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November 07, 2013

Long-lived and going strong

Grandad vintage

As veterinary science advances at a clip that rivals human medicine, animals in aquariums and zoos are living not just healthier but also longer lives. Australian lungfish Granddad, shown above in 1933, celebrated his 80th anniversary at Shedd earlier this year. Along with being Shedd’s oldest animal, he’s also the oldest fish in any public zoological facility in the world. But is he a senior or is he just middle-aged? Like 60 is the new 40 for a lot of people, several of Shedd’s longevity-busters are in their prime, thanks to excellent care—and, of course, good genes.

Caiman lizard Circle came to Shedd in 1999, just ahead of the opening of Amazon Rising, where you can see her in a spacious exhibit tailored to her species’ aquatic, terrestrial and aerial habits. She got her name from the scale pattern on her head. Circle has produced many successful clutches of eggs, helping Shedd to be recognized by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums with an award for the most significant birth or hatching of a species in 2005. Now she’s the grandmother of two. When aquarists noticed that Circle was moving a little slower than usual, they brought her to Shedd’s animal hospital where veterinarians X-rayed her and determined that she has a touch of arthritis. Our world-class veterinary team is well-versed in reptile medicine, so while Circle might not run circles around her grandkids, they can treat her to keep her spry.

Rockhopper penguin Wellington (2)Wellington is one of five rockhopper penguins that have been here since the Abbott Oceanarium opened in 1991. They all will turn 26 next month. Rockhoppers in the wild are not doing as well. Rising sea temperatures, which affect the availability of prey and make these arctic birds more susceptible to disease, have sent populations into an alarming decline. Rockhoppers have been evaluated as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

The oldest of the California moray eels in the Oceans gallery came to Shedd in 1994. At one time, a diagnosis of stomach cancer in a fish might have meant the end. Today, however, our veterinary team can anesthetize and operate on all sizes and shapes of fishes, even administering chemotherapy when necessary. This eel is a cancer survivor and doing great.

Longevity is relative, especially among marine invertebrates. Ten flower hat jellies in the Jellies special exhibit are 9 months old, which is mature for a species with a median life expectancy of a year. And octopuses, those
Opal and Eve D75Q8684 (2)personable invertebrates with problem-solving skills that put many of us to shame, live the briefest of lives, dying soon after they spawn. Opal, our current giant Pacific octopus, is about 2 years old, so she’s moving into the median life expectancy of 3 to 5 years. Compared to octopuses past, she is one of the fastest and most enthusiastic learners. She doesn’t seem to have any favorite foods or toys—she enjoys everything she’s given during her training and play sessions.

Mauyak_480P2666Thirty-two-year-old beluga whale Mauyak can be identified by the gray streaks on her white skin as well as by the gray calf usually by her side. Kimalu is one of three calves she's raised at Shedd; the others are Qannik, born in 2000, and Miki, who celebrated his sixth birthday in August. Mauyak came to Shedd from Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, in Tacoma, Washington, in 1997 as part of Shedd’s involvement in the North American beluga breeding cooperative. The average longevity of beluga whales is 10 to 25 years in the wild. As you can see from Mauyak’s energetic leaps during the aquatic show, age is just a number.

For these seniors—and for the rest of the 32,000 animals at Shedd—medical attention, from wellness exams to urgent care, is steps away at the fully equipped on-site animal hospital. Our veterinarians and technicians, experts in caring for animals at all life stages, are leaders in the emerging field of geriatric animal medicine.

Their greatest discovery, however, is that excellent lifelong care, from balanced and varied diets to the physical and mental stimulation of training, is the best medicine to keep animals young well into their golden years.  

Read more about old-timers at Shedd as well as at Lincoln Park Zoo and Brookfield Zoo in this Chicago Tribune article by reporter Steve Johnson: trib.in/1iPuZoU. And see a photo album of all of these animals on our Facebook page. 

—Karen Furnweger, web editor, and Nicole Minadeo, PR manager

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Amazing that a fish can survive so long. Especially in captivity! You must be doing something right there at Shedd!

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