Scientific Facts About The Aquaria at the Museum of the Earth
Written by Steve Lowes of Cayuga Aquatics

GENERAL INFORMATION: These aquaria present two different reef ecosystems. The Caribbean aquarium features soft corals, gorgonians, anemones, and sponges, and a small selection of stony corals typical of Florida Caribbean reefs. Notable by their absence are the reef building staghorn and elkhorn branching stony corals, which have disappeared from Caribbean waters in the last 30 years.

In contrast, the Indo-Pacific aquarium features branching and plating stony corals of acropora and montipora genus. Together with other stony corals, soft corals, giant clams, other invertebrates and fish, the Indo-Pacific coral reef represents one of the most biologically diverse environments on earth.

Both aquaria have been custom designed and built for maximum educational potential and minimal environmental impact. Corals have been aquacultured or maricultured while the fish are either tank bred or collected with strong emphasis on sustainability. Modern pumping and lighting technology has been used to replicate the shallow tropical coral reefs while minimizing electrical usage.
BIOLOGY & ENVIRONMENTAL INFORMATION: Corals are animals—although it’s a little complicated. All corals in these systems rely on light for food, usually the sole preserve of plants. However these corals, as is typical of reef building corals, have a symbiotic relationship with a type of algae that lives in their tissue. The algae in turn use light through the process of photosynthesis to generate sugars that in turn feed the coral.

Even in these reef aquaria we can observe many unique and diverse interactions found on wild coral reefs including symbiotism, reproduction, predation, and competition.

Coral reefs are threatened and we are likely to witness dramatic changes over the next 20-50 years that could make much of life in these two aquaria extinct in our or our children’s lifetime.

The Caribbean aquarium includes a selection of live stony corals that make this one of the few public displays in North America of these threatened animals.
CHEMISTRY: Scientists have a good handle on the inorganic chemistry of saltwater. We use measurements of pH, nitrogen compounds (e.g. nitrate), phosphate, calcium, and carbonate alkalinity to replicate natural seawater and maintain a healthy ecosystem.

Scientists know very little about the organic chemistry of coral reef environments but are starting to discover intricate and unique modes of chemical defense and attack including some compounds of human pharmaceutical potential. Researchers are now using techniques used to establish and maintain these aquaria in laboratory settings to further study organic chemistry on the reef.

Reef aquaria are tremendously effective and interactive tools to teach chemistry as well as the biological sciences.
PHYSICAL: Each aquarium system on display holds approximately 500 US gallons of seawater. The weight of each aquarium full of saltwater is approximately two tons.

The pumping system on each aquarium moves more than ten thousand gallons per hour replicating the high energy coral reef environment.

Many of the corals and other reef organisms that will be in the aquaria at the Museum of the Earth were donated by Dr. Drew Harvell of Cornell University.