Have you ever found something on a beach and wondered what the heck it was? Maybe it was a pile of jellyfish-looking goo or a shell from a snail or even a weird looking tree root. Discovering something new is exciting and this excitement sometimes carries over into guest visits to the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre.
Recently, a young guest approached me wondering what it was that he had found on a beach walk in Garry Point Park in Richmond in 2014. They were so intrigued by the arrowhead looking item that they went searching on their own through several different identification books and even trying to compare it to artifacts in museums. They were at a loss to I.D. the unknown part so they brought it with them when they came for a visit to the Aquarium at the end of August.
I had never seen anything like it before, but knew it was a bone and not plastic. Wanting to find an answer for this keen young man, we connected through email, and it exploded from there.
I contacted our B.C. water biologists and divers along with our veterinary staff to pick their brain about the mystery. I should point out that the volume of combined knowledge of Aquarium staff is staggering. On any given day we get any range of questions such as, “Can a shark taste things?” (Yes they can, but their taste buds line the inside of their mouth and throat, meaning they have to bite something to taste it) to, “What is the deepest dive ever made by a whale?” (In a study published in 2014, the Cuvier’s beaked whale became the new deep diving champion with one whale with a tagged animal reaching a depth of 2,992 metres which would be like going over the Port Mann Bridge one and a half times). However, this bone was a question that no one on site at the Aquarium seemed to be able to answer.
Within four hours of the initial email search, it had been sent around to colleagues in North America and returned with an answer from Mike Etnier, affiliate curator of mammology from the Burke Museum in Seattle. Mike said: “It definitely falls into the category of, ‘If you’ve never seen one of these you won’t ever guess what it is,’” but he identified it as a scute, or bony scale, from the tail of a sturgeon.
Sturgeons in general are often described as prehistoric due to their dinosaur like appearance, but personally I think they are adorable. In B.C. we are lucky to have the chance to see sturgeon in the Fraser River and even in the Pacific Ocean, but they are still recovering from fishing that targeted them in the late 1800s for their meat and their eggs (sturgeon are one species of fish that caviar comes from). Through dedicated conservation efforts we have learned more about a creature that can live for over 100 years and weigh up to 628 kilograms.
Getting to be a part in revealing an answer to a yearlong mystery for this young guest was thrilling. Mike said, “It does my heart good to hear about people getting excited about pieces of bones they find!” and I have to agree with that.
Blog post by Lauren Hartling, interpretation specialist at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre.