In the photo above, Justin Lisaingo, a Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre biologist, is actually shining his flashlight on a giant barnacle shell, but there’s a story about tunicates tied in.

The way Justin explains his job, it’s a bit like being a detective. He says, “As Aquarium biologists we’re constantly pushing limitations to figure out an animal’s requirements in nature.” Aquarium biologists have to figure out how to recreate the exact conditions that will help these animals thrive. There’s a lot of guessing and testing, and innovative ideas.

Justin pulls monofilament thread through a drilled hole in a giant barnacle shell.

Justin pulls monofilament thread through a drilled hole in a giant barnacle shell.

One of those innovative ideas involves sewing tunicates on shells.

Tunicates, also known as “sea squirts,” are animals with barrel-like bodies (no faces). They are born as larvae that settle onto rocks where they stay their entire lives. The tunicates that Aquarium biologists collect have to be placed on something sturdy, like a rock for example, but they won’t automatically attach themselves the way sea anemones do.

Justin, using a technique devised by his colleague John Fisher, sewed several tunicates onto giant barnacle and scallop shells using monofilament thread (used for stitches). He pulled the thread through tiny holes that he drilled or were made naturally by sponges.

He made several stitches at the base of the tunicate, pulling it tight against the shell. That was four months ago, and Justin says, “They are all doing really well. The base of the tunicates have grown over the sutures, and now they’ve actually attached to the scallop shell.”

Justin sewed four sea peaches (orange) and three hairy tunicates (beige) onto a scallop shell (white).

Justin sewed four sea peaches (orange) and three hairy tunicates (spiky-looking) onto a scallop shell (white).

Justin says people don’t know a lot about this marine invertebrate and that’s why he went through this labour intensive effort to display them. Sewing tunicates onto shells is just one innovative method our biologists use to create unique, diverse environments for the aquatic life at the Aquarium. See them on display in the British Columbia’s Tidal Passages exhibit in the Teck Connections Gallery.

Written by Karen Horak, writer-editor, content and digital experience at the Vancouver Aquarium.

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