of her—so keeping her well-fed has a pacifying effect on her.
The wholesome meals, which also can include regular mackerel and mullet, have also contributed to her growth. When Lucy arrived at Shedd, she was a mere 6 feet long and 85 pounds. Today, “she’s humongous, and she’s pure muscle,” says Heather. The aquarist estimates that the fish weighs between 200 and 300 pounds.
(Lucy, along with the 14-foot sawfish that’s also in the shark habitat, is one of the few animals at Shedd that does not get an annual physical exam because of the extreme hazards such a procedure would pose to both the fish and the aquarists. She is, however, carefully observed on a daily basis. “As long as she appears to be doing fine, is eating well and has no injuries, we don’t handle her,” Heather says.)
With Lucy, Shedd became the first U.S. aquarium to display a whitespotted guitarfish. While several of our sister aquariums now also display this species, seeing a guitarfish remains a rare treat.
In the wild, Rhynchobatus australiae, as scientists refer to Lucy’s kind, are native to the western Pacific, ranging from the Gulf of Thailand through Indonesia and the Philippines to the northeastern coast of Australia. Whitespotted guitarfish have been heavily overfished, especially in Indonesia, where their dorsal and caudal fins fetch astronomical prices. In addition to being the target of commercial fisheries, they are also popular with sport fishermen.
The greatest threat to whitespotted guitarfish, however, comes from accidental entanglement in fishing trawls. This species makes up as much as one-third of the bycatch in some trawl fisheries. The increased use in Australia of turtle excluder devices (TEDs), which are escape hatches affixed to these nets, is beginning to reduce the unintended catch of these and other large fishes as well as sea turtles. Still, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists whitespotted guitarfish as vulnerable, defined as at high risk of becoming endangered, mainly due to overfishing.
So in addition to wowing guests with her cool jazzy shape, Lucy serves as an ambassador for her species with a conservation story to tell.
And who named her? “Lise Watson, the Wild Reef collection manager,” says Heather. “We had to pick a girl’s name appropriate for a guitarfish, and the only name that came up was Lucille.”
Karen Furnweger, web editor